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

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