News & Politics

Nanophobia

Imagine a future in which nanobots take over the world by rebuilding humans on a molecular level and turn them into raw materials for their bizarre, mystical new society.
Ever since I read Greg Bear's weird-ass book Blood Music back in the early 1990s, I've been pretty excited about nanotechnology. Bear imagines a future in which nanobots take over the world by rebuilding humans on a molecular level and turning them into raw materials for their bizarre, mystical new society, the noosphere.

Blood Music is great science fiction in every way: It contains a few key elements of science fact, and it toys with more universal themes. Human bodies, Bear suggests, are nothing more than a marvelous broth of independent bits that generally work together in harmony. But free a human cell from its sisters, and it will sprout little pseudopods and roam around on its own. There is nothing other than sloppy, wild evolution to keep us whole. No reason why supersmart nanothings couldn't deconstruct us cell by cell and build something even niftier than Homo sapiens.

Luddite pundit Bill McKibben seems to have bought into Bear's vision. In April he published a nonfiction book called Enough, in which he argues (among other things) that nanotechnology threatens us with dissolution as a species. He means that figuratively and literally. Too much tech stunts us as human beings, he argues, but nanotech could actually reduce us to the proverbial gray goo that haunts the nightmares of bioterror futurists and science fiction writers everywhere.

Echoing McKibben's concerns, environmental groups in Europe have set their sights on nanotech as the new threat to nature. The Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (generally known as "the ETC group") released a scathing report several months ago on the lack of policy regulations in the nanotech industry, which riled up Britains's Prince Charles and sent the press into a frenzy of speculation about dangerous invisible particles eating our brains.

There are, in fact, many dangers to manufacturing nanosize items like carbon nanotubes, which companies like Matsushita and agencies like the U.S. Department of Defense hope to use in the next generation of electronic equipment. Inhaling particles released in nanotube fabrication has damaged the lungs of rats in lab experiments.

Lung damage from breathing nanoscale items is certainly something worth studying -- and companies in the nanobiz should put safety precautions in place before workers are exposed to health dangers.

But I refuse to worry that nanotech will turn everyone and everything into gray goo. Groups like ETC and well-intentioned opinion-makers like McKibben are so afraid of what they consider "unnatural" that they manage to miss the point about what is wrong with nanotech as well as what its potential benefits are.

Arguing that the next generation of tiny machines will have apocalyptic effects isn't terribly helpful, especially since the industry is growing by leaps and bounds. The Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto published a report noting that the spending on nanotech in the United States totaled $604 million last year, up from $432 million in 1997.

If nanotech will destroy the natural world and humanity, as McKibben warns, we're not going to get a chance to do much more than complain before we start oozing. But if nanothings are simply another product of the high-tech industry, subject to regulations and multiple uses in various contexts, then we have much less to fear. Or rather, we have the same old things to fear: lack of health-and-safety standards in the workplace, weaponization of industrial materials on behalf of the state, and industrial pollution.

The nanophobic critics, with all their hand wringing over what is natural and what isn't, have mistaken the moral lessons of science fiction for its science lessons. Instead of concerning themselves with the very real outcomes of nanotechnological innovation -- from cancer-ridden factory workers to smaller, more efficient medical instruments -- they're terrified that something like the noosphere is going to swallow us whole.

Asking whether something is natural or unnatural as if it were an ethical query is ridiculous. What does the natural world have to do with goodness? In the so-called natural world, I would probably be the baby-laying chattel of some random male, and we would both be doomed to die before age thirty with the teeth rotted out of our heads. Every step humans took away from this scenario -- building cities, creating social contracts, fomenting artistic movements and political revolutions -- was unnatural in its own way. It's not as if farming is somehow more "natural" than carbon nanotubes. Both fundamentally involve the manipulation of nature.

Instead of quibbling over whether nanotech is antihuman, we need to be asking how we can use it to benefit the greatest number of people.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who encourages you to get small. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.
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