Taking a Black & White View of a Technicolour World

battle-between-lent-and-carnivalFollowing on from the recent spat of name calling, there do seem to be opposing camps in the nanotech world, let’s call them the super optimists and the super pessimists.

The super optimists, and here I include the folks at Foresight, Institute of Molecular Manufacturing etc, tend to be people who spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer but have little understanding of the wider world. Hence for them the path from reading Engines of Creation to terraforming Mars and curing all known disease is straight and clutter free.

The super pessimists on the other side tend to think dark gloomy thoughts about all kinds on things – I’m thinking of a number of NGO’s here – and use scare tactics to add two and two together to make 27.581 in the sense of taking pieces of real science and although failing to understand what the science actually means, conclusions are still drawn and regulation demanded.

Both groups tend to be somewhat idealistic and take a very black and white view of a world that is quite gloriously and defiantly Technicolour, as the rest us know only too well.  I’m reminded of Peter Bruegel the Youngers 1559 painting “The Battle of Carnival and Lent” and its imagery still speak to us after almost four hundred and fifty years.

As a footnote about regulation, one of the rather simplistic views of nanotechnology is that if it can be regulated than that somehow makes the problem go away. Nothing could be more wrong – hazards are intrinsic and risks can be minimised but any regulation needs a system of policing to allow it to have any effect. The failure of various financial watchdogs on both sides of the Atlantic to spot the danger of highly leveraged investors or the actions of Bernie Madoff and Alan Stanford, through the recent tainted baby milk scandal in China to the failure of almost every ‘war on drugs’ shows how easy it is to set up a regulatory system, but how hard it is to have any effect on the real world.

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