Friday, September 26, 2003

Nothing like nano incitement to rouse the masses

It's not very cricket for members of the media to insist on getting in the last word, so I asked Douglas Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, to write a rebuttal to criticism of his organization's July report on nanotechnology. Douglas rose to the task with this well-written commentary I've posted on Small Times.

I've been correctly accused of out-of-proportion obsession over the Greenpeace report, so let me explain why I dwelled on it.

First, the Weblog format allows me to do something that is not always possible at Small Times: React to, and instantly analyze, the increasing media coverage of nanotechnology. This blog is independent and covers a niche that Small Times, as a business-to-business publication, cannot focus on. That's why I've been filling the NanoBot with commentary on broader issues of nanotech perception, ethics and media coverage. These are not issues that Small Times explores in depth, yet I believe that these are areas where nanotechnology could meet a broader audience. The environmental/policy/ethical issues are a kind of "gateway drug" for the curious to seek out more nanotech fixes.

I began this Weblog because I wanted to present some of my thoughts on the larger context behind the ETC Group's anti-nanotechnology activism and the Drexler/Smalley debates. I knew that eventually a higher-profile organization like Greenpeace would weigh in and, in my position as news editor of one of only a few publications that cover nanotechnology, I would have a unique opportunity to help frame the issue. So, part of this site's reason for being was to help guide the debate in a productive way, while also exploiting this transitional moment in media and nanotech history.

I'm in a kind of unique position because, for this brief period of time, nanotechnology is a very hot subject for the mainstream press, and Weblogs are a relatively new phenomenon with a kind of lopsided influence on public debates because they are a quick resource for general-interest reporters who seek instant analysis.

The reaction to the blog was immediate: As soon as it launched, I was fielding calls from newspapers and magazines all over the world -- not only drawing attention to myself, but making more people aware of Small Times. Reporters from the Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, Reuters, Wired and other publications tell me that they read my blog regularly to get story ideas and to stay abreast of nanotech issues.

Now, I believe, I've done my part to stir things up a bit and arouse the curiosity of the general media and public. In the same way that I believe the ETC Group has been exploiting nanotech to draw attention to its own agenda, I've tried to do the same in picking out a "target of opportunity" like the environmental/policy issue.

By being provocative, I get more of the public engaged, involved or aware of nanotechnology and all its implications -- even if that engagement takes the form of anger against my hair-brained commentaries. Getting citizens all worked up about policy issues and forcing them to clarify their own opinions can only enhance the nanotech debate and shock the industry out of its insularity.

I don't know where Weblogs are headed, or what they will eventually morph into, but right now they're perfect for fomenting an immediate worldwide shouting match on issues both trivial and important. It's in this combination of provocation, anger, emotion and resultant immediate exposure to competing ideas where the Weblog phenomenon can find its home in the general media landscape.


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