Last night’s Cafe Scientifique was fun. It was surprisingly well-attended too. Seats were hard to find as the presentation began. It’s great that a pure science topic can bring out so many folks on a cold January weeknight.
Dr. Dennis Clougherty gave a fascinating 30 minute talk on the history and current state of nanotechnology, invoking cool ideas like nanotube-constructed space elevators and cloaks of invisibility. Following the talk, the audience was invited to jot down some questions for the professor while everyone visited the bar and had a stretch.
Here’s where things got a little frustrating. Now, readers of this blog will know that A: I am a bleeding heart liberal, and B: I love Vermont a lot. Despite my left-leaning Vermont pride however, I am often annoyed by the fact that I cannot go to any sort of public gathering focused on science, technology or culture in this state without the discussion getting sidetracked or overtly hijacked by armchair activists with an agenda. (For another example of this, read my wrap-up of April’s ACLU panel discussion on Internet privacy.)
In this case, there were a number of questions that amounted to little more than knee-jerk technophobia. This line of discussion began with a gentleman asking, “if so many environmental problems are caused by technology, how can you expect technology to fix them?” Dr. Clougherty was not sure how to answer the question. The gentleman elaborated, saying that since the iron age, every advancement in technology has produced a more destructive effect on the environment. Dr. Clouherty was a bit flummoxed and basically rejected the premise, saying that as a technologist, he obviously believes in the power of technology to improve our lives. Other audience members followed up on the original question, restating the anti-technology concerns, though perhaps more eloquently.
As with the ACLU panel in April, I felt that a pro-technology voice was sorely lacking in the room. I wanted to raise my hand and play the role of techno-advocate, but I didn’t have a question for the professor, per se, and I did not want to appear to be grandstanding, so I kept my trap shut. I was left wishing that the presenters had done a better job of making what I thought were some pretty obvious and important points. As you might have guessed, I’m going to make them now.
Much of the anti-technology rhetoric surrounded the idea that new technologies should be studied more thoroughly and the consequences of them thought through before they result in harmful products or a degraded environment/gene pool. I can’t argue with the basic common sense of that. More information is never a bad thing, after all, and nanotechnology is still a young field and there’s a lot we still need to learn about how very small clusters of otherwise common atoms will affect people and things they come in contact with. Dr. Clougherty made the point that a sunscreen that includes nanoparticles of zinc-oxide deserves to be tested. Zinc-oxide may be a harmless compound in macro clumps, but at the nano (read: quantum) level, these materials behave quite differently and are plenty small enough to permeate skin pores and get inside us. Then what happens? Probably nothing bad, but we’re not really sure. The FDA isn’t forcing manufacturers of the sunscreen (or other nano-products that use nano-sized versions of otherwise safe compounds) to do any testing because zinc-oxide is a known ingredient. It’s nano-ness, if you will, doesn’t enter into the agency’s thinking.
Okay. we’re all on board with that, but the anti-technology rhetoric was clearly thicker than this common-sense point. Like the first questioner, there was a sense from these folks that we ought not be pursuing these lines of inquiry at all — that delving into things like nanotechnology would only result in a raped earth and massive genetic mutations while fat cat corporate types get rich off of all the horror.
This is an example of missing the forest for the trees. That there are potential downsides to a technology is not necessarily a reason to abandon it (nuclear weaponry notwithstanding), or even to overly regulate it. I remember seeing a study in college that was done by Bell Telephone or AT&T in the early days of telephony. They looked at potential consequences — both good and bad — of a wide ranging telephone network in the US. The report included negative consequences like a landscape blighted by telephone poles and wires and an increased isolationism resulting from people being able to communicate without being in the same room. The report was prescient. The negative consequences it cited came true. Still, I doubt anyone at the ECHO Center last night would have argued that humans would have been better off having never developed a widely connected phone network.
Complaints that technology has had a negative impact on the environment are too narrowly focused to be useful. Yes, burning fossil fuels promotes global warming and has lots of other negative environmental and health effects, but if humans had never developed fossil fuel-burning technology, we’d have run out of trees a hundred years ago. And speculating that life on earth would be better now in that event is a stretch. Burning fossil fuels has also gotten us to the moon and provided heat and electricity while lots of other positive advancements were made. In fact, the net positive results from acquiring fossil fuel-burning technology are literally incalculable. I don’t think its too much of a stretch to claim that fossil fuels (and the energy they provide) have (indirectly) been responsible for longer life spans in humans, a greatly advanced quality of life for most of us and at least two of the longest sustained peacetime global economic growth periods in human history.
Now the negative impact of all that fuel burning is catching up with us and we need to find other, cleaner solutions fast, but technological progress has in general still been… well, progressive.
In the final analysis neither unbounded techno-Utopian optimism nor knee-jerk technophobia are sensible outlooks. We need to honestly recognize the benefits of technology and move forward with cautious optimism — and a whole lot of wisdom — while exploring every single scientific/technological avenue possible, always with a realistic sense of the potential downsides of any new technology. And by and large, I think this is how non-military technological advances are achieved already.
Plus, we could get a freaking SPACE ELEVATOR. So sit down, Burlington liberati, and let the nice scientist enlighten us a bit.