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Imagine I was selling a magic machine that would solve all your problems and make me rich.

Byline: Lauren Bills For The Register-Guard

Imagine I was selling a magic machine that would solve all your problems and make me rich. Imagine I said that you already bought it, thank you very much, and all your troubles will soon be gone.

That's where we find ourselves with the new science of nanotechnology (Register-Guard, July 7: "UO puts big hopes in tiny technology"). We're told that nanotech is already on its way, and don't worry - we'll love it. We get quick-fix solutions; they get tax-funded research, megaprofits and unprecedented power. What a deal!

Unfortunately, this sales rap is not only deceptive but threatens to create a sci-fi future ruled by a global super-elite. If we're not careful, nanotechnology will be forced upon everything around us and within us.

Nanotech involves the manipulation of single molecules or atoms at the scale of one billionth of a meter. The two primary results are super-tiny computers and a vastly enhanced ability to mesh living and nonliving material.

The U.S. government predicts that within 10 years nanotech will be a trillion-dollar industry.

Nano-patriarch Richard Smalley calls it "the ultimate level of control." Mihail Roco, chairman of the federal National Initiative on Nanotechnology, envisions the integration of humans and machines to create a "global hive-consciousness" as the next step towards "conquering nature" (National Science Foundation/U.S. Department of Commerce report, June 2002, "Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance").

Such aims have raised concerns among people around the world who love freedom and unconquered nature - people who would never be heard if the nanotechnologists had their way. We cannot safely put our trust in scientists, industrialists and politicians set to make unimaginable sums of money and drastically change the human experience, especially when they try to silence their critics.

For example, last December people from eight African nations released their Cape Town Declaration, calling for full disclosure and global participation in decisions about nanotech. As with genetically engineered foods, when Africans question the nanotech industry's promises to feed the world and eradicate poverty and conclude that the "help" isn't worth the price, their concerns are ignored. Though the five major nanotech Internet newswires post nearly 100 stories each day, the words "Cape Town Declaration" have never appeared on any of them.

Nanotech's critics also include the Erosion, Technology and Concentration group (, an international agriculture think tank. ETC blew the whistle on Monsanto's Terminator technology, intended to render seeds sterile so farmers had to buy new seeds every year.

ETC now warns that nanotech is being developed in a way that threatens widespread ecological damage and a widening power gap between those who have control of this technology and those who don't.

The nanotech industry tries to discredit ETC by focusing on the group's concerns about the "gray goo" theory. Gray goo would be self-replicating nanorobots, growing exponentially until their numbers drown everything in a global cloud. But those who fear gray goo are not fringe thinkers; the Environmental Protection Agency, the industry darlings at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnolgy and many others quietly admit that gray goo is a real threat.

Another key thinker being pushed out of the discussion is Dr. Gregor Wolbring, director of the International Center for Bioethics, Culture and Disability (bioethicsanddisability .org). Wolbring participated in early U.S. government strategizing around nanotech. He supported nanotech development, but insisted that people with disabilities be allowed to choose not to be altered by nanotech and to accept themselves as they are.

Wolbring says he was dropped from the government nanotech conference circuit in favor of people with disabilities who want to be "fixed" at any cost.

Some pro-nano voices (the World Transhumanist Association, for example) have predicted that once nearly everyone's bodies or minds have been altered by nanotech, failure to nanoize your child could be seen as child neglect.

Building public consensus is a key part of the nanotech strategy. These scientists know that in many parts of the world they've lost the debate over genetic engineering, and they say they will not lose the debate over nanotech. That's why the industry is aiming nanotech cartoons at school children. That's why the last National Initiative on Nanotechnology "hive-consciousness" conference announced a new national TV station called XLR8TV, due out this fall, to "democratize" nanotech. You can bet that critical voices will not be given such government-paid platforms.

Such vastly limited discussion will only mean power for those in the know and vastly less freedom for the rest of us. We should tell the nanotechnologists that we're not buying what they're selling, and we won't sit idly by while they push it on future generations.

Lauren Bills is a member of Eugene's Cascadia Media Collective (
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 20, 2003
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