The Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law

Manuscripts and Articles

The Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law
Volume 11, October 10, 2011
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A Review of Fritz Allhoff, Patrick Lin, and Daniel Moore’s "What is Nanotechnology and Why Does It Matter?"*

By Rosalyn W. Berne**

* Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, 304 pages.

** Department of Science, Technology, & Society, University of Virginia


Yet another book has been published expounding the significance of nanotechnology development. As with a number of other such books in print, “What is Nanotechnology and why does it Matter?” brings both scientific knowledge and Ethical/Legal/Societal implications (ELSI) to bear. It heralds the profound changes of nanotechnology while attempting to provide an effective way to deliberate ELSI, as nanotechnology unfolds into full development. In seeking to “tame a riot of speculation” [ix], Allhoff, Lin, and Moore reveal much of the complexity of the ongoing discourse on this matter, leaving quandary on multiple related issues. The tripartite layout of the book demarcates particular areas of expertise represented by the individual authors, in an unusual collaboration that brings distinctive breadth to a relatively well-published area of inquiry.

In Unit I of the book some of the fundamentals in the science of nanotechnology are explained, offering definitions and basic theories along with specific technologies used. Providing a general overview of the materials and applications of nanotechnology the authors seeks to ‘properly characterize’ more than to ‘speculate’ on its development with a nod, however, to the speculations made by Ray Kurzweil. They write, “Because of its breadth of application, nanotechnology represents a technological revolution that will impact many elements of human life, changing the way things are manufactured and the way we interact with technology…” [70].The Singularity is Near (2005) is referenced in support of their claim that technological change is speeding up and most likely will continue to accelerate. (1) The inevitable and crucial response for these and other authors, is consideration of “the societal impact and implications” of nanotechnology.

One distinctive feature, and also strength of the book, is their handling of the issues of risk and regulation. While Unit II does make some passing reference to nanotechnology, it offers more of a general discussion on uncertainty regarding the potential hazards of any technological development. The point is to provide the reader with a “conceptual apparatus” for the rest of the book, wherein nanotechnology comes more fully into focus. The authors’ conceptualization of risk turns out to be a complex endeavor, involving four different senses of risk, and four epistemic situations one can find oneself in, with regards to risk. The discussion of the catastrophe conception of the precautionary principle, in particular, details the complex levels of analysis of the concept.

Though citing the importance of such risk assessments, the somewhat struggled discussion reveals a futility of such, under current regulatory conditions. This leaves the reader into a quagmire over whether regulation is appropriate, practical or even necessary for nanotechnology. Some reassurance is offered that there are already laws and regulations in place that should help prevent the release of harmful products from in the market place. However, Alfred, Lin and Moore step aside from determining the efficacy of such laws for nanotechnology. They point to the novel, unpredictable characteristics of nanomaterials, stating that the precautionary principle is too strict if we are to succeed in the “great opportunity to develop a science that has been called ‘the Next Industrial Revolution'” [108]. Their interim solution, concerned that the nanotechnology industry might be ‘slowed down’ through more regulations, is that “regulatory planning as well as EHS testing and research need to run faster and catch up” [122]. Even though the authors acknowledge that the risks of nanotechnology may today pose severe threats, including the death of animals and people, they suggest that rather than to ‘throw more laws at the problem’ we’d be better off trying to sort out why current laws are not working. They write, “…the more–or-less regulation choice may be a false dichotomy, when the question really should be more about whateffective regulation would look like” [124]. With nanotechnology developing rapidly under a regulatory system that is unable to prevent potentially horrid, unpredictable, perhaps completely unknowable risks, they suggest that a compromise is needed, and ethics, too.

Unit II ends with an acknowledgement of the problem of equity and access. The authors stress that nanotechnology is not the only technology with fairness issues. The tremendous benefits nanotechnologies could bring to the developing world, such as in water purification, solar energy and medicine will only be affordable if countries are able to provide for themselves, they say. Otherwise, the question of fairness and justice will have to be carefully considered. How to do that is not a matter they venture to approach, leaving it up to other treatises on the subject.

Unit III, the last part of the book, gets at the heart of their purpose of “anticipating impacts that can help alleviate or solve problems that stand in the path of technological progress” [153]. It looks specifically at five broad areas of concern: Environment, Military, Privacy, Medicine, and Human Enhancement. The authors state their intention to promote “a balanced understanding of what nanotechnology really is and why it matters” [254], however, an ethical, regulatory path that clears the way for radical human enhancement seems to be of interest to them intellectually and also personally. This application of nanotechnology, as well as others presented in the book, will lend a great deal to the authors reaching their goal to “provide the basis for further dialogue” [258].

(1) Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, New York: Viking Press, 2005


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