Future Tense

The True Cost of Stain-Resistant Pants

The 1951 British comedy The Man in the White Suit anticipated our fears about nanotechnology.

A still image of Alec Guinness and a woman in The Man in the White Suit.
The Man in the White Suit. Universal Pictures

This piece is adapted from Films From the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies, by Andrew Maynard, published by Mango Publishing.

In 2005, protesters from the group THONG (Topless Humans Organized for Natural Genetics) paraded outside the Eddie Bauer store in Chicago. They were protesting a relatively new line of merchandise being offered by the store: “nano pants.” It was never quite clear why the protesters were topless, although it did make the event memorable. But it did allow a crude but clever appropriation of the title of a 1959 lecture given by the physicist Richard Feynman. At least one of the protesters had an arrow drawn on their back pointing to their nether regions, along with the title of Feynman’s talk, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.”

Eddie Bauer’s nano pants used Nanotex®, a nanoscale fabric coating that make the pants water-repellent and stain-resistant. By enveloping each fiber with a nanoscopically thin layer of water-repellent molecules, the nano pants took on the seemingly miraculous ability to shed without leaving a stain water, coffee, wine, ketchup, and many other things that people tend to inadvertently spill on themselves. It was a great technology for the congenitally messy. But because it was marketed as being a product of nanotechnology, there were concerns in some quarters—including the THONG protesters—that putting such a cutting-edge technology in consumer products might lead to new, unexpected, and potentially catastrophic risks.

Sadly for THONG, the 2005 protest failed. It seemed that, for most people, the benefits of avoiding brown coffee stains were rather more attractive than speculative worries about a dystopian nano-future. And to be honest, the chance of this technology (which in reality wasn’t that radical) leading to substantial harm was pretty negligible.

The nano pants incident was, in some ways, a pre-emptive parody of the 2014 movie Transcendence, with the existential threat of nanobots being replaced with stain-resistant clothing, and the neo-Luddites trying to save the world being played by a bunch of topless protesters.Yet both the protest and the technology touched on the often-mundane reality of modern nanotechnology, and the complex ways in which seemingly beneficial inventions can sometimes threaten the status quo.

If the protest anticipated Transcendence, however, it was also itself an echo of another film: The Man in the White Suit. The Man in the White Suit was released in 1951 and is, remarkably, a movie about stain-resistant pants. But more than this, it’s a movie about the pitfalls of blinkered science and socially unaware innovation. And while it is not a movie about nanotechnology per se, it is remarkably prescient in how it foreshadows the complex social and economic dynamics around nanotechnology, and advanced materials more generally.

The movie is set in the textile mills in the north of England in the early- to mid-20th century. This was a time when the burgeoning science of chemical synthesis was leading to a revolution in artificial textiles. Nylon, Draylon, and other man-made materials were becoming increasingly important commodities, and ones that were emerging from what was then cutting-edge science. Spurred on by these advances, mill owners continued to search for new materials that would give them an edge in a highly competitive market. These textile mills were rooted in an Industrial Revolution that had started nearly 200 years earlier. Yet they marked a tipping point from using try-it-and-see engineering in manufacturing to relying on predictive science in the development of new products.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it became apparent that, by using a more scientific methodology based on predictive laws, models, and associations, companies could make breakthroughs that far exceeded the limitations of invention by mere trial and error. At the same time, a strong labor movement doggedly strove to protect the rights of workers and ensure that new technologies didn’t sweep jobs and people aside quite as indiscriminately as it had done a century or so earlier.

Against this backdrop, The Man in the White Suit introduces us to Sidney Stratton (played by Alec Guinness), a self-absorbed chemist who is convinced he has the key to an amazing new superstrong stain-resistant fabric. In Stratton’s scientist brain, his breakthrough is going to transform the world. He assumes that people are sick of washing, mending, and replacing their clothes, and that his invention will liberate them. He dreams of a future where you only need to buy one set of clothes—ever. In Stratton’s head, what’s good for him is also good for everyone, and a world without the messiness of buying, washing, and looking after clothes is definitely one that he’s excited about. But there’s a problem—several, as it turns out. And one of the biggest is that Sidney never thought to ask anyone else what they wanted or needed.

After he cracks the secret of his new fabric, word of the discovery leaks out, and everything begins to fall apart. Those in the textile industry realize that this is not going to end well: They need their products to wear out and need replacing if they’re to stay in business, and the very last thing they need is clothes that last forever. Mill owners and their investors aren’t the only ones who stand to lose from Sidney’s invention. If the industry collapsed because of his new textile, the workforce would be out on the streets. And so, in a Luddite-like wave of self-interest, they all set about challenging Sidney, not because they are anti-science, but because they are pro–having jobs that pay the bills. Even Sidney’s landlady plaintively asks, “Why can’t you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing, when there’s no washing to do?”

As everything comes to a head, Sidney finds himself in his white suit, made of the new indestructible, unstainable cloth, being chased by manufacturers, laborers, colleagues, and pretty much everyone else who has realized that what they really cannot abide is a smartass scientist who didn’t think to talk to them before doing research he claimed was for their own good.

Just as he’s cornered by the mob, Sidney discovers the full extent of his hubris. His wonder material is unstable, and after a few days, it begins to disintegrate. And so, in front of the crowd, his clothes begin to quite literally fall apart. Scientific hubris turns to humility and ridicule.

And Stratton? His pride is dented but not his ambition—nor his scientific myopia, it would seem. In an admirable display of disdain for learning the lessons of his social failures, he begins work on fixing the science he got wrong in his quest to create the perfect fabric.

The Man in the White Suit admittedly feels a little dated these days, and even by 1950s British comedy standards, it’s dry. Yet the movie successfully manages to address some of the biggest challenges we face in developing socially responsible and responsive technologies, including institutional narrow-mindedness, scientific myopia and hubris, ignorance over the broader social implications, human greed and self-interest, and the inevitability of unintended outcomes. And of course, it’s remarkably prescient of Eddie Bauer’s nano pants and the protests they inspired. While the movie uses polymer chemistry as its driving technology, much of it applies directly to the emerging science of nanoscale design and engineering that led to the nano pants and a myriad other nanotechnology-based products.

Probably because of my many years working in the lab as a scientist, I have a bit of a soft spot for Sidney Stratton. This is someone who’s in love with his science. He’s captivated by the thrill of the scientific chase, as he uses his knowledge to solve the puzzle of a stronger, more durable textile. And while he justifies his work in terms of how it will improve people’s lives, I suspect that it’s really the science that’s driving him.

Stratton is, in some ways, the epitome of the obsessed scientist.He captures the single-mindedness and benevolent myopia I see in many of my peers and even myself at times. He has a single driving purpose, which is synthesizing a new polymer that he is convinced it’s possible to produce. He has a vague idea that this will be a good thing for society, and this is a large part of the narrative he uses to justify his work. But his concept of social good is indistinct and rather naïve. We see no indication, for instance, that he’s ever considered learning about the people he’s trying to help, or even asking them what they want. Instead, he is ignorant of the people he claims his work is for. Rather than genuinely working with them, he ends up appropriating them as a convenient justification for doing what he wants.

Not that Stratton wants to cause any harm—far from it. His intentions are quite well-meaning. And I suspect if he were interviewed about his work, he’d spin a tale about the need for science to make the world a better place. Yet he suffers from social myopia in that he is seemingly incapable of recognizing the broader implications of his work. As a result, he is blindsided when the industrialists he thought would lap up his invention want to suppress it.

Real-life scientists are, not surprisingly, far more complex. Yet elements of this type of behavior are not that uncommon.

Most scientists (including engineers and technologists) I’ve met and worked with want to improve and enrich people’s lives. They have what I believe is a genuine commitment to serving the public good in most cases. And they freely and openly use this to justify their work. Yet surprisingly few of them stop to think about what the “public good” means or to ask others for their opinions and ideas. Time after time, I run into scientists who claim, almost in the same breath, that they are committed to improving the lives of others but that they have no interest in listening to these people they are supposedly committing themselves to. This was brought home to me some years ago, when I was advising the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on the safe and beneficial development of nanotechnology. In one meeting, I pushed the point that scientists need to be engaging with members of the public if they want to ensure that their work leads to products that are trusted and useful. In response, a very prominent scientist in the field replied rather tritely, “That sounds like a very bad idea.”

I suspect that this particular scientist was thinking about the horrors of a presumed scientifically illiterate public telling him how to do his research. Of course, he would be right to be horrified if he were expected to take scientific direction from people who aren’t experts in his particular field. But most people have a pretty high level of expertise in what’s important to them and their communities, and rather than expect members of the public to direct complex research, it’s this expertise that it is important to use in guiding research and development if naïve mistakes are to be avoided.

The reality here is that scientists and technologists don’t have a monopoly on expertise and insights. For new technologies to have a positive impact in a messy world of people, politics, beliefs, values, economics, and a plethora of other interests, scientists and others need to be a part of larger conversations around how to draw on expertise that spans all of these areas and more. Not being a part of such conversations leads to scientific elitism and ignorance that’s shrouded in arrogance. Of course, there is nothing wrong with scientists doing their science for science’s sake. But willful ignorance of the broader context that research is conducted within leads to myopia that can ultimately be harmful, despite the best of intentions.

Making progress on this front could help foster more constructive discussions around the beneficial and responsible development of new technologies. It would, however, mean people being willing to concede that they don’t have the last word on what’s right and being open to not only listening to others but changing their perspectives based on this. This goes for the scientists as well as everyone else, because, while scientists may understand the technical intricacies of what they do, just like Sidney Stratton, they are often not equally knowledgeable about the broader social implications of their work.