January 08, 2004

More on nanotechnology

I've responded to the thoughtful comments on my entry about Bill McKibben's book Enough.

If you're curious about what a typical libertarian argument sounds like for the zealous and irrational pursuit of nanotechnology, here's a piece from Reason magazine.

I won't say too much about this (in my opinion seriously defective) argument here, because I think it will be obvious to most of you who read the article. I'll only point out the author's curious choice of subtitle (the "limitless promise" of nanotechnology--sounds messianic and irrational to me), and the not-so-subtle way in which the author mischaracterizes the call to slow down and think as a call to ban new technology forever.

This is a great example of a flawed, fallacious, and misleading argument if I've ever seen one.

Posted by Carey at January 8, 2004 09:47 PM
Comments

Anything with limitless promise also has limitless risk. It's the nature of the beast.

Posted by: Heidi at January 9, 2004 12:21 PM

My problem in general with these arguments is that they tend to rely on sweeping generalizations. Nanotechnology isn't all about self-replicating robots. Nanotechnology is a broad class of ideas that deal with building things on a molecular level. It's hard to make any coherent statement about the moral appropriateness of such a broad category of things. Saying that nanotechnology is dangerous is sort of like saying "construction is dangerous" or "aviation is dangerous."

There is certainly no doubt that the people who develop new technologies need to be aware of the social and moral impacts of the work they are doing. There is no doubt that they need to "slow down and think" about the costs and benefits of how these technologies are applied. I'm not sure I agree that we are rushing blindly forward. I completely disagree that as broad a category of innovation as nanotechnology can be described in meaningful moral terms.

Posted by: Mark Ashton at January 9, 2004 04:52 PM

Mark,
We are rushing blindly forward. Has Congress devoted any time at all to figuring out how to regulate this? Time is running out. We cannot trust big business on its own to self-regulate. Again, the tragedy of the commons rears its ugly head. Unfortunately, most members of congress lack the scientific background to adequately deal with this issue. I guess we need to get "science geeks" who also happen to have social consciences to run for office.

Which brings me to....

"back when I was in law school, I asked the professor why there were none of his old exams in the library. The next day the prof. provided us with a sample exam"

----Marcus for Congress '08
'he gets things done'
And how about you, Carey? Care to throw your hat in the ring?

Posted by: Larry at January 9, 2004 10:30 PM

It's not a matter of "meaningful moral terms"--I don't think that anyone thinks nanobots are inherently evil. But the problem is precisely that any technology can't be described in a meaningful moral fashion, because it's not the technology per se, it's how it's used. Any time I hear people say "x technology = get out of jail free card" I hear alarm bells. It means that people aren't considering the risks of the technology along with its benefits. And that's a sure sign, to me, that at least some risks will be triggered.

Will they be the truly alarmist ones? No; I doubt our planet will turn into gray goo. Will they be more moderate ones? Yes. Is it possible that a technology can do more harm than good? Almost certainly.

I don't think anyone's trying to say more than that.

Posted by: Heidi at January 10, 2004 07:00 AM