TCS Daily

Keeping Up "The Weird Fight"

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - February 11, 2004 12:00 AM

I'm worried about the future of nanotechnology. Worried enough, in fact, that where just a few weeks ago I was wondering if I should invest in the field, now I'm relieved that I don't own any nanotechnology stocks.

This worry doesn't come from any overinflated fears regarding the dangers of nanotechnology. As readers of this column know, I've long regarded most nanotechnology-related fears as overblown. Nor am I worried about technological progress, which actually seems to be advancing faster than even I expected. No, my fear is that the nanotechnology industry is setting itself up for a political disaster that will have serious economic ramifications.

As I've written before (here, and here, and to some extent here), I think that the nanotechnology industry has been unfortunately shortsighted in its effort to forestall criticism from environmentalists and Luddites. I've even noted that the industry seems to be going out of its way to alienate not only critics, but even allies.

Boy, was I right about that last point. In fact, here's the email that last week's column on that topic generated, from F. Mark Modzelewski, the Executive Director of the NanoBusiness Alliance:

The industry is not hiding from any real problems by ignoring your delusional fantasies and rantings, any more than one truly ignores a wino's claims on skid row that bugs are crawling under his skin. The very really issues of nano-health and environmental issues as explored by "real" research in the Washington Post is a matter entirely unrelated to your nutty diatribes. It's a matter the industry does take seriously and has been addressing for some time with research, discussion and taskforces. Because matters such of this are so grave and serious, we avoid mixing in the comic relief of the writings of Eric Drexler and yourself the subject.

I must say I pity the tax payers of Tennessee that pay your salary as well as your students who will enter the job market with a head full of rocks (or perhaps molecular manufactured nanorobots) after listening to you.

Keep up the weird fight. Lord knows I do get a laugh from it,


F. Mark Modzelewski, Executive Director
NanoBusiness Alliance
New York, NY

Now anybody can lose it and send an email that they later regret, but this is, in fact, the third such email I've gotten from Modzelewski, who is the public face of what purports to be the nanotechnology industry's trade association. (You can read an earlier email here, and there's a third, expressing Modzelewski's hostility toward Eric Drexler in rather intemperate terms, that I decided not to reproduce in a public forum.) And it's not just email, as this oped column by Modzelewski characterizing pro-nanotechnology critics of the industry's strategy as "denizens of their mom's basements" indicates.

I'm thus forced to conclude that the nanotechnology industry -- in the United States, anyway -- regards Modzelewski's correspondence as an integral part of its public relations strategy. I say "in the United States," because I received an email from a member of the European NanoBusiness Alliance who was at pains to make clear that Modzelewski doesn't speak for them, and that they view engagement with their critics as an integral part of their public relations strategy. Most people do. I'm not a public relations professional, but I used to practice law in Washington with a firm that dealt with a lot of trade associations, and the firing off of angry, insulting (and badly written) emails toward columnists wasn't part of their strategy. The nanotechnology industry seems to feel differently.

But that's why I'm worried about the future of the industry. These misguided responses aren't likely to change my views on matters of substance -- I'm used to hatemail, and in spite of this response I'm still hoping that nanotechnology will flourish, a necessary part of which involves the nanotechnology industry making a lot of money. I disagree about their public-relations strategy -- and these emails certainly don't change my views on that subject -- but not about the importance of nanotechnology. But I do feel that it's unlikely that we'll see nanotechnology flourish if its public relations strategy is routinely handled in such a ham-handed way. And although I've argued for several years that self-regulation should play an important role in nanotechnology regulation (here is an article on that subject, about to appear in the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology) that view has presupposed a degree of openness and responsibility on the part of the industry that is hard to square with its recent behavior.

If history demonstrates anything, it's that industries with new technologies that some people find scary need all the friends that they can get. It bodes poorly that the nanotechnology industry seems to feel that it doesn't even need the ones it's already got.


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