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« Nanotechnology and the Environment | Main | Nanotechnology and Death »

March 16, 2005


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michael vassar

I think it is definitely best for almost all reformers to keep a focus on technology. The alternative leads to people pitting their efforts against one another rather than against the problems nature presents. We could, in many respects, have built a very nice utopia in the 19th century as reformers advocated, assuming of course that humans were a very different sort of creature from what we actually are, but instead we continued to develop tech and now we have a seriously flawed society far Better than any remotely realistic 19th century version of Utopia. We could build a much better Utopia today, assuming once again an unrealistic set of motivations and freedom from self-deception, but once again whatever could be made using current tech absolutely pales compared to the likely outcomes of MNT.

Tom Craver

If reformers want to have the most beneficial impact, they should act like capitalists for the most part, except warping their decisions to the benefit of the country they're working in.

E.g. try to maximize profits, even though that'll mean keeping wages down to just the point where you can get plenty of workers - because profits can be rolled back into the enterprise to expand and do more good.

They might focus on products with high "social value" rather than junk food or entertainment - leave those to others. But don't underprice the products - again, maximum profits means most rapid expansion.

If the concept is explained well, you could probably pull in good-intentioned investors - e.g. hollywood types, rock stars, other guilty-feeling-noveau-riche types.

Dale Carrico

I intended the original essay you are discussing here as a complement to the post Mike wrote, rather than a "response" to it. After I summarized Mike's argument along with that of the Choi piece he linked to, I went on to make my own point. I prefaced my case with this sentence:

"I want to be clear about this: I am not suggesting that Treder and other technoprogressive nanotechnology enthusiasts (of whom I am one, after all) are frustrating the contemporary address of these problems by projecting their eventual solution onto some hypothetical more technologically sophisticated future."

One of the best things about Mike's response to my own essay was that he used it as an occasion to make the broader CRN case to the WorldChanging audience -- that we need to anticipate and plan for the dangers and disruptions sophisticated nanotechnology will likely engender.

I simply assumed -- I think, correctly -- that CRN knows that tools are available to redress poverty and suffering cheaply today and that to the extent that we value ameliorating those problems we should make use of those tools today to do so just as we hope to use the better tools that will be available later to do so better when we can.

The point I was trying to make, and I guess I wasn't as clear as I would like to have been is that (and these are quotes from the original essay) "there may be a much tighter connection than is evident on first glance between such an attitude [that we should use whatever tools we have whenever we have them to do what we can when we can] and the likelihood that we actually will use more superlative technologies eventually to better address these problems in the future." And so, the kicker for me was this: "Counterintuitive though it may seem, cheap insecticide treated mosquito nets have everything to do with advanced nanotechnology -- to the extent that what we hope for from such emerging superlative technological developments is the redress of injustice, poverty, and human suffering."

What I assumed (and still assume) was that Mike shared my attitude that we should address social problems with the tools we have, as well as sharing my hope that nanotechnological tools will some day soon emancipate humanity from poverty and suffering altogether. But what my essay proposed was that there is a tight connection between these attitudes, that the latter hope is much less likely to come true unless the former attitude is inculcated here and now.

I didn't and don't know whether or not Mike would agree with that, but making that point was what I hoped would be my own modest contribution to the conversation. That's really all there is to it.

The comments I find here on the blog responding to my essay are rather like the ones I am finding elsewhere. Quite a few people objected to the throwaway line: "There are a lot of market libertarian technophiles who like to handwave about abstract indefinite futures in which injustice will somehow evaporate so as to help justify their own ugly indifference to injustice today."
I'm sorry if that offends the wrong people. I was quite careful to insist that I don't think anybody officially affiliated with CRN exemplifies this attitude. But I do fear this attitude is widespread among American technophiles and I discuss it regularly on my blog and elsewhere.

I would assume most people who are offended to be corralled together with the meanspirited would actually not be meanspirited themselves and so I think they should cheerfully exempt themselves from my claim (which was, after all, a qualified rather than universal one) and work with me to address the problems of poverty and avoidable suffering we share then. How hard can that be?

One comment here on this blog seems to propose we bypass the contentious but necessary public redress of social ills and focus on engineering questions instead and hope for the best, while another comment seems to suggest people who hope to maximize social justice should act more like capitalists or at any rate we should trust to capitalism to provide and hope for the best.

Neither of these responses -- both of which are quite familiar objections to arguments like mine -- seems adequate to me in the least.

First, what we mean by "technology" is never only a matter of engineering -- its inspiration, funding, regulation, marketing, and the distribution of its developmental costs and risks as well as its eventual benefits are all importantly political matters.

There is no getting around politics, and so technophiles need to get considerably better at it.

As it happens, one of the best things about CRN in my view is that Mike and Chris both recognize these sorts of connections and seem among the rarest few people who focus on emerging technologies who have an almost equally sophisticated grasp of the political/cultural terrain on which technological development unfolds as well as the relevant science on which it likewise depends.

As far as "capitalism" goes, I cannot know what that term means to any particular commentor since in America it is a word that gets freighted sometimes with unexpected associations and emotions. Certainly I agree with, say, Lawrence Lessig that pricing signals make an indispensable contribution to the ongoing regulation of human affairs, along with social norms, laws backed by threats of force and the supportive cultural paraphernalia of hegemonic legitimacy, and finally what Lessig describes as "architectural" constraints. That looks like the scene on which we intervene to induce the developmental effects we want, and it doesn't make much sense to me either to claim to "oppose" or to "champion" it on this level of generality.

Anyway, in the actual essay itself I talk about the importance of sustainability and especially of redressing conspicuous poverty, treatable illness and unecessary suffering around the world. These are concerns CRN clearly shares. That's another reason CRN is such a worthy project.

There are resources available now to address these problems but they are not being addressed sufficiently. Among the available technologies are insecticide-treated mosquito nets and any number of comparable tools of a kind you can find nearly every day on the WorldChanging site where my essay was reprinted and where, I would assume, it came to CRN's attention.

It seems to me "capitalists" should be able to recognize the value of a healthy environment in which to live and work (a point that becomes more fraught when genetic therapies and rejuvination medicine are factored into the picture) as well as to recognize the contribution that could be made to creative expression, useful work, innovation, entertainment, and social stability by healthy comfortable rights-bearing people who are not pointlessly starving or dying of chealply treatable malaria in the developing world.

Nevertheless, this does not seem to be happening, and so I cannot share the apparent optimism of some of my critics that this will change anytime soon unless more than what often passes for "capitalism" among some of its enthusiasts is mobilized to make necessary and beneficial change happen now and for the good of all.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Dale, you're right that a lot more could be done today. I think a lot of people don't realize that things like mosquito nets and oral rehydration therapy can make such a big difference. This includes people in developed, developing, and dysfunctional nations.

It will take time for people to realize just how easy it can be to make other people's lives less tragic. In that sense, I completely agree with you: if we get in the habit of doing that kind of thing now, we'll be more likely to do it when advancing technology makes it even easier.

But that's not the whole story. Why does Venezuela, a major oil exporter, have such a high infant mortality rate? There's no excuse for that, but it's not a problem that could be solved by foreign monetary aid--the country already has plenty of money. I'm sure that some subset of the problems in developing nations are similarly inaccessible to well-meaning outsiders.

I think one of the biggest impacts that technology will have is in distributing information. But even that won't be enough by itself. Almost everyone in the US has free access to the Internet, though they may have to visit the public library. In India, one internet kiosk or cell phone can have a major positive impact on a whole village. In the US, we're struggling to teach our children to read.

On the question of capitalism: we need to distinguish between capitalism and free market. I think Tom was talking about free market. And I think free market has a very important function--it's the best way we know of to allocate limited resources for maximum efficiency. Of course, efficiency is not the same as security. Striking a balance between efficiency (maximizing positive-sum situations) and security (minimizing negative-sum events) requires successful management of tension between two alien ethical systems. As technology begins to produce things that are "too cheap to meter," a third system joins the fray. See our Three Systems paper.


michael vassar

I am somewhat skeptical about the alleged utilitarian benefits of oral rehydration therapy and mosquito netting. After all, both technologies are advocated by large charities such as Unicef which already have enough money to provide them to every needy child on Earth. This strongly suggests that limitations other than the oft quoted trivial monetary donations dominate this problem.

Tom Craver

Dale, Chris:

I wasn't suggesting that reformers should focus on establishing free markets or capitalism - though that certainly wouldn't hurt. I was suggesting a mode of operation that may be more effective than current approaches.

Perhaps if I put it in terms of a classic:
- Give a man a fish he'll eat for a day
- Teach a man to fish he'll be fed for a lifetime
- Set up a fishing school and a village will feed itself.
- Set up a global corporation to franchize fishing (and farming) schools and the world will feed itself.

A corporation is a virtual organism - self-feeding and auto-expanding. Generally created for the profit of investors, we should hardly be surprised if profit is their only priority. So an only-for-profit fishing school corporation might try getting a state-sanctioned monopoly, or out of fear of risking profitability might not be willing to expand into metal working schools - ironically thwarting an increase in profitability.

However a non-profit corporation isn't sufficient - the profit needed to expand will be sacrificed to the corporate priority, ironically limiting success at that priority.

But what if a corporation keeps profit a priority, but balances that against the long term benefit of the target market and employees - say people in a particular impoverished nation, or perhaps "the poorest 10% of the world's population". I think that could provide a creative tension, rather than be a cause of paralysis - do well by doing well.


Chris Phoenix, CRN

Tom, your suggestion reminds me of "triple bottom line accounting." Does anyone have any insights as to how well that is working in practice?


jim moore

If you teach all the world to fish soon there will not be fish in the oceans. We need to remember that the biggest source of new problems is the solutions to the old problems. I think it may be more realistic to say that we don't really solve problems we trade one set of problems for another set of problems. Progress happens when we "like" the new set of problems better than the old set of problems.

Tom Craver

Jim - I had hoped everyone would realize that I was not literally talking about setting up a corporation to establish "fishing schools" - surely everyone is familiar with the first two lines of that "Teach a man to fish..." thing? But in anticipation that someone might think I literally wanted everyone to go over-fish the oceans, I did include "fishing (and farming) schools" in the last line.

As to "new problems replacing old", yes, I'd like to see the poor people of the world replace their hunger and disease problems with complaints about over-weight and high medical costs. I do think we'd like that problem better.

Tom Craver


Triple bottom line seems more like a rhetorical fad. My company prefers the idea of "good corporate citizen". They're fairly serious about it - pollution is a risky activity these days, and a good image in areas it has factories can be important in negotiating tax breaks for future developments. :-)

jim moore

I was just making a smart ass comment on the overfishing. As for swapping new problems for old ones, I was thinking something more like: "what is worse, the problems of poverty today or the problems being secure in a nano enabled world?"

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