Linking Nanotechnology to Every Fear about Technology and Science

Just about every bad thing that has happened over the last century in terms of a technology being introduced to society is now linked to nanotechnology.

The common culprits that nanotechnology is typically linked to are:


Genetically modified crops

Technology stripping us of our privacy

The last item always has me scratching my head see here and here and the latest discussion of the subject by Dr. Paula Hammond of MIT''s Institute for Soldiers Technology did not enlighten me any further.

Hammond discusses how by combining nanotechnology in the shape of smart materials with smart information systems the safety of soldiers in the battlefield can be improved. She specifically cites how at her lab they are working on thin film technology that will be able to detect a poisonous gas and then be able to change the permeability of the uniform the soldier is wearing to make it impossible for the gas to go through the material.

Then, somewhat inexplicably, she raises the specter of this technology getting into the wrong hands leading to questions of how this technology can minutely detect every move we make and by doing so compromise our privacy.

Hold on a minute. First off, all this privacy everyone is clamoring about was long gone before nanotechnology came along. The combination of information technology and basic telecommunication technology, along with a video camera at every street corner in cities like London dismissed any sense of privacy we used to have.

But let''s pretend that we still have some expectation of privacy and nanotechnology is about to threaten it. Say a nanoscale sensing device was placed into every piece of published material (highly unlikely given the cost, but for arguments sake let''s say it will happen). And this sensor was somehow able to detect who you were (another pretty tough one to do, but let''s just say it could) and reported back to some databank on all the material you were reading and for how long. Pretty spectacular'oh yes, and frightening too, of course.

But how is this much different from what is already possible by just basic information technology and buying your reading material with a credit card instead of cash?

If people want to start railing against how we have lost our privacy due to technology, fine, let me join you. But making nanotechnology another culprit because of capabilities that it does not yet possess, and when most guarantees of that privacy have long since vanished due to other technologies, seems a bit like flogging a dead horse, or in this case a phantom horse.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.