I spent the weekend discussing the various ways in which (nano)technology may be developed ‘responsibly’ which was, erm, quite interesting. I have parenthesised the ‘nano’ as many of the fears weren’t particularly specific to anything nano, and I am still rather mystified by the various definitions of the word ‘responsible’ which I’m sure will keep the ethicists, philosophers and lexicographers busy for some time to come. I’ll return to this later.
While none of the fears voiced were particular novel, I was rather charmed by the innocent naiivety of the participants. The lay people, effectively people pulled off the streets with no knowledge of nanotechnology and then asked to bravely give an opinion on it, were perhaps the most open minded of the participants. During the course of the project they had been browsing the web, making up songs and producing plays about the perceived evils of nanotechnologies. Despite all the time spent on Wikipedia learning about mind/machine interfaces were still willing to shake the hands of eminent nanotechnologists without any fear of being assimilated or contaminated by nanobots or nanoparticles.
As with most public engagement exercises, and there have been plenty, there was a realisation that technology is, in general, a good thing but can of course be used for a wide variety of purposes, not all of them beneficial to humanity. It was interesting that one of the fears is that we might slide into a kind of society which we don’t particularly want, but on the other hand I don’t remember much debate about the use of closed circuit TV, traffic cameras or councils popping microchips in your dustbin, something that most people wouldn’t want but nonetheless are becoming increasingly commonplace, so perhaps it doesn’t matter what we want? There were other fears raised as well, but the meeting reports will hopefully address these in a disinterested way and avoid the usual temptation to produce a report calling for things to be regulated/monitored/banned or have moratoria slapped upon them because that is what the people funding the project, in this case the EU, are perceived to want to hear.
What was almost shocking was the implied assumption, perhaps understandable among the lay people and but surprisingly also shared by the social scientists that because a scientist does something in a lab it will inevitably end up affecting society. It’s a little like assuming that everyone who picks up a pen to become Oscar Wilde, or anyone who picks up a guitar to inevitably become a rock star – nothing could be further from the truth and it was rather surprising that the whole process was based on the (false) assumption that science has any direct impact on society, because it usually doesn’t.
For any particular bit of science to have any impact is has to go through a number of gates and clamber over hurdles of ever increasing height and complexity. Science has its own checks and balances with publication and peer review, but most entrepreneurs will tell you that is almost trivial in comparison with actually getting that science onto the market, something that has to be done before it can have any effect. Let’s not forget that it was 1953 when the secrets of DNA were unravelled, yet genetic screening for more than a small number of diseases and characteristics is still prohibitively expensive. It was not the scientific discovery that changed society, but the development of methods of applying that knowledge, such as automated gene sequencing, and much of that was done in the commercial world.
Was it useful? Well perhaps from an intellectual point of view in the same way that an animated discussion over dinner, or even in a pub can be an interesting diversion. I also think it is useful for the science community to engage with the public and reflect on what we should be doing better to communicate what we do as well as how and why. What also struck me as rather odd, or perhaps just mind bogglingly stupid, was the idea of asking people who know about as much about nanotechnology as they do about credit default swaps to give an opinion on the subject to another bunch of people who also seemed to understood very little about the subject, especially as the project involved examining the link between two rather nebulous and undefined terms, ‘nanotechnology’ and ‘responsible.’ While I think I understand what is meant by nanotechnology, and even if the definitions used by other people may differ from mine we can at leat have a meaningful discussion, the idea of responsibility is inextricably bound up with ethics, which opens a whole new can or worms. Ethics aren’t something that can be defined, and are indeed a product of a number of things such as your political and religious views, your upbringing, the society you live in and your position in the society. As an example, someone in government planning may envisage a scenario where a certain number of civilian deaths is acceptable and see no real ethical problem, whereas the families of those civilians certainly would see a very big problem!
One of the jobs of social scientists is to wrestle with these poorly defined issues and find a way to tease out some patterns and perhaps draw some conclusions, but I’m unclear whether discussing ‘nanotechnology’ and ‘responsibility’ is any more useful than spending a few days discussing ‘walruses’ and ‘ice cream.’
My only involvement with social science was a couple of years of social geography, used as a sort of counterweight to the maths and physics at university, so what appears quite senseless to me may actually be something of great interest to a social scientist, and conversely what appears a rather fascinating and important financial instrument or bit of science to me may appear rather silly from another viewpoint and as a result I’m curious about what the the result of the exercise will be.
As far as I know, the result of all of this discussion will involve a short film and no doubt a lengthy report, but will there, or indeed can there ever be any conclusions or recommendations from this type of exercise?
I would like to elaborate more, but I have had to be rather non specific as the organisers were rather put out by the idea of any of the information being garnered leaking out via twitter which apparently was ‘not on.’ A laptop displaying this page was rather peevishly produced to indicate that if any hint of the top secret deliberations were to be emitted into cyberspace than ‘they’ would know about it and take some unspecified action. As every discussion was being digitally recorded and filmed, I was left wondering whether this was a contradiction that was only visible to me. Ironically one of the public fears most often voiced was that technology could lead to increased surveillance and a consequent loss of privacy!