Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Remember, we know more than you do

... and What Would You Know About It? (TNTlog)

    A year ago the nanotech blogsphere was full of assorted science fiction freaks, wannabe journalists, boosters, braggarts and other such intellectual flotsam and jetsam. While an oft touted advantage of the blogging revolution is that anyone can have their voice heard, it also meant that anyone who had read a synopsis of Engines of Creation could set themselves up as a nanotech expert. A little knowledge is both a dangerous and a tedious thing.

    While there is still a lot of speculative froth out there, we note a growing trend for serious discussion on nanotechnology, led by that most unlikely of revolutionaries, the Great British Scientist. Blogs such as Richard Jones’s Soft Machines and Martyn Amos’ Complexity, Nanotechnology and Bio-computing are run by real scientists and contain real discussions of nanotechnology and converging technologies. More here

You know, you're right! I didn't know what I was thinking. Scientists, go write about yourselves, and we in the public will read with wide-eyed wonder about the amazing work you're doing and thank you for lowering yourselves to speak what you consider to be our language. Thank you, thank you. Now, let's see if we can't get political and military leaders to write about themselves, too, since they are much better qualified than journalists, bloggers and others among the lower castes to tell us what we need to know. Now, gee, I'm going to have to find a real job. What's the market these days for flotsam and jetsam?

NanoBot Backgrounder
Wanted: Independent nano watchdog
Wanted: Independent nano watchdog - Part II


Anonymous said...

Howard, I think that Tim Harper's needling has affected your sense of proportion here. See here for my response.

Howard Lovy said...

Oh, I decided to fight caricature with caricature and allow myself to take Tim's bate this time around. I think, Richard, your blog and mine are both necessary elements of the overall "coverage" of nanotechnology.

If blogs did not exist, nanotech journalists and scientists would have had to invent them. They're perfect for a young science like this one, where there there is such a wide range of opinions on what is and is not possible. The blog format fits especially well. Nanotech "news" is very much about the discussion, itself, rather than the traditional reporter-reader relationship.

I've discovered that, indeed, because reporters know relatively little about the subject they're writing about, they launch into either two modes: Hero worship of the scientists they're covering, or cynical posturing against them. But if our aim is to get at the truth, then the role of the media, when it comes to nanotech, anyway, should be to allow a free forum for the science, itself, to develop organically by creating open dialogues like ours. That's why I stay largely silent while I read your debates. It's part of my "interview process." I gather information from these debates regarding what the scientists, themselves, believe and how they defend their beliefs against their detractors. Then I can go back to my own audience and be better equipped to explain not just what nanotech "is," but also what the nanotech science -- and business -- communities are currently debating.

The way I see these things happening: 1. Blogger throws his impressions on an issue out there. Sometimes they're well-thought-out, sometimes they are not; 2. Reader responds through comments by telling him he's full of nanoshit and that he's been misquoted, or whatever. 3. Blogger admits error in subsequent comment, or defends his position, or attacks reader or ignores reader entirely. 4. General public gets in on the discussion, policy-makers read discussion to get a snapshot of public opinion and blogger wins a Pulitzer Prize and tons of venture capital money flows his way in order to continue this and similar discussions.

OK. I got carried away toward the end, but I think you get the idea.

Also, every once in a while, I like to throw some actual readers Tim Harper's way. It's a Kabbalistic concept called Tikkun Olam. I'm repairing the world, one atom and one blog at a time.


Anonymous said...

As a lawyer, I can sympathize with people working in a very specialized field who complain about the ignorance, hype and bias of media coverage of their specialty. Most journalists covering legal afairs have no clue about what's happenning, relying instead on: (1) interested parties who are, by their nature, advocates, not neutral purveyors of information and (2) academics who, 'though they have a refined theoretical understanding of the law, are almost as clueless as the journalists when it comes to understanding how the law works in practice (this distinguishes my discipline from scientific disciplines, since science is actually practiced in academia.) Legal journalists rely on these sources mainly because they are readily available, and eager to impart their wisdom without charge. These journalists are lazy.

But note my careful use of the term "most." Nina Totenberg, of NPR, for instance, does an excellent job of reporting legal affairs. She seeks out reliable sources, makes the effort to understand what they're saying, and translates their jargon into commonly understood language. And she does not hesitate to criticize legal developments when her informed, lay mind tells her something is not quite right.

I am almost every bit as patronizing with most media coverage of law as these scientists are with media coverage of nanotechnology. But only "almost." I recognize the great value of a good journalist to my discipline. A good journalist brings an objective view, beyond our professional tunnel vision, to what we are doing, and communicates that objective view to the rest of society. A good journalist is of great benefit to my profession, and to society as a whole. A good journalist forces us to explain ourselves to the rest of society in a manner which allows society to make judgments about what we are doing in an informed way. And a good journalist forces us to consider the broader implications of what we are doing. Indeed, it is, in my opinion, the paucity of good legal journalism which has fostered the current misguided (I believe) attack on my profession.

Let our experience be a lesson to you. Good journalists, like Howard Lovy, will protect you from an ignorant assault from the forces of power in our society. People Like Howard should be encouraged, for the good of the discipline. Otherwise, you risk having the lawyers and politicians making decisions about your future from an ignorant perspective.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I don't need to be told that Howard's a good journalist. If you take a look at the left hand column of the Nanobot, and track right down to the bottom, you'll see what I think of him.

Howard, it's all very well fighting caricature with caricature. I haven't caricatured anyone, yet it's me that's ended up being the victim of the sharp side of your pen. As it happens, I think the caricature is particularly unfair.

Well, yesterday's journalism is today's fish and chip paper, as people say round here, so maybe I'm taking it all too seriously. I'd still be interested to read your take on the debates on Soft Machines, though.

Howard Lovy said...


I'm afraid you're simply "collateral damage." I have great respect for you and your ideas. My comments were aimed directly at Tim Harper. Sorry about that.

To make my blog into fish wrap, you'd need to go through the extra step of printing it out. Nanotech-enabled e-paper should eventually help correct that wasteful step in the traditional news-to-fishwrap value chain.

Right now, I'm taking care of an 8-month-old 'soft machine' of my own, so no time for further comment. I'll keep reading with interest, though, and chime in when I can.


Anonymous said...

HL wrote:

"I'm afraid you're simply "collateral damage." I have great respect for you and your ideas. My comments were aimed directly at Tim Harper. Sorry about that."

Ditto on that from me, Mr. Jones.