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(en) Britain, *Organise! #63 - who's afraid of nanotechnology?

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Mon, 11 Apr 2005 08:53:12 +0200 (CEST)


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The strength of opposition to GM crops in Britain and elsewhere
in the world has shocked the scientific establishment, biotech
companies and government bodies to the core.
Now environmental and political concerns
are being voiced worldwide about
'nanotechnology', namely the coming
together of technologies at increasingly
small scales that promises to give human-
kind unprecedented control over the matter
and organisms that make up our world.
Development of the ideas and tools to realise
nanotech is already being vigorously funded
by government and private bodies alike, to
the tune of billions of pounds. But it has
become clear that some of these same
interests are now perceiving a need for
'public engagement' at this relatively early
stage of development (at least in terms of
consumer products), so much so that in June
2003 Lord Sainsbury commissioned the
Royal Society and Royal Academy of
Engineering to conduct a study (now
completed) of likely developments and
implications for ethics, health and society.
So what's all the fuss about?
Our world is made of atoms and molecules
so what better to manipulate its behaviour at
the finest level? But until relatively recently,
the story goes, we've only really been able to
deal with matter in bulk - mixing and
separating chemicals to make new sub-
stances has been the mainstay of much of
our science since the Iron Age, only
supplemented in the last century by our
ability to manipulate nuclear matter. Over
the last 30 years, however, it's become
possible to manufacture ever more complex
computer chips and to manipulate the DNA
molecules that make up the insides of cells -
achievements that have fuelled the econo-
mies of the developed world in the hands of
the powerful and rich electronics and
biotech industries.
The GM debate, especially over crops and
food, has helped heighten awareness of this
power over consumers and producers alike -
a 'debate' that been forced on industries
whether by media-amplified consumer
unease or by destruction of test sites and
seed trials, or by governments responding to
those reactions.
Nanotech takes another step towards
creation and techniques for manipulation of
smaller devices and finer materials, some of
which already exist, and this new power
raises new safety and ethical concerns. One
perhaps obvious safety concern is that very
small size particles can interact with living
organisms, indeed are being designed to do
so for many applications. This might be a
good thing - a new way of supplying life-
saving drugs for example, or a very bad
thing - if particles or fibres at scales similar
to smoke, soot or asbestos lodge in our
lungs, or enter and affect cells in detrimental
ways. A related issue is that some materials
that are not listed as dangerous at larger
scales (and so do not currently come under
regulatory controls) could become so at
smaller scales. One current concern is
material used in sunscreen - watch out for
'micro/nano' in cosmetics ads designed to
prepare us for more of these. Not only this
but the technologies of bioscience, comput-
ing and chemistry are converging so that
concepts of organisms, machines and
environment are getting mixed up. Intelli-
gent chips that inhabit cells or control tissue
growth and paint-on arrays of minute lights
(or cameras) are just two examples of near-
future applications. Insects whose nervous
systems are electronically controlled, and
self-replicating mini-robots (nanobots) that
work in groups to manipulate materials, are
being mooted as further-in-the-future
capabilities. The latter raises the nightmares
of these tiny robots getting out of control in
the environment, or the designing of
biological or chemical weapons with the
very intention of destroying materials or life
from the inside. The terms grey-goo and
green-goo have been coined to help picture
these kinds of scenarios, with some media
exposure. [If you've come across this in the
press already you might be concerned that
Prince Charles came up with the grey-goo
problem! Don't worry about siding with the
Royals on this, as it actually originated with
Eric Drexler of the Foresight Institute, an
intellectual originator of the ideas and
implications of nanotechnology in his book
'Engines of Creation'].
So, why are governments and companies so
worried about public opinion these days?
Well, not surprisingly much of this comes
down to money. Biotechnology has now
been shown to be a big earner, and invest-
ment in nanotechnology is likewise expected
to produce massive profits over the few next
decades. Much of the hype and huge funding
to promote nanotech is fuelled by the
expectation that getting global patents now
will ensure that the spoils of the hoped for
'killer applications' of the future will go to
the early investors - predominately in the
rich developed nations of course - and
ensure the continued strength of the biggest
economies. Another driver for the so-called
democracies has been created by fostering
the need to develop the technology before
the bad-guys do - a good way to help secure
funding from paranoid governments intend
on military domination. But in spite of the
scaremongering, the real fear is that popular
resistance to GM will translate to nanotech
and have an effect on investment, funding
and future profits (often called 'stifling
innovation'). As well as the potential for
consumer refusal and scaring off venture
capitalists there is also a worry by compa-
nies of 'over-regulation' resulting from
politicians responding to public opinion,
whether the kind in the EU and elsewhere to
limit exposure and import of GM materials,
or the anti-abortionist led legislation against
embryonic stem-cell research from the US
and Costa Rica.
Some scientists are still saying don't worry
'it's all just chemistry' and talk of custom-
designing more environmentally friendly
materials or even making them to destroy
pollutants, but considering a greater
awareness of chemical and pharmaceutical
disasters in history, just accusing ordinary
people of being Luddites is no longer
washing. On the other hand, some propo-
nents of nanotech are now attempting to
distance themselves from the more futuristic
ponderings of enthusiasts like Drexler -
frustrated by the fears he has created - and
are calling to prioritise funding on less
speculative research (at least for now). But
what of the other components of
nanotechnology? Minute sensors could have
a great impact on our freedom. There's
already a proliferation of cameras and soon
we'll have ID tags on every product. The
smaller these become, the more pervasive
and hidden these will be. And who might
own the 'bionic' insect you were trying to
swat? There is virtually no real awareness
about these aspects whilst the technology is
being rapidly developed.
So, here we go again with a massive
campaign against nanotech - or do we?
Does this even require special notice by
revolutionaries? Well perhaps not if we only
stick at the level of safety - we might just be
siding with calls for more state regulation!
Even direct action can just end up with a
statist solution if governments just respond
to public outcry, however empowering it
may feel at the time. That's fine if we just
want protecting against risks to our safety
and that of the environment, but it doesn't
get us very far in creating a climate of
questioning the vested interests of those who
really stand to benefit from the applications
of new technologies. Anarchists, who
criticise both state and capitalism, have a lot
to offer in this respect. Interestingly, Demos,
a policy influencing think-tank in the UK,
has started to worry that if our democracies
don't engage us citizens at the societal and
ethical levels (as they didn't do about GM)
that we'll never accept any new technologies
or controversial policies (whether NHS
reform or war with Iraq) again, especially
considering that we already mistrust
multinational companies. That may be the
case, but the fact they are saying this at all is
perhaps the best indication that anti-GM
protest and direct action has shifted the
terrain - it's not just about nut and bolts and
what they are being used for, but about who
wants to own them, and why.
--------------------------------------
further
information
ETC Group: The Big Down, http://www.etcgroup.org
Greenpeace: Future technologies,
today's choices, http://www.greenpeace.org.uk
RS/RAE joint study, http://www.nanotec.org.uk
Institute of Nanotechnology, http://www.nano.org.uk
Foresight Institute, http://www.foresight.org
Center for Responsible
Nanotechnology, http://crnano.org
Demos: See-through Science, http://www.demos.co.uk
=============================
* Organise! #63 - Winter 2004 FOR REVOLUTIONARY ANARCHISM -
the magazin of the anarchist federation


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