The Kickstarter Culture Wars

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

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Until recently, the two tribes coexisted peacefully on Kickstarter. The techies didn't wage a campaign to wipe out a documentary opposing biotech food, and the artists didn't attack 3-D printing. But when the glowing-plant project came along, antibiotech groups sprang into action, calling the project "genetic pollution" and charging that its organizers had "hijacked" Kickstarter from its artistic intent. DIY genetics, they warned, could be dangerous. Even worse was the project's seed giveaway--the "deliberate release into the environment" of a product of synthetic biology.

Never mind that arabidopsis isn't a dangerous plant or a weed, and that the genes for luminescence are benign and well understood. In fact, the project's biggest pitfall is that the light may not be bright enough for today's light-accustomed eyes to notice that the plant is glowing.

But the hysteria had the desired effect. It blew up Kickstarter's modus vivendi. Although the company, which takes a 5% revenue cut, let the glowing-plant project proceed, its management has quietly slipped a new no-no into its ever-growing list of prohibitions: "Projects cannot offer genetically modified organisms as a reward." In the company's only public comments on the controversy, in an interview with The Verge website, co-founder Yancey Strickler suggested that the change is modest, because it limits only rewards, not projects themselves. But everyone knows that rewards are crucial to success. People don't want T-shirts of glowing plants. They want glowing plants.

The truth is that the company has picked sides. Instead of maintaining a neutral forum or hiring enough staff to screen projects one by one, Kickstarter has chosen to pander to fearmongers. With its blanket prohibition, it has betrayed the technologists who embraced it, promoted it and accounted for some of its most successful and profitable projects. It may be happy to take their money, but it isn't comfortable with their kind.

Postrel is the author of The Power of Glamour, to be published in November

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