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Unbounding the Future:

the Nanotechnology Revolution

Chapter 11

Limits and Downsides

The discussions of potential economic, medical, and environmental benefits may have given the false impression that nanotechnology will create a wondrous utopia in which all human problems are solved and we all live happily ever after. This is even more mistaken than the idea that new technologies always cause more problems than they solve. Many of the main constraints and difficulties faced by people are based not on technology or its lack, but instead by the very nature of the world we live in and the essence of our humanness.

Increasing affluence based on molecular manufacturing won't end economic problems any more than past increases in affluence have. Wilderness can still be destroyed; people can be oppressed; financial markets can be unstable; trade wars can be waged; inflation can soar; individuals, companies, and nations can go into debt; bureaucracy can stifle innovation; tax levels can become crippling; wars and terrorism can rage. None of these will automatically be stopped by advanced technology.

What is more, the potential benefits of new technologies aren't automatic. Nanotechnology could be used to restore the environment, to spread wealth, and to cure most illness. But will it? This depends on human action, working within the limits set by the real world.

This chapter first describes some of the limits to what nanotechnology can accomplish, and then some of the adverse side effects of its basically good applications. The next will discuss the problem of accidents, which seems manageable, and then the far greater problem of potential abuse of new capabilities.

Some Limits of Nanotechnology

The world imposes limits on what we can do. Technology in general (and nanotechnology in particular) can provide padding for us as we throw ourselves against these hard, sharp limitations, and can sometimes help us slip past old limits through previously unknown gaps. Eventually, though, we will encounter new limits. In the end, solid constraints will limit human action no matter how much we juggle atoms and molecules, or the bits and bytes of information. Let's look at some of these, starting with the most abstract and long term—the most definite and hardest to avoid—and moving toward the more personal and near term.

Information Loss

Many problems differ fundamentally from the material problems of limited matter and energy: they involve information. Some of the most precious stores of information in the world today are the genetic codes of the biosphere.

This information, different for virtually every individual organism, is the product of millions of events that we are incapable of modeling or recreating. When this information is lost, it is lost forever. When the atoms encoding this information are thoroughly scattered, there seems to be no way to retrieve it.

With any species, most genetic information is shared in common, found in all members of that species. But the variations in genetic code between individuals are important, both to the individuals themselves and to the health and prospects of the species as a whole. Consider the northern white rhino, whose numbers have dropped to an estimated thirty-two animals, or the California condor, of which only forty remain, all in captivity. Even if biologists succeed in reestablishing these species—eight condors were hatched in 1989—much of the diversity of their genetic information has been lost. Worse yet are extinctions of species for which no tissue samples were saved. The future may see some amazing recoveries: Dry skin and bones may yield a complete set of genes when sifted by molecular machinery, and even current techniques have been used to recover genes from an ancient leaf, almost 20 million years old. Our eyes and instruments cannot yet tell us how much information from the past remains, but we do know that genetic information is being lost every day, and once lost, it is irretrievable.

Physical Limits and Nonsense

People have often been wrong about physical limits, confusing the limits of their technology with the limits of the possible. As a result, learned men first dismissed the idea of heavier-than-air flight, and then dismissed the idea of flying to the Moon. Yet physical limits are real, and all technology—past, present, and future—will stay within those limits. There is even reason to suspect that some of those limits are where the learned now believe them to be.

Nanotechnology will make it possible to push closer to the real limits set by natural law, but it will not change those laws or the limits they set. It will not affect the law of gravity, the gravitational constant, the speed of light, the charge of the electron, the radius of the hydrogen atom, the value of Planck's constant, the effects of the uncertainty principle, the principle of least action, the mass of the proton, the laws of thermodynamics, or the boiling point of water. Nanotechnology won't make energy or matter from nothing.

It seems a good bet that no one will build a faster-than-light spacecraft, or an antigravity machine, or a cable twice as strong as diamond. There are limits. Science today may be wrong about some limits, but scientific knowledge is practically defined to be our best information about how the world works, so it isn't wise to bet against it.

There will be claims that nanotechnology will be able to do things that it can't, or that capabilities are around the corner when they aren't. Sometimes these will be innocent errors, sometimes they will be culpably stupid errors, and sometimes they will be what amounts to fraud. Among the problems that nanotechnology cannot solve is that of misguided claims, by people calling themselves "scientists," "engineers," or "businesspeople," that they have a big technical breakthrough worth a fortune. Every interesting new technology, particularly in its early days, is a chaotic mix of competent workers and charlatans. For every Thomas Edison inventing useful products such as light bulbs or the precursor of movie projectors, there were people promoting electric hairbrushes to cure baldness, and electric shoes, electric belts, electric hats—the list goes on—that authoritatively claimed cures for infertility, overweight, underweight, and all the ills and discomforts of mankind. Today, we laugh at the credulity of our forefathers who bought these gadgets; we shouldn't, unless we laugh at our own times as well.


Natural law imposes limits, but so does the nature of human beings. These will continue as long as people do.

Reproduction is a deeply ingrained instinct enforced by the march of time, which ruthlessly discards the genetic material of all who neglect it. Many would argue that the Earth is already overpopulated. While nanotechnology could enable the current population, and even a greatly increased one, to live more lightly on the Earth, there will still be limits to Earth's capacity.

The norms of human life are shaped by ancient patterns: high rates of infant or childhood mortality have been facts of life for millennia, and having many, many children has been a way to ensure that one or two will survive to work on the farm, and to care for you in your old age. Large families naturally become traditional. When modern medicine and reliable food supplies change those conditions—as they have, in cultural terms, virtually overnight—behavior does not shift as quickly. The result is the Third World population boom. In Western countries, where there has been time for behavior to adapt, a huge family is the exception.

It might seem that our problem is solved. Molecular manufacturing can make everyone wealthy, and wealthy populations today have stable or shrinking populations. The Earth can support more people with advanced technologies, and these will also open up the vast room and resources of the world beyond Earth. Would that this were true.

If 99 percent of the people in a population respond to wealth by reducing childbearing, the population will indeed stabilize or shrink, for a while. But populations are not uniform. What of the 1 percent, say, who are members of a minority with different values? If that minority has a growth rate of 5 percent per year, then in ninety-five years they will be the majority, and in one thousand years their population will have grown by a factor of 1,500,000,000,000,000,000,000, if resource limits or genocide haven't intervened. Note that the Hutterites of North America, a reasonably wealthy religious group viewing fertility control as a sin and high fertility as a blessing, have managed an average of ten children per woman. Given enough time, exponential growth of even the smallest population can consume all the resources in reach.

The right to reproduce is often regarded as basic, as illustrated by the outrage at reports of forced abortion in the People's Republic of China. The Hutterites and many others regard it as part of their freedom of religion. But what happens when parents have more children than they can support—does redistribution solve the problem? If reproduction is not forcibly suppressed, and if resources are forcibly and repeatedly redistributed so that each human being has a roughly equal share, then each person's share will steadily shrink. Even given the most optimistic assumptions regarding available resources, with a policy of resource redistribution and unlimited reproduction, the amount per person would eventually be insufficient to sustain life. This policy must be avoided, because if it is followed, it will kill everyone.

As soon as we grant that any entity is entitled to certain rights—whether that entity be a human child, an animal, or some future artificial intelligence—the question arises of who is responsible for providing resources to support it when it can't do so for itself. The above argument indicates that a policy of coercion by some central power to compel the entire population to support an exponentially exploding population of these individuals would lead directly to disaster. Ultimately, this responsibility must rest with the entities' initiator: the designer of the artificial intelligence, the owner of the pet, the parents of the child. No new technology can magically remove the limits imposed by natural law, and thereby lift the burden of human responsibility.

Solutions Cause Problems

Every time a technology solves a problem, it creates new problems. This doesn't mean that the change is neutral, or for the worse, of course. The Salk and Sabin vaccines for polio virtually destroyed the iron-lung industry, and the pocket calculator virtually destroyed the slide-rule industry, but these advances were worth the price of some economic adjustment.

Molecular manufacturing and nanotechnology will bring far greater changes, placing far greater strains on our ability to adapt. We shouldn't be surprised when basically beneficial applications make someone miserable. Our lives are largely centered around problems. If we can solve many of these problems, the centers of our lives will shift, creating fresh problems. This section sketches some of the issues of change and adaptation more to raise questions than to offer solutions.

Change Causes Problems

Molecular manufacturing offers the possibility of drastic change, a change in the means of production more fundamental than the introduction of industry, or of agriculture. Our economic and social structures have evolved around assumptions that will no longer be valid.

How will we handle the changes in the way we work and live? Nanotechnology will have wide-ranging impact in many areas, including economic, industrial, and social patterns. What do historical patterns in similar circumstances tell us about the future?

Any powerful technology with broad applications revolutionizes lives, and nanotechnology will be no exception. Depending on one's point of view, this may sound exciting or it may sound disturbing, but it most certainly does not sound comfortable.

In comparison to many projections of the twenty-first century, though, nanotechnology may lead to comparatively comfortable change. The changes most often projected—for a future not including nanotechnology—have been ecological disaster, resource shortages, economic collapse, and a slide back into misery. The rise of nanotechnology will offer an alternative—green wealth—but that alternative will bring great changes from the patterns of recent decades.

Times of rapid technological change are disconcerting. For most of humanity's existence, people lived in a stable pattern. They learned to live as their parents had lived—by hunting and gathering, later by farming—and changes were small and gradual. A knowledge of the past was a reliable guide to the future.

Sudden changes, when they did occur, were apt to be ruinous: invasions or natural disasters. These sudden changes were fought or repaired or survived as best one could. Making major changes by choice was rare, and radical innovations were generally for the worse: the old ways at least ensured the ancestors' survival, the new might not. This made cultures conservative.

It is only natural that there be efforts to resist change, but before undertaking such an effort, it makes sense to examine the record of what works and what doesn't. The only examples of successful change fighters have been communities that have created and maintained barricades to isolate themselves from the outside world socially, culturally, and technologically. For the two centuries before 1854, Japan turned its back on the outside world, following a deliberate policy of seclusion. The leaders of Albania restricted contacts for many years; only recently have they started to open up.

Isolation attempts have worked better on a smaller scale, when participation is voluntary rather than decreed by government. Today, within the Hawaiian island chain, the tiny, privately owned island of Niihau, sixteen miles long and six miles wide, is deliberately kept as a preserve of the nineteenth-century Hawaiian lifestyle. Over two hundred full-blooded Hawaiians there speak the Hawaiian language and use no telephones, plumbing, television, and no electricity (except in the school). The Amish of Pennsylvania have no surrounding ocean to help maintain their isolation, but rely instead on tight social, religious, and technological rules aimed at keeping external technology and culture out, and themselves grouped in; those who leave the fold are excluded.

On a national scale, attempts to take only one part of the package—whether social or technological—haven't done well at all. For decades, the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc nations welcomed Western technology but attempted tight restrictions on the passage of people, ideas, and goods. Yet illegal music, thoughts, literature, and other knowledge still crept in—as they do into the Islamic countries.

Fighting technological change in society at large has had little success, where that change gave some large group what it wanted. The most famous fighters of technological change—the Luddites—were unsuccessful. They smashed "automated" textile machinery that was replacing old hand looms during the early industrial revolution in England, but people wanted affordable clothing, and smashing equipment in one place just moved the business elsewhere. Change has sometimes been postponed, as when a later group, under the banner of "Captain Swing," smashed hundreds of threshing machines in a wide area of southern England in 1830. They succeeded in keeping the old, labor-intensive ways of harvesting for over a generation.

In previous centuries, when the world was less tightly connected by international trade, communications, and transportation, delays of years and even decades could be enforced through violence or legal maneuvers such as tariffs, trade barriers, regulations, or outright banning. Attempting to stop or postpone change is less successful today, when technology moves internationally almost as easily as people do—and human travel is so easy that 25 million people cross the Atlantic each year. Change fighters find that the problems they create mount with time. Products made using the old, high-cost techniques are uncompetitive. There is no way to bring back the "old jobs": they no longer make sense. But old habits die hard, and these same responses to the prospect of technological change continue today—ignoring it, denying it, and opposing it. Societies that have fought change, as Britain did, have fallen behind in a cloud of coal smoke.

Why did the Luddites respond violently? Perhaps their response can be attributed to three factors: First, the change in their lives was sudden and radical; second, it affected a large group of people at one time, in one area; and third, in a world unprepared for rapid technological change, there was no safety net to catch the unemployed. While local economies might have been able to absorb a trickle of hungry laid-off workers, they lacked the size and diversity needed to offer other employment options quickly to large numbers of unemployed.

In the twentieth century, however, societies have of necessity become somewhat better adapted to change. This has been a matter of necessity, because sluggish communities soon fall behind. In the ancient days of peasant stability, there was no need for institutions like Consumer Reports to study and rate new products, or regulators like the Environmental Protection Agency to watch over new hazards. We developed the needs, and we developed the institutions. These mechanisms represent important adaptions, not so much to the technologies of the twentieth century, but to the increasing change in technology during the twentieth century. There is great room for improvement, but they can perhaps provide a basis for adapting to the next century as well.

Even with the best of institutions to cushion shocks and discourage abuse, there will be problems. The very act of solving problems of production—of increasing wealth—will create problems of economic change.

Clean, Decentralized Production Causes Problems

Over centuries, the trend has seemed to be toward centralization, beginning with the rise of factories and industrial towns. What drove these developments was the high cost of machinery and plant operations, the need to be near power sources, the impracticality of transportation among many small, dispersed sites, and the need for face-to-face communication.

Beginning with the first industrial revolution, factories employed large numbers of people in one place, leading to overcrowding and making local economies dependent on one industry and sometimes on a single company. Costly equipment necessitated central locations for textile production, rather than the cottage industries where a lone woman could earn a livelihood carding wool and creating thread on a spinning wheel (providing the origin of the term spinster). By the 1930s, the belief in the virtures of centralization and central planning—the supposed efficiencies and economies of scale—led to nationwide or continentwide experiments in centralization. But over the last decade, these large-scale experiments have been dismantled, from Britain's privatization of nationalized utilities to the beginning of a return to the market system in Eastern European countries.

Because the old limits on transportation, energy sources, and communication have fallen, business is now decentralizing. Between 1981 and 1986, the Forbes 500 companies cut their employees by 1.8 million. But during those same years, total civilian jobs went up by 9.2 million. Start-up companies created 14 million jobs; small companies created another 4.5 million. Telecommuting is booming, as are new businesses, independent professionals, and cottage industries.

We've also seen the resurgence of small, but highly diverse stores: gourmet food shops, specialty ethnic shops, tea and coffee purveyors, organic and health food stores, bakeries, yogurt shops, gourmet ice-cream stores, convenience stores offering twenty-four-hour access, shops selling packaged food plus snacks. These stores epitomize something fundamental: At some point, what we want is not a standard good at an ever cheaper price, but special things customized to meet our own individual tastes or needs.

The trend for advanced technologies seems to be leading away from centralization. Will nanotechnology counter or accelerate this trend? By reducing the cost of equipment, by reducing the need for large numbers of people to work on one product, and bringing greater ability to produce the customized goods that people want, nanotechnology will probably continue the twentieth-century trend toward decentralization. The results, though, will be disruptive to existing businesses.

The computer industry perhaps provides a clue to what might happen as costs are lowered by nanotechnology. The computer-software industry is characterized by the garage-shop start-up. When your equipment is cheap—inexpensive PCs built around low-cost chips—and you can make a product by throwing in some ingenuity and human labor, it's possible to start a new industry on a shoestring.

In 1900, when cars were simple, there were many car manufacturers. By the 1980s, if you weren't an industrial giant like General Motors or Ford, Honda or Nissan, you had to be John De Lorean to even get a shot at acquiring the capital to play in the business. If molecular manufacturing can slash the capital costs for producing cars or other plant-intensive equipment, we will see the equivalent of garage-shop businesses springing up to offer new products, and hiring workers away from the industrial giants of today just as the personal computer has destroyed the dominance of the mainframe.

The American dream is to be an entrepreneur, and the technological trends of the twentieth century point in that direction. Nanotechnology probably continues it.

In one area, however, the late twentieth-century trend has been toward uniformity. The nations of Western Europe are in the process of uniting under one set of economic rules, and parts of Eastern Europe are anxious to join them. More and more supranational and transnational organizations knit the world together. The growth of trade has motivated economic integration.

Molecular manufacturing will work against this trend as well, permitting radical decentralization in economic terms. This will help groups that wish to step aside from the stream of change, enabling them to be more independent of the turbulent outside world, picking and choosing what technologies they use. But it will also help groups that wish to free themselves from the constraints of the international community. Economic sanctions will have little force against countries that need no imports or exports to maintain a high standard of living. And export restrictions will likewise do little to hamper a military buildup.

By weakening the ties of trade, molecular manufacturing threatens to weaken the glue that holds nations together. We need that glue, though, to deal with the arms control issues raised by molecular manufacturing itself. This problem, caused by the potential for decentralization, may loom large in the coming years.

Even Wealth and Leisure Cause Problems

Lester Milbrath, professor of sociology and political science, observes, "Nanotechnologies will create the problem of how to meaningfully and sustainably occupy the time of people who need not perform much work in order to have a sufficiency of life's goods. Our society has never faced this problem before, and it is not clear what social restructuring will be required to have a good society in those circumstances. We face much deep social learning."

The world has had little experience with what anthropologists call "abundance economies." The native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest were one of those rarities. Ruth Benedict, in her classic book Patterns of Culture, wrote, "Their civilization was built upon an ample supply of goods, inexhaustible, and obtained without excessive expenditure of labor." The Kwakiutls became famous for their "potlatches": contests in which they sought to shame their rivals by heaping more gifts upon them than they could ever return. The potlatches would often be a year in preparation, last for days, and occasionally involve destruction of entire buildings. It was certainly a colorful form of keeping up with the Joneses.

What will motivate us, once we have achieved an abundance economy? What will we regard as worthwhile goals to pursue? Increased knowledge, new art, improved philosophy, eliminating human and planetary ills? Will we find ourselves creating a better, wiser world, or sunk in boredom and jaded now that we have all and want nothing? If boredom gets out of hand, the lively spectacle of wealthy donors seeking to outdo each other to endow the arts, aid the poor, and do other good deeds for the sake of prestige would be welcome.

What will happen as life spans continue to lengthen and the time needed to make a living decreases? Even today, there are people who, when confronted with the prospect of a significantly longer life span, exclaim that they couldn't imagine what they would do with all that time. This response can be hard to understand, when it would take a thousand years to walk all the world's roads, more thousands of years to read all the world's books, and another ten thousand years to have a dinner conversation with each of the world's people—but tastes differ, and even a few decades of bad television might make anyone long for the peace of the grave.

Changing Employment Causes Problems

A major concern, and certainly the single area of greatest upheaval, is employment (which may become hard to distinguish from leisure). Once, people had little choice of employment. To keep a full belly, most had to work at the only job available: peasant farming. Eventually, people will have a complete choice of employment: they will be able to keep a full belly and a wealthy lifestyle while doing whatever they please. Today, we are about halfway between those extremes. In advanced economies, many different jobs are deemed useful enough that other people will offer an adequate income in exchange for the result. Some people can make a living doing something they enjoy—is this work, or leisure?

The impact of nanotechnology on patterns of employment will depend on when it arrives. Current demographics show a shrinking supply of young people entering the work force. Agriculture, the assembly line, and entry level service jobs are experiencing a labor shortage, and no relief is in sight. If these trends continue, nanotechnology may show up in the midst of a shortage of labor. If it arrives late enough, it may compete with industries that are already nearing full automation; "job displacement" may mean replacing an industrial robot with a nanomachine.

Employment patterns have shifted radically in the past. One hundred and fifty years ago, the United States was an agricultural nation—69 percent of all people worked the land and a growing percentage worked in industry doing things like building steam locomotives for Baldwin Locomotives Works or tanning leather for the giant Central Leather monopoly. By the early twentieth century, agriculture was waning in numbers but increasing in productivity; most people worked in industry, and the tiny information and service sector was beginning to grow. Today, the picture has reversed: 69 percent of employed Americans work in information or service jobs, only 28 percent work in industrial production, and 3 percent in agriculture. This tiny fraction feeds the other 97 percent of Americans, exports hugely to other countries, and receives subsidies and price support payments to stop them from growing even more food. Manufacturing, even without nanotechnology, seems to be heading toward a similar condition.

With an ever-declining percentage of our population working in manufacturing, we have as everyday products things that were once available only to kings and the high nobility. Yet owning multiple suits of clothes, having personal portraits of ourselves and family members, having music upon our command, having a personal bedroom, and having a coach awaiting our need—these are now regarded as being among the bare necessities of life. It may be possible to adjust to even greater wealth with even less required labor, but the adjustment will surely cause problems. In a world in which nanotechnology reduces the need for workers in agriculture and manufacturing still further, the question will be asked, "What jobs are left for people to do once food, clothing, and shelter are very inexpensive?"

Again, the twentieth century provides some guidelines. As technology has reduced costs by efficiently producing many units of an identical item, people have begun to demand customization to meet individual needs or preferences. As a result, there are ever more jobs in producing custom goods. Today, semi-custom goods that try to help us meet our needs or express our taste abound: designer linens, ready-to-wear fashions, cosmetics, cars, trucks, recreational vehicles, furniture, carpeting, shoes, televisions, toys, sports equipment, washing machines, microwave ovens, food processors, bread bakers, pasta makers, home computers, telephones, answering machines—are all available in large and ever-changing variety.

Just as varied is the fabulous wealth and diversity of information produced in the twentieth century. Information products are a large factor in the economy: Americans buy 2.5 billion books, 6 billion magazines, and 20 billion newspapers each year. In recent years, new magazines have been invented and launched at the rate of one every business day of the year. A visit to a well-stocked magazine rack shows only a hint of the wealth of highly specialized publications, each one focused on a specialized interest or attitude: hotdog skiing, low-fat gourmet cooking, travel in Arizona, a magazine for people with a home office and a computer, and finely tuned magazines on health, leisure, psychology, science, politics, movie stars and rock stars, music, hunting, fishing, games, art, fashion, beauty, antiques, computers, cars, guns, wrestling.

Motion pictures, which started as a flock of independent production companies and then consolidated into the great studios of the 1930s, have since followed the decentralization and diversification trends of recent years. Now an expanding range of film entertainment comes via network TV, cable channels, private networks, videotapes, music videos. Independent producers are aided by the technology innovations of cable, direct broadcast satellites, videotape technology, laser disks, videocameras.

The arts have burgeoned, with the general public as the new patron of the arts. Any artist or art form that could find and satisfy a market boomed in the twentieth century. Not just the traditional arts of actors, writers, musicians, and painters, but all forms of "domestic" artistry have grown to unprecedented levels: landscape and interior design, fashion design, cosmetics, hairstyling, architecture, bridal consulting.

Providing for these demands are some of the "service and information" jobs created in the late twentieth century. "Service" jobs include many ways of helping other people: from nursing to computer repairs to sales. In "information" jobs, projected to have the fastest percentage growth over the next decade, people find, evaluate, analyze, and create information. A magazine columnist or TV news producer obviously has an "information" job. But so do programmers, paralegals, lawyers, accountants, financial analysts, credit counselors, psychologists, librarians, managers, engineers, biologists, travel agents, and teachers.

"Increasingly," states Forbes magazine, "people are no longer laborers; they are educated professionals who carry their most important work tools in their heads. Dismissing them from their jobs, cutting them off from their places of employment may hurt them emotionally and financially. But it doesn't separate them from their vocation in the same way that pushing a farmer off his freshly seeded land does. For centuries workers were more dependent on a particular physical setting than they are now. Modern occupations generally give their practitioners more independence—and greater mobility—than did those of yesteryear."

These human skills that people carry with them will continue to be valued: managing complexity, providing creativity, customizing things for other people, helping people deal with problems, providing old services in new contexts, teaching, entertaining, and making decisions. A reasonable guess would be that many of the service and information industries of the twentieth century will continue to evolve and exist in a world with nanotechnology. What is harder to imagine would be what new industries will come into being once we have new capabilities and lower costs.

Along with the old economic law of supply and demand is another governing factor: price elasticity effects. People's desire for something is "elastic": it expands or contracts when the cost of something valuable goes down or up. If the price of a flight to Europe is five hundred dollars, more people will take a European vacation than if the price is five thousand dollars. When you had to hire a highly trained mathematician to do equations, calculation was slow and expensive. People didn't do much of it unless they absolutely had to. Today, computers make calculation cheap and automatic. So now businesses do sophisticated financial modeling, chemists design protein molecules, students calculate orbital trajectories for spaceships, children play video games, moviemakers do ever more amazing special effects, and the cartoon—virtually extinct because of high labor costs—has returned to movie theaters, all because computers permit cheap calculation. Nanotechnology will offer new, affordable capabilities to these and other people. Today, it's as hard to predict what new industries will be invented as it would have been for the creators of the ENIAC computer to have predicted cheap, handheld game computers for children.

So rather than producing drastic unemployment, nanotechnology seems likely to continue the trend already seen today, away from jobs that can be automated and into jobs where the human perspective is vital. But the true possibilities are, as always in the modern world, beyond predicting.

Change Disrupts Plans

Major shifts in demographics always cause disruptions. Even when we know they are coming, we never prepare for them.

Our plans are based on expectations of what will happen. If things don't go as expected, we find that we have "malinvested." Houston real estate was valuable and looked to become even more so when times were good for the oil business there; when the fortunes of the oil business changed, Houston real estate was found to have been overbuilt, overpriced, and many millions of dollars were lost.

Lengthening life spans push people toward taking a longer-term perspective, but rapid rates of change force a shorter-term perspective in investments. Turbulence in technology and in governmental monetary policy have already shortened time horizons. Businesspeople once routinely built plants with a thirty-year useful life. Today, the rate of change is too fast, and uncertainty regarding inflation and potential changes in tax laws is too great for such investments to make sense. Faster change will shrink time horizons further.

Governments have taken on themselves the burden of looking a lifetime ahead, and the Social Security Administration is in for some rough times. When Otto von Bismarck, Germany's Iron Chancellor, came up with the notion of a guaranteed old age pension, it was a cynically clever and low-cost way to gain popular goodwill. So few people lived to age sixty-five that the amounts paid out in pensions were a pittance. After watching the German experiment for a handful of years, other governments began following suit. None of them expected a world like ours where a baby girl born in the United States today has an average life expectancy of 78.4 years—double that of Bismarck's time—and even this estimate is based on the faulty assumption that her medical care will be no better than her great-grandmother's was.

At present, the Social Security Administration has two models: one they call "positive" and one they call "negative." In the "positive" model, people work like dogs until old age, retire, and promptly die—presumably before they've had a chance to collect substantial social security or medical benefits. In the "negative" model, people retire early, develop illnesses that require medical intervention, and then live a long time making doctor visits and hospital stays during those years. Plans based on these models deserve to be disrupted. A better, more realistic scenario would have people living and able to support themselves for a long time, with illnesses that can be handled easily and inexpensively. Present social security benefits are enough to provide a certain standard of living—food, housing, transportation, and so forth. In a future of great material wealth, these benefits will be easy to provide, and present projections of economic woe resulting from an aging population will seem quaint.

Coping with Change

Back in the seventies, author Alvin Toffler brought out a book called Future Shock, describing how disturbing rapid change is for people. The book was a best-seller, but how much actual future shock has been seen in the past decade? Most people seem to have come through the last two decades pretty much all right, not in a state of shock at all. Rather than being shocked by technology, they are instead annoyed about pollution and traffic.

Does this mean Toffler was wrong in predicting future shock? It's true that technology has been advancing rapidly in many areas over the past twenty years. But consider the average person's home life: How much of this rapid technological advance has shown up there? A great deal, yet most of it is hidden, unlike the earlier part of the century, where obvious change was the norm. Electric lights and appliances, automobiles, telephones, airplanes, radio, and television affected almost everyone's private life. One person's life could span the time from horse-and-buggy travel to watching the Moon landings on television.

In contrast, the past twenty years have seen new technologies move more quietly into the home. The VCR and microwave oven don't seem nearly as revolutionary as earlier inventions. Telephone answering machines are useful but haven't caused major changes in lifestyles. Fax machines are handy, but they're much like having very fast mail, and as this is written, fax machines aren't yet in most homes. So it's not surprising that the average person has felt little future shock lately. New medicines taken as pills—which may be radically improved—look just like the earlier pills. The computerized bills that come in the mail aren't any more exciting to pay than the old human-prepared bills.

This situation is unlikely to last. How much longer can technology advance so rapidly in so many fields without major effects on our lifestyles? There's been a respite from future shock in the last three decades; people have had a chance to catch their breath. When nanotechnology arrives, will future shock arrive with it?

Some segments of society today are already getting practice in dealing with rapid technological advance. Those getting the most vigorous workout are in the computer field, where a machine two years old is regarded as obsolete, and software must be updated every few months to keep abreast of the new developments.

But has this terrific rate of progress been dizzying or overwhelming? Not for the consumer—on the contrary, computers have become easier to use. In the 1960s, the New Math that was introduced into American grade schools and junior high schools included extensive study of arithmetic using numbers written in something other than the familiar base 10. This was to prepare the "Adults of Tomorrow" for "The Computer Age" in which we would all be writing assembly language computer programs in binary (base 2) code. But customers now purchase software rather than write it themselves—they need never deal with computer languages at all, much less a primitive assembly language. The rapid increase of computer speed has helped make computers easier to use.

This progression has occurred many times before: Cars started off with external hand cranks, then advanced to starters you could yank from the comfort of the driver's seat; now starters perform invisibly when you turn the key in the ignition. This pattern will surely continue. First, some people will adapt to the technology, but in the long run the technology will adapt to us. The more flexible and powerful the technology, the more easily it will adapt.

Seen from a distance, seemingly trivial patterns of adaptation form part of a larger process that has marked the last century: The Western world has begun to invent mechanisms to handle a world of persistent change. Our mechanisms are by no means perfect or painless, as any unemployed person can testify. Employment agencies and headhunters for job seekers; unemployment and severance packages to ease job transitions; on-the-job training, continuing education, retraining, specialized seminars to update professional skills, professional associations, networking, community resources centers, government training programs, and volunteer agencies are just a few of the inventions dealing with change and transition. Consumer information services, regulatory agencies, and environmental organizations are others. The most effective will endure. More options will continue to be invented. 

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