Who’s in charge?

I spent Saturday afternoon in the Natural History Museum in London, not looking at the dinosaurs, but taking part in an event organised by the good people at Demos (not forgetting their colleagues at Lancaster) – nanoscientists-meet-nanopublics.

The format was a very gently moderated group discussion between nanoscientists of various ages (I think, alas, I was the oldest) and a group of members of the public who have been involved in a series of focus group discussions about nanotechnology. I’d summarise the demographic of my group as being “North London soccer mums” (with deep apologies to any of you who might read this!) – and I think it’s fair to say that the overall feeling towards nanotechnology was pretty negative. This was based on two things – an unease about untested nanoparticles in cosmetics, and a deeper unhappiness about the whole idea of human enhancement, particularly in a military context. I think we had a fairly productive discussion about both aspects.

One of the interesting things that came out in the discussion was this worry about “who is in charge”. I think it’s a natural human assumption to think that there is someone or some organisation that has the power to initiate change or to prevent it, if it is judged undesirable. But that’s not how science works in a liberal, globalised, market-driven system. I think this realisation that there really isn’t anyone in charge – not just in nanotechnology or any other part of science, but in all sorts of aspects of modern life – is what so many people find so frightening about the world we live in. But is there any alternative?

7 thoughts on “Who’s in charge?”

  1. Well, there are these ‘Center for Responsible Nanotech’ guys. They have this ‘system of three ethics’ idea, but it has problems they havn’t resolved, or if there is a resolution(by me), they don’t accept it.

    My real resolution of the ‘what to do in a nano world’ is to figure out who you are, what you think is best for you, and to join others who think the same values and ideas of how to live in a nano world. Truth will dictate whether you and your group will be lasting. The strategy is that if you are following the truth, then you’ll be o.k. and those who are not, will not be able to bother you.

    To me, the only people who won’t like this strategy are those who have something to hide or have personal problems, and we all know how impossible it is to deal with vagueness mongers; better to just leave them to their own devices.

  2. I think the issue and point that needs to be made here is that in order to use molecular manufacturing safely and what maybe isn’t being said explicitly, spiritually, because nobody wants to live in a hellish world, is that we need to become spiritual and mature. There is no other way to accomplish this than for those who have figured out they don’t want to be amongst the personal problem weapon throwers and vagueness mongers is to just leave them.

  3. To do good with molecular manufacturing or with technology in general requires good people. Of course, this all depends on how you define ‘goodness.’ My theory is that there is good based on certain lifestyles, and that lifestyle is not to be in a state of military readiness.

    Crn’s theory is that there is no rigorous theory of good. They think if you follow logic, evil will come out. Of course, they have not read Jacob Bronowski; they have not even tried to look at what is unpopular to look at.

    A further part of my viewpoint is that goodness alwasy wins out over bad because bad just digs themselves into a deeper and deeper hole. Goodness is like the aircraft carrier that must be out in deep waters to get moving fast enough; so fast, that nobody else can really be out there anyways, such as sailboats with guns on them. Of course, the aircraft carrier can expose itself if it is not carefull, but that is if it is not carefull; usually, even then, the damage is minimal. Goodness is the aircraft carrier that has to be so far away that primitive badness can’t really match up.

    I’d prefer people to just read Jacob Bronowski’s works to see that there is a goodness aircraft carrier; preferably ‘Science and Human Values’, and ‘The Origin of Knowledge and Imagination.’

  4. Well, to be somewhat flippant, it’s clear that the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is definitely not in charge. Being more serious, it seems to me that their way of thinking revolves around ideas of central control by international agencies which seem to me to be entirely inconsistent with the way the world’s political economy is currently organised, in which it is difficult to see that any individual agent has unfettered power, and in which innovation springs up in a huge diversity of different locations and organisations.

  5. The question of responsibility is a very peculiar one. As it is seen from the scientist’s perspective one does not see how any fundamental work can be of any use or miss-use for the society. This was raised on last Saturday’s discussion in London organised by DEMOS. But from the point of view of society the scientific research has to come with a name tag so that public can point a finger in blaming that person or organisation for the use of MISS-use of that technology.

    The question that I ended up asking was: In the case of a technology development would public blame the fundamental scientist or development engineer or a user for the miss-use of that technology. Each one of the three steps in technology delivery can involve individuals or entire nations. I find this question very generic and not only applicable to Nanotechnology. It would be interesting to see what the Bloggers think about it.

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