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« Transformative Power | Main | Outside Looking In »

October 29, 2004


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Michael Vassar

Actually, one would be hard pressed to name a nation or tribe anywhere at any time in history where darker skin wasn't a stigma. India? China? Africa? Nope. I've never heard of skin color stigma among pre-Columbian Amerindians, but I would not be surprized if it happened there too. In general, polar organisms are larger than equatorial ones, so they are stronger. When their populations expand they migrate towards the equator and oppress their weaker neighboors.
Moorish Spain was probably an exception for a while. Roman Britain too. Still, blaming European colonialism is silly.

Anyway, who here doesn't think that with even primitive MNT (or prior to MNT even) cosmetic changes to skin color will be inexpensive, at least where IP is weak. Changes to voice, name, and bone structure might be more enduring, and people will presumably continue to discriminate, but when skin color is cheap it will not be prestigious. I'm reminded of Stars Upon Thars by Doctor Seus. A related point is that MNT based weight loss treatments might be among the first commercial products of MNT, given that weight is still an issue when it is developed. .1cubic centimeter of glucose and fatty acid fuel cells in the blood would enable the recipient to safely loose a pound of fat per day while eating normally. Substantially smaller doses might be safer on warm days to avoid overheating, but thermostats should be able to prevent such dangers.
This brings up a ridiculous danger of MNT that might actually lead to widespread death. Prior to the development of food manufacturing, there is a risk that people who no longer need to restrain their food intake, and who may be chronically slightly hungry, due to nanomachine energy consumption, will radically increase their food consumption. As a result, rapidly rising food prices might aggravate the human cost of economic disruption. This is particularly likely if nanomedicine develops faster than improved molecular manufacturing. Enthusiastic acceptance of nanomedical enhancements, including muscle builders, (Each pound of inactive muscle burns about 35 kilocalories per day) might increase demand for food among consumers of nanomedicine by 50%, 100%, or potentially even as much as 500%.

Mike Deering

Michael Vassar, don't you think that people and countries rich enough to afford advanced nanomedicine already have an overabundance of food? Early adopters always pay more than the general population.

Michael Vassar

Of course the countries have an abundance of food, but the economic systems may be severely distorted while the public comes to grips with the new economic reality. There may be a substantial period when many people in those countries have very limited money and credit. If food prices simultaniously skyrocket, this could be a problem.

Brett Bellmore

On the other hand, I'm on the Atkins diet, to lose weight, and since almost all of my calories are coming from animal fat and protien, I'm a VERY inefficient consumer of solar energy. Ironicly, if allowed to eat whatever I wanted, I'd be getting most of them from plant sources. I miss my fruit, veggies, and especially bread!

So even halfway decent nanomedicine, even if it boosted my calorie intake, could significantly reduce the burden I place on the agriculture system.

But another consideration is that we usually understate the extent to which famine is NOT a result of problems with agriculture, but instead deliberate policy. You herd people into gas chambers, the international community gets all flustered. You arrange for them to starve to death, and suddenly they're remarkably sympathetic, and provide you with all sorts of aid you can skim for your own use, even while you're arranging for your enemies to die.

I'm of the opinion that most of the world's famines are just disguised genocide.

Brett Bellmore

As for the light/dark social status thing, I was under the impression that it had more to do with the higher social classes tending to be lighter colored because they don't have to spend all their time outdoors, in the sun, laboring. You're dark, you look like a laborer.

You'll see that dynamic going on in a lot of cultures that don't have a history of darker slaves, or lighter colored oppressors. The Japanese, for instance.

Of course, the same pattern can have different causes in different instances.

The nice thing about nanotechnology, is it's unlikely to lead to exploitation, because once you've got it, what do other people have that you need? OTOH, if they don't have anything you need, you don't need to trade with them, either, which might just impede their own rise in wealth.


It continues to surprise and disappoint me that articles like this are being discussed at CRN. There are plenty of socially conscious web sites to discuss light vs. dark. Unless you propose specific nanotech policies or strategies to address a social issue, you should keep your personal demons away from this forum. How can you fail to understand how important this is????

Michael Vassar

Good point RFScheer. I second that.
My apologies.
No primate politics

Brett Bellmore

It's the impending election; I think they'll regain their focus after it's past.

Mike Treder, CRN

I agree with RFScheer that, in general, our blog entries should "propose specific nanotech policies or strategies to address a social issue". But posts like the one I made above are intended to show that nanotechnology will not solve all social issues, and that people who expect some panacea or nano-utopia are bound to be disappointed.

At CRN, we're conscious of sometimes being labeled as nano-boosters, and we hope to show that we have a balanced view of both the possibilities and the limitations of nanotechnology.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

RFScheer and Brett, this article has nothing to do with the election. Social issues are part of our focus. When the basis of the world's economy and military changes radically, existing social systems will be strained. Destructive patterns (including racism) may be persistent. Existing constructive patterns may be shaken, and new ones will take time to develop.

I don't see how we can plan for molecular manufacturing without spending at least a little time on psychology and sociology. Racism and other forms of discrimination aren't a "personal demon"--they're widespread and very serious problems.

It seems pretty likely to me that humans will not deal wisely with a sudden increase in resources. How much of a factor skin color will play in the unwisdom, I really couldn't speculate. But it's worth looking at where and why things are unjust today, to see how they might be improved in the future.


Karl Gallagher

I think human conflicts can be divided into resource-driven and status-driven. MNT can solve the resource driven ones. Status-driven ones will just grab it as another weapon. "I want to be in charge" and "Everyone should live according to this book" aren't going to be settled by making everyone rich. So the question is, how can we guide the spread of MNT to minimize the temptation of the early adopters to use it for their ambition or cause?

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Karl, excellent question. I'd add a third category: meme-driven. "I want to be in charge" is status-driven and can probably be traced back to evolutionary psychology: the alpha males breed more. Having a more comfortable, laid-back life may blunt the drive to get ahead. So MNT may actually help there.

"Everyone should live by this book" is a thought virus. To some extent, it's driven by the memotype of the virus and can only be addressed at that level. But it's also cultural; some cultures are a lot more tolerant than others, and a control-freak meme will be less infectious. And the tolerance of a culture may be related to how threatened they feel. So if MNT supports a culture of happy laid-back people, they may not care much what their neighbors do. (Of course it's a lot more complicated than that. Appreciation of diversity is itself a meme. And being able to see the value of weirdness is not just a meme but a skill.)

But this doesn't reduce the value of your final question. Let me point out that your question is almost equivalent to: How can we minimize the temptation of early adopters to use the technology for their self-interest? And that's clearly impossible. The best way around this problem that I can see is: How can we give the early adopters broader goals than personal ambition and cultism?


Karl Gallagher

Ah, the joy of definitions. I see the memes that drive wars as being the ones that define status roles. So "alpha male (AM) = one who gets most votes" and "AM = one who makes most money" have driven out "AM = son of previous AM" and "AM = one who hits hardest." The pattern in this evolution has been to favor status climbing by engaging in positive-sum transactions (see Nonzero).

MNT users will favor their self-interest, but can we convince them to pursue that through positive-sum transactions rather than zero/negative-sum ones?

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