With the “Wonders and Worries” of Nanotechnology, the Worries Seem to Be Accentuated

A video intended to aid the discussion of the societal implications of nanotechnology is long on satire and short on balance

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About a year-and-a-half ago, I came across a treasure trove of nanotechnology-related videos  posted by an organization called NISE (Nanoscale Informal Science Education) Network. And while visiting Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog today, I saw a new video produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota for NISE Network. The video (see below) is designed to resemble a circa-1950s educational movie and purports to be an “aid in the discussion of the societal and ethical implication of nanotechnology.”

There is no doubt that the premise of the video is clever, but I can’t help but think that it actually muddies the discussion of nanotechnology rather than furthering it.

Recently it is has become quite popular with political groups to produce videos that make heavy use of satire to get their point across. But in these instances, the facts of the matter become obscured in the attempt to win a political argument.

In this case, the satire seems misplaced and incongruous, especially when the aim is to lay down a level foundation for discussing nanotechnology. On one hand, there does appear to have been some attempt made to strike some balance between the good and the bad that nanotechnology may represent. But on the other hand, can it really be considered even-handed when it links nanotechnology with “modern day wonders” such as nuclear power, lead paint and asbestos?

I suppose the attempt at balance in that particular gag is the mention of items—computers, Whiteout and the TV remote—that, to the filmmakers, must represent positive (or at least innocuous) uses of technology. But it might be worth noting that even those items contain all sorts of chemicals that are dangerous to human health. Where is the satirical piece lampooning the introduction of these items into the consumer market?

The video also seems to be advocating the labeling of products that contain nanoparticles rather than merely introducing it as an idea and presenting alternatives.

This video is 5 months old now. But you can’t help but wonder whether, if it was produced today, its creators would note irony in the fact that a group that had urged manufacturer labeling created a list of so-called “nano-free” sunscreens that included products containing nanoparticles. 

Of course, some things are so outlandish that they simply defy satire.

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