Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Lovy: "Nanotech Needs to Develop Some Social Skills"

[via Small Times] Howard Lovy has written an excellent and provocative little piece entitled, "How to Fight Misinformation in Two Easy Words: Honesty, Imagination" in which he says a number of things that are music to my ears. Among them, the phrase from which I took the title of this entry: "[L]ike a grad student emerging from the lab after years spent gazing into a scanning electron microscope, the science of nanotech needs to develop some social skills." Priceless!

Lovy is talking about the frustration of nanotechnology researchers, advocates, and enthusiasts over disproportionate furors about buckyball toxicity, the goo bestiary, and other nano-bugaboos. But, as he points out, "[n]ew technology is always misunderstood – from man-made fire to man-made foods. I take the perhaps-naive view that not every American believes everything he or she reads. In our news-hungry society, those who are interested in learning about nanotechnology will take their information from a number of sources."

The frustrations with the media are of course understandable. Dana Blankenhorn commenting on Lovy's article a couple of days ago on his own Corante blog "Moore's Lore," reminds us that while for scientists even strong disagreement is a normal and useful part of the peer review process, for politicians a comparable level of disagreement can signal a dangerous divisiveness that may represent a real risk to their careers.

The role of the media in general is key in exacerbating this difference in the scientific as against the conventional partisan politics of accelerating technological development, because, at least for now, as Blankenhorn suggests, “Fear is the easy headline right now.”

That is to say, since the impact of rapidly emerging, radically powerful technologies is imperfectly understood, alarmism is a message that circulates very easily, but the impact of such an alarmism on the processes of developmental policy-deliberation are likely to be distortive in ways that exacerbate many of the problems at hand.

No wonder researchers go into panic mode whenever bad information threatens to brew up another costly controversy without proper cause! But Lovy wonders ultimately "[w]hy should government be an 'advocate' of nanotechnology in the first place? No democratic government is capable of distracting the public from nanotech’s potential downsides – real or imagined – for very long. A nanotech-enabled society is inevitable. The accomplishments so far of nanoscience and nanobusiness cannot be unlearned. To aggressively do battle with public perception is to invite counterattack in the form of louder protests."

As it happens, I think arguments from "inevitability" are usually overstated and misused in technology-criticism, but here the point is general and very likely true. Of course, what is not inevitable is just what forms of enabling-nanotechs will arrive when and with just what social consequences. But I think Lovy's sensible approach that researchers and advocates calmly admit to threats and uncertainties come what may is exactly the right way to assure best outcomes anyway.

His second point is also very appealing. He warns against elitist temptations to "blame the press" for the awkward public learning curve where nanotechnology is concerned. Rather than bemoan the "ignorance of the public," rather than bewail as "inevitably distortive" the mechanisms of the popular press he insists that nanotech advocacy actively embrace the public culture of technology criticism, with all its confusions, mess, enthusiasm, and fear.

"Nanotechnology," he writes, "independent of its development as a science, is spreading as a cultural idea and icon. This separate branch of nanotech – a little bit of fact and a whole lot of imagination – can be turned into a powerful force."

Blankenhorn's own conclusion provides the complementary proposal to justify Lovy's hopes. Our job, writes Blankenhorn of progressive technology advocates and critics “is to make hope a better headline.”

1 comment:

Dana said...

Great stuff. I do appreciate your making note of what I wrote, and very much appreciate your own comments.