Corporate imperialism and the nano age of colonialism

opinion August 28, 2012 00:00

By Nutavoot Pongsiri

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When we look back to several hundred years ago, we can see an interesting period in history, starting from the 15th century until the early 17th century.


During that period, European sailors left the coastal waters of the Old World and embarked on an adventure on the vast blue seas of “darkness”. They explored the New World – North America – and at the same time established direct contacts with Africa, Asia and Oceania. Historians often refer to this period as the Age of Discovery.  
The discovery of the New World, as well as its intensive exploration, had become an opportunity for the rise of the European empires. From the 17th century until the late 19th century was a period of imperialism and colonialism when relatively developed countries assumed political control over less developed areas, often through their military and naval power, and thus colonised or influenced them in order to expand their empirical power.
Some historians say “God, gold and glory” can be cited as the principal motives behind the European conquest of the New World and other territories. “God” was a reference to the expansion of the Catholic faith among the indigenous populations, especially of Central and South America; gold referred of course to the wealth – largely untapped natural resources and valuable commodities – that the newly discovered lands promised to deliver; and glory described the pride that a monarch in Europe could feel in laying claim to a new land. 
During these long periods of European expansion, imperialism and colonialism obviously brought some benefits for economic advancement. Europeans invested large sums of money abroad, building railways, roads and ports, mines and plantations, factories and public utilities in their new territories. Trade between nations grew greatly. However, imperialism draws heavy criticism on the grounds that it was a form of economic exploitation in which the imperialist powers made use of other countries as sources of raw materials and cheap labour, shaping local economies to suit their own interests and keeping the indigenous people in poverty. 
The onset of the First World War spelled the beginning of the end for imperialism and colonialism. By the end of the Second World War, the process was almost complete. European colonies began to get their independence in the 1930s, and by the 1980s more than 90 new and independent countries had emerged in Asia and Africa.
In today’s world, the Internet, smart phone and high-speed computer connections have revolutionised the way we collaborate and conduct business with each other. With 21st-century technology like Google Earth, almost every square inch of this world can be viewed virtually from anywhere else. However, there is evidence to suggest that New World imperialism, ended for a century, is again being evoked.  
Unlike the 16th-century sailors and adventurers, many researchers nowadays are using powerful X-Ray laser beam to explore the horizons of another new world. They can control and manipulate matter at the nano (atomic) level. At a millionth of a millimetre scale, many materials act very differently from how they behave at a larger scale. For example, materials that may not conduct electricity at a larger scale may be highly efficient at the nano-scale, or the colour or transparency they display may be different, or they may be massively stronger. 
These unique properties can be applied to make products with entirely new abilities and applications. The principal motive for conquering the nano world is not an ideology like “God, gold, and glory” but to gain profit from application in medical diagnostics, ageing/life extension technology, engineered organ replacements, disease treatments, advanced pharmacology and many other areas. 
Although the benefits of nanotechnology are tremendous, there is a counter-argument against unequal access to the technology. Power these days is no longer centred in the nation state; it is increasingly centred in global corporations. The corporate empires in rich countries are seen as the sole loci of innovation and emerging applications. 
There is fierce competition among these corporations to dominate nanotechnology and reap significant profits. Many corporations work aggressively to ensure that investments in time and money in nanotechnology will pay off. The wealth of developing countries will continue to be siphoned off to the imperial centres of nanotechnology, thus leading to a new imperialistic tendency called corporate imperialism. 
Many corporations have been imperialising in developing countries, leaving them in a state of technological dependence. This situation may be unavoidable because it is becoming harder to imagine our lives without nanotechnology.
Nutavoot Pongsiri is assistant governor of the Bank of Thailand. The views expressed here are his own.