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« CRN in China | Main | Thirty Essential Studies »

May 30, 2004


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Andreas Lund

Perhaps also interesting to add when the "completely impossible" actually became
"clearly possible":

"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." - Physicist and mathematician Lord Kelvin, President of the British Royal Society, 1895

8 years later, in dec 1903, the Wrights did it!

"Everything that can be invented has been invented." - Charles H. Duell, Director of U.S. Patent Office, 1899

90% of all that a man in the western world uses during a common day, are possible through the inventions made during the 20th century.

"There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom." - Robert Milikan, Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1923

15 years later, In 1938 in Germany, fission is discovered.

"Theoretically, television may be feasible, but I consider it an impossibility—a development which we should waste little time dreaming about." - Lee de Forest, inventor of the cathode ray tube, 1926

10 years later, BBC starts its first public broadcast.

"Landing and moving around on the moon offer so many serious problems for human beings that it may take science another 200 years to lick them." - Science Digest, August 1948

21 years later, Neil jumps around on the moon.

Andreas Lund


And just as the full spectrum of critical voices commenting on atomic technology should have been listened to (not to mention television, yuck!), if CRN exists in part to stimulate discussion about the dangers of MM, there are a whole lot of voices that are conveniently left out of the discussion.

Yet another example: the 2002 Capetown Declaration on Converging Technologies. Civil society representatives from an entire continent worth of countries (Africa) plus international participants, making strong statements about nanotechnology, and it appears to have made ZERO appearences on the CRN website. You can check it out at http://www.biowatch.org.za/ctdecform.htm

Mr. Farlops

From what I've read, the CRN is a voice of moderation between viewpoints on both ends of the political spectrum. As such they'd probably disagree with several of the statements made the Capetown Declaration.

So far as I know, Chris and Mike believe that nanotechnology and biotechnology could be very beneficial to developing countries as well as post-industrial countries.

However they also acknowledge this technology could be very dangerous, especially in terms of weapons production and abuse. They propose that regulation is needed to maximize benefits and reduce risks. They oppose bans and are suspicious of broad applications of the precautionary principle. It's not that simple.

Perhaps the framers of the Capetown Declaration need to rethink their approach to this technology because bans simply won't work.


Farlops et all, I understand what the CRN positions are. Regardless of wether a ban would work or not (i don't believe so either), at least one essential point from the Capetown Declaration screams out for engagement:

That past white paternalism (e.g. colonialism) has NOT benefitted Africans, but has created much of the mess that new technologies from the white/western world proport to aim to solve. Thus regardless of the pro-development narratives told by CRN or others, there is a complete abscence of trust on the part of much of civil society throughout Africa and the post-colonial world towards new technologies that offer to truly help this time around. "Trust us, it'll be great," is not the kind of anti-racist, post-colonial perspective that could possibly open up dialogue between white/western technocrats and civil society in the global south.

At least that's my perspective. For good resources on anti-racism, see whiteprivilege.com

Janessa Ravenwood

I honestly don't care if every nation in Africa ignores nanotechnology completely. You seem to be trying to twist the issues here to intersect with and thus steer the discussion toward your far-leftist agenda. Might I suggest a racial issues forum instead for the above topic?


While citing these quotes certainly is entertaining from today´s view, don´t forget it is a weak argument in favour of MNT. The only thing it really shows is that sometimes inventions have been made despite various experts speaking out against them (which, admittedly, probably also holds true for MNT, still it is no good selling argument for the sceptical not-yet-believer). Also, you should a) not change the quotes and b) not take them out of context:

"While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossiblity, a development on which we need waste little time dreaming." - Lee de Forest, "father of radio", 1926.

Your version of the quote completely warps its original meaning! While lobbying for MNT is important, this doesn´t seem to be the right to do it, if you want to keep your credibility.

I found the above version in 4 of the top 6 google hits for "lee de forest quote television 1926".
Needless to say, when quoted correctly this remark doesn´t really fit in the MNT context, because nobody who thinks of MNT as a technical possibility could underestimate its commercial and financial value.

The "Everything that can be invented..." quote is, according to this source, taken out of context and does not represent Duell´s view back then:



These quotes are interesting, however, they are about absolute, a-priori, de-facto, scientific possibilities . What I am more concerned about - and what might resonate with the mission of CRN is the fact that - even if it is possible - is it desired, will it be done, are there moral / memetic / cognitive / cultural issues? In other words: Let's assume: if it can be done - should it be done? Should I do it, should we do it?
Which is a totally different question.

And I'm collecting quotes areound that issue: resitance to new things with the argument that new is bad for mankind.
here is the start: what is bad about writing, reading, photography, and music records.

Janessa Ravenwood

Christian Hauck: I'm not sure what you're saying. Are you saying that that which is new is bad for mankind or are you arguing the opposite?


Janessa, Africa and the rest of the world are no more able to ignore nano than they are able to ignore GMO's (see Mexican corn for example). Likewise, as folks on the margins of political power they have a valuable perspective on how power operates. Finally, if the concerns of racialized (non-white) people are of no concern to policy makers, then there is every reason to believe that current racial inequities will continue or worsen. You would do better to engage with the arguements than to call the concerns of a substantial portion of the globe inconsequential.

Janessa Ravenwood

You've managed to become amusing! You seem absolutely determined to view EVERYTHING through the lens of "racism everywhere!" As such, you've done more to discredit your position than I ever could hope to. I view you as a comedy routine at this point.

Once again, I don't care whether Africa embraces nanotechnology or not. I'm an unabashed U.S. nationalist (the horror!) and I'm far more concerned with keeping U.S. dominance in the world. Everyone else comes second.


Janessa, actually you were the one who introduced humor into the discussion when you said that you are trying to live forever and the Luddites want you to die.

Racism, as well as many other forms of power, is a factor to be considered in everything. I'm assuming you're white, as we white folks often think that race is a matter for other people, or only an occasional issue, rather than a constant to consider. I suppose that if you are such an unabashed nationalist that all you care about is living forever and chanting "USA, USA"... then I'll just engage with other peoples' more thoughtful arguments here. Take care and enjoy living in your wonderful nano-future.

Janessa Ravenwood

Guilty on all counts (especially the Luddites wanting me to die - I've yet to talk to a Luddite who didn't oppose Immortalism - as a general rule they're about as pro-deathist as you can get).

And funny, I always thought that a color-blind society was a good thing. Interestingly enough it's the "anti-racists" who keep wanting color to be a factor (a "constant to consider" in your words). Funny that. I tend to prefer the company of people who don't consider my skin color to be important; too bad that you do.

Anyway, I'll do just that (enjoy my wonderful nano future - oh, and "USA! USA!" :-)

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Antinano: I've just read the Capetown declaration. Thanks for the pointer. However, I strongly disagree with some of its statements, such as the call for moratorium. See our paper on the two things which are both called "precautionary principle".

I find several of the other statements irrelevant. There are a lot of different agendas crammed into that document, to the point that I find it hard to take it seriously. (The spelling and grammar mistakes don't help either; I expect better from a document intended to be viewed worldwide.)

I also note that the words "erosion" and "concentration" are used in strange ways, usages that I have only seen from the ETC Group.

So it looks to me like this Declaration is not as widely representative as it claims to be.

BTW, are you affiliated with ETC?


Chris Phoenix, CRN

Matt, we do not deliberately change quotes. A google for the phrase "television may be feasible, but I consider it an impossibility" finds 27 entries. A google for "television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider" finds 141 entries. So it appears your version is probably right, but both versions are out there.

You claimed that "nobody who thinks of MNT as a technical possibility could underestimate its commercial and financial value." My conversations with skeptics indicate that this is incorrect. Various people have asserted that for various reasons (e.g. it'll be too hard to design products) MNT may be possible but won't be worth doing. Given that, I think that your version of the quote, as well as the one Mike found, definitely applies to the MNT discussion.

BTW, Mike missed one of my favorite predictions:

That is the biggest fool thing we have ever done. The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives. - Admiral William D. Leahy to President Truman, 1945

I like to follow that with this one:

Self-replicating, mechanical nanobots are simply not possible in our world. - Richard Smalley, 2001



Chris, I am not associated with ETC, I just read their stuff and appreciate their work. They, of course, are not anti-nano. They are associated with the Capetown Declaration, as you surmised. They presented, I believe, at the conference at which it was drafted. They present at conferences all over the world on a regular basis, some government sponsored, some via civil society. Their participation doesn't, I don't believe, mean that the statement is any less representative. There aren't a lot of groups critical of nanotech anywhere in the world, but that's not because there is consensus that it's a wonderful thing. The subject is esoteric and intimidating, and as with other forms of science critics allready speaking from the margins of power (be it via race, gender or class) know that they're concerns will be condescended to with a snappy "you just don't understand the science" coming from relative elites who stand to gain from that science, regardless of its complex social implications. As Barbara Katz Rothman writes in "The Book of Life" (see http://a9.com/Barbara%20Katz%20Rothman): even after 20 years of scholarly writing about the sociology of medicine, she is still regularly told by geneticists and others "if only you understood the science, then you would love us." She points out that technical authority is not a prerequisite for moral authority. Technical irresponsibility can mitigate moral authority, but I think that there is a difference between occaisional technical innacuracy (apparently e.g. ETC) and technical irresponsibility.

To move beyond ETC, Gregor Wolbring and the Capetown Declaration, here's another nano-critic with credentials from outside nanoscience, but with interesting perspective:James John Bell. See his article in The Futurist at http://www.mindfully.org/Technology/2003/Singularity-Bell1may03.htm

Brett Bellmore

"She points out that technical authority is not a prerequisite for moral authority."

No, but technical knowlege is, where one wants to assert moral authority over technical matters. The morality of acts are generally contingent on their real world consequences, after all, so someone who's clueless about the consequences in some realm of action, is in no position to expound on it's morality.


I think the only matter concerning which technical accuracy is of vital concern is the question of toxicity. I personally care far less about toxicity than matters of power and control. To take a GMO example: wether GMO foods are toxic to humans or not is one matter, but far too often ignored are questions of IPR, farmer autonomy, indigenous cultural survival/appropriation/neo-colonialism, pest resistance, and ecological homogenization. These are issues we can debate even with greatly varied amounts of technical knowlege, regarding toxicity or otherwise. They are social, political questions. Nano-sensor devices, you tell me they'll be ubiquitous some day and i don't have to be able to explain how they work before i can tell you i don't like them. Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology, all I have to do is read those peoples' own press releases and i say "hell, no." Nano-enhanced super-computing: I can't remember what a terra-flop is exactly, but I do know that supercomputers are regularly used for complex simulations of biological, mechanical and social phenomena, so that they can be controled. That knowlege equals more power in certain hands and I don't want DARPA, Pfizer or General Motors to have more power than they allready have right now.

So some questions can be discussed across disciplines and with the equal contribution of non-scientists. Denial of that is advocacy of further technocracy, which is an arrogant and dangerous thing to advocate.

Richard Jones

Antinano, I agree that moral authority is more important than technical authority, but I still think technical accuracy is crucial. Here's three reasons:
1. Credibility. If you are interested in real politics - i.e. changing the minds of people who don't think the same way as you and thus having some influence on public policy - you need to accept that both politicians and mainstream media opinion formers are smart people with very short attention spans who simply won't bother to sort through a mixture of the accurate and inaccurate to find what's worthwhile. As an example, The Big Down got a lot of free publicity in the UK with Prince Charles's help. The Science Minister, I'm sure, asked his science advisor if there was anything in the report, and undoubtedly (since Dave King is a forthright sort of person) got a reply that it was transparently written by people clueless about the real science issues. The result was that the minister took to the studios with a very hard anti-ETC line, and was able to pick a few indefensible statements from the report to make the green representatives put up against him look very stupid. Now contrast this with the reception the Greenpeace report got. Because everyone could agree that the science base of the report was basically correct, it was taken very much more seriously, and as a result I expect that Greenpeace is having a real input into the development of policy in a way that ETC is not. Again, let's stress this is about accuracy, not authority - the Greenpeace report was put together not by some grand scientific authority, but by a masters student. But that's a sufficient level of expertise to ensure that crass errors of the type that cause reports to be trashed without further reading don't happen.
2. Focus. If you don't understand the realities of the science, there is a danger that you will end up focusing on the wrong problem. As I said in another post, and it sounds like you agree with me, I believe that nanoparticle toxicity was the wrong focus. But again, the realities of journalism mean that the media can only focus on one, at best two, issues; for nanotechnology those issues are now nanoparticle toxicity and grey goo. It's going to be very difficult to swing the debate back to issues like governance, human enhancement and universal surveillance.
3. Independence. If you can't take an independent view about the science and technology, you end up simply reacting to press releases - you illustrate this yourself talking about the Institute of Soldier Nanotechnology. It should be obvious that if you want an accurate prognosis about how the technology is going to unfold, the press releases of nanotechnology companies or research institutes are not the first place to look, and if you're not in a position to assess their claims critically you end up in danger of missing the real issues.

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