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Drawing a nano-sized line in the sand

HLovy writes "I can tell from my Web stats that I do have some readers in Iran, which has nanotechnological goals of its own. To them, I'd like to extend an invitation to contact me and see how we can get a battle plan together for an all-out war on inequitable distribution of resources such as fresh water and arable land, brandishing nanotech-enhanced weapons. Having spent much of my journalism career writing about the Mideast conflict, I'm certainly not blundering into this subject under the influence of any kind of naive daydream that historical, cultural, religious and political barriers will simply melt into the desert. But it couldn't hurt to set up a tent.

For the complete commentary, please see Howard Lovy's NanoBot."

4 Responses to “Drawing a nano-sized line in the sand”

  1. Morgaine Says:

    Entering the tent sounds like a losing proposition

    To them, I'd like to extend an invitation to contact me and see how we can get a battle plan together for an all-out war on inequitable distribution of resources such as fresh water and arable land, brandishing nanotech-enhanced weapons.

    Wow! You're going to negociate US withdrawal from inequitable consumption of world resources? :-)

    Seriously, I sometimes wonder if people inside the US really understand how their country is viewed in the rest of the world. It ranges from suspicion to the deepest hatred, and even the US-aligned nations know that collaboration is little more than soundbite material for election campaigns, with agreements being ignored without hesitation when this is required to appease US domestic lobbies. This is a pretty universal worldview, and it limits the appeal of discussion when the discussion tent is flying a US flag. That's just how it is, whether we like it or not.

    In those countries outside of the west where nanotechnology has reached the political consciousness, I would imagine that the thinkers probably see it as an opportunity for getting out from under US world domination and what they see as cultural imperialism. Compromising on that future by entering a discussion tent flying the US flag probably won't sound all that attractive, especially when "discussion" is a euphemism for mandating limits on what you are allowed to do.

  2. HLovy Says:

    Re:Entering the tent sounds like a losing proposit

    I agree, but your comments presuppose that I'm some sort of representative of the U.S. government, complete with Star Spangled Banner soundtrack following me. I merely suggested opening lines of communication whereby nanotechnology scientists, businesspeople, policymakers, journalists and others can share any information they'd like and form collaborations if they choose.

    There are not enough opportunities for nanotechnology professionals to discuss issues if they happen to live in countries whose political leaders have differing worldviews.

    I'm a journalist by trade, which means that I'm not an expert in anything except creating the conditions where people can have the opportunity to be informed. Given my recent criticism of some aspects of U.S. nanotech policy, I'm not waiting by the phone for the White House to call and deputize me official nano-liaison to Iran.

    I'm not the only one one to have suggested better nanotech communication between the developed and developing world, by the way. Tim Harper of Cientifica (a Briton based in Spain and as far as I know, not part of the American imperialist plot) has suggested that the problems of unequal access can be solved in part by creating formats and forums for the sharing of information. I've written about that previously here.

    Howard Lovy

  3. Morgaine Says:

    Re:Entering the tent sounds like a losing proposit

    I agree entirely with your comments above, but I see very little hope for unencumbered cooperation in technology across the divide at the level of nations. There is simply no precedent for it.

    Governments almost never assist development of technological capability in the third world out of pure altruism, especially when that technology is powerful. Quite the opposite, they justify their funding through the potential benefit it gives to their own national industries (export of products or consultancy), or alternatively on the basis of obtaining some measure of control or visibility in exchange. Unlike the theory, in practice politics is about appeasing pressure groups and maintaining peer-cred in the debating chambers, and very little else. The few global idealists that enter the political system rapidly get assimilated into the established business-as-usual which regards global visions with suspicion as a vote loser. As a result, a framework for collaboration at the level of nations yet free of political encumbrance is hard to find, and it may even be a contradiction in terms.

    Where I believe there is enormous scope for collaborative effort is in research and development, because ideas mutate and germinate and finally bloom in an international sea of technical exchanges. It works so well in this sphere only because policy and opinion are largely absent and irrelevant when the accepted domain of discourse is given by the laws of physics. Drexler could never have written his thesis or Nanosystems if he'd first had to gain acceptance for his premise and his goals from parties whose domain is entirely orthogonal to the technology.

    Tim Harper's work seems very worthwhile. Such ventures stem from individual vision though, not from governments. There is just too much baggage associated with the latter.

  4. qftconnor Says:

    Re:Entering the tent sounds like a losing proposit

    1) Providing people everywhere with fresh water and arable land are certainly goals we can all embrace, although conceptualizing this as a 'war' is perhaps not the most promising paradigm, if for no other reason than that there appears to be no opposition. But the "historical, cultural, religious and political barriers" to which you refer may well keep many of the (speculative) benefits of nanotech from the citizens of the Middle East. There, even more than in the West, the (speculative) power of nanotech seems likely to be in the hands of governments rather than the people. Given the human rights record of Iran, the idea of a nano-powered Ayatollah has to give one pause.

    2) In your blog you remark: "Just think what could be accomplished if a "peace dividend" were to ever fall into the laps of the Arab and Persian scientific worlds. Remember, it was they who kept enlightened thought alive while the Europeans wasted a millennia or two slaughtering one another and actively discouraging scientific progress." As a former journalist specializing in the Middle East, you surely know that this is not an accurate assessment of either Islamic or European history. The 'Golden Age' of Islam is often reckoned to have occurred roughly around the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258); notably, the Mutazilites, established by Wasil Ibn Ata, tried to establish a tradition of rational (as opposed to mystical) thought about the physical world, and founded libraries and translated classical works into Arabic to promote this. By the tenth century this goal was already meeting substantial opposition, and book burnings became common throughout Cordoba and elsewhere; by the twelfth, the Imam Al-Ghazali was preaching a profoundly fundamentalist and anti-scientific doctrine – for example, he described algebra as "an intoxicant of the mind that weakens faith". His doctrines, and those of Ahmad ibn Taymiyya, spread rapidly, and fostered an anti-rationalism and a xenophobia that shut down scientific thinking in Islamic societies nearly to the present day, and also provoked a profound biblioclasm that led to the loss of many scientific texts, Islamic as well as classical and foreign. While Islam was performing an auto-lobotomy, the cathedral schools of Europe (for example, at Paris, Chartres, Orleans, Reims…) were continuing the Carolingian renaissance, climaxing in the establishment of the universities: first Bologna and Paris, with new universities following every eleven years (in the thirteenth century), then every eight years (in the fourteenth), then every six years (in the fifteenth). Europe had indeed had its Dark Ages, but these did not last "a millenium or two" (a quarter of that at most), and scientific progress was not discouraged but eagerly sought; there was a steady stream of innovations (mostly in common home articles, from ploughs to chimneys), which spread as quickly as the slow communications and travel of the time permitted. Perhaps equally important, foreign innovations (for example, in spinning, weaving, and eventually papermaking) were welcomed and adopted; even at its Darkest, Europe was profoundly practical. Europe certainly benefitted greatly from Islamic libraries, such as that of Toledo; but the Arab and Persian scientific worlds did not need to keep "enlightened thought alive", because it had never died in Europe. It was kept alive by Alcuin of York, by Gerbert of Aurillac (later Pope Sylvester II), by the Venerable Bede, by Isadore of Seville, and by many, many, many others.

    Incidentally, I'm an atheist, and this shouldn't be read as a pro-Christian/anti-Islam comment, but as an attempt by a non-historian to correct what he perceives as some historical confusion/distortion.

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