World's Fair

Steve Martin and Nanotechnology

[Category explanation: this post overlaps with so many of our Scienceblogs category options that I ended up just dumping it in philosophy of science as a default location.]

The ETC Group – dedicated, they say, to supporting “socially responsible developments of technologies useful to the poor and marginalized and it addresses international governance issues and corporate power” — recently held a contest for the design of a new nanotechnology warning sign. But they should’ve put in a Steve Martin-related bit as one of the contenders.

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They had 400 entries reviewed by a panel of judges. The top 16 are here. The three winners are here.

I would’ve voted for the buggy one below, but it didn’t even make the top 16 cut.

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Even so, and even though I favor the questions and approach ETC is taking, it was a missed opportunity. Steve Martin — you remember him — used to like to get small. He’d go out with his friends, and they’d get really small. Such as:

I do take one drug now – for fun – and, maybe you’ve heard of it, it’s a new thing, I don’t know if you have or not. It’s a new thing, it makes you small. [ indicates size with fingers ] About this big. And, you know, I’ll be home, sitting with my friends, and, uh.. we’ll be sitting around, and somebody will say, “Heeeyyy.. let’s get small!” So, you know, we get small, and uh.. the only bad thing is if some tall people come over. You’re walking around going, “Ah hahaha..!” Now, I know I shouldn’t get small when I’m driving.. but I was driving around the other day, and I said, “What the heck?” You know? So I’m driving like.. [ extends arms high in the air like he’s reaching up to a giant steering wheel ] And, uh.. a cop pulls me over. And he makes me get out, he looks at me and he says, “Heyyy.. are you small”? I said, “No-o-o! I’m not!” He said, “Well, I’m gonna have to measure you.” They have this little test they give you – they give you a balloon.. and if you can get inside of it, they know you’re small.

(from this SNL transcript)

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So this is a post about missed opportunities. Nanotechnology is (as claimed by advocates) our next big thing. Like chemical, nuclear, and biotechnological eras before, this one too promises to cure cancer, eliminate poverty, feed the hungry, and save the world. Ray Kurzweil, speaking to a congressional hearing about nanotechnology [linking to a pdf there] in 2003 without historical awareness, claimed that “With the advent of nanotechnology, we will be able to keep our bodies and brains in a healthy optimal state more or less indefinitely. We will have technologies to reverse environmental pollution. Nanotechnology and related advanced technologies of the 2020’s will bring us the opportunity to overcome age-old problems, including pollution, poverty, disease, and aging.” This is, I believe, a statement of irresponsibility. This is the kind of rhetoric that doesn’t help, because it’s propaganda. Who doesn’t want to reduce poverty and disease? This is the exact view that The Simpson’s parodies whenever they have Mrs. Lovejoy screaming from the background in any given public issue — “Somebody, think of the children!” Yes, it rallies the troops, but it avoids examining the legitimacy of the claim — and why the claim is being made, and by whom — in the process.

To put it bluntly, I’m skeptical about those claims. But my skepticism doesn’t mean it’s not possible nanotechnology could be beneficial. It could. Sure, why not? However, to appropriate Alan Greenspan here, it’s the irrational exuberance that generally gives me pause. Skepticism about all things scientific or technological is not the general mode of operation at Scienceblogs, I realize. There will be many readers who think that ETC’s plea for a moratorium on nanotechnology production – by the way, they are advocating a moratorium on nanotechnology production – is akin to an “irrational” reaction to new technology. “Everyone is always afraid of new things,” someone (or many) will say. “This is just like those people who oppose GMOs for no reason,” as others on Scienceblogs have said (but to whom I can’t link right now because the search function isn’t currently working). “There is no basis for these fears, but fear itself,” I often hear. I don’t believe those views are accurate or well-developed, though, although I’ll not pre-emptively respond to them here beyond the sentences you are now reading.

If anything, if any ethical stance can be made, it’s that we should at least be more wary of easily made, unreflective claims that technologies alone will save us. Like thinking that the simple addition of troops will somehow stave off a horrific war, without paying any attention to the innumerably necessary political, cultural, and philosophical contexts that need to be understood for Bush’s “success” fallacy to play out, going full bore ahead with nanotechnology production without even knowing why we’re doing, for whom, within which cultural contexts, and so on, is also foolhardy. As ever, though, the issue is mostly reduced to a pro/con scenario – you’re either with us, or against us. You’re either pro-nano, or anti-nano. Kurzweil takes that line.

A few of my colleagues are at the forefront of developing ethical studies of nanotechnology. Or, better put, they are working on ethics and nanotechnology – they are not, that is, writing that nanotechnology is either good or bad, but working on ways to allow researchers, policy-makers, and citizens to examine the realm of nanotechnology as it is being proposed, rather than as an afterthought. (Rosalyn Berne is one of these people. See her new book, Nanotalk: Conversations With Scientists And Engineers About Ethics, Meaning, And Belief in the Development of Nanotechnology here. For a scholarly treatment of the recent history of nanotechnology discussions, see W. Patrick McCray’s “Will Small be Beautiful? Making Policies for our Nanotech Future,” in History and Technology, the pdf of which I’ll post right here.) That is what I consider reasonable and rational.

But, anyway, the issue can’t be so simply reduced to pro- or anti-. Which is why Steve Martin will save us. So in this typically World’s-Fair-all-over-the-map post, I vote to re-open the ETC contest and submit Steve Martin, in his smallest form, as the new warning sign for nanotechnology hazards. Because who wouldn’t shirk at the site of a tiny Steve Martin?

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