Visionary Nanofutures: V

In its emergence, nanotechnology is the stuff of science-fiction made real, while science-fictions are the dreams of science. Alone each is amorphous, but together nano and sci-fi set up a mutual interference pattern that results in a visionary quantum collapse. The interactions of scientific innovation and imaginative storytelling create atoms of nanotechnoscientific belief. From these atoms, materials with miraculous properties, a revolution in chemistry, and the universal molecular assembler among others, stakeholders conceive a future which justifies their favored version of nanotechnology. Their “tall and slender tower of reasoning” acts as a scaffolding around which scientists and policymakers design the concrete basis of a nanofuture, and it is from this base that science-fiction authors write the next generation of visions; the cycle repeats itself. Nanovisions can be self-reinforcing, or mutually destructive. If the course of nanotechnology veers away from molecular assembly, Engines of Creation becomes more and more fantastical, and less relevant to contemporary discourse. Conversely, as long as Engines continues to inspire nanotechnologists, molecular assembly will be pursued, even if it is far beyond the current state of the art. Nanotechnology's visionary qualities opens doors for an examination of social and political issues. The future worlds imagined by nanotechnology call into question the failures of our current society; inequality, inefficiency, and the near unshakeable faith in technological progress that defined the 20th century. Most people possess reflexive political opinions on these issues, when questioned, they respond by instinct rather than reasoned consideration. Science-fiction shatters our preconceptions. By changing the context, it frees people to consider what is truly important without overtly threatening their self-image. Though an engineer might openly proclaim that technology is value neutral, and only its applications have moral weight, a science-fictional analysis of nanotechnology permits him to learn that technology cannot be separated from applications; every artifact is political. Because nanotechnology presents such pressing issues of economic competitiveness and national security, yet requires long term commitments, it encourages policymakers to look up from the tactical skirmishing of politics and focus on “that vision thing.” Even if the technical promise of nanotechnology falls through, like so many grandiose visions before, the deep debate it has already stimulated is valuable in and of itself. Speculation is a game, but games prepare us for the test. By prefiguring the course and implications of nanotechnology, visionary nanofictions strengthen society for the stresses of a technological revolution.

Part IV

Thank you very much for staying through this lengthly series. Originally, this was an assignment for Michael Bennett's class on nanotechnology, Molecular Coordinates. I hope that these essays have been interesting and thought provoking, and I am sure that I will return to these themes, particularly interaction of science-fiction and policy making.


Visionary Nanofutures IV: Fiction in the Laboratory

Policymakers act on technology only at a distance. To fully affect the development of nanotechnology, we go directly to the source of innovation; scientists and engineers working in the field. “Whether they like the role or not, nanotechnologists are considered the essential actors of making the greatest dreams and the greatest fears come true. Therefore, more than in any other field, students of nanotechnology must be prepared to respond to such expectations, in public discourse as well as in daily research decisions.” Scientists and engineers must be engaged with full implications of nanotechnology because their involvement is the only way to counter demagoguery and neo-luddism. When scientists isolated themselves from the public debate, they surrender defining nanotechnology and framing its implications to the loudest technocritics, to the detriment of nanotechnology and society. The complexity of nanotechnoscience implies that scientists require more than technical knowledge, “[To] understand what these visions are about, what their cultural backgrounds and driving societal forces are. Because science fiction authors are arguably the most professional and influential vision writers, their texts are an ideal source for making engineering students aware of the public expectations they will increasingly face in their professional lives.”2 The positive effects of this use of science-fiction extend beyond heightened political awareness. Educating engineers in ethics is a pressing problem. Traditional approaches, whether top down or bottom up, share the dilemma that although you can teach engineers to pass a test, you cannot force them to integrate 'soft' ethical reasoning. Science-fiction analysis, because it uses imaginative as well as logical faculties, is more effective in inculcating a mindset of ethical consideration. The density of science-fiction allows a class to cover more material, Berne and Schummer provide the example of Michael Flynn's “The Fisher at the Ford,” which arranges “Six characters with different moral positions, for each of which we find almost convincing arguments.” Finally, exposure to visionary futures can alter the direction of research. At the bottom of the Drexler-Smalley divide in nanotechnology is a disagreement over whether research should be directed towards the goal of molecular assembly. While the potential of each path is an open question, I believe that powerful visions are beneficial; the grant process rewards short-term research, scientific norms should balance approachable experiments with low-probability paradigm shifting research. One inspired scientist might be enough to break the field of nanotechnology wide open.

Part III-----Part V


Visionary Nanofutures III: Politics of (im)Possibility

Technological development is a human phenomenon carried out by hard working scientists and engineers supported by a social and political framework. Policymakers can govern the rate and course of innovation through direct funding and intellectual property protection, but in a democratic society they are ultimately accountable to the will of the people, which is in large part affected by pop culture. The early years of space exploration are intricately bound up with science-fiction, starting with Jules Verne's Journey from the Earth to the Moon. The British Interplanetary Society, a group of enthusiasts with degree of technical knowledge, “all of them science fiction fans,” designed a workable lunar mission in 1939; their sole intractable problem finding a rocket powerful enough to get the capsule off the ground. In America, widespread support for Kennedy's space program was grounded in popular depictions of space travel, such as the juveniles of Robert Heinlein, the work of artist Charles Bonestell, and the 1950 movie, Destination Moon. “Space boosters amplified these efforts by playing on popular anxieties about the Cold War.” Collier's magazine published a series of articles detailing an unstoppable nuclear bombardment from space. The historical example of space travel provides a guide to modern science policymakers. Nanotechnology cannot succeed if public opinion, swayed by cautionary literature, as exemplified by Michael Cricton's Prey and Bill Joy's essay “Why the Future Doesn't Need Us,” turns against it, but conversely favorable depictions in science-fiction will accelerate interest in nanotechnoscience. Books and movies depicting nano-enabled societies in a positive light could assuage a skeptical public (see Wall-E vesus the Terminator saga for an example in robotics.) Fear of nuclear annihilation provided the decisive impetus to the space race, a generalized fear of the future economic stagnation and ecological disaster might serve for nanotechnology. “A clever environmental campaign would explain to the rich how much they are suffering at the hands of old tech... The job at hand is aggressive restoration... Ripping into the previous technological base and rethinking, reinventing, and rebuilding it on every level of society.” Legislative gridlock in Washington, DC and massive public disenchantment with politics is evidence of intellectual bankruptcy in conventional politics. Old political mythologies have lost their credence. The combination of technical and social pressures opens an opportunity for a group of savvy and idealistic politicians to use science-fictional ideas to redefine the American narrative.

Part II-----Part IV

Is this identity true ?


Visionary Nanofutures II: Engines of Imagination

The single most significant work of nanoliterature is Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation. Engines laid out the basic principles of molecular assembly, provided an extensive overview of its applications, and prefigured many current nanoethical debates; the majority subsequent nanoliterature is a commentary on Engines of Creations. In the words of Richard Smalley, Nobel laureate and Drexler's arch-rival in the nanotech community. “I was fascinated by your book "Engines of Creation" when I first read it in 1991. Reading it was the trigger event that started my own journey in nanotechnology.” More a manifesto than a technical essay, Engines is distinguished by its relentless visionary drive. Drexler writes with the fervor of an evangelist, outlining a glowing future of limitless resources, human immortality, and ever expanding consciousness in a framework of technological Darwinism, where only the most adaptable artifacts survive. In his foreword to Engines, Marvin Minsky makes two basic claims about the work: First, that it is based on the soundest technical extrapolation, and second, that it can be grouped (to its benefit) within the genre of science-fiction. Science-fiction is more successful than purely technical works in explaining future worlds because “[It is] equally concerned with the pressures and choices […] imagined emerging from their societies.” Minsky correctly identifies the science-fictional quality of Engines of Creation as the source of its enduring influence, but his grasp of the why is insufficient. Minsky implies that conventional predictions of the course of science diverge from reality because they lack a social dimension; a more accurate explanation is that science-fiction succeeds because it engages all our narrative faculties. Human beings are hardwired to understand the universe as a coherent sequence of causal relationships, or in other words as a story with a setting, characters, and events. Where the scholar uses tested theoretical paradigms and rigorous logic to make her case, the science-fiction writer instead appeals to an intuitive sense of narrative unity. Science-fiction can be distinguished from naturalist or fantastic literature by the subjunctive tension of “events that have not happened.” Science-fiction is the literature of the possible, writing it is the process of envisioning a credible alternative reality. This is why Engines of Creations endures when most futurology decays faster than a pulp magazine; as long as one of Drexler's many technical foundations remains credible, the strength of his vision binds all of his conclusions together.

Part I------Part III


Visionary Nanofutures I: The Oracle

This is the first in a series of five short essays on nanotechnology and science-fiction.

No man can know what tomorrow will bring, but even so human beings are obsessed with catching glimpses of the future. From the Oracle of Delphi to sophisticated stock market prediction algorithms, we seek foresight for profit, peace of mind, or pure curiosity. In ancient times, prophets were able to call upon divine will and supernatural power to lend authority to their claims, but in this age, serious-minded citizens are not convinced by appeals to the ineffable. Methodologies tend to be based on mathematical modeling, as used in The Limits to Growth, a 1972 study on population growth in a finite world, or alternatively in qualitative economic, political, and sociological analysis of the present day. There are problems with both methodologies; mathematical models are vulnerable to extrapolation errors, either using linear models where an exponential would be more appropriate, or erroneous selecting the steepest section of a sigmoid curve as the base for exponential growth. Qualitative analysis, if sufficiently rigorous, provides a better glimpse of the future, but is still limited by contemporary academic paradigms, and is subject to political pressures. A way out of this impasse is imagination; when we go beyond predicting specific issues, we are envisioning a world, a creative and imaginative proposition. In asking questions about the future, we first ask “What is changing?”, and at the dawn of the 21st century, that change is technological. Nanotechnology is one of the new fields that promises to reshape the world, a science of manipulating matter at the atomic level to create substances with wondrous new properties, and artifacts that in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, are “indistinguishable from magic.” Nanotechnology is young, its direction still uncertain, but all agree that its impact will be revolutionary, and requires forward looking ethical and social examination. Discourse on the future of nanotechnology and its ethical and social implications is perforce speculative, and speculation is a dangerous game. Nordmann criticizes the tendency of speculation to “waste the scarce and valuable resource of ethical concern,” but how can work in nanotechnology without speculating? Quantum mechanics teaches that we cannot observe without changing, and when we speculation on nanotechnology, “observing” the future, we affect the development of nanotechnology. The most important speculations are those that stick and stay with us, the ones that we find most “visionary.” Visionary futures are inextricably tied to nanotechnology.

Part II