There are many debates about nanotechnology; what it is, what it will make possible, and what its dangers might be. On one level these may seem to be very technical in nature. So a question about whether a Drexler style assembler is technically feasible can rapidly descend into details of surface chemistry, while issues about the possible toxicity of carbon nanotubes turn on the procedures for reliable toxicological screening. But it’s at least arguable that the focus on the technical obscures the real causes of the arguments, which are actually based on clashes of ideology. We supposedly live in a non-ideological age, so what are the ideological divisions that underly debates about nanotechnology? I suggest, for a start, these four ideological positions, each of which implies a very different attitude towards nanotechnology.
- Transhuman. Transhumanists look forward to a time in which technology allows humanity to transcend its current physical and mental limits. Radical nanotechnologies are essential to the fulfillment of this vision, so the attitude of transhumanists to nanotechnology in its most radical, Drexlerian form, is that it is not only inevitable but morally mandated.
- Transglobal. Those who accept the current neo-liberal, globalising consensus look to new technologies as a driver for further economic growth. Nanotechnology is expected to lead to changes which may be disruptive to individual business sectors, but which probably won’t fundamentally change global socio-economic systems.
- Deep Green. To radical environmentalists, our current urban, industrial economic system is unsustainable. Technologies are regarded as in large measure responsible for the difficulties we are now in, and a return to more rural, post-industrial, locally based economies is regarded as not only desirable but inevitable. Nanotechnology is, like most new technologies, viewed with deep distrust, as very likely to lead to undesirable and possibly unintended consequences.
- Bright Green. Another strand of environmentalists share with Deep Greens the conviction that the current socio-economic system is unsustainable, but are confident that new technology and imaginative design will make possible an urban culture with a high standard of living that is sustainable. These people look with enthusiasm to nanotechnology for new sustainable energy systems and decentralised, low waste manufacturing processes.
When one sees a debate about nanotechnology start to get heated, it’s perhaps worth asking what the ideological positions of the debaters are, and whether an apparently technical argument is actually a proxy for an ideological one.