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

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