Britt Wray, a science communicator from the University of Copenhagen, was first featured in our blog with her interview about Taking synbio out of the lab. Now, she comes back to introduce us to AURATOR, a new interactive platform where everyone can share their expertise and opinions about synthetic biology.
Have you ever wondered what kinds of questions other synthetic biologists ask themselves when they lie awake at night? How about what social scientists, who study the culture of the field, really think about the work that synthetic biologists are doing? Are you ever curious about what troubles watchdogs who criticise synthetic biology’s industrialisation? Have you considered the personal motivations that drive biohackers to democratize synthetic biology’s tools? Have you ever pondered what the personal beliefs of bioethicists might be, whose commentaries help shape moral boundaries around what synthetic biologists should and shouldn’t do? Don’t forget the inner thoughts of entrepreneurs, who are trying to disrupt the way synthetic biology is carried out. Or the creative mindsets of artists, who have radical perspectives to offer on the work that synthetic biology enables.
You get the drift.
There are lots of different types of people who focus on synthetic biology in their work. This field is not just for scientists and engineers; it is hyper multidisciplinary. There’s a wide array of theorists and practitioners investigating different aspects of what possibilities synthetic biology offers to the world. But it can be difficult to make contact with these diverse players when you’re trying to gain a fuller perspective of the field’s main debates.
Steven Burgess, the former community editor of the PLOS Synbio Blog, once put the problem succinctly in his blog Declaration of Principles: “There are many related communities that share an interest in synthetic biology, often operating in their own isolated spheres…not to forget members of the general public. As a scientist I have often been guilty of not stepping outside my own community…This lack of interaction is a real shame, and something I have berated myself for in the past.”
In order to hear what different players have to say, one usually has to venture into the foreign terrain of alien fields of study, but it can be hard to know where to start, or what to even look for. Plus, trying to hear what members of different publics really think beyond perception polls can be an overwhelmingly mystifying quest. That’s what we wanted to change.
The change-maker: AURATOR
AURATOR is an interactive audio archive and diary collection tool for “real talk” about synthetic biology. It allows you to listen in on – and speak back to – the personal thoughts and feelings of diverse experts who work in synthetic biology, as well as members of the public (who may or may not be coming to synthetic biology for the first time). It uses digital interactive storytelling and audio diaries as a way to publicly engage about topics in synthetic biology.
The archive has been pre-populated with dozens of audio diaries from diverse experts in the field. Most importantly however, it allows you to upload your own audio or text responses to their diaries, as well as record your very own audio diaries, so that the archive will grow over time as different engagements take place within it.
How did AURATOR come about?
AURATOR began as an experiment at The University of Copenhagen, when I solicited audio diaries for my PhD research from a diverse group of experts, who work in synthetic biology from different disciplinary angles: natural sciences, bioethics, fine art, social sciences, entrepreneurship, civil society and biohacking. I invited a variety of individuals from these different areas, and I chose a balanced group representing as many different areas as possible. We ended up with one participant from each of the above-mentioned disciplines. These include some prominent voices in the synthetic biology landscape, who EUSynbioS readers may already be familiar with: biohacker Josiah Zayner of The Odin, watchdog Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, artist Oron Catts of SymbioticA, and more.
Each participant was then sent an audio recorder, as well as an open-ended question once a week, for twelve weeks, that prompted them to reflect on their feelings towards a certain topic in synthetic biology. These questions ranged widely, from asking for their thoughts about specific applications to what they believe the field’s limitations might be, issues of regulation and commercialisation, why they bother studying it in the first place, what they feel about art, biohacking, and other forms of “outsider” participation in the field, and more. They captured their reflections as privately recorded audio diaries, and then emailed them to me. Sometimes these were candid recordings of conversations they had with their partner or niece about synthetic biology, or footage of conversations they had over drinks with their friends on a rooftop while on holiday, but most often they were solo-recordings.
I ended up with over 100 audio diaries and chose excerpts to share publicly on AURATOR (with everyone’s consent). AURATOR’s intrepid producer, Nadja Oertelt, helped me come up with the idea for a public engagement platform that could share these diaries, and the talented Helios Design Labs along with programmer Ewan Cass-Kavanagh turned our idea into a digital reality.
The diaries I chose to share publicly are the ones that moved me the most when I first listened to them, either for their humour, raw honesty, challenging perspectives, unique insights, or other mixture of intense affective qualities. These diaries have planted the first seeds for a new approach to public engagement about synthetic biology that is now evolving with input from visitors – and we hope you – on AURATOR.
How can anyone use it interactively?
AURATOR’s archive can be listened to on mobile at aurator.org, but in order to record, please use a desktop/laptop computer, preferably with Chrome.
When you arrive in AURATOR, you’ll notice that there are two different tabs at the top. One says Core Disciplines and the other says Public Voices. Core Disciplines is where the diaries from the original diarists can be listened to (ex: biohacker, artist, entrepreneur, etc.) When you click on a particular diarist, their collection will be brought up, and you can choose which ones to listen to. When you’re listening to a specific diary, there is an option in the lower right hand corner of the screen to respond to their diary, which you can do by adding your own audio recording as a reply – this records using your built-in microphone – or you can just leave a text comment as a Disqus thread.
In the Public Voices section, you can record your very own diary by “adding to the collective”, which can be about anything you want! In other words, it doesn’t have to reply to what the original diarists have said, and it should speak to your own interests about synthetic biology. Record your thoughts or tell a story for up to 2 minutes, attach the appropriate #hashtags, and upload it to AURATOR. We’ll approve it, and then it becomes displayed as a diary in the archive that other visitors can respond to (so check back to see if anyone has responded to what you’ve said).
You can also search the archive according to your interests through #hashtags that are topically themed. When you’re listening to a diary, you’ll see the specific #hashtags it is associated with appear in the left hand corner. If you click a hashtag that says #democracy for example, then you’ll be able to listen to all of the diaries in the archive that have been tagged with #democracy as one of their key themes.
Where should a new visitor to AURATOR start?
What are your ambitions for the project?
There is so much to discuss about synthetic biology’s implications and the related emerging technologies that surround it. Given the dynamic nature of the field, it is not a finite set of discussions, but an evolving one. The diaries we have already up on AURATOR merely scratch the surface of the debate, and we hope for users like you to contribute to the growing conversation.
We want AURATOR to be a community meeting ground, where experts and laypeople can come to “get things off their chest”, as well as become inspired by other people’s thinking about the field. I’ll list some of our hopes below as they relate to different users.
What is AURATOR for publics?
- A place to directly interact with scientists and other experts
- A place to be heard alongside expert voices
- A place to voice questions, hopes, concerns, fears, and curiosities about science
What is AURATOR for experts?
- A place to demonstrate their trustworthiness and accountability to public audiences they want to communicate with
- A place to be inspired by other experts that come to synthetic biology from different disciplinary angles
- A place to learn from laypeople: their experiences, stories, beliefs and opinions
- A place for public engagement about science to last longer than a “one time” live event (for example, a festival encounter, a conference, a museum event)
- A place for exchanges between experts and publics to be archived and iterated upon, with the potential to be studied
- A place to discover new research topics
Most importantly, we want to know how you most want to use a tool like AURATOR. You can let us know here.
We’ve started running workshops with research institutions that want to use AURATOR to galvanize public discussion about synthetic biology, such as the recent workshop we did for the University of Warwick’s Integrative Centre for Synthetic Biology (WISB), who are one of our partners. If you’re interested in learning more about workshops with AURATOR, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Britt Wray is a public radio producer, science storyteller, and PhD candidate in Media, Cognition and Communication and is cross-appointed with the Center of Synthetic Biology at the University of Copenhagen. Her first book about the science and ethics of de-extinction - called “Rise of the Necrofauna Are We Ready to Reverse Extinction?” – will be published later this year. Find more about her work on her personal website.
Edited by: Konstantinos Vavitsas
Disclaimer: Views and opinions expressed in EUSynBioS Pulse articles belong solely to the writer(s). They do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Community, the Advisory Board, or the Steering Committee