The Kickstarter Culture Wars

Plans to grow genetically modified plants ignited a firestorm at Kickstarter. They shouldn't have

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Whether lit by Fairies in a children's book or special-effects magic in Avatar, the sight of plants glowing in the dark has a special charm. We respond to lighted plants with wonder and joy.

So it's not surprising that a plan to produce glow-in-the-dark plants proved wildly popular on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website. In 44 days, the project raised more than $484,000--more than seven times the goal of $65,000--from 8,433 donors. Using genes from bioluminescent bacteria or fireflies, the project aims to create a glowing version of a small, inedible plant called Arabidopsis, often dubbed plant biology's lab rat. The organizers then plan to move on to roses.

To reward donors, they offered seeds, plants and glowing roses for different amounts of money. Although Kickstarter steadfastly maintains that it's not a place to sell products, most successful projects attract donors who want a version of whatever the organizers are producing, whether that's the DVD of a documentary film or a watch made from an iPod Nano. Thousands of people, it turned out, wanted seeds for glow-in-the-dark plants.

The result was a culture war that has nothing to do with the usual red state--blue state split. It's a conflict between two cultural tribes within the generally left-of-center "creative class" that constitutes Kickstarter's core audience. On one side are the expansive techies, represented by the organizers and backers of the glowing plant. This tribe believes in the power of ingenuity and artifice to solve problems and generate delight. They embrace world-changing entrepreneurship and DIY tinkering. They tend to favor open-source solutions that share intellectual property--whether computer code or new DNA sequences--so that others can build on and improve new creations. This tribe supports such big-money Kickstarter projects as the 3-D printer that raised $2.9 million, and it accounts for Kickstarter's frequent coverage on such high-traffic websites as Wired and TechCrunch.

On the other side are the hipster artists, represented by Kickstarter's founders. While the techies hack bits and atoms, the artists hack culture, telling stories, making pictures, singing songs, cooking meals. They too have a DIY ethos, but it's driven less by a desire for mastery (though that's there) than by a suspicion of distant specialists. They value localism and small-scale enterprise, instinctively opposing disruptive technologies and global commerce. One of their most lucrative projects, which raised more than $1 million, was a hoodie designed to last a decade--an antifashion statement about history, craft and permanence. Among this tribe, genetically modified organisms are a food taboo, embodying anticorporate values and ideas of natural purity common in their circles, not the next wave of DIY innovation.

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