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Saturday, December 10, 2005

The threat of nanotech and the willing surveillance society

All you MySpacers and such take note. Several articles report that school authorities increasingly use the personal webpages to discipline students. In this age of disappearing privacy, more and more people have begun posting personal information online, effectively doing the investigative job of the police and other authorities for them. Facebook.com claims 10,000 to 20,000 new users sign up every day, growing exponentially. Some claim that the site will garner more hits than many major websites soon; it already ranks ninth in hits in the US.

Physorg.com reports that Fisher College expelled two students for what authorities claim was a plan, posted on the students' Facebook page, to catch a college police officer in a sexual harassment set up. According to BG News,
Penn State University Police used Facebook to find students who disrupted a game against Ohio State University. Students at Northern Kentucky University were penalized for posting photos of a drinking party on their Facebook page.

Kansas State University made use of Facebook to look into possible breaches in the campus's honor code when students used Facebook to trade information without the professor's knowledge.
Chips, the student newspaper of Luther College, in an article on facebook.com, quoted the school's Assistant Dean of Student Life, Bob Felde, saying,
“I don’t want students to be deluded in thinking that these [Facebook accounts] are private things. If you put something on it, you had better be prepared for your mother or future employer to see it.”
“Some institutions methodically have Facebook trolled and there are lots of situations where people have gotten burned,” he continued.

The rise of voluntary participation in these kinds of websites raises all kinds of questions about the sort of society we are becoming, and whether privacy will even be an issue for a culture that so openly displays its information on the internet for all to see. But, just because it's freely given doesn't mean it's legal, and increasingly people have been doing the (now much easier) job of the police for them.

So, while police surveillance on the internet is a concern for a supposedly free society, very often these days it's regular citizens turning each other in, not the police. "It's usually students turning each other in," said Dana Walton-Macaulay, assistant director for student rights for UK's Office of Residence Life, in an article in the Kentucky Kernel. Organizations, like perverted-justice.com scour the internet for criminals, including visiting chat rooms and assuming fake identities to lure out alleged pedophiles. Certainly, with the increasingly public way in which so many of us display our associations and social networks, this can only make the job of a police and reactionaries easier.

On a slightly different note, the Associated Press reports on the increasing penetration of personal technology into the classrooms. But will it help kids learn?
"Despite the fact that we have spent gazillions of dollars in schools on technology, it's still just a leap of faith that kids are better educated because of that," said Robin Raskin, the founder and former editor of FamilyPC magazine. "Students need to have some opportunity to digest material serially, like reading a book from end to end. A tiny screen might stop you from being an analytic thinker 'cause you just can't see enough of a thing at once."
While the results seem mixed, one application for the technology has proven itself: "Studies show that when used regularly, such media-rich instructional tools can work well to assess student performance." Regimentation, assessment, quantification - the lifeblood of modern technological societies - are the true 'benefits" of the technology, and early introduction to technology ought to be viewed less as a learning tool and more as a ideological mechanism for getting kids used at a early age to the many ways they will be tracked and evaluated in a society steeped in individualism yet so little interested in them as individuals.
"I don't know if it's that they feel cool or they're just jazzed about the technology," Ross said. "But having some of those bells and whistles make the kind of information they really need to learn exciting."
Without a doubt.

But in an age of increasing isolation and atomization, all hope is not lost. India Times reports about the invention of the cyber hug. Pioneered on chickens (I'm not kidding), the cyber hug is a tactile suit that a child can wear, sort of like high-tech pajamas, which can transmit sensation via the internet. Of course, it doesn't take much imagination to see what this technology will really be used for, but for now the inventors say
each suit will receive signals via the internet, and interpret the data to adjust to changes in pressure and temperature. In effect, children will actually get a "hug" from their parents and vice-versa, if parents wear these suits as well.
"These days, parents go on a lot of business trips but with children, hugging and touching are very important." So, rather than analyzing the kind of society we have in which children aren't getting the kind of attention they require, we have the cyberhug instead. After all, technology causes and then fixes our problems.

Nanotechweb.org, in an article on their website, reports that new research reveals that some nanotech particles bond with genetic material and cause increased cell death and impede a variety of other essential cell processes. Similarly, PhyOrg.com reports that computer simulations reveal that buckyballs, nano-sized carbon structures, bond with DNA, "causing the DNA to deform, potentially interfering with its biological functions and possibly causing long-term negative side effects in people and other living organisms."

Researchers had been optimistic
despite earlier studies that have shown buckyballs to be toxic to cells unless coated and to be able to find their way into the brains of fish. Before these cautionary discoveries, researchers thought that the combination of buckyballs' dislike of water and their affinity for each other would cause them to clump together and sink to the bottom of a pool, lake, stream or other aqueous environment. As a result, researchers thought they should not cause a significant environmental problem.
But, "[i]t turns out that buckyballs have a stronger affinity for DNA than they do for themselves." Buckyballs have been the subject of much optimistic anticipation in the nanotech industry.

Also tackling the issue of nanotech, Mike Treder, Executive Director for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, writes on futurebrief.com about the technology's potential impact on society:
Behind the economic and military power surges... is the strength of emerging technologies. In particular, advanced nanotechnology – molecular manufacturing – is expected to enable dramatic changes in virtually all areas of life, including the home, the hospital, the boardroom, the battlefield, and the natural environment. Some refer to this as the next Industrial Revolution, and that is not an unreasonable comparison.

The big difference, however, between previous industrial revolutions and the nanotech revolution is the time span covered. Steam engines, electricity, the automobile, telecommunications, computers: these all brought extreme transformations to society, but they each did so over a period of decades. When molecular manufacturing arrives, probably before 2020, a shock wave of change could reverberate around the world in only a year or two. Never before have disruptive impacts occurred so rapidly.

Some of the troubling implications include: massive job displacement causing economic and social disruption, threats to civil liberties from ubiquitous surveillance, and the specter of devastating wars fought with far more powerful weapons of mass destruction.
Treder's article is interesting, but while it does focus on the way the technology may affect power relations in the world, it fails to recognize that the applications of those technologies will be on the elite's terms. He hopes to manage the technology "to ensure that such awesome power will be used responsibly." Treder treats the technology as a neutral force in the world, as if the "displacement" he foresees derives as a natural consequence.

But nanotech, like all technology, isn't a natural force - it is consciously directed by the rich and powerful, who fund it, subsidize it, research it and apply it. A more appropriate way to view the technology is as a tool wielded by the ruling class and applied against the rest of us, for their benefit. Society will be reshaped and reordered through the technology according to how it will enrich the elite or increase their control over society.

For instance, the Union of Concerned Scientists cites on its webpage a recent study revealing that
a leading agricultural economist finds that while some drug and biotechnology companies may profit from these "pharma crops," aggregate farmer benefits are likely to be small and rural community benefits may be much more modest than often portrayed.
Biotech firms, among others, have been pimping their products to growers, promising increased revenue from smaller fields, among other things. But,
[t]he major benefits of a successful pharma crop industry would be expected to go to companies in the form of reduced production costs. If the companies pass cost savings along to consumers, society may benefit from cheaper drugs. The net savings in production costs will be at least partially offset by the costs of containment needed to protect the food supply from pharma crop commingling. Contamination from open-air production is considered likely because most drug-producing crops are food crops such as corn, rice, and soybeans, and most pharma crop production occurs in areas where food versions of the crops are grown.
Cross contamination and mixing of engineered product with organic and other strains is a real worry, made even more frightening by pharma crops, which could corrupt foods with drug- and industrial chemical-producing genes. It should come as no surprise that that benefits of gmo technology will accrue primarily to the rich companies. It's not a coincidence, also, that the benefits are sold to us as if they will be widely shared. But, most likely, the costs will be imposed on us, through environmental and health effects, while the profit and benefits will get kicked upstairs.

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