How Might Nanotechnology Change Human Culture?


Mass media, enhanced by technology, has a big impact on American culture. A prime example can be seen in how mass media instigates fears that changes the cultural mindset and people’s behaviors. In my lifetime I have seen a big shift in American culture relating to the fear we all feel sometimes involving possible violence, catastrophes, illness and epidemic, and other themes.  I have always believed that most of this increase in fear is related to the increasing penetration of mass media into our lives, along with the globalization of communications and the rise of sensationalistic journalism, in which ratings drive profits and are themselves derived from arousing people’s emotions and thereby capturing their interest.  Fear has often been used to control masses of people in history, but the effectiveness of new communications technologies in instilling it has been profound.  Future developments could make even more striking changes in our culture.

Technological advances have enabled mass media to penetrate our lives ever more deeply. Radio, television networks, and now the internet have driven fears into our lives that have deeply affected our behavior.  The change is evidenced in many areas of life, including, for example, the number of people who allow their children to play outside unattended, and the number of parents who struggle to keep their children continuously involved in supervised sports and other activities, for fear that a child predator could kidnap or harm them, or that they could fall under negative influences.  Since media technology is such a powerful force in our society, and is advancing at a rapid rate, especially in miniaturized electronics and electromechanical technologies ranging down to nanotechnology, I want to conjecture on where it all might lead in the next few decades.  The impact of any new technology is ultimately cultural, so how might nanotechnology affect us in North America (and, by extension, the rest of the developed countries)?

Dreams (and nightmares) of the past continue to become possibilities and realities. Science fiction of the 1950s was very imaginative, and it gave us many interesting ideas that have come about, and many that could appear in our future.  In the famous book Slan, by A.E. Van Vogt, he writes of advertising signs that project the ads directly into the eyes of passersby.  When I think about that today I realize that the technology now exists to automatically scan a video image, identify shapes and textures that would indicate a human eye, and establish a mark on the screen placed on each eye.  From there, the technology also exists to build small, efficient projectors, and the optical technology to aim and project images on the eye itself may exist already as well.  It appears that the advertising technology Van Vogt wrote about as fantasy is now a potential reality.

The integration and synthesis of new technologies suggests amazing possibilities. Future developments in micro- and nanotechnology could make further use of such capabilities to, for example, mount such an eye-aimed projector on a very small device that would fly autonomously.  Tiny helicopters and other flying machines already exist, and tiny video cameras and transmitters are already attached to them, allowing remote piloting and clandestine surveillance like never before.  Imagine a city street with what appear to be insects looping above the sidewalk, except that the insects are flying micromachines, tiny drones automatically projecting advertising into the eyes of the passing pedestrians.

Involuntary media exposure and surveillance could reach new extents. If (or when) advertising reaches the level of flying, targeted microprojectors, and assuming that video images can be projected as well as still pictures, could you have Rush Limbaugh, for example, appearing in space before you to shout his talking points at you?  Supermarkets already have “supermarket TV” screens above the cash registers and spread around stores, but imagine if those were instead a fleet of tiny drones that fly around autonomously following and watching customers, gathering data on their reactions to product displays, for example, while whispering or projecting advertising messages, and then flying back to the office when they need to recharge their batteries or refuel their tiny fuel cells.

Imagine the impact of repetitive and inescapable media messages bombarding you whenever you are in public. Essentially this sort of technology promises an even greater penetration of mass media into our consciousness than we have now, which is already remarkable.  For example, if advertising for the TV show “24” (and similar shows) has already taken up too much of your brain with thoughts about terrorist attacks, imagine if those images were being projected into your eyeballs and whispered into your ears ten or twenty times more often.

Repetition has great power to change people’s thinking. An interesting study conducted at The University of Michigan revealed that the credibility people attach to an idea increases as they hear it from more people, but that one person repeating an idea three times is 90% as effective as three separate people saying it once.  This supports the concept known as “the big lie” (link), evolved as part of the development of more effective media propaganda in the 1920’s and 1930’s and still prevalent today.  The idea is that the more we hear an idea repeated, and the bigger a lie it is, no matter how far fetched, the more we are likely to accept it as fact.  If we are hearing an idea repeated to us not just a few times a day, but potentially hundreds or thousands of times by tiny advertising microbots, this could make significant changes in our culture.   The big risk is that, since technology is expensive, powerful corporations which can afford it could come to dominate the common wisdom, and control our thoughts and actions as a group even more than they do today.

Nanotechnology developments could someday take media penetration to even higher levels. That’s not the end of it, however.  (It never is, is it?)  With the development of ever-more-sophisticated nanotechnology much more is possible.  Beyond the idea of a communications implant being installed in all or most people, giving them instantaneous global communications capabilities controlled by thought, are even more powerful and potentially dangerous concepts.  It has already been revealed that nano-sized particles can get into the body, and their effects are not completely known as yet.  I can foresee the possibility of nanomachines with the capability to get into our systems, travel to our brains, and modify neuron connections to make specific changes in our emotions and memories.  This would be brain control in its purest form, and it sounds quite frightening.  It suggests the potential for a tremendous loss of personal autonomy and creativity, both of which we will need more of, not less of, if we are to move the world towards a sustainable situation.  I don’t think anyone wants to become “the borg” (link).

Risks are always inherent in new technologies, and public policy frequently addresses them. Obviously, nanotechnology, like any new technology, has its risks, and those risks need to be monitored and mitigated.  Governmental action to control technological risk is a common response throughout history, though often not until something bad and noteworthy has happened.  Some of the mitigating efforts, however, occur as changes in our brains and our thinking, which will continue to evolve (as life forms always are) to cope with the changing environment.  How will we respond to increasingly invasive media technologies?

Many people are already actively pursuing media avoidance behaviors. Some people have always responded to the pace and intrusions of modern life by escaping them.  It isn’t just the Ted Kaczinski’s (link) of the world who retreat to a quiet location to avoid the noise of the city and the intrusions of mass media.  I have friends now who don’t own a TV and use their computers only as necessary to check the news or answer their email.  Back in the 1960’s, my own parents refused to have a television in the house until I was 16, and a month later my mother unplugged it and cut off the power cord, citing the fact that my sister and I weren’t getting our chores done.  Since I’ve been delivering pizzas the past couple of months (trying to cover my burgeoning fuel bills and other increasing expenses), I have found households in the middle of densely populated and extremely modern suburbia, living on quiet, shady, dead end streets, often in older, sometimes run down homes, living with only minimal penetration by the mass media.  Some of them are just poor, but some are avoiding the crazy pace of civilization.  You don’t have to live in a hand-made shack in the woods of Montana to get away from the hammering (often jack-hammering, actually) of modern civilization.  Will increasing numbers of people seek to live this way, backing away from technology and modern culture, if ad-bots are endlessly pursuing them, or if they are worried about “contracting” a nanobot mind control “infection”?

Technological change keeps speeding up, and media technology always changes culture. As technological developments advance at a relentlessly increasing rate, it is probable that mass media will continue to increase its penetration into our collective and individual consciousnesses, and have increased impact on our culture.  As always, safety and privacy regulations will be  needed.  It will be interesting to see how this evolves, and how people, governments, and corporations respond.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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2 responses to “How Might Nanotechnology Change Human Culture?

  1. A terrifying potential future indeed! I’m going to have to invest in some serious “insect” repellent to beat those microdroids if we get to that! I’d not thought about nanoparticles invading the body. That could certainly take athletic doping up to a new level . . . What’s your thought on this post? http://share-sports.3ds.com/2008/04/29/morph-it-the-nanotechnology-sports-innovation-challenge/

  2. Thanks for your comment, Bethkate. The nanotech sports challenge is interesting.
    I have been thinking of nanotech as it might manifest itself several decades in the future, when functioning nanobots are a possibility. Frequently I imagine nanobots from a medical perspective, thinking about the possibility they could get energy for their tiny fuel cells from sugars in the bloodstream, for example. (I may have to write more about future nano-possibilities soon!) The nanotech materials of today are fascinating, though, and stimulating to contemplate.
    We live in interesting times – so far, so good.
    Best of luck to us all – Tim

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