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Small Tech in a Small Nation

Small Tech in a Small Nation

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Published by Chris Groves
Have we learned yet what it means to live in a technological society? For well over a century, our everyday lives have become more and more penetrated by advanced technologies, from telecommunications and industrial chemistry through information technology to the products of the life sciences – and now, nanotechnology. For small nations like Wales, the promise of emerging technologies has been a popular talking point for politicians: be like Finland, and find your very own Nokia. But what are the ethical and political implications of the "knowledge economy"? How far does the encouragement of rapid commercial development undermine regulatory regimes, and amplify uncertainty and risk?

An early draft of an essay submitted to Planet Magazine.
Have we learned yet what it means to live in a technological society? For well over a century, our everyday lives have become more and more penetrated by advanced technologies, from telecommunications and industrial chemistry through information technology to the products of the life sciences – and now, nanotechnology. For small nations like Wales, the promise of emerging technologies has been a popular talking point for politicians: be like Finland, and find your very own Nokia. But what are the ethical and political implications of the "knowledge economy"? How far does the encouragement of rapid commercial development undermine regulatory regimes, and amplify uncertainty and risk?

An early draft of an essay submitted to Planet Magazine.

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Published by: Chris Groves on Mar 31, 2010
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Small Tech in a Small Nation
Chris Groves
Have we learned yet what it means to live in a technological society? For well over acentury, our everyday lives have become increasingly suffused by advancedtechnologies, from telecommunications and industrial chemistry through informationtechnology to the products of the life sciences — and now, nanotechnology. Our relationships with the non-human world and with other people have been transformed.Communications technologies bring the distant close to us, and consumer electronicstransport those closest to us far away. Engineered chemicals transform the materialswhich surround us, eradicate unseen dirt, kill unwanted unicellular creatures, even (sowe’re told) keep us young. We have gained the ability to store unimaginable amountsof information, and extend our collective capacity to remember — so long as thefragile digital media we employ endure.A technological society is one which surrounds its members with tools and deviceswhose inner workings and potential for creating unintended consequences remainmysterious — in effect, they’re so many black boxes. Since the 1960s, and therevelations about DDT and Thalidomide, it has been apparent that the benefits andcosts of technologies are spread unequally across the world and between generations.There have been protests against GM foods in developing countries, sparked byconcerns that the common heritage of farmers would be expropriated and turned intoa source of private profit by transnational corporations. Nuclear power bringselectricity to the homes of citizens of industrialised societies while successivegenerations in countries like Niger and Namibia suffer the consequences of workingin, and living near, uranium mines. Living in a technological society is not just amatter of living amidst all the black boxes; it is also a matter of understanding thatthey connect to and modulate inequalities of power.For nearly twenty years, nanotechnology has been hailed as likely to trigger nothingless than a second industrial revolution. The ability to engineer matter at the scale of nanometres, creating structures smaller than viruses and proteins, equal in size tosmall molecules, would mean that we could (to use imagery employed in a brochureissued by the US government back in 1999) “build the world atom by atom”. Newmedical devices, smart materials, drugs, even interfaces that would meld organic lifeand information technology, thus realising science fiction dreams of cyborgs — allwould be made possible. Commentators have embraced this vision enthusiastically,even those who disagree with writers like K. Eric Drexler and Ray Kurzweil about thefeasibility of micro-scale, artificially intelligent robots based on nanotechnology (likethe “nanites” featured in I, Robot or the remade The Day the Earth Stood Still).When such a future begins to look imminent, discussions of the effects on society of the new technologies ensue. Questions arise as to the optimum balance between benefits and risks, but also about how far the institutions that develop and managetechnologies can be trusted to safeguard against hazards. Although public awarenessof nanotechnology remains comparatively low, such questions are now to beexpected, just as was the case with GM technology. In January 2010 the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology produced a report that noted a
 
“regrettable” level of secrecy in the food industry around the current uses of nanotechnology. They accompanied this observation with comments on how muchremains unknown about the potential of nano-engineered substances used in foodapplications for harming human health and the environment. Yet the numbers of “nano-enabled” consumer products continue to increase: in the USA, the WoodrowWilson Institute’s online databases include, at the time of writing, over 1000consumer products from over 20 countries
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. The philosopher Langdon Winner has pointed out that technologies are a form of tacit legislation that can transform wholesocieties. If this is the case, the relationship between those on the receiving end — thecitizens of nominally democratic nation states — and those who drive and manage thecommercial exploitation of new technologies perhaps needs more scrutiny.It is evident that those behind the drive to commercialisation are convinced moretechnological innovation — of whatever kind — is good for us. And here in Wales,devolution may have made its contribution. In Wales, as in the UK, the 1970s, ‘80sand ‘90s saw a general decline of traditional manufacturing industries, as globalcorporations relocated production capacity to cheaper countries. Industry andgovernments alike began to consider science and technology important. Companieshad of course long seen science and technology as a source of improvements to production processes, and thus a source of profit. Governments now began to seesupport for technological innovation as a way of making their nations more attractiveto inward investment. Consequently, the social value of science and technology wasincreasingly described in the more nebulous language of banking. Investment intechnological innovation produced global “competitiveness”, or “flexibility” — qualities which would help companies and whole nations to deal with theuncertainties of a global economy, and which would trickle down (as prosperity wasonce supposed to do). Investments in a “knowledge economy” would create a“knowledge society”.Talk of “knowledge economies” has revived again recently, following the financialcrisis. It has, however, long been a popular theme for officials from small countriesafflicted by a failing manufacturing base. Business parks in locations as far apart asWrexham and Neath Port Talbot attract biotechnology companies. Companiesworking in nanotechnology, often linked closely with Welsh universities, have joinedthem over the last decade. Efforts to build up coalitions of academia and businesswithin Wales have been the focus of significant efforts both from InternationalBusiness Wales and from the Welsh Assembly Government, with WAG keen tospread the story that emerging technologies will be a source both of wealth and thatglobal elixir, competitiveness, in the future.In January 2007, the Assembly Government released a consultation document, AScience Policy for Wales?, the question mark indicating, as Rhodri Morgan noted atthe Institute of Welsh Affairs’ Science Conference in October 2006, that the need for a technology policy in a small country where this area did not fall under devolvedcompetences remained to be demonstrated. Nonetheless, he sought to demonstrate justthis, suggesting that the economic health of a small nation depends on the cultivationof its strengths, and the strengths of twenty-first-century Wales would lie in itsrelationship with science. “Wales must have a knowledge economy” Morgan stated,noting that Wales would certainly not be able to “compete in a globalising economyon low wage and production costs” alone. Among the examples highlighted of the
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http://www.nanotechproject.org/inventories/
 
emerging technologies crucial in Wales were the life sciences (including the WalesGene Park) and nanotechnology (which continues to grow its presence, now includingseveral Cardiff University-industry partnerships and spin-out companies, SwanseaUniversity’s Centre for NanoHealth, and strategic all-Wales coalitions like XGENand Technium).Policy priorities would be to develop the scientific knowledge necessary for futureinnovation and to bring in overseas companies looking for R&D partners, but also tohelp small companies get products to market. Morgan remarked that, in search of competitiveness, “we have to improve the speed of commercialisation of scientificdiscovery in our Higher Education and other public sector institutions”, taking other small country knowledge economies — like Finland, home of Nokia — as a model.High technology may increasingly be seen as another expression of Adam Smith’sinvisible hand, bringing private interests and public ones into harmony. But things arenot so simple, as Morgan’s comments indicate. The amount of resources thatemerging technologies require mean that governments — even small ones — have to play a significant role in supporting public and private research and development. Thelate John Ziman, physicist and philosopher of science, wrote that in recent decadesthere had been a gradual erasure of the old distinction between scientific researchdone for the sake of extending knowledge, and for technological application.
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For Ziman, the post-World War II period saw an increasingly intimate relationship between political institutions, private business, and academic scientific research. Newtechnologies were assessed as being of long-term strategic importance for governmentand business alike. The result was that more was asked of science. A new “socialcontract” arose, in which science was given generous funding in return for innovations that were of significant “social value” and which would mobilise longer-term economic growth. Gradually, scientists became used to being part of strategiccoalitions of private and public institutions. Even basic research within universitieswas increasingly shaped by social priorities, communicated through governmentdepartments, technology strategy committees, and funding councils.One positive conclusion to draw from this might be that science has become, at leastin theory, more accountable for what it does than ever before. But to whom? Who hasan opportunity to exert influence on debates over what the social value of emergingtechnologies might be? As I suggested earlier, technologies often also have a way of reflecting and intensifying existing inequalities of power. Which private interests, for example, have a say in deciding what benefits are worth seeking? And does allowing — and even supporting — such interests always benefit the public good?The wholesale strategic pursuit of new technologies on the basis of their promised benefits is based on decisions — sometimes explicit, sometimes not — about whatkinds of uncertainties — perhaps including serious risks — we should collectively bear. The recent history of nanotechnology gives us excellent examples of howstrategic science and technology is inseparable from grappling with uncertainty, andof how this creates serious problems of accountability.The ethical implications of some possible radical nanotechnological futures — suchas human cognitive enhancement and increased longevity — have been widelydebated in academia and in the scientific press. However, we do not have to go beyond current nanotechnology and its likely near-future development, to obtainmuch food for thought. The current uses of nanotechnology in medicines, cosmeticsand foods have not brought about anything like a new industrial revolution.
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Ziman, J. M. 2000.
Real science: what it is, and what it means
. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

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