Issue Date: September 25, 2006
Rational Perspective On Nanotechnology
NANO-HYPE: The Truth Behind the Nanotechnology Buzz, by David M. Berube, Prometheus, 2006, 521 pages, $28 (ISBN 1-59102-351-3)
David M. Berube isn't the first person to observe that there's some hype attached to the nanotechnology phenomenon. But perhaps he is the first author to make this the central theme of a book. Indeed, from the title "Nano-Hype," one gets a clear premonition of Berube's basic position: Almost everyone involved in nanotechnology has some ulterior motive for overstating how revolutionary nanotechnology is going to be, how much money it is going to make, or the scale of the apocalypse it is going to unleash.
Scientists need grants to fund research, companies need venture capital to develop and grow, and activist organizations need publicity to conjure up donations. Not everyone involved with nanotechnology is a huckster, but those who are idealists end up so divorced from reality that they attract Berube's no doubt unwelcome sympathy.
Sometimes his search for low motives leads Berube from bracing cynicism to the brink of absurdity, such as his suggestion that antiglobalization campaigner and editor of The Ecologist magazine Zac Goldsmith's opposition to genetically modified food derives from his wife's business interests in organic food. This seems a little unlikely, given Goldsmith's reported $500 million inherited fortune, but Berube's refusal to take things at face value is a refreshing starting point.
Berube is a professor of communications studies at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, and research director of nanoscience and technology studies at USC's NanoCenter. His book is a competent and fairly complete overview of commercial applications ascribed to nanotechnology, but one thing it's not about is science.
I think that's a pity, because there is an interesting story to be told both about the ascendancy of the nanotechnology label among academics and of the resistance, suspicion, and cynicism this rise has bred in some quarters. But that story will have to wait for another chronicler. Curiously, even the giants of academic nanoscience, such as the late Richard E. Smalley at Rice University and George M. Whitesides at Harvard University, appear in Berube's account as antagonists for the vision of nanotechnology as mechanical engineering shrunk to atomic dimensions espoused by K. Eric Drexler, founder of the Foresight Nanotech Institute, rather than for these giants' own considerable nanotech achievements.
Berube instead has focused on the high-level politics surrounding science funding, financial markets, and campaigning organizations like Goldsmith's. When we are talking about the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology, we're talking about competing ideologies and visions of the future.
On the one hand is the strange blend of radical anticapitalism, green politics, and reactionary conservatism that underlies Goldsmith's world view. In the U.K., it is particularly interesting just now that the resurgent opposition Conservative Party has charged Goldsmith with reviewing its environmental policies.
On the opposite side, it is striking that many nanotech protagonists are driven by strongly held, and sometimes far from mainstream, creeds. For example, there's the millenarian philosophical belief of transhumanists that nanotechnology will one day allow humans to overcome their current limitations to enjoy a utopian way of life. This position is exemplified by University of Tennessee, Knoxville, law professor and nanoenthusiast blogger Glenn H. Reynolds, who sees radical nanotechnology as an essential enabler for his libertarian vision of empowered individuals.
I wish Berube would have provided a much closer analysis of the deeper reasons why nanotechnology seems to be emerging as a focus of these profound political arguments. But perhaps it's still too early for that.
One thing that is clear, though, is that the range of people interested in the phenomenon of nanotechnology is much wider than the usual narrow constituency of scientists and science policy specialists. Academic social scientists--and this is Berube's background--have become interested in the subject with encouragement from governments and funding agencies, such as the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Underlying this outburst of enthusiasm for the study of the social and ethical implications of nanotechnology (SEIN, in the movement's inevitable acronym) is the specter of the fate of agricultural biotechnology, particularly in Europe.
Academic social scientists may see nanotechnology as a fascinating case study of a new type of science in the making, as a test bed for more participatory modes of decision-making, or as a laboratory to explore scientific control over nature. For all this, the major motivation for funding these studies remains-in the view of many politicians and science policymakers-winning over a compliant public to become willing consumers of nanotech's outputs.
In this environment, these social scientists being drafted to work on the implications of nanotechnology face some uncomfortable dilemmas, which Berube succinctly highlights. As self-respecting and independent academics, social scientists are rightly wary of being cast in the role of advocates of nanotechnology whose mission is simply to diffuse potential public opposition. Yet the reality of academic power relationships is such that it's fair to ask just how impartial a social scientist like Berube, who is attached to a large nanotechnology center at a major university, can be.
It would be wrong to assume that social scientists are necessarily opposed to innovation, whereas scientists and entrepreneurs wish to push blindly ahead. Many scientists have been vocal in highlighting some of the real societal problems that evolutionary nanotechnology could unveil. And it's clearly absurd to assume that entrepreneurs can afford to neglect public opinion.
Many people claim to speak for the public in these debates, but can we ever hear from this mysterious public directly? In Europe, the idea of public engagement in science is coming into vogue, but it may never be realistic to expect the public to have a direct impact on the arcane field of science policy. Meanwhile, in the U.S., one gets the feeling that it's the scientists themselves who are increasingly being shut out of the policy loop.
A number of imaginative attempts have been made to involve the public in decision-making about nanotechnology, such as citizens' juries and consensus conferences. But these approaches suffer from a number of difficulties. There's the question of how such processes can fairly represent the diversity of opinions and outlooks hidden in the deceptively singular classification of "the public." Then, even if it were possible to find out what the public thinks about nanotechnology, how would one feed this intelligence back into decision-making about science?
Direct democracy clearly works well for some classes of questions; for example, whether a community's police force should spend more effort targeting traffic or solving burglaries. But it seems much more difficult to apply these principles to something as diffuse and uncertain as the management of the potential benefits and pitfalls of a technology still in its infancy.
The problem is that we just don't know what the social, ethical, and economic consequences of nanotechnology will be. Indeed, we should be suspicious of those who claim certainty about the trajectory that the technology will take. This conviction often arises from ulterior motives, whether the direct financial interest of investment tipsters or the ideological investment of the transhumanists.
"Nano-Hype: The Truth Behind the Nanotechnology Buzz" doesn't attempt to take a position on where nanotechnology is likely to take us, however. Instead, it's a dense and extremely closely referenced account of the way nanotechnology has moved from being a staple of futurists and science-fiction writers to being the new new thing for technophilic politicians and businesspeople and a new object of opposition for environmentalists and antiglobalizers. For those of us fascinated by the minutiae of how NNI got going and the ways the Nanobusiness Alliance has influenced public policy in the U.S., Berube's "Nano-Hype" is the essential source for now.
Richard A. L. Jones is a polymer physicist at the University of Sheffield, in England, and author of "Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life," a nanotechnology book for the general reader. His blog on nanotechnology can be read at www.softmachines.org.
Also of interest
NANOCHEMISTRY: A Chemical Approach To Nanomaterials, by Geoff A. Ozin and André C. Arsenault, RSC Publishing, 2005, 628 pages, $89.95 (ISBN 0-85404-664-X)
THE NANOTECH PIONEERS: Where Are They Taking Us? by Steven A. Edwards, Wiley-VCH, 2006, 244 pages, $27.95 (ISBN 978-3-527-31290-0)
THE DANCE OF MOLECULES: How Nanotechnology Is Changing Our Lives, by Ted Sargent, Avalon, 2006, 256 pages, $25 (ISBN 1-56205-809-8)
NANOMATERIALS HANDBOOK, by Yury Gogotsi,CRC Press, 2006, 800 pages, $149.95 (ISBN 0-84932-308-8)
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