Bento Lab vs. the Apple II


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Bento Lab, a portable DNA analysis kit that was funded on Kickstarter in 2015 and 2016, was recently profiled in The Boston Globe. At a tenth the cost of a traditional lab setup, Bento Lab kits "represent a cracking open of a once-cloistered field of knowledge" and a democratization of the life sciences. "What can be achieved with Bento Lab is largely limited by the user’s imagination and ability," writes reporter Linda Rodriguez McRobbie.

Like most readers of this blog, my scientific interests stray more toward the technological than the organic. But the article bridges that gap with this apt metaphor:

[Harvard University genetic biologist George] Church described Bento Lab as "an Apple II moment." The Apple II, among the first personal computers made for the masses, changed computing in ways that are so fundamental that we can hardly appreciate them. "There were computers before the Apple I or the Apple II, cheap computers, but they were really geeky, they had wires hanging out of them. They didn’t have the right form factor or ease of use," he explained. "This, I think, is that moment."

I'm reminded of seven years ago, when World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov declared the Apple II as "the last technology that could be thought of as revolutionary". Whether it's biology, artificial intelligence, or personal computing, the Apple II continues to be an era-defining invention, demarcating a line in history before or after which everything came.

While its place in history is unquestionable, the Apple II shouldn't be unique in being considered a technological revolution. There other innovations that have done as much, if not more, than the Apple II to increase access and affordability to technology. Bicycles greatly expanded access to resources and job opportunities and continue to do so even today in third-world countries. (Even Steve Jobs called the computer "a bicycle for the mind") Radio and the telephone allowed the verbal exchange of ideas across great distances. Airplanes opened up the world to travel and tourism, allowing unprecedented access to new peoples, cultures, and environments. (And yes, while air travel is expensive, it's no more so than the Apple II was when it was first released.) The World Wide Web democratized publishing, giving voice to everyone's opinions and expertise. I'm not talking life-saving technologies, but life-changing. Some of these creations came before the Apple II; others came after, built on its foundation. Yet would we feel silly comparing the Bento Lab to the World Wide Web, in that one is a tangible product and the other is not?

That metaphor may be flawed, but I'm emboldened to make it by the comparison of the Apple II to a portable DNA kit. The Apple II started as an esoteric hobby and went on to revolutionize multiple industries. The Bento Lab, with its much more specialized function, will likely be praised within certain circles but remain unheard-of otherwise. But a more apt comparison might be difficult to draw, as any product similar to the Bento Lab has, by its nature, not drawn attention outside its target audience — unlike the Apple II.

I'm always intrigued by the contexts in which the Apple II turns up. When I first read about the Bento Lab, I thought of Amazon.com and e-books, which made agents and editors into optional gatekeepers that anyone could bypass. Amazon didn't invent e-books any more than Apple invented computers, but both made these platforms more affordable and accessible. In that sense, Bento Lab has succeeded — but it's no more an Apple II than it is an airplane or the World Wide Web.

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