German philosophers take on nanotechnology

It had to happen: a book in which German philosophers direct their attention to nanotech. (Ethicists and social scientists too.) Excerpts from the English abstracts (pdf), with my commentary inserted:

An account is provided of how the purpose of gaining knowledge is reoriented towards purposes of application. This helps clear up the relation of discovery and invention in nanoscience and nanotechnology.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is true that some are still confused about the difference between nanoscience and nanotechnology. Nanoscientists especially fall into this, mistaking nanotech designs for assertions of new science.

To ensure that the term ‘nanotechnology’ means the same to all parties involved, its definition is therefore a crucial first step of interdisciplinary research, and has strong normative implications.

By now it is clear that getting this term to mean the same to all parties is pretty hopeless.

The main thesis is that future developments are not accessible as future ones, but only as our present images of them.

Er, yes, that’s right.

Though materials science research meets even the more stringent definition of nanotechnology, there remains a systematic tension between materials science and the device-centered visions of nanotechnology.

Well, maybe it doesn’t meet the most stringent definitions. But the tension is definitely there.

To speak of ‘hearing atoms’ would make much more sense than to claim that we can see them. Nevertheless acoustic representations have not been publicized. On the contrary they are downright suppressed.

I’d like to hear these suppressed representations. It’s true that we can’t really see atoms, so why not hear them instead? Or in addition?

Onc the other hand it reflects the dangers of this development. Due to the European a social contract that considers the technological advance not as the myth of an inescapable fate, but as a result of a democratic agreement of the European civil societies themselves.

This idea keeps popping up: a democratic vote on technology. This could possibly slow or stop a technology where the vote was held, but not elsewhere.

On the basis of a case study on visionary images of medical nanorobots and micro-submarines in media debates, this contribution demonstrates that these images serve as a means of communication between the discourses of science, economy, and the mass media. Through a systems-theoretically and discourse-analytically oriented examination of the pictorial dimension of expectations, this contribution shows that ‘communicative spaces’ suggested by the images enable productions of meaning for the current potential of nanotechnological innovations between various discourses.

This is correct. The images are a means of communication that produce meaning to multiple groups.

The analysis reveals the connotations of their use and shows that Feynman’s way of visionary thinking had been highly influenced by a historical background of interpreting the microcosm in a religious way.

Sounds wrong to me, but I would have to read the paper.

This paper argues that the extraordinary excitement about nanotechnology, including exaggerated hopes and fears, first emerged in the US, because it is deeply rooted in the specific religious tradition of that country. Virtually absent in Europe, mainstream Christian fundamentalism in the US has always had a particular relationship both to the future and to technologies, due to its apocalyptic orientation.


Nanotechnology is likely to strongly affect economies and societies worldwide. As a strategy to minimize adverse consequences as well as to enable a broad productive adaptation of nanotechnology and to prevent a global ‘nano-divide’ I propose a concept of ‘open nanotechnology’. This is based on four arguments that I draw from a systems theoretical approach to technology as introduced by Günter Ropohl and from experiences with open source software and open hardware design for a secure diffusion of technology.

We are trying to get an English version of this interesting one from author Niels Boeing.

Nanotechnology is developing very rapidly and is believed to have the potential of huge upsides and extreme downsides. In the pubic [sic] debate there has been a strong tendency to exclusively focus on the first or the latter.

Is this really true? Often I see a balance, or at least prominent mention of the other view.

The article includes some considerations concerning basic requirements for a comprehensive ethical investigation of nanotechnology and argues for an inclusion of visionary projects in the analysis of ethical aspects of nanotechnology.

This is by a theologian. U.S. theologians really like to include visionary aspects, because these dramatic concepts give them something to really sink their teeth into (and usually disapprove of).

New technologies may bring decisive advantages in case of war…Nanotechnology could be used in all areas of combat and its preparation. In a first purview of potential military applications, some of them have turned out to be particularly problematic in terms of preventive arms control.

Indeed. —Christine

Leave a comment