The small American town of Sunnyville is a town in crisis. Against a backdrop of job losses that have decimated the local community, citizens are struggling to decide whether to welcome two major nanotech-enabled industries into the town, or whether to reject them because the new technology might create more problems than it solves.
As if this wasn’t enough, it has just come to light that local company “Happy Home Paint” has been contaminating a neighborhood beauty spot with toxic chemicals for years, and the only way of cleaning the area without destroying it is by using a developmental nanoparticle-based technology.
Will nanotechnology revitalize this town, or will it end up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back? The locals are having a tough time deciding.
The scenario is fictitious (you might have guessed), but the issues echo real-life hopes and concerns over nanotechnology. Sunnyville stars in “Nanotechnology: Power of Small”—a major new TV series exploring the complex interplay between nanotechnology and society.* I had the dubious pleasure of participating in the third program of the series, addressing environmental issues.
Each program in “Power of Small” uses hypothetical scenarios to push an unprepared and unscripted panel of “experts” to address complex issues. Imagine on-the-fly role-playing in front of a live audience while you are being filmed for later humiliation, and you begin to get the idea.
Actually—and to my surprise—the end result is an entertaining and rather sophisticated assessment of complex issues, where there are no clear right and wrong answers. I was one of twelve on a panel working through decisions facing the fictional town of Sunnyville. With me were leading experts from the worlds of science, law industry, journalism, government and environmental advocacy; all grappling with a plethora of tough issues under the guiding hand of moderator John Hockenberry.
In the course of filming we considered the merits of allowing the nanotech company “Solar Synergies” to build a nano solar panel plant in the town; worried over the covert use of nanotechnology by the food producer “Admiral Chicken” to make better tasting, longer-lasting products; and agonized over the use of nanotech to clean up after local polluter “Happy Home Paint.” As you can imagine, the discussions were spirited at times!
While it could be argued that the first major American TV series addressing nanotechnology might have been better focusing on science, “Power of Small” achieves something rather important—it eloquently demonstrates the need for broad engagement throughout society, if complex decisions on emerging nanotechnologies are to be made.
In each of the programs (dealing respectively with surveillance and privacy, health, and the environment), the issues raised have no clear-cut answers. And as a result, the decision-making process rests on the shoulders of people who stand to gain or loose by the technology.
Of course, if a diverse bunch of people are going to be involved in deciding the course of nanotechnology, it’s preferable that they know at least something of the science—so maybe it is time for some glossy big-budget nanotech science programming, now “Power of Small” has shown us how tough the societal debates are going to be.
(And just for the record; daunting though the process was, the pleasure of participating in “Power of Small” and seeing such a polished final product was far from “dubious”!)
*“Power of Small” premiers at an event hosted by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies and the National Science Foundation in Washington DC, on 2nd April 2008. The series of three programs is also viewable on the internet at www.powerofsmall.com.
“Power of Small” is part of the Fred Friendly Seminars series of programs.
This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in March 2008