Cultural lag of nanotechnologies

One of the first trend alerts I wrote back in January 2010 can be found here. The link requires an account, but the account is free. I continue to follow these developments and the topic has become one of my specialties.

Essentially I look at the growing health concerns over nanotechnologies* and apply William Ogburn’s social theory of cultural lag to the situation. Ogburn says, “technology moves forward and the social institution lags behind in varying degrees.” Ogburn identifies four stages to the cultural lag: technological, industrial, government, and social philosophical. Industrial is the first sector to adjust to the new technology, but it is within the governmental stage where Ogburn says things can easily go wrong. Governments have the responsibility to regulate the technology, and if the “lethargic governmental bodies” do not work effectively, society will suffer. It is at this stage of the cultural lag that Dana Fischer and Larry Wright connect James Carey’s theory. If government does not work quickly and effectively, “satanic and angelic images” surround the technology to justify and denigrate it. Fischer & Wright adjust Carey’s terms to utopian and dystopian images.

Since the technology sector has evidence for environmental, health and safety (EHS) concerns about nanotechnologies, it seems quite likely that utopian and dystopian images are likely to arise. Indeed they already have with various claims of curing cancer and ending the need for fossil fuels on the utopian side. One of the first instances of dystopian imagery came in 1986 when Eric Drexler suggested grey goo as the cause of a doomsday scenario. The term, grey goo, was further popularized in 2003 when Prince Charles called upon the Royal Society to investigate EHS concerns over nanotechnologies. It is interesting to note that Prince Charles wrote a year later that he never used the term grey goo. He suggests this was a term forced upon him by the media who feed upon and force feed the public with satanic and angelic images.

These uotpian and dystopian images are likely to be seen for a few more years. However with further research, scientists and scientific sources have begun to temper their utopian claims. At the same time, industry and governments are beginning to communicate more effectively about nanotechnologies. To see the cultural lag of nanotechnologies in action, I would recommend a few sources including The Politics of Fear and Anti-Nanotechnology Activism, Nanotoxicology myth buster, and this scathing criticism of Friends of the Earth. You can also watch a great symposium hosted by Andrew Maynard at the University of Michigan.

*Why is nanotechnologies plural instead of the usual uncountable singular? A number of researchers, both social and scientific, have discussed the potentially negative impact which the term Nanotechnology, as if it described a unified field, could have on the public perception of the vastly different applications of nanoparticles. Therefore, using the plural term maintains the efficiency of using one term to describe technology at the nanoscale while implying that not all nanotech is the same. Therefore, the baby would not be thrown out with the bath water if a particular nanoparticle were shown to be directly attributable to a human endangerment outside the lab. Some nanoparticles like fullerenes, which occur in nature, have been studied extensively with little (but still some) evidence of nanotoxicity while others like nanosilver have greater evidence for EHS concerns.

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