Nanotechnology – with nature or against it?

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 Université 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.

8 thoughts on “Nanotechnology – with nature or against it?”

  1. (Amerikan Translation)

    Oh you bet ya, that Dr Jones, he doesnt take his orders from The Patriarchy, unlike a certain Dr. Drexler. Jones approaches nanotechnology like a lover, he wants to communicate with the nano scale world, he wants to understand its preferences, and how it likes to do things, he even calls the approach soft and wet.

    Drexler on the other hand is The Patriarchys man. He is attempting to extend the ability of The Patriarchy to dominate nature. Not only does he want to IMPOSE HIS ORDER ON THE WORLD FROM THE ATOMIC LEVEL UP, but he also wants to steal The Womans (Mother Natures) secret. The secret of birth, reproduction, yes he wants to his machines to in his words self replicate. See how even with his use of language the miracle of birth is being turned into controlled mechanical process. Yes it is no wonder that Drexlers approach is call the Hard path.

    (My question to you Dr. Jones is: Is that a lab coat you are wearing or is that a blouse? ;^)

  2. Thanks, Jim, for that timely warning about the terrible dangers of hanging out with social scientists too much! Don’t worry, I was up late last night irradiating innocent surfaces with sub-atomic particles and now feel much better.

  3. I am sad to see this quotation presented favorably here, with an implication that it contains a criticism of “hard” nanotechnologies. “He conducts or guides forces and processes supplied by nature, thus revealing the powers inherent in matter.” How could any technology, hard or soft, do otherwise? Might we focus on more substantive matters here? I will suggest again that the choice between a hard and soft nanotechnology will depend on the technical goal being pursued in a given instance. Surely there are construction goals that soft nanotechnologies just can’t reach. Perhaps there are goals that even the best hard nanotechnologies couldn’t reach, though I’m not sure what they would look like.

  4. Christine, ancient Greek philosophers can tell us nothing about whether soft or hard approaches to nanotechnology are likely to work better. For that, I agree with you that that question depends on the technical goal. I have argued here before that proponents of hard nanotech often overestimate the advantages of the hard over the soft in applications like the processing of energy and information, and especially in medicine, though maybe that’s an argument we can return to later. It is, however, inmportant to understand how the Greek philosophers thought about technology, though, because the way they framed the argument, and the way those arguments were developed by philosophers in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions, directly underpin the way people think about what is good and bad in technology today. I know you are an engineer, and I’m a scientist, so maybe we both come from a tradition in which such “soft” issues are not thought to be important. But the more I’ve been immersed in arguments about nanotechnology from people who don’t have a technical background, the more I’ve realised that these arguments are, consciously or unconsciously, presented in this deep historical context, and the way new technologies are mentally slotted into these pre-existing categories will vitally influence whether they are felt to be acceptable or not acceptable.

  5. Richard,
    Glad to see this topic being discussed. I’m a proponent of Drexler’s approach and I think it has the most positive potential to support nature.

    We are in the most destuctive period of degradation of the natural world in our history. Our needs are great due to the huge population and our tools are very powerful. So we rape the Earth with great efficiency. Only when our nano tools allow us to reuse every product by deconsruction and reconstruction, will we be able to turn away from the destruction of the natural world. A strong Molecular Manufacturing capability is the only answer I see. See my blog for more discussion.

  6. John, I think we probably agree that new technology is needed in order to move towards a sustainable, good life for all the earth’s population. Whether molecular manufacturing (or any other approach) can deliver depends on whether it is possible at all, and if it is, what timescale it can deliver on. For reasons summarised here, I’m sceptical that molecular manufacturing in the form currently envisaged will be viable, and even if I’m wrong about it’s ultimate feasibility, I think it will be too far in the future to help with our immediate problems. For example, I think we need to be starting to see the shift to large scale renewable energy to be well in sight within twenty years or so.

  7. Moving to renewable sources of energy is clearly very important, and nanotechnology can help. See here for a discussion of nanoenabled solar energy, for example.

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