Moving the nanoscale and technology debate forwards: short-term impacts, long-term uncertainty and the social construction
Technology in Society
Vol. 27, Num. 1
Nanoscience and technology (NST) is defined as "the ability to do things, measure, see and predict and make on the scale of atoms and molecules and exploit the novel properties found at that scale." (qtd from the Report of the UK advisory group on nano applications, June 2002). Nanotechnology, being disruptive, enabling and interdisciplinary, must be considered now, as the discipline is coalescing, and nano-hype and cynicism must be equally discounted. "This paper demonstrates that NST is a complex and wide-ranging discipline, the future of which is characterised by uncertainty. It argues that wide-ranging consideration of the present-day issues surrounding NST is essential if the public debate is to move forward….The paper concludes that the social constitution of an emerging technology is crucial if any meaningful discussion surrounding costs and benefits of NST is to be realised." (25) Currently bottom-up nanotechnology is of most interest and promise, but as such processes are still largely in development; the most immediate applications are still top-down, and market-driven, especially in the packaging industry. A range of at least 30 countries well beyond the 7 or 8 most wealthy countries -- are investing in nanotechnologies. Nanotechnology will change the informatics industry, and with relation to Moore's law will probably break the CMOS barrier by adding quantum information processing. Pre-2015, we are likely to adopt a cautious evolutionary vision about the future of nanotechnology; after 2015, we feel more free to take a radical discontinuity approach. Arnall and Parr offer a series of questions that help us understand the social constitution of an emerging nanotechnology. They are as follows:
Who is in control?
Where can I get information that I trust?
On what terms is the technology being introduced?
What risks apply, with what certainty, and to whom?
Where do the benefits fall?
Do the risks and benefits fall to the same people? (e.g. mobile phones are popular while mobile phone masts are not)
Who takes responsibility for resulting problems?
Based on past breakthroughs, we must be ready for unintended consequences. As of 2002, the ETC group, whom Arnall and Parr reference, count 470 nanotechnology companies: 230 in the US; 130 in Europe; 75 in the Asia Pacific. Based on these numbers, and the possible consequences for us all, we -- the public -- must be aware and involved.