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.