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Nanovision: Engineering the Future

Nanovision: Engineering the Future

by Colin Milburn

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The dawning era of nanotechnology promises to transform life as we know it. Visionary scientists are engineering materials and devices at the molecular scale that will forever alter the way we think about our technologies, our societies, our bodies, and even reality itself. Colin Milburn argues that the rise of nanotechnology involves a way of seeing that he calls


The dawning era of nanotechnology promises to transform life as we know it. Visionary scientists are engineering materials and devices at the molecular scale that will forever alter the way we think about our technologies, our societies, our bodies, and even reality itself. Colin Milburn argues that the rise of nanotechnology involves a way of seeing that he calls “nanovision.” Trekking across the technoscapes and the dreamscapes of nanotechnology, he elaborates a theory of nanovision, demonstrating that nanotechnology has depended throughout its history on a symbiotic relationship with science fiction. Nanotechnology’s scientific theories, laboratory instruments, and research programs are inextricable from speculative visions, hyperbolic rhetoric, and fictional narratives.

Milburn illuminates the practices of nanotechnology by examining an enormous range of cultural artifacts, including scientific research articles, engineering textbooks, laboratory images, popular science writings, novels, comic books, and blockbuster films. In so doing, he reveals connections between the technologies of visualization that have helped inaugurate nano research, such as the scanning tunneling microscope, and the prescient writings of Robert A. Heinlein, James Blish, and Theodore Sturgeon. He delves into fictive and scientific representations of “gray goo,” the nightmare scenario in which autonomous nanobots rise up in rebellion and wreak havoc on the world. He shows that nanoscience and “splatterpunk” novels share a violent aesthetic of disintegration: the biological body is breached and torn asunder only to be refabricated as an assemblage of self-organizing machines. Whether in high-tech laboratories or science fiction stories, nanovision deconstructs the human subject and galvanizes the invention of a posthuman future.

Editorial Reviews

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“A paradox: we see the future utterly transformed by nanotechnology and related technosciences; because the future is transformed, we cannot see it at all. Spiraling out from this central insight, Nanovision explores the cultural and social implications of nanotechnology through a wide range of material-semiotic-discursive effects. Witty, incisive, and insightful, Nanovision is essential reading for anyone interested in where we are now and where we might be headed.”—N. Katherine Hayles, Duke University

“There has been so much hype and controversy surrounding nanotech that it has been hard to figure out what it really is or might become. This wonderful book spectacularly clarifies matters, providing the new field with its history and with a paradigm that allows us to judge its present situation and whatever future may emerge. That Colin Milburn is also often wickedly funny is much appreciated, and a very appropriate response to nanotech’s constant evocations of paradise or apocalypse.”—Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars Trilogy

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Duke University Press
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By Colin Milburn

Duke University Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4265-6

Chapter One

NANOTECHNOLOGY IN THE AGE OF POSTHUMAN ENGINEERING: Science as Science Fiction Now nanotechnology had made nearly anything possible, and so the cultural role in deciding what should be done with it had become far more important than imagining what could be done with it. -Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age Long live the new flesh. -Videodrome

K. Eric Drexler, pioneer and popularizer of the emerging science of nanotechnology, has summarized the ultimate goal of this field as "thorough and inexpensive control of the structure of matter." Nanotechnology entails the practical manipulation of atoms; it is engineering conducted on the molecular scale. Many scientists involved in this ambitious program envision building nanoscopic machines, often called "assemblers" or "nanobots," that would be used to construct objects on an atom-by-atom basis. Modeled largely on biological "machines" like enzymes, ribosomes, and mitochondria-even the cell-these nanomachines would have specific purposes, such as binding two chemical elements together or taking certain compounds apart, and would also be designed to replicate themselves so that the speed and scale of molecular manufacturing may be increased. Several different types of nanomachines would act together to build complex objects precise and reproducible down to every atomic variable. Other researchers imagine using self-assembling macromolecular systems for massively parallel data processing, leading to new computational capabilities more powerful than we can yet fathom. Still others suggest that with advances in nanoscale manipulation and visualization-currently exemplified by the field of scanning probe microscopy-we will eventually be able to program our material environments, placing individual atoms right where we want them with digital accuracy. In time, according to Mihail Roco, the senior advisor for nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation, we will "fundamentally control the properties and behavior of matter." With its bold schemes to dominate materiality itself, nanotechnology has been prophesied to accomplish almost anything called forth by human desires.


Prophecies of the coming age of nanotechnology have run the gamut from the mundane to the fantastic: Designer nanoparticles will improve the performance of nearly all consumer products, from pharmaceuticals to shampoo. Smart nanofabrics will be woven into your carpet and clothing, programmed to constantly vaporize any dirt motes they encounter, keeping your house and your wardrobe perpetually clean. Nanomachines will be able to disassemble organic compounds, such as wood, oil, or sewage, and restructure the constituent carbon atoms into diamond crystals of predetermined size and shape for numerous purposes, including structural materials of unprecedented strength. Nanofactories will quickly and cheaply fabricate furniture, or car engines, or nutritious food, from a soup of appropriate elements. Nanobots will facilitate our exploration of space, synthesizing weightless lightsails to propel seamless spaceships throughout the universe. Nanosurgical devices will repair damaged human cells on the molecular level, healing injury, curing disease, prolonging life, perhaps annihilating death altogether.

Nanotechnology has been discussed extensively in these terms, and despite the fancifulness of certain nanoscenarios, it has become a robust and lucrative science whose cultural prominence has skyrocketed since the turn of the millennium. Many universities, laboratories, and companies around the world are now investigating nanotech possibilities, constituting a dense network-a technoscape-of individuals and institutions interested in the potential benefits of this nascent discipline. The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), proposed by the Clinton administration in 2000 and augmented by the Bush administration in 2003 with the Twenty-first Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, offers funding and guidelines to promote nanotech breakthroughs. Other major nanotechnology initiatives have appeared in quick succession in the United Kingdom, Japan, the European Union, Switzerland, China, and elsewhere, coordinating thousands of international research sites. Extending the technoscape beyond its industrial and academic locations are foundations like the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, the Institute for Nanotechnology, and, perhaps most prominently, the Foresight Institute, established in 1986 by Drexler and Christine Peterson. Hosting conferences, sponsoring publications and awards, the Foresight Institute (renamed the Foresight Nanotech Institute in 2005) has fashioned itself as a mecca of sorts in the multitude of nanotechnological endeavors spreading across the globe. This spread has been facilitated significantly by the Internet, whose role in nanoculture cannot be underestimated: while the sci.nanotech newsgroup may have been the only formalized venue for nanotheorizing online when it went live in 1988, the numerous websites, chat rooms, and blogs that disseminate daily information while also cultivating virtual social networks-including Howard Lovy's Nanobot, Nanotechnology Now, Small Times, and more-have lately become nearly uncountable. Since Drexler first proposed a potential program for research in 1986 with the publication of Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, nanotechnology has gained notoriety as a visionary science, and the technoscape has burgeoned.

Offering intellectual and commercial attractions, career opportunities, and a variety of research agendas, nanotechnology foresees a technocultural revolution that will, in a very short time, profoundly alter human life as we know it. The ability to perform molecular surgery on our bodies and our environments will have irrevocable social, economic, and epistemological effects; our relation to the world will change so utterly that even what it means to be human will seriously be challenged. But despite expanding interest in nanotech, despite proliferating ranks of researchers, despite international academic conferences, numerous doctoral dissertations, and thousands of publications, the promise of a world violently restructured by nanotechnology has yet to become reality.

Or has it?

Scientific journal articles reporting experimental achievements in nanotech, or reviewing the field, frequently speak of the technical advances still required for "the full potential of nanotechnology to be realized," of steps toward fulfilling the "dream of creating useful machines the size of a virus," of efforts that, if they "pan out, ... could help researchers make everything from tiny pumps that release lifesaving drugs when needed to futuristic materials that heal themselves when damaged." These texts-representative of the genre of popular and professional writing about nanotech that I will call "nanowriting"-incorporate individual experiments and accomplishments in nanoscience into a teleological narrative of "the evolution of nanotechnology," a progressivist account of a scientific field in which the climax, the "full potential," the "dream" of a nanotechnology capable of transforming garbage into gourmet meals and sending invisible surgeons through the bloodstream, is envisioned as already inevitable.

Nanowritings swathe their technical contents with the aura of destiny. The Nobel Prize-winning nanoscientist Richard Smalley has written that "there is a sense of inevitability that [future nanotech successes] will come in time," declaring that there "will come technologies that will be the best that they can ever be" and that "all manner of technologies will flow" from the current work of dedicated visionaries. Christine Peterson, cofounder of the Foresight Institute, agrees that the "development of nanotechnology appears inevitable." Likewise, Ray Kurzweil asserts that "nanotechnology is the inevitable end result of the ongoing miniaturization of technology of all kinds." Hans Moravec concurs that "atomic scale construction is not just possible but inevitable in the foreseeable future.... Our accelerating technology will soon reach a kind of escape velocity that will carry us into a new and radically different world." John G. Cramer, a theoretical physicist and science fiction novelist, writes that nanotech "ideas carry an 'air of inevitability' about them. The technology is coming." Textual dispatches from the frontiers of nanoscience everywhere make such claims, drawing on the future as a known quantity, determined in advance. These publications freely and ubiquitously import the nanofuture into the research of today, rewriting the advances of tomorrow in the present tense. Nanowritings speculate on scientific and technological discoveries that have not yet occurred, but they nonetheless deploy such fictionalized events to describe and to encourage preparation for the wide-scale consequences of what the nanotheorist B. C. Crandall describes as a "seemingly inevitable technological revolution."

Even in one of the field's earliest articles to appear in a technical journal-an article that both proposed a new technology and inaugurated a new theoretical program-Drexler claimed that the incipient engineering science of molecular nanotechnology would have dramatic "implications for the present," as well as for "the long-range future of humanity." Repeated throughout the technoscape, this narrative telos of nanotechnology-described as already given-is a vision of the "long-range future of humanity" utterly transfigured by present scientific developments. In other words, embedded within nanowriting is the implicit assumption that, even though the nanodreams have not yet come to fruition, nanotechnology has already changed the world.

Until recently, nanotheorists had yet to produce material counterparts to their adventurous mathematical models and computer simulations. Donald Eigler, a nanoscientist at IBM's Almaden Research Center, appraised the technical situation only a short time ago: "Nanotechnology is a vision, a hope to manufacture on the length scale of a few atoms." For the moment, he said, "nanotechnology doesn't exist." Heedless of its existential status, though, nanotechnology as a research field has been strongly inclined to speculate on the far future and to prognosticate its role in the radical metamorphosis of human life. Which is why many skeptics and critics over the years have claimed that nanotechnology is less a science and more a science fiction. For instance, David E. H. Jones, a chemist at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, once insinuated that nanotech is not a "realistic" science, and that, because its aspirations seem to violate certain natural limits of physics, "nanotechnology need not be taken seriously. It will remain just another exhibit in the freak-show that is the boundless-optimism school of technical forecasting." Gary Stix, a staff writer for Scientific American and persistent critic of nanohype, has often compared Drexler's writings to the scientific romances of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, suggesting that "real nanotechnology" is not to be found in these science fiction stories. Furthermore, Stix maintains that nanowriting, a "subgenre of science fiction," damages the legitimacy of nanoscience in the public eye, and that "distinguishing between what's real and what's not" is essential for nanotech's prosperity. Even George M. Whitesides, the Mallinckrodt Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University and a recognized authority in nanotechnology, has accused the entire field of being "an area prone to overblown promises, with speculation and nanomachines that are more likely found in Star Trek than in a laboratory." For Whitesides, designs for self-replicating molecular machines in particular are "complete nonsense.... The level of hard science in these ideas is really very low." Similarly, Steven M. Block, a biophysicist at Stanford University, has said that many nanoscientists, especially Drexler and the "cult of futurists" involved with the Foresight Institute, have been too influenced by the laughable expectations of science fiction and have gotten ahead of themselves; he proposes that for "real science to proceed, nanotechnologists ought to distance themselves from the giggle factor."

Some critics have insisted that advanced atomic manipulation and engineering will not be physically possible for thermodynamic or quantum mechanical reasons; others have suggested that, without experimental verification to support its theories and imaginary miraculous devices, nanotechnology is not scientifically valid; many more have dismissed the long-range predictions made by nanowriting on the grounds that such speculation obscures the reality of present-day research and the appreciable accomplishments within the field. These critiques commonly and tactically oppose a vocabulary of "real science" to the term "science fiction," and, whether rejecting the entire field as mere fantasy or attempting to extricate the scientific facts of nanotech from their science fiction entanglements, charges of science fictionality have repeatedly called the epistemological status of nanotechnology into question.

Nanotechnologists have responded with various rhetorical strategies intended to distance their science from the negative associations of science fiction. However, I argue that such strategies ultimately end up collapsing the distinction, reinforcing the science fiction aspects of nano at the same time as they rescue its scientific legitimacy. I hope to make clear that the scientific achievements of nanotechnology have been and will continue to be extraordinarily significant; but, without contradiction, nanotechnology is thoroughly science-fictional in imagining its own future, and the future of the world, as the product of scientific advances that have not yet occurred.

Science fiction, in Darko Suvin's formalist account of the genre, is classically identified by the narratological deployment of a "novum"-a scientific or technological "cognitive innovation" as extrapolation or deviation from present-day realities-that becomes "'totalizing' in the sense that it [the novum] entails a change in the whole universe of the tale." The diegesis of the science fiction story is an estranging "alternate reality logically necessitated by and proceeding from the narrative kernel of the novum." Succinctly, science fiction assumes an element of transgression from contemporary scientific thought that in itself brings about the transformation of the world. It follows that nanowriting, positing the world turned upside down by the future advent of fully functional nanomachines, thereby falls into the domain of science fiction. Nanowriting performs radical ontological displacements within its texts and re-creates the world atom by atom as a crucial component of its extrapolative scientific method; but by employing this method, nanowriting becomes a postmodern genre that draws from, and contributes to, the fabulations of science fiction. Science fiction is not a layer than can be stripped from nanoscience without loss, for it is the exclusive domain in which mature nanotechnology currently exists; it forms the horizon orienting the trajectory of much nanoscale research, and any eventual appearance of practical molecular manufacturing-transforming the world at a still unknown point in the future through a tremendous materialization of the fantastic-would remain marked with the semiotic residue of the science fiction novum. Accordingly, I suggest that nanotechnology should be viewed as simultaneously a science and a science fiction.


Excerpted from NANOVISION by Colin Milburn Copyright © 2008 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Colin Milburn is Assistant Professor of English and a member of the Science and Technology Studies Program at the University of California, Davis.

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