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German philosophers take on nanotechnology

It had to happen: a book in which German philosophers direct their attention to nanotech. (Ethicists and social scientists too.) Excerpts from the English abstracts (pdf), with my commentary inserted:

An account is provided of how the purpose of gaining knowledge is reoriented towards purposes of application. This helps clear up the relation of discovery and invention in nanoscience and nanotechnology.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is true that some are still confused about the difference between nanoscience and nanotechnology. Nanoscientists especially fall into this, mistaking nanotech designs for assertions of new science.

To ensure that the term ‘nanotechnology’ means the same to all parties involved, its definition is therefore a crucial first step of interdisciplinary research, and has strong normative implications.

By now it is clear that getting this term to mean the same to all parties is pretty hopeless.

The main thesis is that future developments are not accessible as future ones, but only as our present images of them.

Er, yes, that’s right.

Though materials science research meets even the more stringent definition of nanotechnology, there remains a systematic tension between materials science and the device-centered visions of nanotechnology.

Well, maybe it doesn’t meet the most stringent definitions. But the tension is definitely there.

To speak of ‘hearing atoms’ would make much more sense than to claim that we can see them. Nevertheless acoustic representations have not been publicized. On the contrary they are downright suppressed.

I’d like to hear these suppressed representations. It’s true that we can’t really see atoms, so why not hear them instead? Or in addition?

Onc the other hand it reflects the dangers of this development. Due to the European a social contract that considers the technological advance not as the myth of an inescapable fate, but as a result of a democratic agreement of the European civil societies themselves.

This idea keeps popping up: a democratic vote on technology. This could possibly slow or stop a technology where the vote was held, but not elsewhere.

On the basis of a case study on visionary images of medical nanorobots and micro-submarines in media debates, this contribution demonstrates that these images serve as a means of communication between the discourses of science, economy, and the mass media. Through a systems-theoretically and discourse-analytically oriented examination of the pictorial dimension of expectations, this contribution shows that ‘communicative spaces’ suggested by the images enable productions of meaning for the current potential of nanotechnological innovations between various discourses.

This is correct. The images are a means of communication that produce meaning to multiple groups.

The analysis reveals the connotations of their use and shows that Feynman’s way of visionary thinking had been highly influenced by a historical background of interpreting the microcosm in a religious way.

Sounds wrong to me, but I would have to read the paper.

This paper argues that the extraordinary excitement about nanotechnology, including exaggerated hopes and fears, first emerged in the US, because it is deeply rooted in the specific religious tradition of that country. Virtually absent in Europe, mainstream Christian fundamentalism in the US has always had a particular relationship both to the future and to technologies, due to its apocalyptic orientation.


Nanotechnology is likely to strongly affect economies and societies worldwide. As a strategy to minimize adverse consequences as well as to enable a broad productive adaptation of nanotechnology and to prevent a global ‘nano-divide’ I propose a concept of ‘open nanotechnology’. This is based on four arguments that I draw from a systems theoretical approach to technology as introduced by Günter Ropohl and from experiences with open source software and open hardware design for a secure diffusion of technology.

We are trying to get an English version of this interesting one from author Niels Boeing.

Nanotechnology is developing very rapidly and is believed to have the potential of huge upsides and extreme downsides. In the pubic [sic] debate there has been a strong tendency to exclusively focus on the first or the latter.

Is this really true? Often I see a balance, or at least prominent mention of the other view.

The article includes some considerations concerning basic requirements for a comprehensive ethical investigation of nanotechnology and argues for an inclusion of visionary projects in the analysis of ethical aspects of nanotechnology.

This is by a theologian. U.S. theologians really like to include visionary aspects, because these dramatic concepts give them something to really sink their teeth into (and usually disapprove of).

New technologies may bring decisive advantages in case of war…Nanotechnology could be used in all areas of combat and its preparation. In a first purview of potential military applications, some of them have turned out to be particularly problematic in terms of preventive arms control.

Indeed. —Christine

8 Responses to “German philosophers take on nanotechnology”

  1. George Elvin Says:

    One of the best things about this book is the rather harsh light it shines on American attitudes and assumptions about science and technology. The distinction between the American view of nanotech as ‘inescapable fate’ versus the European view of it as ‘a result of a democratic agreement’, for example, is well worth discussing.

    FYI, the book’s editor’s other nanotech tome, Nanotechnology Challenges: Implications for Philosophy, Ethics and Society, is available in English.

    More excerpts from the abstracts at nanotechbuzz.

  2. siva kumar Says:

    Before every one hought that nanotechnology is a far-fetched idea with no near-team applications, but now it come true in a unimaginable way .so it should be agreed that nanotechnology is “inescapable fate” it’s purely my opinion without supporting any or denying any….

  3. Keith Says:

    “harsh light it shines on American attitudes and assumptions about science and technology. “The distinction between the American view of nanotech as ‘inescapable fate’ versus the European view of it as ‘a result of a democratic agreement”

    Wowwie are you ever deluded there George. What exactly are these assumptions we have about science and technology eh? The fact that we have such a fear of science and progress that we put more money into scientific R&D than the combined European powers? The fact that since we have a free market economy as opposed to Europe’s socialist slug-speed economy we can actually free up money for scientific research. “Inescapable fate”, give me a God damn break. The only inescapable fate is the one the Europeans are facing as their native populations die out while they still cling to the last vestiges of socialism. All the emergence of Nanotechnology will do is push the US even further ahead of Europe.

  4. Martin G. Smith Says:

    The fact is, as it was proven in the aftermath of the Southeast Asian Tsunami, it is the Small and the Nimble who will lead the way. If you look at the bottom line, after taking your cut, you will rarely succeed at being at the head of the pack. It is those prepared to risk enough to get the job done, with one eye on the goal, and one eye on the community benefit accrued who will push this ‘emerging technology’ [Remember Columbus] into the realm of the everyday. Currently ‘NANO’ is like MEGA, and XTREMe, the new buzzword on the block. However, in a short while the Small and the Nimble who will lead the way.

  5. Jake Witmer Says:

    I’d like to know what the Randites at and the objectivist center think about nanotechnology. These German guys don’t seem too quick on the uptake (they also seem to like nonsensical blather). In my opinion, they are the most interesting and useful philosophy around. As far as nature is concerned though, only the strong and aggressive survive, and the leading force in nanotech has a fairly good chance of being an amoral entity (less than 1% of the population calls themselves libertarian, and amongst them, most are clueless about nanotech —and the rest of society believes in varying degrees of theft, as long as it’s legalized theft). Anyhell, perhaps all the techno-philosophizers can agree on one thing: nanotech (proper) will probably give us interesting new things to see at some point (even if it involves democide) –at least it won’t just be the same old “morons elected (or supported) a moron who killed millions of people trying to stay in power”. –I have to think that if a tyrant comes to power using nanotech, at least he/she’d have to be smarter than all the previous bullies the socialist scum cloud of the world has shackled us with. (Note: by “socialist scum cloud”, I mean both Bushes, Clinton, and virtually every politician for the last 100 years in the USA, –with Ron Paul, the few elected Libertarians, and perhaps Butch Otter and a few others excepted.)

    BTW: If you want to be free, move to Alaska, and help professionalize the libertarian presence there. We can create a new Hong Kong, where sentient lifeforms are respected, as are the materials they are made of, as are the materials they own. Get it? –It’s called capitalism, and it works!


  6. Martin G. Smith Says:

    I suggest objectivists would be just that, that is until it got too close to their agenda. Nano technology will grow up as all technologies have. One of the benefits of of dealing with things so small is that the infrastructure has today, to be so large. This, of course, will change and the democratization of the technology will occur, maybe, again, I suggest, a whole lot sooner than it happened with computers.
    Memo to Jake – Did you ask ALASKA before you made your offer

  7. Betaride Says:

    The Objectivist position on anything is based upon the basic question: “Is it good for humanity? That which supports human life is good. That which destroys human life is evil.”

    As a rule, technological advances are good for humanity. They are what move us forward. Of course, just like anything, they can be used for evil (destruction of humanity), so we have to be careful to keep nanotech and artificial intelligence benign, but that really should be the easy part.

    The real danger, I think (as a practicing Objectivist), is the threat from neo-Luddite’s, who will do anything to stop the progress promised by nanotech and AI discoveries.

    Think about the Islamic states that hate the West and seek to destroy us. They have some very destructive views of the “End Times” where humans do the destroying (as opposed to Christian’s who think that angels will do it). It would be very easy to cloak their malevolence in the turbulance caused by a true technological singularity.

    Then, of course, there are the Socialists. These are the people that are trying to stop us from driving cars because its bad for the environment. What do plants eat? Carbon dioxide! That is why there is far more flora, and correspondingly, flora in the world than there was 200 years ago. We have been digging up plant food and dispersing it through the air. Even though the average lifespan has tripled in the West, and human population has more than quadrupled in the same amount of time, they still claim that technology destroys lives! What are they going to say about something that holds the promise of immortality. They will probably start screaming about overpopulation.

    Did you know that if you took everyone in the world (6 billion people) and put them in Texas, you would have roughtly the population density of Paris?

  8. Jake Witmer Says:

    To the person who asked me if I had asked ‘ALASKA’ if they waanted freedomlovers to move there.

    Well, no. I asked and got tons of support from thousands of individual Alaska residents whom I registered to vote as Libertarian, but no, I did not “put it to a vote of all Alaskans”. You see, putting questions regarding the collective use of force to a vote is what got us to this sorry state in the first place.

    There is no such thing as “ALASKA” apart from the individuals who live there. –And why should I for one instant give respect to the moronic anti-property rights ‘drug warriors’ who live there, when there are so many decent people who live there? Alaska may have more stupid people than smart people (like everywhere else on earth where survival is easy), but it has more smart people than any other state. It also has FEWER people than any other state with a coastline that is viable for international trade.

    There are a lot of STUPID and VINDICTIVE people out there who think it’s OK to lock people up for possession of certain kinds of drugs, guns, etc… These people are so damned stupid that they make an exception for two of the deadliest drugs that there are (alcohol and sometimes tobacco), just because they don’t understand the basic concept of property rights, or even the notion that it’s not intelligent to directly contradict one’s self. Don’t even bother trying to explain that the inanimate objects can’t be held responsible for irresponsible human action (without punishing innocent people).

    So do we let the stupids have their dictatorship, or do we simply do what any self-respecting artilect would do, and TAKE AWAY THEIR ABILITY TO HARM US?

    If a man attacks me with a gun, and I can take away HIS gun, then I will. Preferably without hurting him, but still taking away his ability to harm me in the future, or harm others in the future (ie send him to jail inside of a just society). However, if I have to gun down an armed attacker, I will.

    This is the concept of just self-defense. Retaliatory defensive force is allowed, initiation of force is not.

    Artilects will easily understand this. Will the whimpering of defeated ‘hitlerite’ humanity be something they sympathize with? I doubt it. Did the Allied forces sympathize with the concentration camp guards enough to let them have their way? -NOPE

    Ideally, the artilects will just relegate most of humanity to the sandbox of inferior offensive ability. Why give the dodo nuclear weapons and just enough intelligence to use them?

    Artilects would likely wait to modify human intelligence until they COULD NOT be attacked, even by an exponentially increasing intelligence. That may take some time…

    Do I want to die waiting for the artilects to decide that humanity should be allowed to expand in intelligence and ability? Or do I want to prove that I and a few others DON’T DESIRE ILLEGITIMATE CONTROL OVER OTHERS? The latter might allow me to live forever, the former likely will not.

    To paraphrase Roy Beatty in “Blade Runner”. “I want more life, f***er(s)”.


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