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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

My original review of the "Big Down"

Overall, I'm thrilled about the Internet and all of the opportunities that it affords a writer. What I haven't been trilled about as of late is how when e publications fold my work promptly heads down the Memory Hole. For example, I think I wrote about 10 columns for Better Humans which was trying to establish itself as kind of a Transhumanist information portal. I knew for a fact that the owners were trying to turn it into a self sustaining business but they failed, as new businesses often do on and offline.

What that meant, though, is that a lot of those columns simply disappeared. Now some of them I wrote out in draft form on my own websites. Turns out that means my second "Left Argument for Space" column on my own website is the only copy that survives. I couldn't find a copy of my review of the anti nanotechnology opus "The Big Down", until I made a search for it through my emails.

So here it is. I might go scrounging around for other copies as well. Double sigh as they say.

The Big Letdown
A thorough report on nanotechnology, The Big Down is required reading. But
it completely misses the biggest threat to the future: Democratic rot


By Philip Shropshire

Nobody who calls themselves a Transhumanist, a futurist, a technophile or
even an environmentalist could have missed the recent release of the The
Big Down, the poetically named, stop-nanotechnology-now report from tiny,
Monsanto-tormenting ETC Group.



But how many of you actually read it?



Well, I did. And here's what I'll say. First, the name "The Big Down"
would be great for a band. Second, whether you're for or against a
moratorium on nanotechnology
(http://www.betterhumans.com/Resources/Technologies/technology.aspx?articl
eID=2002-05-08-6) research and development, the report is required
reading.



Sure, its "Just Say No" prescription for nano is unreal and won't happen.
But the report (http://www.etcgroup.org/documents/TheBigDown.pdf) is an
excellent primer on a number of cutting-edge movers driving nanotechnology
forward. In that regard, it's not unlike reading Jeremy Rifkin's Algeny
(http://www.meta-library.net/gengloss/algeny-body.html) and thinking, "You
know, a lot of this stuff is really kind of cool."



In fact, ETC Group (http://www.etcgroup.org/) does such a thorough job of
outlining the benefits of working assembler technology that I wonder if
they realize how attractive they make it. You could even go so far as to
say that this is one of the best summaries of nanotechnology ever -- its
history, directions, scientific foundations and more.



I even found myself agreeing with the report's prime argument that the
public -- rather, the somewhat poorly performing democracies that
represent the "public" in our oh-so-modern world -- should have more say
in the miracle technology's development.



But overall, this report gets the important thing wrong: How we should
deal with the potential risks of emerging technologies. We can't address
the risks with bans. What we need to do is fix our broken democracies and
give the technologies to the people.

What I learned and what they want


There's no doubt that this is a well-written, well-researched report.



I found that I learned something new as I read through each page. I
learned about the history and function of atomic force microscopes. I
learned that not just do particles act differently at the quantum level,
but that they change color, density and reactivity. I learned that Eric
Drexler
(http://www.betterhumans.com/Resources/resource.aspx?articleID=2002-09-01-
1) didn't coin the term "nanotechnology," but that in fact a Japanese
researcher did. I learned that there are more than 100 companies worldwide
that are working on carbon nanotubes
(http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/carbon_nanotube) and that a French tennis
racket designer is even incorporating nano materials into its products. I
learned that one California firm is even selling an "EasyTube NanoFurnace"
for about 90 grand.



But then there are the numerous let-us-tell-you-about-this-evil-menace
quotes. The evil menace is atomtech -- a word ETC group created in a
not-so-poetic attempt to rename nanotechnology. (The ETC group also does
unfunny cartoons (http://www.etcgroup.org/cartoons.asp). And, yes, I'm
entitled to say this: I'm a professional comic book critic
(http://www.locusmag.com/2001/Reviews/Shropshire1.html).)



With the evil menace stuff, ETC Group was very unpersuasive. Nanotubes
might be used to both strengthen and lighten materials and create faster
more efficient computers. Really? Sounds horrible. We wouldn't want that
to happen. Oh but wait, there's more evil from Mr. Atomtech: On pages 52
through 57 we learn about these horrors:



  a.. Faster genome sequencing with nanoscale biochips
  b.. Precision characterization of an individual's genome
  c.. New methods for drug delivery to targeted tissues or organs
  d.. New vectors for gene therapy
  e.. Surgical access to previously inaccessible body sites
  f.. More durable and rejection-resistant artificial organs and tissue
  g.. Lighter and "smarter" biomaterials for limbs
  h.. Biosensing systems that will allow the detection of emerging disease
at a much earlier stage

For God's Sake, we have to stop this. No, really. I want the inoperable
cancer and I don't want to know about it too early.



Actually, ETC Group does make arguments about why nanotechnology won't do
the wonderful things outlined above. And as usual the group makes some
very good points about biotech hype and biotech greed -- especially when
it comes to genome patents.



But just saying, "No," and asking for some vaguely stated goal of more
community dialogue just doesn't cut it. And this is what the group
recommends in the final chapter, entitled "Conclusions and Policy
Recommendations."



I mean, I agree with the precautionary principle in some cases. For
example, I think Europe has the right to ban genetically modified foods.
It would even be nice if here in the US I could at least have a GM label.
But no: The usual suspect lobbies crushed it.



But the problem has less to do with technology than the corruption of
democracy.

It's the sick democracy, stupid


What ETC Group should be aiming for, at least in the US, is not more
dialogue and subsequently more regulation on the technologies that special
interest groups find dangerous. If it really wanted to make a difference,
it would work for more effective democratic institutions.



Right now, American democracy is an old design, easily trumped by special
interest groups and the corrupt parties that they own. And we've seen how
this can be very bad for technology.



Take broadband regulation for example. We clearly know what creates cheap
universal access (http://www.nwfusion.com/news/2002/0710aclu.html): the
imposition of must-carry rules and thousands of competitors. Period. The
FCC, however, chose to abandon this method for broadband, largely because
of the pressures brought on by the phone lobbyists, big contributors to
both Bush and the Republican Party.



If we had even the semblance of a fair democracy looking out for the
common good, then the FCC would have repeated the old successful formula:
Lots of competitors means lower prices for services. The Bells say the
infrastructure costs would be too expensive, but would this be true with
wireless? It couldn't be any more expensive than bribing Turkey so that we
can launch an expensive war.



And why wouldn't the government just support the costs, in exchange for
some partial ownership of a public good? That's what happened in South
Korea. But fat chance here in the US.



And ditto chance for the ETC Group's proposals.

Unstoppable drive to the bottom


Besides aiming at the wrong target, The Big Down misses one important
point: You can't stop the development of nanotechnology.



You can't stop nano for the very reason that Eric Drexler noted in the
"Engines of Destruction" chapter
(http://www.foresight.org/EOC/EOC_Chapter_11.html) of his classic Engines
of Creation. "Some force in the world (whether trustworthy or not) will
take the lead in developing assemblers; call it the 'leading force.'
Because of the strategic importance of assemblers, the leading force will
presumably be some organization or institution that is effectively
controlled by some government or group of governments," Drexler writes.



And this, indeed, is happening, with many countries throwing lots of money
at becoming the leading force. Even the Bush administration, which I
despise on a number of levels (all right, every level), has increased its
investment in nanotechnology
(http://216.239.51.100/search?q=cache:2kbPEhISAhgC:www.tqc.iu.edu/News/Exo
skeleton_MIT.htm+US+nanotechnology+spending+military&hl=en&ie=UTF-8) while
pulling money from all sorts of other programs.



It's no secret that militaries love nanotechnology
(http://www.nano.org.uk/thisweek07.htmhttp:/www.nano.org.uk/thisweek07.htm
). So it would be suicide for any country to give up nano research while
other countries moved forward.



Suppose the ETC Group were successful and got nanotechnology research
blocked in both the EU and the US on moral and ethical concerns. Would we
feel comfortable ceding the technological high ground to, say, China?



Countries that turn from nanotechnology would put themselves at strategic
risk both commercially and militarily. The US is pursuing this
head-in-the-sand approach to therapeutic cloning, thereby ensuring that
biotech grows in Switzerland and elsewhere
(http://www.redherring.com/investor/2003/02/biotech021303.html).



Stopping nanotechnology is neither possible nor desirable. We'd only be
establishing future servitude to someone offshore who creates the first
working assembler. Or worse: We would eliminate public funding and all the
research would disappear into the Pentagon's black budget, which covers
who-knows-what.

Bad aim


Quite simply, The Big Down has all the wrong targets.



Take its attack on some mythical nanotech corporate conspiracy. "For every
so-called 'Luddite' attempting to establish social controls over the
introduction of a technology, there is a powerful elite using social
controls to impose new technologies on society," reads the end of the
conclusions chapter.



Really? I have to confess that I haven't seen this all powerful atomtech
lobby at work. I've seen the Oil administration reduce funding for
alternative fuels, lead us backward on cloning technologies and risk WWIII
primarily on behalf of stasist fossil fuel interests. Please give me a
call when the solar sat
(http://www.space.com/businesstechnology/technology/space_solarpower_01030
2.html) and bio energy (http://www.biodiesel.co.uk/) lobbies work their
malevolent mojo and get their billion-dollar corporate welfare subsidies.



Also, what's odd here is that we have an environmental group attacking a
technology that holds so much promise for reducing our dependency on
fossil fuels. Nanotechnology could, for example, raise the efficiency of
solar panels
(http://216.239.33.100/search?q=cache:L0O7ydEjfPEC:library.northernlight.c
om/FE20020328160000071.html+Nanosys+solar+energy&hl=en&ie=UTF-8) and make
them cheap and affordable.



I hope we don't need any precautions here.

The better way is the only way


Condensed into one line, ETC Group's concern is this: There is not enough
democratic debate and consultation about world-shattering Singularity
(http://www.betterhumans.com/Resources/Theories/theory.aspx?articleID=2002
-05-22-4)-level technologies.



And heck, I actually agree with this assessment. What good are life
extension therapies, for example, if I can't pay for them out of pocket
and don't have health insurance?



But a moratorium on nanotechnology is, quite simply, dumb. What we need to
do is bring advanced technology back into the public domain. And this
requires improving our democracies.



One of the reasons I'm for space exploration and new constitutions and new
settlements -- an ocean-going yacht might do even -- is that it's almost
impossible to change the US for the better. If we wanted to change the US,
we'd need an independent media that could question the emptiness and
hypocrisy of consumer culture and our politics of bribery. (True, there's
indy media, but compared to Fox news?) Then you would have to use the
media relentlessly to hammer away at the two-party system and its monied
entrenchment.



You would need a billion dollars in funding from the Hollywood Left,
George Soros, Norman Lear and others to create such change. But it would
get the US moving toward a world federalist position, complete public
financing of elections and a declaration that genomic, artificial
intelligence and nanotechnology advances would be put into the public
domain.



It would take about 10 years minimum. But it will never happen.



I mean, it's possible. But only in the way that it's possible for me to
gain the ability to levitate.



A more promising goal might be for us to encourage the founders of
nanotechnology, at work as we speak, to opt for open source development
(http://www.foresight.org/Conferences/MNT8/Abstracts/Bruns/).



I remember stating a long time ago that the Microsoft lawsuit
(http://www.cptech.org/ms/nader-doj01282002.html) would go nowhere because
they would simply buy off the system
(http://www.opensecrets.org/parties/contrib.asp?Cmte=RPC). And that's what
happened.



I believed that the real threat to Microsoft was Linux and the open source
movement. This has come to pass
(http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/toc/03_09/B382203linux.htm). It
takes technology to counter technology. Lawsuits and public dialogue move
too slow.



And this is what we need: Some kind of mandate that would put the core
underpinnings of nanotechnology under some liberal version of a Creative
Commons license (http://creativecommons.org/). Remember, the Internet is
built upon open source architecture.



Nanotechnology definitely needs its version of Tim Berners Lee, someone
who develops ideas for the common good.  In my honest opinion, that would
result not only in more public input and controls, but better science.



Now, you won't be able to stop the future -- for better or worse, a
300-year lifespan and a tripling of IQs is coming. But the upside for The
Big Down folks is that open sourcing Singularity-level technologies would
give us more choice in not only how we use them, but how they use us.