Framing nanotech: products, process, or program?

If you are a regulator or policy maker considering the possible impacts of nanotechnology, should you consider it solely in terms of the products it produces, should you think of it as a distinct process for making things, or should you ask about the more general socio-economic program of which it is part? This question is suggested by Sheila Jasanoff’s excellent new book, Designs on Nature. This book, recommended on Soft Machines the other day by James Wilsdon (see also James’s review of the book for the Financial Times), is a highly perceptive comparative study of the different ways in which the politics of biotechnology and genetic modification played out in the USA, the UK and Germany. Jasanoff finds one origin of the differences between the experience in the three countries in the different ways in which the technology was framed. In the USA, the emphasis was on asking whether the products of biotechnology were safe. In the UK, the issue was framed more broadly; the question was whether the process of genetic modification was in itself a cause for concern. In Germany, meanwhile, discussion of biotechnology could never escape the shadow of the complicity of German biomedical science with the National Socialist program, and the horrors that emerged from a state dedicated to the proposition than all men are not created equal. In this context, it was tempting to see biotechnology as part of a program in which science and a controlling, ordering state came together to subjugate both citizens and nature.

Since policy-makers, academics and activists are all looking at the unfolding debate around nanotechnology through the lens of the earlier GM debates, it’s worth asking how far this analysis can be applied to nanotechnology. The product-centred view is clearly in the ascendency in the USA, where the debate is centred almost exclusively over the issue of the possible toxicity of nanoparticles. But the process-centred view is not really managing to establish itself anywhere. The problem is, of course, that nanotechnology does not present a distinct process in the way that genetic modification does. This is despite the early rhetoric of the National Nanotechnology Initiative – the slogan “building the world atom-by-atom” does suggest that nanotechnology offers a fundamentally different way of doing things, but the reality, of course, is that today’s nanotechnology products are made by engineering processes which are only incremental developments of ones that have gone before. It remains to be seen whether a radically different nanotechnology will emerge which will make this framing more relevant.

Should we, then, worry about nanotechnology as part of a broader, socio-economic program? This is clearly the central position of anti-nanotechnology campaigning groups like the ETC group. They may find the nano-toxicity issue to be a convenient stick to beat governments and nano-industry with, but their main argument is not with the technology in itself, but with the broader issues of globalization and liberal economics. Of course, many of those most strongly in favour of nanotechnology have their own program, too – the idea of transhumanism, with its high profile adherents such as Ray Kurzweil. It’s possible that opposition to nanotechnology will increasingly come to be framed in terms of opposition to the transhumanist program, along the lines of Bill McKibben’s book Enough.

6 thoughts on “Framing nanotech: products, process, or program?”

  1. One story about nanotech goes like this. Drexler invented the field, with his descriptions of amazing devices that could build virtually anything for free, with medical advances that could cure all diseases and grant immortality. This sounded crazy but it started to gather momentum. If there was even the tiniest chance it was true, it would be worth spending a fortune to get there. Once money entered the picture, everything changed. Scientists and technologists fought for a piece of the pie. They did everything possible to call their research nanotech. They pushed Drexler into the background because of the dark side of his vision, his engines of destruction. This is where we are today, and even Drexler’s Foresight Institute has joined the bandwagon, regularly sending out email praising the virtues of nanopants and the like.

    This may not be a very accurate or complete story, but it probably has some elements of truth, and it helps to explain why we are in such a complex state today. Nanotech means so many different things to different people. The original Drexlerian vision does tie into utopian transhumanism. Meanwhile all those prosaic technologies who just added the nano prefix to get more funding don’t want to associate with such way out ideas.

    I know you have tried to distinguish different flavors of nanotech but the real question is whether it even makes sense to say that nanotech exists as a field, once you throw out Drexler and his ideas.

  2. I know that story is a popular one amongst supporters of MNT, and it may well have some truth in it, particularly in a US context. I suspect that David Berube’s forthcoming book will have some illuminating insights about this. The situation in the USA had one feature that was special – the National Nanotechnology Initiative didn’t just give extra money to areas that could be classed as nanotechnology, it took money away from more traditional areas, so conservative chemists and materials scientists really were forced to find ways of classifying their work as nanotechnology if they were to go on getting research funding. By contrast, in the UK, there was no such switch in funding, so scientists choosing to label their work as nanotechnology still had to compete directly for funds with their more conservative colleagues.

    Of course, this is only one element in a wider contest for ownership of the idea of nanotechnology. Within the scientific community itself, the dispute between semiconductor physicists, scanning probe microscopists, surface scientists, colloid/polymer scientists, and indeed those precision mechanical engineers who followed the tradition of Taniguchi, over who were the true nanotechnologists was probably much more vigorously contested than any argument with Drexler, who most nanoscientists probably had only rather dimly heard of (since he never published in Science, Nature or Physical Review Letters). When pressed to name a founder of nanotechnology, the names Binnig and Rohrer would probably emerge much more frequently than Drexler in these circles. But ultimately I agree with you, one cannot really say that nanotech now exists as a field. Whether a coherent field does emerge from the current ferment remains an open question. My inclination is to think that it will, but we shall have to see.

  3. Speaking with some hand waving and in a rather abstract manner, I would like to point out that people in general are somewhat wary of new technology when they dont see how it is likely to benefit themselves directly.
    I am not sure how ownership of the idea of nanotechnology really impacts upon things, except perhaps if something goes wrong and it is necessary to blame someone.
    There is also something about the introduction of new technology that is problematical. For starters, it puts old technology people out of business. Secondly, you get to the “guns, germs and steel” kind of situation. It is still possible to imagine some transhumanists accidentally or deliberately wiping out normal humanity. The power differential is too great, like Europeans versus aborigines. This kind of issue has been explored somewhat in Science fiction for at least 10 years that I am aware of, but is only now getting into the publics consciousness.
    So I see it partly as an issue of disparity of power, where one groups pursuit of new technology forces everyone else into an arms race to try to be able to avoid any negative consequences for themselves from the first groups explorations, and also as a deep, wibbly kind of unscientific issue about how we as humans relate to the world and how we use and abuse it. Nanotechnology in all its forms will extend our domination of the world, but leaves unanswered the question of what we shall do with that domination.

  4. I agree, the issue of “who benefits, who bears the risk” is absolutely crucial. Comparing public reactions in Europe to GMOs and mobile phones is very instructive here – people just couldn’t see the benefits to themselves (as opposed to agribusiness) of GMOs, so they were much less tolerant of any suspicion of risk than they were for mobile phones, where the personal benefits are obvious and direct.

    I’m not sure I’m completely convinced by the comparison of an introduction of nanotechnology to a Europeans versus aborigines situation – because science is currently such a large-scale global enterprise, and because information is so much more freely available than it was in previous centuries, I don’t think it’s going to be easy to sustain the asymmetries of information that lead to such asymmetries of power.

  5. Maybe the aborigenes vs Europeans analogy isnt the best one. Add to that that there is a chance that transhumanism and the kind of strong nanotechnology that some people want is not necessarily what is going to happen, and my concerns seem a little over the top.
    But I am trying to convey the idea that whatever happens in the future, some sort of ethical and legal situation needs to be built into it, so that even with potentially massive disparities in power between, say, transhumans and those who like lots of technology, and those who want less and dont want anything to do with transhumanism, so that the people who will by that stage almost by definition be behind in technology, will nto suffer from it.

  6. I certainly agree with you about the need to have an ethical and legal dimension, both to protect the less advantaged and to prevent an undesirable “race to the bottom”.

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