WorldChanging ally Mike Treder, at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, wrote a great short piece today asking hard questions about the role nanotechnology might play in reducing global poverty. He has generously agreed to let us repost in full.
Two weeks ago the United Nations issued a report detailing the deaths of more than 29,000 children every single day as a result of avoidable diseases and malnutrition. Over ten million children a year! The difference between the almost nonexistent coverage of this ongoing human-created disaster and the huge focus on the terrible tsunami-generated suffering in South East Asia reveals some deep and ugly truths about our collective self-deceptions.
Imagine if every single day there were headlines in every newspaper in the world and every television show saying: "29,000 children died yesterday from preventable diseases and malnutrition" and then the rest of the stories alternated between detailed personal accounts of families where this devastation was taking place, and sidebar features detailing what was happening in advanced industrial countries, like this: "all this suffering was happening while the wealthiest people in the world enjoyed excesses of food, worried about how to lose weight because they eat too much, spent money trying to convince farmers not to grow too much food for fear that doing so would drive down prices, and were cutting the taxes of their wealthiest rather than seeking to redistribute their excess millions of dollars of personal income." If the story were told that way every day, the goodness of human beings would rebel quickly against these social systems that made all this suffering possible, suffering far, far, far in excess of all the suffering caused by tsunamis and other natural disasters.
This is not to minimize the terrible tragedy that has occurred in Southeast Asia -- but to remind us that terrible tragedies happen every day. And for some reason, disasters that have human causes seem to get smaller headlines and less attention than those caused by nature. Why?
If we can raise tens of millions of dollars in a few weeks from governments and private donations for the relief of one natural disaster, why can't we devote proportional effort and resources to the ongoing treatable problem of childhood diseases and malnutrition? Why do we allow ten million children to die every year, when it's not necessary?
And now the point that especially concerns CRN: what will happen when molecular manufacturing gives us the capability to relieve suffering on a far greater scale than we could today (if we wanted to)? How will those potentially world-changing benefits be distributed? When it becomes possible to radically reduce poverty, to end starvation and hunger, to stamp out almost all infectious diseases, will we do it? Or will only the relatively few gain the advantages that nanotechnology can offer?
If the lessons of today are any indication, we'll need to make some big changes. Otherwise, it seems the gap between the haves and the have-nots may grow rapidly wider. If we want something different for our future, we should start planning for it now.
This is exactly the kind of question that needs to be asked. Particularly of those who make the rules which create such a miserable state of affairs. Lets try and encourage the 'Make Poverty History' campaign to acheive its goals. Until everyone in the world has an equal say, however, there are always going to be people who want more than their fair share - even if it means others starving. If nanotechnology can help give people a voice it can acheive something even longer lasting.
For a preview of the rise of nano-manufacturing, we can look at the fuss the copyright industry is kicking up over computer technology and its ability to make perfect copies of content.
Scarcity is far too important to today's economy, and particularly those with clout in it, to allow unregulated molecular manufacturing. If such technology does come to pass, it will be locked down with "rights management" mechanisms that ensure that the profits go to rightsholders (i.e., corporations). Poverty won't be eliminated; in fact, it'll probably get worse when (local) manufacturers are undercut by nano-manufacturing devices which send all the money to the US or Switzerland.
From the looks of it, DRM, more properly called Digital Restrictions Management, and its partner Trusted Computing, which I would cynically call Trusted Consuming, is gaining a stranglehold on the current chipset market under various product-specific names. So, it doesn't look like there will be much of a choice soon. By the time molecular manufacturing rolls around, you will be lucky if The Man lets you buy all of your products on a subscription basis, because it is just as likely that once you're locked in to DRM that you will have to pay for each press of the lever on your toaster.
It makes me wonder if billing will even be accurate as DRM evolves to control more and more of your "computing experience." Is there any incentive to make a DRM billing application show accurate information, when you have no way of legally copying the information to a backup source in order to collect evidence of fraud?
So, I hope poverty doesn't get any worse, but if advanced DRM enables a level of totalitarian control as yet unimagined, you really won't have a choice.