The numbers are in again and it seems that Americans are still largely ignorant of nanotechnology’s existence.Five years ago the Project on Emerging Technology commissioned a poll to determine the awareness of nanotechnology among the U.S. population. At the time, there was surprise that only 6 percent of Americans had “heard a lot” about nanotechnology, down from 10 percent in 2006.
It seems that in the years since, the number has slipped even further. Only 5 percent of the population now claims to have “heard a lot” about nanotechnology. It seems that a seemingly endless parade of public outreach projects hasn’t raised the nation’s nano-consciousness.
With Harris Interactive releasing this poll, we were spared the Project on Emerging Technology’s blatantly obvious insights like: “Individuals with less education and lower incomes are least likely to have heard about nanotechnology.” But Harris does dwell on the discovery that people over the age of 65 believe that nanotechnology’s benefits outweighed its risks (58%, versus 32%-36% among other age groups).
So fascinated were the folks at Harris Interactive that they brought in Dr. Kathleen Eggleson, leader of the Nano Impacts Intellectual Community at the University of Notre Dame to comment. "Though it may initially seem counterintuitive, it actually makes sense that those aware of nanotechnology within the 65+ age group tend to believe that the benefits of nanotechnology will outweigh the risks, as the prevalence of worry in general tends to decline with age," says Eggleson in the press release. "Older Americans also have firsthand experience with the emergence of many different technologies that have brought new benefits to their lives."
While Eggleson sees this primarily as a psychological phenomenon related to one’s age, I see it more as a social phenomenon brought upon by the age we live in. The current generation has been raised on an overarching “distrust of big business and the supposedly complicit governments that support the immoral aims of business.”
The generation that stayed up late watching Apollo missions, and bought the first personal computers, grew up believing that technology and those who developed it were on a mission to raise the human condition. Younger generations give greater credence to theories that the Apollo moon landings were staged and that the computers we’ve brought into our homes were designed to spy on us.
To those inclined to see corporate and governmental conspiracies lurking behind every new high-tech development, nanotechnology is just the latest in a long line of threats. Nonetheless, try as some NGOs might, it seems that people just are not afraid of nanotechnology and it still enjoys a “white hat” status.
I suppose we are supposed to see the numbers of this report as alarming. I do not. Perhaps the dwindling number of people who “know a lot” about nanotechnology is a sign that we have outgrown the hype that surrounded the field a decade ago. Maybe it also means that the term is disappearing from general use as it morphs from a separate field to just another prefix. I am further comforted that despite persistent and sometimes deliberately misleading attempts to demonize nanotechnology, people for the most part just don’t seem too worried.