Broader societal implications and challenges Beyond the toxicity risks to human health and the environment which are associated with first-generation nanomaterials, nanotechnology has broader societal implications and poses broader social challenges. Social scientists have suggested that nanotechnology's social issues should be understood and assessed not simply as "downstream" risks or impacts. Rather, the challenges should be factored into "upstream" research and decision making in order to ensure technology development that meets social objectives. Many social scientists and organizations in civil society suggest that technology assessment and governance should also involve public participation.
Some observers suggest that nanotechnology will build incrementally, as did the 18-19th century industrial revolution, until it gathers pace to drive a nanotechnological revolution that will radically reshape our economies, our labour markets, international trade, international relations, social structures, civil liberties, our relationship with the natural world and even what we understand to be human. Others suggest that it may be more accurate to describe change driven by nanotechnology as a “technological tsunami”. Just like a tsunami, analysts warn that rapid nanotechnology-driven change will necessarily have profound disruptive impacts. As the APEC Center for Technology Foresight observes:
If nanotechnology is going to revolutionise manufacturing, health care, energy supply, communications and probably defence, then it will transform labour and the workplace, the medical system, the transportation and power infrastructures and the military. None of these latter will be changed without significant social disruption.
The implications of the analysis of such a powerful new technology remain sharply divided. Nano optimists, including many governments, see nanotechnology delivering:
environmentally benign material abundance for all by providing universal clean water supplies
atomically engineered food and crops resulting in greater agricultural productivity with less labour requirements
nutritionally enhanced interactive ‘smart’ foods
cheap and powerful energy generation
clean and highly efficient manufacturing
radically improved formulation of drugs, diagnostics and organ replacement
much greater information storage and communication capacities
interactive ‘smart’ appliances; and increased human performance through convergent technologies
Nano skeptics suggest that nanotechnology will simply exacerbate problems stemming from existing socio-economic inequity and unequal distributions of power, creating greater inequities between rich and poor through an inevitable nano-divide (the gap between those who control the new nanotechnologies and those whose products, services or labour are displaced by them). Skeptics suggest the possibility that nanotechnology has the potential to destabilise international relations through a nano arms race and the increased potential for bioweaponry; thus, providing the tools for ubiquitous surveillance with significant implications for civil liberties. Also, the skeptics believe it might break down the barriers between life and non-life through nanobiotechnology, redefining even what it means to be human