Sunday, December 31, 2006

2007: The Year of Societal Implications?

Maybe. We do know that 2006 was not. Or at least not in terms of overall investment in the societal implications of technology and of nanotechnology more particularly. On the other hand, there was some good news. The two Centers for Nanotechnology in Society got up and running! Less parochially, nano and its health implications were in the news, and worldwide public health became a bigger issue than ever thanks to some great research, and activism, and philanthropic attention, and celebrity interest ranging from Bill and Melinda Gates to Brad and Angelina, as faithful readers of can attest.

Speaking of Brad Pitt, what does get people to use technology in a widespread way? What will get them to adopt nanotechnology? Gerald Barnett and I geared up our research on this question of "uptake," and though our focus is on industry's uptake of academic research, societal uptake of industry products is closely related. Sometimes uptake is driven by huge national initiatives: Business 2.0 is predicting for 2007 the beginnings of a race between India and China to get to the moon. U.S. high-tech was driven by that kind of massive federal spending for a couple of generations. This public investment - spurred by a range of motives, mostly defensive, protected and promoted technology that had no market support and no chance of mass adoption for years or in some cases decades. ARPANET, the main Internet precursor, is one obvious example of a technology that transformed the economy, but only about 30 years after its first working models went operational. 20-30 years is a bench-to-bedside norm: many predictions for nanotechnology cut that in half, and then cut it in half again. I hope so. But what are the drivers?

Which reminds me of Brad. Cynics say the Internet is sponsored by unembarrassing access to porn. Judging from 2006's search demographics, the Internet is actually sponsored by Brad Pitt. More broadly, it is sponsored by gossip about celebrities. Dan Mitchell at the New York Times reported yesterday that the top search term at Yahoo was "Britney Spears," and that most of the other top search terms were for sites that allow people to bid themselves out as celebrities - Bebo was Number One at Google, and MySpace was Number Two.

People also search for really basic things on line that they would otherwise have to stand up to look at - weather reports, dictionary definitions, and maps. There's a basic utility to the Internet that complements its effectiveness as a tool of social curiosity. But I keep coming back to the fact that this apparently infinite appetite for the Internet and for its underlying technology took decades to evolve. Much of it was self-organized. What about the societal uptake of various nanotechnologies?

The first thing to say is that uptake will not be linear - tech uptake never has been. This means that it could be much faster than the Internet model suggests, or not. The second is that in 2006 much of the discussion of nano-uptake was Kurzweilized, meaning it assumed that an advancing technology creates its own uptake. This is unfortunately not true, as innumerable articles and books by high tech business scholars and consultants attest (remember "Crossing the Chasm"?). Much or most demand is created, nurtured, and gradually built through various forms of social investment (some but not all via government funding of R&D) - hence the importance of Sputnik and Apollo in creating what we can call the public imagination of the meaning of a technology that in turn creates its use.

One of the great "crossing the chasm" business scholars is Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School, who burst on the scene almost ten years ago with The Innovator's Dilemma. He reminded me of a more ominous possibility for nanotech in an interview in the business section of today's New York Times. He's talking about health care, and he addresses the obvious fact of the American system's bloated cost and huge inefficiency. But he is not advocating something like a single-payer system of the kind that operates in Canada and in most countries in Europe. He calls instead for the greater "commoditization" of health care. This means increasing the simplicity, accessibility, and affordability of health care by in effect automating as much of it as possible. "Rather than replicating the expensive expertise of Mount Sinai Medical Center or Mass General Hospital or replicating the expensive expertise of doctors, we have to commoditize their expertise."

Christensen's claim here is consistent with his books' analyses of all other high-tech industries: the real savings - and the real profits- are in moving down the commodity chain, not up. Sustainable profits lie in lowering high-tech, not in raising high-tech even higher. Many tech revolutionaries think that people like Christensen define "disruptive technology" as breakthrough technology, the kind that is 10x smaller, 10x faster, 10x smarter, 10x better. Au contraire. The truly disruptive for Christensen is the truly average version of a technology - one that was breakthrough a few years or decades ago. Accessibility (and big revenues) came to PCs, for example, when "Michael Dell could assemble one of these things in his dorm room."

The good news: disruptive technology can be adopted on a mass scale. The bad news: mass adoption is always of technology that in the scientific sense is no longer disruptive. The process of development for mass adoption, in other words, is discontinuous with advanced research. To cross the chasm between development and adoption you need to widen the chasm between development and research. Developers and researchers have different interests and goals, and developers naturally want to minimize research costs. This means developers will not flood basic research with money. Thus there will never be a venture capital-funded nano version of the Manhattan Project or even of ARPANET.

This brings me back to the question of the drivers of nano-uptake. You can't commoditize nanoscale scientific research, so who will pay for it? The answer is going to be societal. My nano New Year's resolution is to know much more one year from now about the drivers behind the future uptake of our group's selected nanotechnologies.

Whatever your role in all this, Happy New Year!

1 comment:

  1. Chris-

    Good comments...I especially like the emphasis on public imagination.