Wednesday, December 24, 2003

2003: The Year of the Straw NanoMan

Ronald Bailey, in his very reasonable piece about the "growing peril" of a nanotechnology moratorium," asserts that anti-nano activists "cannot be lightly dismissed."

I agree to a point, having made similar assertions myself, but after speaking and listening to a number of business and government leaders, I can't help but think that activists like Pat Mooney of the ETC Group might be the best thing that's happened to the nanotech industry.

When it comes to the environmental debate, the handful of people who call for a moratorium on nano research conveniently play the role of the straw enemy of nanoprogress, since their pseudoscience can easily be attacked. That is what I was thinking as I listened to Phil Bond, the U.S. Commerce Department's undersecretary for technology, give an eloquent speech recently in Chicago. He told the audience of businesspeople that a nanotech research moratorium would, itself, be "unethical" because it would delay development of technologies that could improve the quality of human life and the environment.

Of course, you can't argue with that. He's right. However, in effect, Bond and others are rallying the nanotech troops by telling them who their enemies are, and warning of dire consequences if these enemies crash through the city walls and begin to plunder and pillage. The only way to fight is to gather around the "correct" nanotech vision as defined by the government and business community.

I'm not talking solely about the marginalization of the kind of nanotechnology proposed by Drexler and others. Since the science behind molecular manufacturing is too complicated to debunk in sound bites, they needed a Rick Smalley up there to misrepresent Drexler's ideas, and then open the straw Drexler up to ridicule.

But the more-subtle trick is that by identifying enemies – whether it's environmentalist hippie wackos or science-fiction enthusiasts with no social lives – the business community has taken control of the nanotechnology vision and agenda.

Business interests, of course, represent an important piece of the total nano puzzle, but it is not the only piece. I have nothing against business. Some of my best friends are … Well, I also believe in the American cliché that greed can, indeed, be good, if you tap into corporate self-interest. DuPont is on the advisory board of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology because it makes business sense to be there. You can also expect some new studies on the environmental impact of nanomaterials to come out of DuPont in the coming months. The company certainly does not want to find out a few years from now that its products are harming people or the environment – or at least are perceived to be harmful. Bad for business.

I also believe that business is a necessary tool to enable the larger vision. Businesspeople can be visionaries, themselves. I've even met a few. But they, alone, almost by definition, will not necessarily follow through with the high-minded ideals espoused now by government and business leaders – not when the profit motive is the only guiding principle.

Do you want proof? Well, wasn't the Internet supposed to enable a new world of democratic participation and equal access to information? Sure, we'll get closer to that ideal, eventually. But right now, with commerce the sole driving force of the Internet Revolution, we have only one truly successful e-commerce model: pornography.

So, since everybody is doing a "year in review" piece, here's mine in a "nanosecond." Nanotech purists cannot see how nanotechnology could be treated as merely a business proposition, while businesspeople cannot see how it could be treated as anything else.

And that brings us to 2004. Here's to a truly nano New Year.

Happy Holidays to all.

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