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Psychoanalyst takes on nanotechnology

In the U.S., psychoanalysis has fallen a bit out of fashion. But in Italy, a psychonanalyst heads up their bioethics organization, Centre for Science, Society and Citizenship. A year ago, Professor Emilio Mordini presented on “Dreams, Hopes and Uncertainties in the Nano Revolution” at EuroNanoForum 2005: Nanotechnology and the Health of the EU Citizen in 2020, the proceedings of which are now available in three formats: summary PDF (5 MB), full proceedings website (Shockwave req’d), and CD-ROM.

Prof. Mordini concludes:

In a study conducted in the spring of 2004 by North Carolina State University on the public’s perceptions about nanotechnology, people who have read Crichton’s novel Prey surprisingly showed a more positive attitude towards nanotechnology than those who did not read the novel. Tales are an important element to allow people to deal with complex and contradictory novelties. They allow [them] to handle fears and to overcome them.

My final consideration concerns ethics and nanotechnology. History teaches that worrying overmuch about technological change rarely stops it. If we are concerned about ethical and social implications of society, we would do better to form a clearer picture of how scientists and policy makers should communicate with the public and, above all, we should refuse any temptation to reject popular narratives as naive and misleading.

On the contrary popular narratives can give us the key to understand what is going on in [the] public’s mind and they can be an important instrument to help people elaborate fears and hopes.

Quite so. People need scenarios, popular narratives — stories, basically — to help them envision a situation significantly different from the one they are now in, the problems that could occur, and how they may be addressed. This is why in a recent lecture I advised the researchers at ASU’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society to read some science fiction, and perhaps why academic ethicist Rosalyn Berne is having nanoresearchers construct such nanotech stories for themselves.

About the proceedings for EuroNanoForum 2005: Nanotechnology and the Health of the EU Citizen in 2020 — the summary PDF is missing a lot of material, so you’ll need the full website. Unfortunately, not only does it require Shockwave (which many of you have not yet installed), but also some other third party plug-ins. In my case, the website still did not work after the Shockwave plug-in was installed, so you might want to go straight for the CD-ROM. A word to the EU: consider sticking with very standard, open formats for your international reports? Just a friendly suggestion! —Christine

4 Responses to “Psychoanalyst takes on nanotechnology”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I don’t follow that their conclusion that being exposed to Prey produces people with a more positive attitude to nanotech ; it’s a self-selecting group (within a randomized sample). Those people who’ve read Prey are far more likely to be those who had an interest in nanotech in the first place, and far more likely to be science fiction readers who may have encountered positive depictions of nanotech in the likes of Neal Stephensons,”The Diamond Age”, Peter F Hamiltons “Nights’ Dawn” Trilogy, Iain M Banks’ “Culture” novels, and may be far more likely to have read “Engines of Creation” and the like.

    They HAVE demonstrated a correlation between Prey exposure and positive attitudes to nanotech, but this does not imply causation. I would suspect that is merely implies a correlation between Prey reading and the sort of mind-set that enjoys science and science-fiction. I personally read Prey because I wanted to find out how Crichton had treated the subject ; I’ve enjoyed his past work, and for what is pretty much a modern “B-Movie” novel, it wasn’t bad. But it didn’t bother to illuminate the positive side of the technology at all ; it started with the premise of a military surveillance project and didn’t have anything good to say about the technology (that I recall, it’s been some time since I read it, although it’s due a re-read now…).

    I’ve become a little suspicious of Mr Crichtons’ motives for writing since I read “State of Fear”, where he postulates that climate change is all a negative brouhahah kicked up by an “indsutry” of environmentalists seeking to make a profit from the attention ; and from the amount of reasearch he references to make his point, it’s clear that he wants you to take that point seriously. All in all it sounds rather like what you would expect to hear from some bought-off oil industry PR hack ; I suspect we’ll all know the truth in a decade or less though.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    In addition to my earlier comment, it appears to be that my assesment that reading of Prey is merely correlated with a nanotech-friendly demographic was correct. Catch the comment from Chris Phoenix at the bottom of this thread.

    http://crnano.typepad.com/crnblog/2004/07/cant_fool_the_p.html

  3. Dr. Martin G. Smith Says:

    I wish to comment on Christine last words, first. I has become increasingly apparent with the advances in presentation systems that more and more groupgs are latching on to them without the consciousness of consequence, which quite simply is this. When you jam up the bandwidth with large amounts of data being transfers at the speed of light, it slow down. The means that those on the last mile of the highway of light, the 75-80% of the population that hopefully you are trying to reach, cannot access you information. – Which brings me to my second point. The only way this major advance in technology will become known, is if it is clearly presented without bias or intent, as information which people will come to enjoy to know and as a result not fear. There need, I suggest to be a clear and open discussion of all the implications of this technology and it must be, my bias declared, Open Source. There is the potential for Massive Change here, to create a truly ‘democratic’ system of production and distribution and I would suggest that it is incumbent on those on the leading edge to make it happen.

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