“I really think you should take him,” said Ira.
“Really?” I responded.
“Yes… he needs to get out of the office every once in a while.”
Ira is the night janitor in the Interdisciplinary B building at Arizona State University. Unfortunately, I spend too much time in my office after hours. Fortunately, I get to chat with Ira every once in a while. He’s grown quite fond of Benny. Benny guards my office during the day and presumably slumbers at night while I’m gone. Although Ira may know things that I don’t.
Benny is a special stuffed bear. He’s impregnated with nano silver particles in an effort to make him safe for children with asthma and allergies. He won a handful of awards as a top toy of the year in 2006 or 2007 when he was first made. He was made famous by Andrew Maynard of the Woodrow Wilson Center. Maynard posted a message about Benny on his blog asking whether it was safe for children to suck on a bear full of nano silver particles throughout their childhood. Pure Plushy said that there were no known problems that such actions could cause… but eventually decided that, because of the potential for customer backlash, they would take Benny off the market. Benny has been rereleased, but is now “nano-free.”
My Benny is an original, full-nano Benny. He has traveled with me before. I’ve used him as an example of the difficult process of negotiating through the promise and fears about nanotechnology. He went from an award-winning product to being snuck off the shelves… all without any concrete evidence that he could perform the wonders promised or create the problems feared. He’s almost a symbol of our confusion about nanotechnology.
But this was his first trip out of the country since he left his birthplace – China of course. I smuggled him into the IHEST conference and in the middle of my talk I introduced him to the crowd. By the end of the talk, they were no longer interested in me… it was Benny they wanted. He very quickly became a star.
He made the rounds through the entire crowd, getting passed carefully from person to person. The majority of the questions to the panel were about him, even though one of the people who ran the nano debates in France was on the panel. One of the questions was even asked directly of him: “Benny, how do you feel about being experimented upon?”
As we were leaving the panel, I was asked if Benny would consent to an interview. We spent ten minutes being filmed while I told his story. They asked a couple of questions about me to be polite, but they really just wanted to hear from Benny. At dinner, he again made the rounds and visited with the spouses of summer school participants who hadn’t been at the talk. “This was the bear I was telling you about.” Heck, I’ve even fueled his ego. I wrote an entire entry on him in the recently published Encyclopedia of Nanotechnology and Society.
Part of me feels pretty dejected. I came all the way from Arizona, too! Why is Benny getting all the attention? But I am trying to assure myself that it makes a lot of sense. We spent about five hours talking about nanotechnology today. Most of the discussion was pretty abstract. “Nano might do this.” “People were worried Nano will have this effect…” It was difficult to get a handle on what we were talking about.
But Benny is real. You can reach out and touch him. Even more importantly you can imagine owning him. You can imagine him sitting in your house (or your baby’s crib) every day. Benny forces you to ask yourself – do I personally want to own such a technology? I think Benny’s ability to make nanotechnology seem real and personal is perhaps his greatest attribute. And he is a reminder that theoretical talk may be important, but at some point we need to make the policy questions we ask personal. Theory may justify change and even inspire it. And we do desperately need to consider technologies that do not yet exist. But eventually we have to decide what we want our lives to be like. This has proven hard to do with nanotechnology. Perhaps we need to think more about technologies like Benny – nanotechnologies that pose real and pressing questions today.
In a few weeks I imagine the video of Benny will be circulating around France. Who knows, they might even invite him back for another visit. Hmm… maybe I’m not so envious. He will probably need a chaperone and someone who can serve as his translator.
About the Author: Jameson Wetmore is an assistant professor with CSPO and CNS-ASU, and ASU’s School of Human Evolution & Social Change. He currently is in France, participating in IHEST’s European Summer School.
[more Blogging from France posts]