governments at the 6th WTO Ministerial in Hong Kong
bristle with the thorny politics of trade, the report
that ETC Group releases today, Oligopoly, Inc. 2005,
serves as a reminder that what looks like buying
and selling between countries is most often the redistribution
of capital among subsidiaries of the same parent
Researcher Mark Baxendale looks behind the hype
and the scare stories at 'the next big thing' in
Capitalism, forever in search of updated means of
production, has seized upon nanotechnology as a panacea
for its present ills and invested huge amounts in
research programmes. Nanotechnology is the control
of the properties of matter by defining shape and
size at the nanometre scale—billionths of a metre.
Nanoscience is the study of physical phenomena at
atomic and molecular scales.
The possibilities offered by nanotechnology and
nanoscience have been hyped to attract investors
to such an extent that it is almost guaranteed to
be a disappointment. The short term benefits of nanotechnology
will be very mundane or frivolous. The biggest private
sector investors in nanoparticle research are cosmetics
Nanotechnology has also generated serious concerns
among anti-capitalist activists, echoing the debates
around genetically modified foods. Some of this concern
draws on Eric Drexler's 1986 book, Engines of Creation,
in which he predicted self-reproducing nanoscale
The fear generated by this vision, popularised by
Michael Crichton's novel Prey, is that a self-reproducing
molecular machine could be designed to consume life
and reduce us all to “grey goo”.
In 2000, one informed commentator, Bill Joy, said
that research into nanotechnology should stop immediately,
as developments in the wrong hands could end life
as we know it.
There is debate about whether the grey goo theory
is a real possiblity. The nanoparticles being researched
and used today are not self-reproducing and several
hundred years of scientific endeavour have given
us little insight into how to achieve self-reproduction.
Self-reproduction is a feature of biology, for example
ribosome synthesises protein molecules according
to a specification embedded in an organism's DNA.
But nature has had a “research and development” time
of several billion years, and the prospect of us
out-designing nature is remote.
However, there are pressing concerns about the health
implications of nanoparticles in the body. Nanoparticles
can pass through biological cell walls so the interaction
with our bodies is at a much deeper level than for
larger molecules such as asbestos that get trapped
in the lungs.
Lobby groups have raised this issue—Greenpeace have
called for 10 percent of funding to be dedicated
to health studies. Such studies have commenced but
there has been no sign of any research funding from
New Labour yet.
We should insist on the highest safety standards
for those working with free nanoparticles, but we
should also do so for by far the greatest producer
of carbon nanoparticles, namely the car engine. We
should also insist on the highest standards of toxicology
for those cosmetics companies already using nanoparticles.
Nanotechnology does promise to bring real benefits—especially
in healthcare and the search for renewable energy
sources. At the tiny scales nanoscience deals with,
the properties of matter differ significantly from
those of our familiar everyday world, opening up
new possibilities for science and technology.
For example, the gold and silver used in jewellery
is inert—it is stable and unreactive. But gold nanoparticles
can speed up certain chemical reactions and silver
nanoparticles kill bacteria.
Embedding nanoparticles in another material can
also drastically alter its properties. For example,
rubber can be strengthened by mixing in carbon nanoparticles
and dispersed gold nanoparticles give glass a deep
These changes to the properties of rubber and glass
have been known about for some time. What's new is
that through nanoscience we are beginning to understand
why these changes take place.
New developments, particularly in microscopy, microelectronics
and molecular biology, have provided tools for us
to explore nature on the nanoscale.
The manufacture of components in microelectronics
now takes places on such a small scale that the “top-down” processes
(analogous to carving a statue out of rock) are converging
with the “bottom-up” processes (analogous to building
a house from individual bricks).
Scientists are now exploring the possibility of
self-assembled electronic components using technologies
borrowed from molecular biology.
The convergence of different fields of science as
old boundaries break down at the nanoscale is an
important aspect of nanoscience, and one of the joys
of working in this field. Another example of this
is the quantum dot—a device developed for telecommunications
now used in the body to selectively kill off cancerous
If we are to maximise the benefits of nanotechnology,
we should not leave control of this field to the “band
of warring brothers”, as Karl Marx called the capitalist
classes of the world.
Social movements, including some of those involved
in this work, can be a powerful force arguing that
nanotechnology should be used to meet social needs.
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