Thanks to all of the folks who responded to my original critique concerning Dr. Feeman Dyson’s December’09 lecture in Portland, OR [Freeman Dyson Talks About Biotech vs Nanotech] Perhaps the most engaging response was from Russ Baker, which I’ve posted below.
But before reading my discussion with Russ, here’s a short clip from a Nov09 interview with Sci-Fi Editor-in-Chief Lou Anders that provides a slight twist to the comparison between generic and semiconductor engineering.
Will end this century as one human race? Listen to what Lou has to say! Lou Anders on Genetic Engineering
Discussion with Russ about the Dr Dyson’s comparison between Biotech verses Nanotech (Feb 5, 2010)
Regarding your article and comments about Dr. Dyson’s statement on “computer domestication”, I respectfully submit that his statement was in fact intentional and accurate, and somewhat nuanced. I think the point of using the term “domestication” is to imply “the taming of computers for the service of humanity”. Viewing them as a commodity is primarily an economic judgment, implying access to all (and also a complete lack of differentiation and direct substitution – which doesn’t actually apply to computers. Just ask Apple.). But I think domestication was specifically chosen to imply that this complex technology has now been refined and packaged (i.e. “tamed”) to the point that the layman can use the tool in their own home without any real understanding of how or why it works – but simply to get a job done. I also think you might be reflecting a lack of appreciation for the hundreds of years of R&D and testing that were involved in domesticating animals and plants. One could probably argue that humanity’s animal/plant project was far more ambitious and costly relative to the resources and knowledge of the people doing it than the development of the computer. It certainly took far longer, no doubt with many more mistakes and dead-ends.
I also think his use of “domestication” differs from yours, since he was comparing it to the domestication of biotechnology. That is a very simple comparison to me, again one which I agree with him. As a layman, I have very limited access to biotechnology today, certainly not in the home (which is what domestication is getting at). Now, one could get into another semantics argument that the domestication of animals and plants is also “biotechnology”, which changes the whole argument. But I agree with you that biotech here is mainly tied to modern genetic engineering (rather than ancient genetic manipulations through breeding).
All to say that I thought your judgment of Dr. Dyson’s statement missed the point, and I suspect his words were actually very carefully chosen and bang-on. I think this was an unfair critique of his technical literacy, though there are definitely other examples to make your broader point. -Russ