Decoupling “nanotechnology”

“Nanotechnology” as an overarching concept is great for sweeping statements and sound bites, but falls short when it comes to real-world decision-making.  As nanoscale technologies are increasingly used in everything from antimicrobial socks to anti-cancer drugs, perhaps its time to rethink how we talk about the myriad diverse technologies that fall, slip or are forcibly squeezed under this all-encompassing banner.

At last year’s Bernstein Symposium, I had the pleasure of listening to National Public Radio science journalist Richard Harris talking about the latest greatest technology-not nanotechnology, but yellowtechnology.  A rather liberal re-interpretation of Richard’s lecture goes something like this: 

Yellowtechnology is the next technological revolution-if you think biotechnology and information technology are cool, just wait until you see what yellowtech can do.  Yellow makes everything faster; smarter; hotter.  Want more powerful power tools?  Just add yellow.  Got to have a faster, sleeker sports car?  Make it yellow.  And everyone knows that yellow is the surest route to making good food great-from M&M’s to mustard.  

“The beauty of yellowtech is that it reflects what nature has been doing for millennia.  Daffodils, the sun, canaries-everywhere you look, the natural world is exploiting yellowtech.  In developing this new technology we are simply treading in the footsteps of mother nature, and producing new products that are environmentally friendly to their core.  In the twenty first century, yellow is the new green.

“But care is needed-who hasn’t experienced the dark side of a carelessly discarded banana skin? Yellowtech may be the next best thing, but we need to learn how to use it responsibly.  We need new research to discover where yellow might be harmful.  We need regulations to ensure safe use.  And we need transparency so we know where yellow is being used, and what the consequences might be.  Is your yellow rubber duck safe? If not, how would you know?”

[long pause]

“I’m sorry what was that?  I was supposed to be talking about nanotechnology, not yellowtechnology?  OK, let’s start again…

Nanotechnology is the next technological revolution-if you thought we could change the world with biotechnology and information technology, just wait until you see what nanotech can do…”

The above delivery is inspired by rather than transcribed from Richard’s lecture (A video of the original lecture can be viewed from here), but it does encapsulate a critical point-a grand idea that is sufficiently broad can be used-or abused-to almost any purpose, and in the end becomes meaningless.

The grand idea of nanotechnology has unquestionably stimulated much new science and technology around the world, and has energized the quest to develop scientific knowledge targeted at improving quality of life.  Yet when it comes to identifying its benefits, addressing its risks and overseeing its safe use, it is as slippery (and some would argue as meaningless) a concept as yellowtechnology.  

Under this grand idea, there is the temptation to redefine the most trivial advances as “nanotechnology” in order to emphasize the scale and magnitude of the new technological revolution. But there is also the lure of mixing and matching risks-either to over-stress the dangers of the new technology, or to justify a ragbag of studies as a coherent risk research strategy.  And so it becomes conceivable that consumers might reject new technologies for energy harvesting because a nanotech-based toothpaste gets a bad rap (a hypothetical example), or a multi-million dollar materials characterization facility is justified on the grounds of what it might hypothetically contribute to preventing occupational exposures.

As businesses, governments and consumers are faced with making increasingly sophisticated decisions on how nanotechnology is and is not used, it becomes more important to differentiate between the grand idea, and the products and processes it leads to.  

This process of “decoupling” is the only way of ensuring intelligent and informed conversations about product-specific benefits and risks.  

By decoupling different expressions of nanotechnology from the overarching concept, it becomes possible to make informed decisions on the resulting nanotechnologies, rather than the idea of nanotechnology.  Focusing on the products of the grand idea, rather than the idea itself, regulators can begin to talk about how a specific substance (like nanoscale silver) might present new challenges, without being sidetracked by other unrelated nanomaterials. Or consumers can begin to have informed conversations about the pros and cons of certain products-say, nanoscale electronics-without being baffled by claims and counter-claims associated with unrelated “nanotech” products.

The grand idea of nanotechnology has taken such firm root around the world that decoupling it into its component technologies and products will not be easy.  But if we are to avoid nanotechnology becoming as farcical asyellowtechnology, it’s something we need to do-the sooner the better.



This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in May 2008

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