Sunday, July 13, 2003

The Hulk, Prince Charles and other scary things


By Howard Lovy

What do The Hulk and Prince Charles have in common?

Fear. Specifically, fear of nanotechnology and its impact on the environment.

I'll let the psychiatrists explain how big, angry bullies are really just masking the fact that they're the fraidy-cats, but I will take a poke at why Britain's royal Luddite is shaking in his crown jewels. It has a great deal to do with the public fear that finds its way into primal-scream movies like "The Hulk" and "Minority Report" or popular fiction like Michael Crichton's "Prey."

In "The Hulk," the name of the evil company, of course, was "Atheon" -- a perfect blend of the reality and fear associated with technology. In reality, military contractor Raytheon creates modern weapons systems that, in themselves, are neutral -- simply clumps of metal ready to mindlessly do the owner's bidding.

But the comic-book movie format allows the director to strip off or add on as many layers of reality as suits the story. So, for the company chosen as the soulless, profit-hungry opportunist interested in the physical above the moral, in short-term gain over ethics -- simply add the prefix, "Ath," and you can see that director Ang Lee is stripping away even any hint of gray here. The Hulk may be a complicated, misunderstood big green man, but "Atheon," is "Godless Raytheon." Cold, hard, high-tech steel guided by what the majority of Americans assume atheism to be -- nothing. There is no higher code of morality, nothing commanding what the company "Shall" or "Shalt Not" do, so in the world of moral relativism, anything can be justified.

At least, that is the cartoon image of atheism, so that view is naturally reflected in the prism of a cartoon movie. But here is where cartoon reality (and for the price of admission, we all enthusiastically enter this reality and accept its impossible rules) meets up with the almost equally cartoonish world of political debate and policymaking. Nanotechnology, and the implied idea that mankind is manipulating creation for his own benefit without a thought to the purpose of the creation itself, bothers many on the left and right -- it goes against God's law (right), or it goes against the laws of nature (left). The closer that manipulation comes to the human body, the louder the protests become. Left and right are joined against genetic manipulation, against the idea of man messing with the makeup of his own humanity -- "Playing God," in the eyes of the dogmatically religious. Of course, for the dogmatically left, you have your unwitting human guinea pig being experimented on by a government lab. Now, you have the absolute evil you need to keep the Hulk story moving.

And keep political futures moving in the other cartoon world of politics -- where exaggeration is fact, worst-case scenarios always happen and what is unknown is always deadly. It's exhilarating in our movies, but fosters ignorance and sets mankind's technological clock running backward in the reality of government oversight, funding and regulation.

The European Union is accepting as truth manipulated "facts" from the Canada-based ETC Group, an activist organization with a specific social agenda as the context with which to begin debate on nanotechnology. The group's recent report, "The Big Down," which drew the attention of Prince Charles and prompted his royal concern, the organization drew on a pool of selected research and came away with the conclusion that social and environmental responsibility is at odds with nanotech research. Now, the debate is beginning with the premise that nanotech is harmful, and the burden is on this relatively young science to disprove its guilt.

The group argues that a moratorium needs to be in place until proper safeguards are established. But the nature of scientific inquiry is to experiment, without shackling the experimenter.

Then, again, it's typical that those on the verge of something new need to work discretely and under pressure of authorities (church, state, the angry villagers with torches, etc.) who fear the unknown. Nanotech came out of left field for environmental activists. The future was supposed to be solar, or wind powered, or powered by thoughts of happiness, yoga and the freedom of Tibet. They were good at tearing down, and suggesting a few lame alternatives -- but when the alternatives really are presented, they turn into the ugly mob because it's something they don't understand and, based on past experience, they assume it's based on lies by scientists and the government.

Why isn't the environmental movement embracing it? Nano is about as "organic" as you can get, with some applications using the elemental building blocks of nature to clean up the mess created over the past century-and-a-half of industrialization.

But, in the words of my ex-hippie father-in-law (a veteran of the "No Nukes" movement), that's what they were told about nuclear power. A good point. There's a mistrust of all involved: big business, the government, researchers.

Next, will come the protests and green party platforms, which will codify nanotech as evil in the mantra of the various movements. Michael Moore will make a documentary; Eddie Vedder will rant at concerts. Expect a big, hulking, angry argument in the coming months and years.


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