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

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