Saturday, October 04, 2003

The Napster of Nano


I've written before about Tim Harper's efforts to fight not only the perception that nanotechnology will widen the gap between the developing and developed worlds, but also to prevent this "nano divide" from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, his latest idea: Nanotech file sharing.

Harper, chief executive of the nanotech business research firm Cientifica, has been advising smaller nations, from Afghanistan to Israel, that they can develop their own nanotech industries that fit their local needs. While the United States, Japan and European Union might be spending huge amounts of money on nano, it's not a technology to which the developed world can claim exclusive rights, then use to bully or bribe nations with fewer resources. This is where the anti-globalism and environmental movements are in danger of going astray and undermining their own causes -- by mislabeling nanotech as simply the latest technological tool to keep the poor continuously dependent on the rich.

As the Environmental Research Foundation wrote in its August Newsletter:

    The very latest corporate "solution" is nanotechnology, whose advocates assure us that environment-related diseases such as cancer will one day be cured by tiny "nanobots." ... All these new approaches like genes and nanobots share one common feature: they will all increase our dependence on corporate "experts" who will hold our lives in their hands, for which we will, no doubt, be required to pay dearly. (Those who cannot afford to pay are presumably lazy good-for-nothings whom we can profitably allow to expire, preferably somewhere out of public view.)
They're fighting yesterday's battles. Nanotechnology is not nuclear technology, and it's not akin to genetically modified organisms.

First of all, right now, "nanobots" don't exist except in the minds of science fiction writers and unimaginative, unoriginal Weblogging journalists. Harper and others who understand the real potential of nanotech as a great equalizer are telling nations and communities, rich and poor, that the ability to create and manipulate nanoscale materials can be achieved by any local economy and tailored to solve local problems. The big bullies have no secret formula that they can use to play keep-away from the weaker kids.

But there is a problem when it comes to equal access to information. The rich can pay for it, and the poor cannot. This digital divide and economic disparity was not created by nanotechnology, and Harper's company is doing its small part to try to correct it by making nanotechnology white papers, usually fairly costly, available for free. He's started with a group of 15 of them, available for free download here, from fullerenes to quantum dots.

Granted, the availability of free PDF files (a kind of nano Kazaa?) is not exactly forgiveness of Third-World debt, but Tim tells me there will be more information available later, plus I believe the free flow of information and ideas is an encouraging beginning -- and a move that others should emulate.

Here's some of what Harper had to say about it in his latest column:
    While many can afford to pay for technical research and market analysis, many others who have an interest in, or will be affected by, nanotechnology cannot. In the past I have discussed the applications of nanotechnology to the developing world, and how providing solutions to local problems is the best way for developing countries to become a partner in nanotechnology rather than simply a consumer. But if business and government leaders around the world think that nanotechnology is all about tiny robots, confuse it with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or feel that the developed world already has a stranglehold on the technologies, will they feel that it merits further investigation? We are already seeing the application of nanotechnology addressing issues of global concern, such as health, energy and water. We hope that by making these white papers available we can help to stimulate some real progress on these key topics.

No comments: