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                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #145                                                    May 20, 2003
                     A Publication of The Nature Institute
               Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
    in submission to its inevitabilities?  NetFuture is a voice for
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    Editor's Note
    Quotes and Provocations
       Of Factory Farms and the Master Race
       Monkeys and Computer Hygiene
       Is There a Gene for Famine Relief?
    Tech Knowledge Revue (Langdon Winner)
       Science policy and the push for nanotechnology
    Announcements and Resources
       Technosapiens Conference
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    On April 9, NetFuture columnist Langdon Winner testified before the
    congressional Committee on Science in Washington, D.C.  He had been asked
    to speak about nanotechnology and science policy.  We present the abridged
    text of his testimony below.
    A crucial part of Langdon's testimony was a recommendation for the
    formation of citizen advisory panels of the sort the Loka Institute
    (http://www.loka.org) has so effectively advocated in recent years.  On
    May 9 Langdon sent me this update:
       Well, much to everybody's surprise, my modest proposal to Congress --
       to institute citizens panels as one way to assess the societal and
       ethical dimensions of nanotechnology -- actually made it into the
       nanotech bill that passed the House of Representatives last Wednesday.
       If the present language about citizens panels in H.R. 766 survives the
       rest of the legislative process, it would be a small but nonetheless
       important step toward democratizing science and technology policy-
       making in the U.S.
    The House bill authorizes $2.36 billion over three years for
    nanotechnology research and development -- this at a time of extreme
    budget stress.  Nanotechnology, like microelectronics, biotechnology, and
    networked computing in previous decades, is seen as the next big thing
    and, in the childish language of American politicians, "It is imperative
    that in the race, the U.S. must be first across the finish line" (Rep.
    Mike Honda, D-CA).  According to another congressman, Nick Smith (R-MI),
    nanotechnology will provide us with "new and exciting products that will
    improve our lives in many ways".  (Didn't he steal that line from
    somewhere?  An old asbestos commercial, maybe?)
    The House committee's news release offers no cautionary word whatever.
    For that, you will have to read Langdon's testimony.
    Goto table of contents
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    Of Factory Farms and the Master Race
    Factory farms today pack thousands or tens of thousands of animals into
    the narrowest possible spaces, where they live a miserable life cut off
    from their natural environment, denied the normal expression of their
    instincts, and subjected to extraordinary cruelty.  The facts have been
    sufficiently publicized to enlighten every citizen who does not prefer
    ignorance.  Yet the factories and the suffering remain.
    We've lately been hearing of the potential for genetic engineering to rid
    the animals of their bothersome natural instincts -- or even of their
    susceptibility to pain -- in order to make them more adaptable to factory
    life.  In the end, it appears, we'll have factories where the treatment of
    living animals verges upon a huge tissue-culturing operation.
    We are, in other words, becoming to the animal kingdom exactly what the
    ruling machines are to the factory-farmed humans in The Matrix.
    I have long argued that the primary threat of the computer is an internal
    one.  The machine-in-us steadily consolidates its power, following a kind
    of inverse Moore's law that graphs our loss of higher capacities and
    sensitivities.  Self-recognition seems to be among the losses.  While
    titillating ourselves en masse upon frightful cinematic images of a master
    race of machines, we fail to notice how these images arise from within
    ourselves and reflect the truth to be found there.
    Related article:
    "The Pigs of Iowa" by Lowell Monke in NF #114:
    Monkeys and Computer Hygiene
    You've heard about the hypothetical team of monkeys laboring over
    typewriters and eventually producing the complete works of Shakespeare.
    This, as you'll recall, is claimed to illustrate the kind of higher wisdom
    that, given the right supportive mechanisms, can emerge from random
    processes, including the random mutations supposedly involved in
    Well, it was bound to happen:  researchers at Plymouth University in
    England have given some monkeys -- six Sulawesi crested macaques, to be
    specific -- a computer for typing.  The one-month progress report is now
    in, and we're still waiting for the first word to be typed.  The monkeys
    do use the keyboard at times, but seem to prefer the letter S -- long
    strings of S's in fact.  Toward the end of the month they struck a few
    A's, J's, L's and M's.  Most of all, though, they seem to enjoy urinating
    and defecating on the keyboard.
    Which makes me wonder:  do you think there might be something to this
    "higher wisdom" business after all?
    Is There a Gene for Famine Relief?
    In a review of a book by geneticist James Watson (Science, Apr. 18,
    2003), Susan Lindee touches on the question of famine.  Noting that
    famines result not only from inadequate food supplies but also from
    economic systems, she goes on to say:
       People can starve when the grain elevators are full; they can have
       enough to eat when crop yields are disastrous.  India, for example, has
       in recent years faced dual crises of both overproduction of food and
       profound malnutrition.  By December 2000, millions of tons of wheat and
       rice stocks were rotting in India's granaries, while 1.5 million
       children were dying annually of diseases linked to malnutrition.
       Promoters of genetically modified organisms often claim that anyone
       opposed to transgenic crops is turning a blind eye to the needs of
       those who are starving.  But the anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone has
       suggested that the real moral outrage is the strategic use of hungry
       people to justify corporate programs to develop these crops.
       "Malthusian biotechnologists need to explain why crop genetic
       modification will feed hungry Indians when 41.2 million tons of excess
       grain will not".
    Actually, one wonders whether the grain isn't itself a symptom of the
    underlying problems.  Such excesses tend to occur where you have the
    heavy-handed industrialization of agriculture, with its dislocation of
    millions of people, much-too-sudden disruption of traditional patterns of
    life, loss of local self-reliance, and reduction of dietary diversity.
    In any case, Lindee's comments further support the argument Craig Holdrege
    and I made a couple of years ago in NetFuture #108, "Golden Genes and
    World Hunger":
    It's nice to see this kind of awareness making it into the pages of a
    journal like Science.
    Goto table of contents
                                  Langdon Winner
                                                          TECH KNOWLEDGE REVUE
                                                            3.1   May 20, 2003
    The following is an abridgment of testimony Langdon Winner delivered
    before the congressional Committee on Science in Washington, D.C., on
    April 9, 2003.
    Nanotechnology is an emerging technology with enormous potential to alter
    our way of life in decades ahead.  It is by no means the first emerging
    technology to generate sweeping changes in society and the environment,
    nor will it be the last.
    If one looks at previous episodes of technological transformation, it
    becomes clear how crucial it is to ask:  Who gets to define what the
    transformation will involve?  Typically, what happens is that the
    promoters of a new technology, those with the most to gain in the short
    run, are the ones who speak first and most loudly.  They predict a wide
    range of practical benefits -- new products, services, efficiencies,
    improvements of all kinds.  Indeed, they usually proclaim that there is a
    revolution just around the corner, one that will alter society for the
    better, making us wealthier, wiser, more democratic, and stronger in
    community bonds.
    Often the promoters try a clever ploy, announcing that the changes on the
    horizon are "inevitable," beyond anyone's power to guide or significantly
    alter.  In advertisements, World's Fairs exhibitions, and public relations
    campaigns, proclamations of inevitability have long been standard themes.
    In contrast, those who have concerns about the technology and its ultimate
    outcomes tend to speak later and more hesitantly.  It is common for those
    who raise questions about the new devices to be denounced as irrational,
    unscientific and even anti-technology.  Rachel Carson's modest report in
    The Silent Spring about the environmental destruction caused by the use
    of chemical pesticides brought heated denials from the chemical industry
    and attacks on Ms. Carson's credentials (even though she was a noted
    scientist) and flagrant efforts to destroy her reputation.  Of course, we
    now think of Rachel Carson as a hero, one able to focus our society's
    awareness of environmental problems and solutions.  But as she raised her
    voice, calling our attention to the consequences of spreading poisons
    through the environment, she was derided as ill-informed, an enemy of
    Recurring episodes of this kind show why it is important to open the
    discussion about emerging technologies to the light of day, and to do this
    sooner, rather than later, in the process of planning, development and
    The claim that a particular development is "inevitable" is particularly
    unhelpful in this regard.  It suggests that people who have recently
    become aware of potentially significant changes to their way of life have
    no legitimate role in the negotiations.  After all, who would be so
    foolish as to make suggestions when faced with the "inevitable"?  As the
    motto of the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago informed visitors, "Science
    Finds - Industry Applies - Man Conforms."
    Nuclear Power and Biotechnology
    All too often those who try to shepherd new technologies into being adopt
    strategies that cripple the processes through which consensus, coalition,
    and balanced choices might arise.  This strategy can backfire, producing
    unhappy surprises.
    This was certainly the case in the development of nuclear power in the
    United States.  For many years plans were made by talented but inward-
    looking elites in government, business and the military who thought they
    knew best what the public should want.  They regaled the populace with
    lovely propaganda about "the friendly atom" and "electricity too cheap to
    meter," but avoided going public about serious problems that the insiders
    knew about -- the real costs of the plant, safety issues involved in their
    design, and the problem of nuclear waste disposal.
    When these deeper problems finally did surface powerfully in the 1970s and
    1980s, the social coalition that proponents of nuclear power hoped would
    support them suddenly collapsed.  The building of nuclear power plants in
    the U.S. was halted, possibly forever.
    Another episode of technological backfire, one perhaps more relevant to
    the rise of nanotechnology, is evident in the crisis that now surrounds
    biotechnology.  Once again, the social coalition of support, neglected or
    even scorned as biotech development moved ahead, has now evaporated in key
    areas of application.  For reasons they find entirely sensible, nations in
    the European Union now refuse to buy genetically modified foods from the
    U.S.  In a similar way, faced with severe famine, Zambia has refused to
    accept GMO corn, even as a charitable gift.
    What this suggests is that the failure to provide open, thorough and
    honest attention to the broader social, political and cultural contexts
    that influence the acceptance or rejection of emerging technologies can
    lead to disaster.  Late in the process, it does little good to tell those
    who are unwilling that they're being irrational or that there is something
    woefully defective in their culture (not ours).  To paraphrase the great
    American philosopher, Yogi Berra: If people don't want to adopt your
    better mousetrap, nobody's going to stop them.
    Nanotech Worries
    Nearly two decades after the publication of Eric Drexler's Engines of
    Creation, a number of concerns about nanotechnology are finally
    attracting wide attention.
    A recurring nightmare is that promised inventions in self-replicating
    systems might escape the boundaries originally established for them and
    begin to wreak havoc.  As novelist Michael Crichton recently commented,
    "Imagine a mass of tiny computers, each smaller than a speck of dust,
    programmed to fly in a cloud over a country like Iraq and send back
    pictures.  Imagine the computers begin to evolve and the aggregate cloud
    becomes a death-dealing swarm that threatens mankind -- a mechanical
    Others hear about ambitious proposals to employ nanotechnology and other
    "convergent" technologies to create (decades from now) a race of
    posthumans.  Those not yet persuaded that this is "inevitable" wonder
    whether it's a good idea to seek to divide the human species in this
    manner and whether public funds should be spent on such ghoulish research.
    Another persistent concern is that the rise of this field will not, as
    promised, be of general social benefit, but will simply amplify trends
    long under way -- the concentration of wealth and power in the the U.S.
    and around the globe.  Historically speaking, predictions that the latest
    and greatest technology will equalize wealth and opportunity have usually
    proven false, a fact that never deters boosters of the "next big thing"
    from promising that this time (!) the economic and social developments
    will be universally shared.
    Faced with the various possibilities described in writings about this new
    field of research, I must admit that I know too little to judge the
    likelihood of various scenarios, both optimistic and pessimistic.  Indeed,
    I doubt that anyone has this knowledge at present.  Rather than play
    Cassandra (or Norman Vincent Peale), I would simply note three overriding
    questions that ought to be considered as our society decides which
    proposals for nanotechnology research are worth sponsoring.
    Domination or Cooperation?
    Should we continue long-standing efforts to conquer and dominate nature
    rather than seek harmony with natural structures and processes?
    During the past two centuries, the desire to conquer nature has often
    seemed synonymous with progress.  Dam the rivers, drain the swamps,
    harvest the forests, and bring all plants and animals under human control
    -- such counsel seemed eminently sensible.  More recently, however, as
    some unhappy consequences of this ham-fisted approach have surfaced, many
    scientists, engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs have affirmed that
    seeking harmony with nature is a more promising technological and economic
    Unfortunately, this recognition seems to have escaped the enthusiasts of
    nanotechnology for whom the prospect of conquering nature right down to
    the last molecule and atom seems positively invigorating.  It appears that
    God's creation is, alas, not all that it should be.  Fortunately, it can
    now be refashioned by a new generation of godlike spirits who live in
    Cambridge, Palo Alto, the Research Triangle, and other concentrations of
    high-tech brilliance.  Thus, the peculiar values of the American middle
    class, so exquisitely realized in Happy Meals, SUV's, $200 Nike sneakers,
    and botox wrinkle treatments, will now be read into the smallest crevasses
    of the material universe.  This is something to look forward to.
    All of it occurs at a time in which it should be clear that strategies for
    dominating nature through brute force have failed repeatedly.  For
    example, the creation of larger, technically more sophisticated fishing
    boats with better and better ways to track and catch fish has brought
    astonishing returns.  Although it was a difficult battle and took many
    years to complete, we have finally conquered the Atlantic cod.  The poor
    creature has not raised the white flag.  It is simply disappearing from
    the nets and from the nation's supply of healthy protein.
    I understand the obsession with dominating nature and the desire for power
    and wealth it reflects.  These tendencies are a dreary, but recurring
    presence in modern life.  Nevertheless, it is still worth inquiring: Why
    should American taxpayers be asked to subsidize ever more systematic
    assaults on the natural realm?  If they knew the kinds of projects
    sometimes proposed in this domain, how would they feel about them?
    At present we see a wide range of scientific and technological strategies
    that try to work closely with nature rather than impose imperial
    dominance.  It is interesting that these programs -- ones that stress
    "natural capitalism," "green design" "biomimicry," and "sustainable
    economy" -- point to a new industrial revolution, but one quite different
    from the revolution described by proponents of nanotechnology.  Is it
    possible that the rush to nanotech will come into conflict with efforts to
    create a socially harmonious, ecological sustainable future?  That
    prospect seems entirely likely.
    Means, Ends, and Pandora's Box
    A second question is this:  Should we actively promote a path of
    development in which technical means become the driving forces that shape
    social ends?
    The unfolding of nanotechnology may become yet another instance of a
    familiar phenomenon in which powerful techniques emerge from the lab and
    then go looking for uses.  This pattern defies common-sense understandings
    of the proper relationship between human ends and technical means.
    In the common-sense sequence, one begins by asking:  What are our needs?
    What fundamental purposes define our inquiries?  After the basic social
    ends have been clarified, compared, debated, and evaluated, we then move
    on to make choices among existing means, including newly developed
    technical devices.
    As one reads reports coming from scientists and policy makers interested
    in nanotechnology, one does not see the common-sense ends/means thinking
    at work.  There seems little willingness to ask:  What are society's basic
    needs at present?  What goals define our sense of well-being going
    What we find instead is a kind of opportunistic means-to-ends logic.
    Researchers and institutions interested in doing molecular- and atomic-
    scale engineering scan the horizon to see what opportunities might be
    identified as justifications for public funding and private investment.
    Thus, enterprising nanotechnologists notice applications that might
    deliver medical doses tailored to specific cells.  Looking at the sheer
    size of the Department of Defense budget, other nanotech promoters imagine
    how the technology might provide new weapons and other devices to the
    military.  Yes, there's always a lot of money in that.  Others catch on to
    this lucrative game and say, well, perhaps research on a range of nanotech
    applications could help the elderly or people with disabilities.
    In sum, what we see here are tools that evolve quickly in response to a
    variety of internal research priorities and then go opportunistically
    looking for things to do.  And, of course, one can always find something.
    I am pleased that Congress is prepared to offer support for study of the
    societal and ethical dimensions of an important new field of scientific
    and technical research.  But I fear that the manner in which the work is
    done will reproduce the kind of backwards logic that has shaped far too
    much of American technological development in recent decades.  It is a
    logic that justifies the creation of a wide range of flashy new gadgets
    but cannot be bothered to examine the most urgent facts about the human
    condition in our time.
    Thirdly:  Is it wise to experiment with technological applications likely
    to produce irreversible effects?
    As a general matter, technologies should be judged superior if the
    consequences of their use are reversible.  Some common projections about
    the outcomes of nanotechnology point to effects that could never be
    recalled from the environment or from the species with which nano-systems
    interact.  As we scope out the possibilities here, we need to ask:  Would
    particular paths of research and development risk opening Pandora's box?
    If so, how can present policies help eliminate that menace?
    Citizens as Policy Advisers
    Clearly, there is need to initiate systematic studies of the social and
    ethical dimensions of nanotechnology.  We need broad-ranging, detailed,
    intellectually rigorous inquiries conducted by persons who have no
    financial or institutional stake that might skew the questions raised or
    constrain the answers proposed.
    Studies of this kind could be launched in a number of ways, including
    funding truly cross-disciplinary programs in universities to scope out key
    issues and policy alternatives.  But I would not advise you to pass a
    Nanoethicist Full Employment Act, sponsoring the creation of a new
    profession.  Although the new academic research in this area would be of
    some value, there is also a tendency for those who conduct research about
    the ethical dimensions of emerging technology to gravitate toward the more
    comfortable, even trivial questions involved, avoiding issues that might
    become a focus of conflict.  The professional field of bioethics, for
    example, (which might become, alas, a model for nanoethics) has a great
    deal to say about many fascinating things, but people in this profession
    rarely say "no."
    Indeed, there is a tendency for career-conscious social scientists and
    humanists to become a little too cozy with researchers in science and
    engineering, telling them exactly what they want to hear (or what scholars
    think the scientists want to hear).  Evidence of this trait appears in
    what are often trivial exercises in which potentially momentous social
    upheavals are greeted with arcane, highly scholastic rationalizations.
    How many theorists of "intellectual property" can dance on the head of a
    One way to avoid the drift toward moral and political triviality is to
    encourage social scientists and philosophers to present their findings in
    forums in which people from business, the laboratories, environmental
    organizations, churches, and other groups can join the discussion. It is
    time to reject the idea that there are only a few designated stakeholders
    qualified to evaluate possibilities, manage risks, and guide technology
    toward beneficial outcomes.
    Examples of technology policy steered by narrowly interested technical
    elites can be found in America's systems of medicine.  For several
    decades, research and development have produced ever more exotic, high-
    tech treatments that help propel costs of health care to dizzying levels.
    Following this path, according to the Word Health Organization, the U.S.
    ranks only 24th in the quality of medical care actually delivered to its
    For many decades, there has been a tendency in government-funded research
    and development to exclude the participation of those who are the ultimate
    stakeholders -- the general public.  Yet citizens pay the bills for the
    work unfolding; they and their children and grandchildren will be the ones
    to experience the ultimate outcomes, good or bad.
    Why not include the public in deliberations about nanotechnology early on
    in the process rather than after the products reach the market?
    In that light, I believe Congress should seek to create ways in which
    small panels of ordinary, disinterested citizens, selected in much the way
    that we now choose juries in cases of law, be assembled to examine
    important societal issues about nanotechnology.  The panels would study
    relevant documents, hear expert testimony from those doing the research,
    listen to arguments about technical applications and consequences
    presented by various sides, deliberate on their findings, and offer policy
    advice.  It is possible that the news media would find these citizen
    panels a fascinating topic to cover.
    To begin, one might ask citizen panels to explore two highly relevant
    Will proposed paths for the military application of nanotechnology make us
    safer or not?
    Would projected uses of nanotechnology in industry tend to create jobs or
    eliminate them?
    There is now a lively research program within the National Science
    Foundation -- Social Dimensions of Engineering, Science, & Technology --
    that funds experimental citizen panels of the sort I am describing.  I
    would suggest that Congress build upon these fruitful experiments and
    specify (perhaps in the present legislation) citizen panels as one way to
    inform public debate about the societal and ethical dimensions of
    These days we often hear how important it is to be innovative in emerging
    technical fields.  Here is a way that Congress could be truly innovative
    -- creating possibilities for citizen stakeholders to join in the study
    and evaluation of new technologies.
    Tech Knowledge Revue is produced at the Chatham Center for Advanced Study,
    339 Bashford Road, North Chatham, NY 12132.  Langdon Winner can be reached
    at:  winner@rpi.edu and at his Web page:  http://www.rpi.edu/~winner .
    Copyright Langdon Winner 2003.  Distributed as part of NetFuture:
    http://www.netfuture.org/.  You may redistribute this article for
    noncommercial purposes, with this notice attached.
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                           ANNOUNCEMENTS AND RESOURCES
    Technosapiens Conference
    I'll be delivering an invited address at a conference on technology,
    ethics, and the future, to be held September 19 - 20, 2003, in Oakland.
    Co-sponsored by the Center for Bioethics and Culture, the Council for
    Biotechnology Policy, and the Institute for Business, Technology and
    Ethics, the event is (rather awkwardly) entitled, "The Face of the Future:
    Technosapiens? (Beyond Bio - Nanotech, Cybernetics, and the Future of the
    Human Race)".
    Other speakers include:
    ** Nigel M. de S. Cameron, executive chairman of the Center for Bioethics
       and Culture, and director of the Council for Biotechnology Policy
    ** Richard Hayes, executive director of the Center for Genetics and
       Society in Oakland.
    ** C. Christopher Hook, Director of Ethics Education, Mayo Clinic
    ** William Hurlbut, Stanford University, member of President's Council on
    ** C. Ben Mitchell, editor of Ethics and Medicine and fellow with
       the Council for Biotechnology Policy
    ** Ted Peters, the Center for Theology and Natural Science
    ** Christine Peterson, co-founder and president of the Foresight Institute
    For more information or to register, go to:
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                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
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