I’ve been covering two big debates about nanotechnology here. One the on hand, there’s the question of the relative merits of Drexler’s essentially mechanical vision of nanotechnology and the more biologically inspired soft and biomimetic approaches. On the other, we see the efforts of campaigning groups like ETC to paint nanotechnology as the next step after genetic modification in humanity’s efforts to degrade and control the natural world. Although these debates at first sight look very different, they both revolve around issues of control and our proper relationship with the natural world.
These issues are identified and situated in a deep historical context in a very perceptive article by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, of the Philosophy Department in the Universit├ę Paris X. The article, Two Cultures of Nanotechnology?, is in HYLE-the International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, Vol. 10, No.2 (2004).
The whole article is well worth reading, but this extract gets to the heart of the matter:
“There is nothing new in the current artificialization of nature. Already in antiquity, there were two different and occasionally conflicting views of technology. On the one hand, the arts or technai were considered as working against nature, as contrary to nature. This meaning of the term para-physin provided the ground for repeated condemnations of mechanics and alchemy. On the other hand, the arts – especially agriculture, cooking, and medicine – were considered as assisting or even improving on nature by employing the dynameis or powers of nature. In the former perspective, the artisan, like Plato’s demiurgos, builds up a world by imposing his own rules and rationality on a passive matter. Technology is a matter of control. In the latter perspective the artisan is more like the ship-pilot at sea. He conducts or guides forces and processes supplied by nature, thus revealing the powers inherent in matter. Undoubtedly the mechanicist [i.e. Drexlerian] model of nanotechnology belongs to the demiurgic tradition. It is a technology fascinated by the control and the overtaking of nature.”
Bensaude-Vincent argues soft and biomimetic approaches to nanotechnology fall more naturally into that second culture, conducting or guiding forces and processes supplied by nature, thus revealing the powers inherent in matter.