Business Technology: Nanotech Nannies Threaten To Cripple Industry - InformationWeek

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06:45 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans

Business Technology: Nanotech Nannies Threaten To Cripple Industry

Let's not let the drive to regulate interfere with reasonable advances as a promising technology takes off, Bob Evans says.

Steve Jobs and the president of Levi Strauss, not to mention many millions of music lovers worldwide, should give thanks each day that J. Clarence Davies wants to be the Nanny of Nanotechnology rather than the Impeder of iPodism.

And those of you who are betting on the potential of nanotechnology as an investor, an entrepreneur, a nanotechnology professional, or just a normal American who wants to see this country take the lead in this remarkable new field, should learn about J. Clarence Davies and his study on the environmental impact of nanotechnology. Here's a tiny but highly representative excerpt (p.22 of study): "The other major option to new legislation is a ban either on commercialization of NT [nanotechnology] products or on NT research."

Back on Planet Earth, Apple last week said it sold 14 million iPods in just three months -- 14 million! -- or about 150,000 every day from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31. That astonishing consumer phenomenon has triggered a jump in species as Levi Strauss has rushed out a new brand of jeans that the company says merges fashion and technology by featuring a special iPod-holding pocket and a built-in joystick custom-made for the Apple device. In the words of Levi Strauss brand president Robert Hanson, the new joysticked-out jeans enhance consumers' "digital music lifestyle." And Levi Strauss isn't even the first mover in this space: A few months ago, a company called Kenpo came out with a men's jacket featuring built-in iPod button controls in the sleeve.

Now, these clothes are largely silly -- but only if you insist on looking at them frozen in the present, rather than backward to what for many years was the standard in music systems, and forward to what these oddball ideas might become. Back in the Cretaceous Age when I was in the midst of my "analog music lifestyle," I needed a huge closet to hold what an iPod can deliver today: an amp prone to China Syndrome meltdowns, a 90-pound pre-amp, a tuner the size of Rhode Island that still required an external antenna to deliver anything, a turntable and an 8-track console and a CD player and a cassette deck and a massive reel-to-reel player PLUS massive stacks of wax and tape and cardboard and plastic to hold the actual equivalent of 10,000 songs. The solution? Innovative thinking, steadily advancing technology, and relentless miniaturization that resulted in the remarkable MP3 players of today, with the iPod holding about a 75% share.

But if J. Clarence Davies and others of his ilk had gotten wind of some of these stunning advances, these currently goofy jeans with joysticks and too-cool jackets with button controls would never have even been dreamed up -- or if someone had had the audacity to dream them up, those dreams would have been buried under legislation and regulation and bureaucracy so thick that it could be loved only by those who've given us the U.S. Tax Code. There would be no such concept as a "digital music lifestyle." A joystick in the watch-pocket? Perish the thought, and roll out the studies! Before introducing these new jeans, did Levi Strauss first test for 10 years the impact of the pelvic-proximate joystick on the human appendix? Did Levi Strauss do environmental-impact studies on how people will dispose of the retractable headphones that come as standard equipment with the new jeans? No? NO? Well, then, SHUT DOWN THE COMPANY!

Consider this: In a section (p. 21) discussing the creation of specific nanotechnology legislation, Davies says such laws "might place a greater burden on manufacturers, especially small start-up companies. The choice between protecting public health versus protecting small business and technological innovation can be very stark, but in the context of NT, it may be less so." Hmm, thought I; the legislation is likely to place greater burdens on manufacturers, especially small businesses -- the very types of company that are driving the greatest advances in this potentially huge new field -- but that might not be a big deal. Just how does Davies untie this Gordian knot? To his credit, he first admits that "much of the commercial innovation in NT comes from small start-up companies," but then he sweeps aside the severe threat to those creative geniuses by citing "a discussion of the structure of the NT industry" that says, "Most nanotechnology startups will not attempt to develop and market their own commercial products. Rather, they will seek to partner with large companies in industries that can utilize nanotechnology to improve their commercial products." Well, that clears it up, doesn't it: Since the small companies that create the innovation could later decide to partner with a big company, then it's OK to torment them while they're small and in the midst of their greatest entrepreneurial efforts with onerous legislation because if they somehow survive that then they can find a big buddy to work with.

Davies' report offers an alternative plan exploring voluntary efforts rather than legislative mandates, but he sniffs at such ideas with barely disguised contempt (p. 22): "A major disadvantage of voluntary programs is that they may leave out the people who most need to be included. In the case of NT, small firms making risky products and large firms with small consciences aren't likely to volunteer to do health testing or to give EPA information that might indicate a significant risk." The third option is the outright ban cited above.

Now, I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and I realize that we can't just let all companies do whatever the hell they want. Hey, I live in Pittsburgh, and have some photographs showing how the pollution here was so bad just 50 years ago that streetlights had to be on all day long, even on sunny days. But. A few weeks ago, we ran a story on how earbud headphones of the type popularized by the iPod can cause serious hearing loss -- IF they're used irresponsibly. Other studies have purported to show that joysticks cause everything from carpal-tunnel syndrome to teenage apathy to bad breath. Still others have blamed iPod owners for sparking an increase in crime because the gadgets are attractive to thieves. What next -- will Congress look at Apple's impressive financial results and escalating stock price and pursue a surtax on the "excessive" profits generated by iPod sales? The point is, if the hand-wringing industry would turn its paranoia toward the iPod, it could drum up all sorts of cataclysmic claims for why the devices should be banned as a public-health nuisance.

And that's just what Davies' report is doing to the nascent nanotechnology industry. Even he is willing to admit (p. 7 of study) that "The promise of NT is enormous.... Potential NT applications in the next few decades could produce ... therapies for several different types of cancer" along with huge advances in many other fields, including the desalination of water. Davies notes that "the benefits are almost limitless" but then, I think, he veers wildly off track from the type of thinking that has made the IT industry so spectacularly successful and pervasive: "While the benefits are almost limitless, they will be realized only if the potential adverse effects of NT are examined and managed." Ah, yes, those looming bugaboos that Davis himself admits "we know little about."

In closing, a couple of thoughts: First, as you're enjoying your iPod, write a letter to your congressman and tell him or her your thoughts on nanotechnology and its potential regulation and legislation. Second, consider the source of funding for Davies' study: It came from the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which was in turn financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts. On the homepage of the Pew Web site, under the heading "Advancing Policy Solutions," eight topics are listed, including Nanotechnologies, Global Warming, and Student Debt. I could see the immediate relevance of Global Warming, but Student Debt? So I clicked on the link for that section, and here's the second half of the introductory statement: "Working with other funders and non-profit organizations, the Partnership to Reduce the Burden of Student Debt, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, will collaborate with leading experts from across the nation to conduct nonpartisan research and analysis and identify practical policy options and ways to pay for them with current taxpayer dollars."

Yeah, beware the nannies of nanotechnology.

Other Voices "Apple on Tuesday released iTunes 6.02, an update that's quickly earned the derisive nickname 'SpyTunes' among bloggers. ... The MiniStore bases its song recommendations on music played by the user. Because these songs are stored locally on the user's computer, iTunes has to transmit information to other computers in order to generate a related suggested purchase. Since the software does this without user notice or consent, it's arguably a privacy violation."
--Thomas Claburn,, Jan. 12

Bob Evans, Editorial Director
[email protected]

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