Nanotechnology: New Promises, New Dangers by Toby Shelley


Nanotechnology: New Promises, New Dangers , by Toby Shelley . London : Zed Books , Limited , 2006 , 170 pp ., ISBN 1842776878 , $55.00 .

On January 14, 2008, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled that the double-amputee runner Oscar Pistorius is ineligible to compete in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing because his racing blades are considered “technical aids” that give him a clear competitive advantage. This verdict gives a provisional answer to one of the many questions posed in Toby Shelley's book Nanotechnology: New Promises, New Dangers.

In not more than 150 pages, Shelley takes the reader through the debate over the definition of nanotechnology; the Smalley–Drexler controversy on nano-science and nano-science fiction; promising applications in energy, medicine, and information technology; scary military technology; new threats to health and the environment; investment patterns, patent control, and the risk of a widened north–south technology divide; and the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and robotics and the threat or promise of the merger between humans and machines and, finally, ends with a discussion on the governance of technology development.

Popular books on new technologies should come with a best-before date. Shelley's book was published in 2006. When I reread it in 2008, I realized that some parts, such as the chapter on investments and research initiatives in different nations, will soon lose their value as anything but historical observation. Nevertheless, Shelley's book will be worth reading for many years to come. This is because the book is not so much about new promises and new dangers with nanotechnology as about old promises and old dangers with frontier technologies in general. Basically, it is a compact, easy-to-read guide to technology governance and nongovernance and a plea for civil society to take responsibility for what is done with our new tools.

Nanotechnology: New Promises, New Dangers is therefore not one of those deterministic prophesy types of books presenting technological utopias or dystopias that are to come. Rather, it is about a future that can be shaped if we know what to look out for. Nevertheless, the book is not totally balanced. There is an unmistakable bias toward dangers. Promises are treated more in passing, in a simplistic way, whereas dangers are elaborated.

I see an implicit and very interesting structure of the treatment of dangers in the book. Basically, there two types of dangers: risks related to lack of technology control in the society–environment interface, and lack of, or uneven, control of technology within society. The book does treat the first type of risk and includes a discussion ranging from the more mundane risks, with nanoparticles released to the environment, to green and gray goo holocaust scenarios (nanorobots running amok, consuming the entire biological world in a matter of hours). The main focus of the book, however, is on the second type of risk: Who controls the nanotechnology development, and for what purposes? In technology assessments and systems studies of the kind presented in the Journal of Industrial Ecology and similar journals, issues of power and conflicting goals between different groups in society are normally absent. Shelley urges us to think about this.

The first and simplest question raised in this book has to do with where the money goes. What is the balance of investments in technologies for different purposes? Is research money put into the applications that are most worthwhile? And, worthwhile for whom? Or, as Shelley puts it,

If nanotechnology is to mean cleaner water, provision of energy, rapid diagnosis and available treatments for tropical diseases, and not just more refined temperature controls in the restaurants of European capitals, higher definition televisions and control of obesity in North America, then the poor and their advocates must demand access. (p. 150)

Further, nanotechnology can provide means of hitherto unseen forms of surveillance and violation of integrity in the hunt for criminals or in high-precision marketing. It can take warfare to a new level with robot soldiers and smart dust. Who controls the development now, and who controls the technology when it is out of Pandora's box? Shelley makes many thought-provoking comparisons with nuclear technology and biotechnology.

Being worried about these issues makes much sense. Nevertheless, when Shelley addresses the issue of systemic implications of new production systems for the world economy and for labor groups, his pessimistic bias is perhaps more problematic. The history of the emergence of new techno-economic paradigms around powerful technologies clearly shows that technologies have the power to transform the economy and the power relations between different actor groups—but certainly not only for the worse (see, e.g., As Time Goes By, by Freeman and Louçã 2002). A comprehensive treatment of how nanotechnology may transform the economic system does not exist, as far as I know, but is a good topic for a new book.

Shelley also briefly addresses the implications of following the natural trajectory toward more powerful computers and thinner boundaries between biology and technology to a point where robotics, nanotechnology, and biotechnology enable the emergence of superintelligent computers or the merging of humans and machines. For a more comprehensive discussion on this mind-boggling topic, I recommend Bill Joy's (2000) article in Wired magazine, “Why the Future Doesn't Need Us,” and Ray Kurzweil's (2006) book The Singularity Is Near. The implications are far-reaching and challenge the concept of humanity. A possible precursor to more profound dilemmas is revealed when Shelley asks the question, “Where does it leave sports? Is an athlete who has replaced a damaged cartilage with a better, stronger, artificial version still allowed to compete?” (130). And here IAAF now has provided us with some guidance.

Finally, I recommend Nanotechnology: New Promises, New Dangers as a short and well-written contribution to the ongoing discussion on governance of technology development. Who decides what kind of nanotechnology we will have and for what purposes? Perhaps it is you?