Last updated on April 16, 2014 at 16:53 EDT

Building the Nano-World of Tomorrow

September 11, 2007

By Thurs, Daniel Patrick

In the summer of 2002, MIT’s new Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) found itself at the center of a controversy. The subject of debate was not the technical specifications of a new nanomaterial or a breakthrough in nanoscale electronics. It was about a comic book. The proposal that had won the five-year, $50 million grant to establish the ISN included a drawing of what the soldier of the future might look like. Her impressive outfit, set against a futuristic cityscape, was depicted as capable of amazing feats of strength, near invisibility, sealing, dressing, and healing wounds, and defense against biological and chemical weapons. A press release painted a similarly fantastic picture. “Imagine” it asked, “the psychological impact upon a foe when encountering squads of seemingly invincible warriors protected by armor and endowed with superhuman capabilities, such as the ability to leap over 20-foot walls” (Friend 29). Very soon, however, a few fans of a new comic book called Radix recognized the image MIT researchers had used as virtually identical to a drawing on the cover of Radix’s first issue. This discovery prompted a variety or reactions. Ray Lai, co- creator of Radix, complained that MIT was “selling” its super- soldier as “science fact, while we’re trying to sell it as science fiction. And people don’t even know that we created it in the first place. People might even think we’re copying them.” MIT and the Army claimed that their visions of the future were realistic and that the U.S. military did not spend $50 million “on a comic-book fantasy” (Shachtman). This episode might suggest the degree to which science and science fiction have become mingled in the emerging field of nanotechnology. In that light, it seems to confirm Colin Milburn’s view that nanotech is “thoroughly science fictional in imagining its own future, and the future of the world” (266). When we interpret such a claim, however, we need to carefully distinguish between science fiction as an analytical category, one that we may define by the absence or presence of a compelling novum, and science fiction as what we might call an actors’ category, which we cannot define independently of actually seeing it in use. Milburn’s characterization employs science fiction in the former sense. But science fiction is also, and perhaps even more importantly, shaping nanotechnology through its invocation as a category in and of itself. A comparison witii religion is instructive. We could respond to talk about “science and religion” by arguing that the two are really harmonious or are at war, that modern science has a religious core or that its foundations are antithetical to religious thinking. In each case, we would need to provide clear analytical definitions of both science and religion in order to proceed. Alternately, rather than imposing definitions from above, we can examine die ways people actually distinguished science and religion and the purposes to which they put those distinctions. In doing so, we would gain a clearer view of die social and cultural issues, from the control of educational institutions to the place or moral concerns in modern culture, that have made the boundary between science and religion worth fighting over.

Other authors, such as Milburn and Jose Lopez, have examined discussion of nanotechnology dirough the analytical lens of science fiction. Like Milburn, Lopez concluded that portrayals of nanotech have relied on science fictional elements, particularly the concept of a novum, and diat ultimately science fiction was “not an external but an internal aspect” of nanotechnological discourse (130). In what follows, I plan to take the opposite tack by examining the shape of science fiction as an actively constructed cultural category through the lens of nanotechnological discussion. What did people actually mean when they claimed that certain aspects of nanotech were science fiction? What did those claims imply about the nature of science fiction? What did they suggest about the shape and scope of nanotechnology? Answering these questions requires that we focus on what Thomas Gieryn called boundary-work (Gieryn “Boundary- Work,” Cultural Boundaries; Gieryn, Bevins, and Zehr). The vast majority of people who made assertions about science fiction and its relationship with nano-scale science and technology knew absolutely nothing about nova, motifs, or narrative devices. Rather they turned to science fiction because it was a convenient example of not- science, near-science, or potentially-science. They drew their comparisons or contrasts in the trenches of rhetorical battle, not in the quiet contemplation of scholarly analysis. That made the precise nature of science fiction as an actors’ category, like the nature of science or of nanotech, messy, uncertain, and variable with the particular circumstances partisans found themselves in, the points they were trying to make, or the claims they were contesting.

Getting a clear view of the boundary-work around both science fiction and nanotechnology thus involves putting the invocation of these two terms in context and watching them at work. That includes the present-day context of public debate but also a larger historical one. There has been nothing inevitable about die choice of modern observers, including scholars, to turn to comparisons and contrasts between science and science fiction to make sense of nanotech; other distinctions, say, between science and philosophy, science and technology, or science and commerce, might have done just as well to make nano something distinct and recognizable, at least in the abstract. The ebb and flow of various boundary-making tools has ultimately expressed concerns that happened to loom large in contemporary diought. The ways Americans juxtaposed “science and religion” in discussion of evolution in the late 1 800s or paired “science and common sense” in depictions of relativity and quantum mechanics during the 1920s and 1930s revealed something significant about contemporary attitudes, hopes, and fears. The former was relevant to an important struggle in Anglo- American society between traditional culture, typically represented by religious leaders, and a new culture being shaped by industrialization, frequently seen as fundamentally dependent on scientific advances and those who were responsible for them. Distinctions between science and common sense reflected growing concerns about the nature of the public sphere, particularly the ability of the ordinary person to participate meaningfully in democratic society and the corrosive influence of mass media on the average mind (Thurs 111-121, 190-200).

As a wide variety of nano-watchers have noted, die prominence of explicit discussion of science fiction amidst attempts to make sense of nanotechnology suggests die growing importance of visions of the future in die struggle for material and cognitive resources in the present. Both Milburn and Lopez make this point. Scholars more generally have also noted die increasingly significant role of talk about the future in twentieth-century debates over science and technology (Corn; Brown, Rappert, and Webster). And yet, despite what is often considered the wide-open and malleable nature of the future, many recent reflections on its role in modern-day discussion have been somewhat myopic, particularly in the case of nanotech. The ideas, images, and narrative formulas of science fiction have undoubtedly been important in constructing visions of things to come. But science fiction has not been the only source of talking about die future in Anglo-American culture; not all futuristic speculations are necessarily science fictional, just as not all science fiction is about the future. Nor, for that matter, have all visions of nano engaged the future, or science fiction, in quite the same way. Indeed, the crux of a significant amount of nanotechnological debate has involved determining which sorts of predictions and which portrayals of nanotech were science fictional and which were not. General claims about me science fictional nature of nano are based, in this sense, on an idealized vision of bom realms. Likewise, most accounts of the role of science fiction in depicting tomorrow today have focused on its value as a source of forward-looking visions swaddled in the all-powerful garb of science. But science fiction has not only played a constructive role in futuristic speculation. More often than not, partisans invoked it in public discussion of nano as a tool for exclusion, as a means of managing the future, not just creating it.

Rather than open up the future to nanotechnological colonization, talk about science fiction as a category has actually closed down future possibilities and declared some tomorrows, and their purveyors, as illegitimate. It has not only bridged gaps between the rather modest accomplishments of nano in modern-day laboratories and triumphs-to-come imagined in its name. It has been used to categorize a wide array of potential developments as not-science and therefore not worthy of widespread attention. Least of all has its use as an actors’ category suggested a breakdown in the boundary between the scientific and science fictional. If anything, that boundary has been reaffirmed and strengthened by nanotechnological debate. Moreover, this exclusionary role is not something essential to the concept of science fiction in Anglo-American culture; it is a relatively recent historical construction. During the 1950s there was much less pressure to distinguish between possible and impossible tomorrows. Subsequent events have considerably sharpened the desire to do just that. The Boundaries of Nanotechnology

Over the past several years, nanotechnology has become awash in material and financial resources. The field has begun to attract large sums of money from numerous governments. In the United States, funding for nanotechnology has been ongoing since the 1990s. It received a large boost in 2003 with the signing of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act granting $3.7 billion for research in nanoscale science and engineering over four years. Nanotechnology has also attracted funds from private sources, including major corporations and investors of many kinds. By one estimate, venture capitalists invested roughly $700 million in nanotech companies during 2002 and 2003 (Thayer). All this has made for some particularly intense boundary- work. Access to various resources has typically hinged on the ability of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to portray their own work as legitimate nanotech and that of their rivals as beyond the pale. In the spring of 2004, for instance, a new stock index unveiled by Merrill Lynch, which was intended to give some increased stability and legitimacy to nano in the investment world, sparked debate about whether the companies it included were really engaged in nanotechnology or were falsely claiming the name. As one New York Times journalist put it, the definition of nano was “no longer academic” (Feder C2).

As in the case of most boundary- work, portrayals of nanotechnology have generated an array of multiple and sometimes inconsistent meanings. An author in the British newspaper Guardian suggested that “the definition of nano is so broad that it is an unhelpful prefix,” but such breadth has in turn provided an important resource for would-be boundary-makers (Sample 4). Nanotech has at first blush often been associated with smallness, typically dimensions below 100 nanometers or billionths of a meter. The phrase “science of the small” without any added embellishment has circulated widely in mass media descriptions. Within the general rubric of the small, however, different commentators have taken different points of view. Some have focused in particular on the ability of nanotech to produce small things and/or materials, such as carbon buckyballs or other nano-scale particles. Authors and speakers have also sometimes linked it with the act of manipulating matter on the smallest scales, even if die results of diat manipulation were not nanoscopic. A somewhat smaller subset has further identified such manipulation with so-called “bottomup” methods – that is, assembling sometiiing atom-by-atom rather than in bulk. Finally, a few have relied not on particular processes or products to fix the meaning of nanotech, but on the unusual properties of matter that work on the nanometer scale exploits.

Outside of such basic definitions, there have also been a number of broader frameworks in which commentators have situated their depictions of nano – fhat is, points of view diat have helped to dictate which bodies of imagery, sorts of goals, and measures of value are acceptable and desirable. The notion of bottomup manufacturing touched on the ideas of K. Eric Drexler. Drexler’s Engines of Creation (1986) coined the word “nanotechnology” for a general audience and offered die first fully articulated vision of die field. That vision involved on die eventual construction of “assemblers,” nano-scale robots or nanobots that could be used to make anything desired from collections of atoms. The process Drexler envisioned was ultimately analogous to die way diat plants or animals build diemselves from die materials in dieir environments. Drexler’s ideas quickly made their way into several popularizations and into science fiction. As early as 1988, Jeffrey A. Carver identified a debt to Drexler’s Engines and to Drexler himself in the introduction to From a Changeling Star (Carver vii). Over subsequent years, Drexler’s ideas became a standard element in fictional renditions of nanotech. Meanwhile, advocates of Drexlerian ideas have been die most likely to draw images and rhetoric from science fiction. Indeed, when Milburn claims that nanotech is “science fictional,” he has in mind die field as advocated by Drexler. Many of his citations are either of Drexler or of admirers and popularizers of his ideas, such as Ralph Merkle or Ed Regis.

Milburn further argues that any attempt to banish Drexler or his vision purely to die realm of sci-fi ultimately “backfires on itself because it would deny the “inspiring influence” of Drexler on die field, its practitioners, and government agencies diat are funding it (Milburn 280). But Drexler’s ownership of and influence on nanotech is a matter of considerable debate diat should not be dismissed. In 2004, Drexler himself complained that the term nanotechnology had drifted from his original use and had come to signify “a wide range of almost unrelated research fields” (Drexler “Grey Gooed” 14). His status as founder of nanotech has sometimes been usurped by die physicist Richard Feynman, who gave a talk in 1959 suggesting die possibility of atomiclevel control of material, engineer Norio Taniguchi, who independently coined “nanotechnology” in 1974, and even John Dalton, who helped develop the atomic theory of matter during the early 1800s (Feynman; Mulhall 32; Krug). Indeed, tiiough Drexler’s name was frequently invoked in mass media discussion of nanotech, such as it was, during the 1 980s, by the early twenty-first century, only two percent of newspaper and magazine articles on nano mentioned him.1 Even if we posit a less direct influence, Drexler’s views have not totally dominated. The growing popularity of a particular field as a source of cultural, cognitive, or material audiority has inevitably led to greater levels of boundarywork. More intense boundary-work, in turn, has meant increasing fuzziness, contentiousness, and greater differences from the visions of its founders. The transition from Newton’s seventeenth-century natural philosophy, rooted in religion and hermeticism, to the much more rationalistic eighteenth-century Newtonianism is one such case (Dobbs and Jacob).

Over die last several years, other frameworks have arisen to offer alternative and non- or even anti-Drexlerian depictions of nanotech. For instance, some practitioners seeking professional respectability and public support have associated the field with chemical and material science rather than with mechanical or biological engineering as in the Drexlerian mold. In public debate, this identification provided the resources to challenge visions of nanotech that placed a premium on extreme novelty as unrealistic or irrational. The British chemist Harry Kroto remarked that “Nanotechnology is basically chemistry of the 21″ century” (Connor 17). Similarly, a 2003 article in the New Scientist asserted that nanotech was “not a new field at all. It’s just chemistry by a different name” (“Beware” 3). Chemist Richard Smalley emerged as a particularly aggressive opponent of Drexler’s ideas. He did not dampen the revolutionary potential of nanotech as strongly as some, comparing the eventual impact of the field with the “combined influence of microelectronics, medical imaging and man-made polymers” (Connor 17). But he, along with Kroto and other scientists and popularizers, strongly disputed the possibility of anything like a self-replicating nano-scale robot. Such selfportrayed “moderate” viewpoints have claimed a place in some broadly public forums, such as the Scientific American. And though rare, they have also appeared in science fiction. Greg Bear’s Moving Mars (1993) initially referred to “nano” as a kind of advanced material rather than sub- microscopic machines or molecular manufacturing.

A third framework of images and rhetoric that has become increasingly important to public perception of nanotech involved not its technical details, but radier its commercial potentials. S tine Grodal’s analysis of recent newspaper coverage has suggested a shift in public discussion of nano over the last several years toward terms she linked to commercialization, such as those related to money or investing, and away those she associated with sci-fi (Grodal). The slow proliferation of references to a “nanotech industry,” itself the subject of conflicting bouts of boundary- work, has been another indicator of the growing prominence of commercialization in public depictions of nano. Such depictions have certainly contained a generous share of revolutionary and Utopian rhetoric portraying a far future awash in nanotechnological miracles, but they have also involved a greater emphasis on trends in the near term, on seemingly mundane consumer products, and on the future fortunes of existing companies. Early in 2005, the Foresight Institute, an organization partly founded by Drexler and once focused on the long-term application of molecular manufacturing, adopted a new mission statement that highlighted near and medium term applications (“Foresight”). In many other cases, nanobots and other supposedly “far-fetched” predictions served to highlight the “reasonableness” of more modest, though still amazing and surely profitable nano-based consumables.

Science Fiction and the Future of Science

In debate over die legitimacy of these and other frames of reference, the boundary between science and science fiction was often an area of active rhetorical work. One reviewer of a 1995 popularization of nanotechnology worried diat “to say it is science fiction (which it is) opens one up to a justifiable charge of small- mindedness.” On me other hand “to concur diat tiiis is indeed a vision of the future opens one up to the charge of gullibility” (Atkins 25). To manage this dilemma, some people have maintained a strictly separate spheres model, in which science and science fiction represent an either-or set of categories. Omers have focused on science fiction’s supposed power of prediction and portrayed a sequential relationship as ideas moved from the misty realms of sci- fi into die reach of hard science. Many people interested in science fiction have inverted mis characterization, suggesting mat science fiction provides a place where new scientific ideas and “ethical, philosophical, political, economic, behavioral, and personal issues” around them can be explored (Miksanek 55). Finally, science fiction has been presented as something like die public relations arm of science. Science writer Gary Stix noted that fiction supposedly inspired by Drexler’s vision of nanotech “may serve the same function as Star Trek does in stimulating a teenager’s interest in space, a passion that sometimes leads to a career in aeronautics or astrophysics” (Stix 36). It is worth noting mat all of diese common depictions presumed some dividing line between the scientific and science fictional, even if a permeable one. The majority of these invocations were, perhaps predictably, linked with assertions about the future of nanoscale science and technology. As I mentioned above, commentators, such as Milburn and Lopez, have widely noted the prominent place of appeals to and depictions of the future in debate over the nature of nanotech. Part of mis future orientation is related to the relative paucity of real-world nanotechnological applications. Outside of a scattershot of several generally mundane consumer items, from stain resistant pants to longer-flying golf balls, few existing applications have been able to claim the mantle of nanotech. Instead, nano has been made concrete and imaginable through a variety of futuristic technological artifacts, from space elevators to faster computers, super-soldiers to fine-tuned drugs. Modern interest in and the willingness to commit financial and material resources to nanotechnology have often followed from a belief that it will change the world for die better in coming decades. Critics, meanwhile, have expressed concern over potentially disastrous consequences widespread nanotech might involve. Such nanotechnological futurology has frequently been supported by the widespread conviction that me impact of nano is inevitable, a matter of “when, not if (Milunovich, Roy, and Fan 2, 4). Paraphrasing William Blake, nanotechnology has been routinely depicted as slouching toward the future to be born. But nano has not been alone in carrying a strong air of the futuristic. Nor is a focus on things to come particularly unique to the turn-of-the-twenty-first century. Over the last two centuries in Anglo-American public culture, discussion of science has tended to turn away from making sense of die scientific through historical anecdotes or guaranteeing its value by appeal to its past accomplishments. Instead, it has looked toward images of coming developments, primarily technological, as symbols and justifications of scientific research. Such depictions have reached their height in the notion of “emerging technologies,” which normally include nano, bio, and information tech. Emerging technologies have bodi captured considerable amounts of public attention in recent years, particularly in die mass media, and been lightning rods for talk about the world of tomorrow. Like nanotech, bio and information technologies have often slouched toward the future. The very choice of terminology, the focus on “emerging” technology, suggests something not yet here but, perhaps inevitably, on its way. Descriptions of their anticipated benefits and projected risks have abounded and frequently reached Utopian and dystopian heights. Also, like nanotechnology, other emerging technologies have often inspired invocations of science fiction as commentators made sense of their potential effects on die world (Hamilton).

The images and themes that decades of science fiction bequeathed to latetwentieth- and early twenty-first-century dreamers have been ideally suited for depicting futures shaped by potent emerging technologies, as the example of the ISN’s super-soldier shows. Likewise, a 2001 Scientific American article by Graham Collins noted that “many of Drexler’s imaginings have antecedents in science fiction and feed into old potent themes of the genre.” In particular he cited the long fascination of science fiction with machines since the days of Jules Verne and the continued influence of the “old golem/Frankenstein myth” in portrayals of technology run amok. He also identified the “bright vision of the world” implicit in many of the Utopian claims about nano with “another science-fiction standby,” namely the notion of the world “being transformed into something transcendent and new” (Collins 86). Certainly there was some justification to Collins’ observations. Semi-fictional speculation about the revolutionary transformation sure to be brought on by advanced science and technology reached a literal peak during the early and mid-1980s in the form of the so-called “singularity,” a presumed future moment of technological transcendence that has become a common element of science-fictional storytelling. Mathematician and science fiction author Vernor Vi nge popularized the concept of such a singularity in several novels, though he meant the idea to be taken seriously as non-fiction. Damien Broderick, an occasional science fiction writer himself, later wedded Vinge’s and Drexler’s ideas in a nonfictional book called The Spike (2001).

In a more general sense, a tendency to look toward the future became increasingly prominent in public discussion over the twentieth century. A comparison of magazine article titles shows that appeals to the “future” first surpassed references to “history” during the 1940s.2 A number of other developments suggest that an important transition happened in the years leading up to mid- century. Predictions of the future made possible by modern industrial might were particularly conspicuous at the 1939 World’s Fair, the slogan of which was “Building the World of Tomorrow.” Among the more notable exhibits was General Motor’s “Futurama,” which depicted the U.S. as it might be in 1960. Four years subsequent, the term “futurology” was coined and by 1946 institutionalized in the form of Douglas Aircraft’s Project Rand, later the Rand Corporation and a model for later think tanks aimed at peering into coming trends. The rise of the U.S. as an economic and military superpower, dependent on its scientific and technical expertise and more clearly vulnerable to global developments, coincided with continued emphasis on the future. By the 1960s, there were courses on the future of humankind at the University of Michigan, the University of California, Berkeley, and Columbia (Lerner 141-143). That same span of time witnessed the increased awareness of science fiction as a genre and its recognition by national authences. Where at once time, speculation on the “future state” meant talk about eternal life after death, it has come be the playground of sci-fi.

But talk about the future has also had sources beyond science fiction. Interest in technological innovation, often in the same strongly individualistic light as many science fictional tales portray it, has a long history in the United States going back to the optimistic and self-sufficient impulse of the early republic. Likewise, concern over science run amok has not only been the stuff of science fiction, but has appeared in such contexts as worry over the moral impacts of evolution from the late 1800s on and resistance to animal and human experimentation in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Lederer “Animal Experimentation,”"Right and Wrong,” Subjected; Gossel). Finally, the tendency to talk about developments such as nanotechnology as the bases of a “next industrial revolution” has owed as much to actual experience with the economic, technological, and social transformations of the last two centuries as it has to science fictional depictions of the future.3 Indeed, casting contemporary events in revolutionary terms first became common between the late 1800s and early 1900s, when some of the most intense social displacements related to industrialization were taking place. Revolutionary language in discussion of science was most intense in one of the products of those social changes, namely the commercialized mass media. In the late nineteenth century, for instance, newspapers in search of expanded authences began to frame their stories about medical developments, such as Louis Pasteur’s rabies vaccine, in terms of “breakthroughs” (Hansen). The language of the breakthrough has since become a standard part of the journalistic vocabulary.

Any too narrow equation between talk about the future and science fiction is an overly simplistic one and distorts the complex roots of both science fiction and rhetorical constructions of the world of tomorrow. Rather, like most historical trends, the modern tendency to take a forward-looking perspective has been overdetermined by a variety of factors and fed by a plurality of streams. Yet this complexity made the choice to label as sci-fi one or another of the potential futures that crowded public culture at the end of the twentieth century that much more significant and meaningful. Such labeling was less about creating visions of the future than about pruning away the productive from the dysfunctional – that is, providing a rhetorical tool to establish some accounts of things to come as legitimate or illegitimate, inspiring or shortsighted, safe or dangerous. Science fiction as a cultural category provided the means to extend such distinctions into the future in a variety of ways. Science Fiction and Nanotechnology

Invocations of science fiction in talk about nanotech have tended to draw from one of the four models of the relationship between science and science fiction that I outlined above: science fiction as a category totally distinct from science, as a potential source of advances in real- world science and technology, as a realm in which the implications of scientific ideas could be explored, and as the means to popularize scientific knowledge. Among these, the first was most often called on. Authors gestured toward the second commonly enough, but only about a third of the time. The final two were by a wide margin the most rare.4 Neither of these last two depictions said that much about the nature of science specifically, and it was the status of nanotech as a legitimate branch of science that concerned most of those engaged in nanotechnological boundary work. Occasional claims that science fiction could “have an important role in familiarizing the public with scientific concepts,” has “helped society to confront and adapt to change,” or was capable of sparking “interest in learning, in more depth, the fascinating information that science has revealed about the world” did appear but almost always in the mouths of science fiction authors or enthusiasts (Crawford; Goonan IE). Likewise, none of these claims helped to resolve disputes about the future potentials of nano.

By contrast, assertions that aspects of nanotech were “no longer science fiction” or were on the move from “science fiction wonder to real-world utility” bore directly on the shape of possible futures (Henderson 9; Berger A27). They represented one means of making predictions or potential devices appear likely or even inevitable. One of the most frequent pieces of imaginary technology depicted as being transformed from science fiction to science was the space elevator, a concept most famously introduced into fiction by Arthur C. Clarke and involving a cable linking a spot on die earth witii a geosynchronous satellite. But the space elevator was not alone. An article in Business Week on new materials being explored by researchers at the ISN included a comment attributed to one of the institute’s engineers, who suggested mat “science fiction is rapidly becoming reality – and that could change forever the way wars are fought” (Port 62). A similarly forward-looking article a year earlier in The Engineer claimed that “breakthroughs in transparent electronics technology could make glass display panels – currently me stuff of science fiction – a reality in as little as a decade, according to a leading specialist in the field” (“Image-Generating” 10). The same tactic could be used to legitimate nanotechnology itself. A columnist in an October 2000 issue of USA Today noted that nanotech had long been a “staple of science fiction” but that it was “only in the past couple of years mat actual breakthroughs have started coming solid discoveries that reveal the first glimpses into real products and possibilities” (Maney IB). Other authors painted similar portrayals, claiming that “nanotechnology is coming in from the fringe,” that it was “once dismissed as just so much science fiction and Silicon Valley hokum” but had just recently begun to foreshadow “the next industrial revolution” (Herrera and Aragon 5 1 ).

Such statements left open the door for inspiring and exciting predictions about the future possibilities of nano, certainly worth the attention of the public, government agencies, or venture capitalists. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, investor Steve Jurvetson suggested that if a long-term prediction of nanotech’s promises did not “sound like science fiction, it’s almost certainly false” (“Nanotechnology” 1 1). Likewise, Richard Smalley sometimes gave what some observers called his “science fiction speech,” which included a reference to Clarke’s space elevator (Curtis 129). Yet in retaining a distinction between science fiction and science, those who talked about transformations from one to the other could still dismiss claims as not yet beyond the shadows of fiction and fantasy. Indeed, these unrealistic ideas might never emerge into the light of scientific day. Clarke’s reputation for having successfully predicted the use of communications satellites and the space elevator’s reliance on new materials such as those produced from such existing components as carbon nanotubes likely made predictions in his name particularly safe. Meanwhile, other pieces of imaginary technology, most notably Drexlerian nanobots, could remain comfortably beyond the pale.

More often than not, in fact, commentators dispensed entirely with the notion of ideas being redeemed from their fictional status and wielded science fiction as nothing but a foil to real-world science. Some skeptics cast disparaging looks at the supposed tendency of nano-enthusiasts to abandon talk about mundane applications in favor of the “science fiction of a godlike assemblage of a new creation with new elements and energy synthesizers” (Gilder and Vigilante 44). Likewise, a critic of the U.S.-Government-issued Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance (2002), which discussed a presumed convergence of nano, bio, information technologies with cognitive science, complained that “the breathless futurism of it all may be a little offputting for some, and it doesn’t help that the report’s authors sometimes indulge in the language of science fiction, telling us, for example, to ‘think Vulcan mind-meld’” (“Carried” 105). By far, a rigid boundary between science and science fiction was used most often in denouncing or marginalizing the ideas of Drexler and those who offered sympathetic visions of a nanotechnological future. Drexler’s critics sometimes accused him of being a “sci-fi guru” or described Engines as a work of science fiction – as giving a “science fiction flavour” to nanotech, for instance – rather than serious science (Wilson 5; Chester 6).

Science fiction has not always been used in such an exclusionary role. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, for instance, it was somewhat rare to find “science fiction” used as a means of placing depictions of humans’ future in space out of bounds.3 To be sure, some people were making very ambitious claims about which otiiers were voicing their skepticism. A June 1952 article in the Washington Post blasted the “irresponsible ‘comic book’ dope peddlers helping to induce a sort of juvenile schizophrenia all over the semi- literate world.” But instead of turning to a scientist to set matters straight, the author appealed to Arthur C. Clarke (North B6). Clarke was in fact a widely cited authority even before Sputnik. A wide variety of other assertions about the future of space travel passed without any attempt to comment on their legitimacy. A 1953 article outlined the plan of three English “space- travel enthusiasts” to construct a huge moon-bound space ship in orbit using radio controlled robots witii utter seriousness (‘Trip” 4). Not to be outdone, scientists and engineers proposed tiieir own futuristic visions, from orbiting space stations to the colonization of other worlds. Rather than seek to excise such projections from the fold of proper science, observers happily noted that “Buck Rodgers and Captain Video would have felt right at home” (“Platforms” 14).

A number of factors distinguish talk about space travel in the years after World War II and discussion of nanotechnology around the turn of the twentieth century. Science fiction was in many ways in the early stages of reaching a national authence during the 1950s and its depictions of the future might have seemed full of promise to many people. Over subsequent years, many of those predictions, particularly ones often associated with the early space age, failed to come true. A 1995 London Independent article quoted Drexler’s characterization of his response to claims that nanotechnology sounded like science fiction: “I say, ‘Do you mean like rockets to the moon, or robots, or talking computers? They were all in science fiction first’” (Pearson 32). But at the same time, visions of nuclear-powered aircraft, flying cars, and cities on the moon loom over any would-be futurologist. One recent skeptic noted how during the 1950s, “popular magazines were filled with articles about robots doing all our housework by die turn of the century, and how we’d all be buzzing around in miniature rocket ships” (“Five” 24). There were also forces beyond science fiction at work. Particularly during the political and social turmoil of the 1970s, journalistic practices underwent a general shift toward a somewhat more skeptical tone (Nelkin 91-92). Nor should we miss die key issue of incentive. In the early days of the space age, there was little apparent reason to dampen expansive and ambitious visions of the human (or radier American) future beyond the earth. A 1953 New York Times article stressed academic attempts to increase the speculative power of engineer’s imaginations, not reduce it (“Engineer” El 1). A concern over a public backlash against overly Utopian predictions looked much more likely in the wake of the late 1960s and 1970s, when die environmental and anti-nuclear movements sought to organize real resistance to technological developments, and as the general perspective of “classical modernity” has slowly given way to die much more ambiguous “reflexive modernity” of Ulrich Beck’s risk society (Beck).

The recent experience with GM food, particularly in Europe, has only sharpened the desire among some people to limit the boundaries of legitimate science and technology, lest overly rosy predictions create disillusionment or fear through their dystopian shadows. Indeed, the most common denominator in invocation of science fiction amidst public discussion of nanotech seemed to be a sense of concern and even fear – not the actual fear of the masses over nano run amok but fear of such reaction among those seeking to make nanotechnology scientifically and commercially viable. Some boosters of nanotech have analyzed popular response to new scientific developments in terms of “wow” and “yuck” factors or stressed the extreme bifurcation of public talk about the field into equally dangerous Utopian and dystopian streams.6 There is actually little if any evidence that public over-expectation is a cause for resistance to or reaction against new technologies, as opposed to concerns over more mundane environmental or health effect. It makes much more sense to explain the current woes of government-sponsored manned spaceflight in terms of changing fiscal priorities and public apathy than as a backlash against Utopian predictions.7 Yet, during the Cold War, images of mass panic – particularly pictures of crowds fleeing from a variety of radiation-spawned monsters – became common fare. Such images have almost certainly played a role in legitimating the increasing power of government, corporations, and a wide variety of Cold- War-era experts and social engineers. As aspiring experts in a new and often insecure field, it is no surprise those anxious about the future of nanotech should not turn toward the same set of assumptions and images to address their own place in the world. Science Fiction in Action

Concern about public fear and invocation of science fiction as not-science intersected most clearly in talk about Drexlerian assemblers or nanobots. Nanoscale robots have not been the most frequent pieces of imaginary nanotech to appear in public discussion. Mass media articles and reports by the U.S. government and various NGOs from 2000 to 2004 cited medical applications, from new drug delivery techniques to artificial organs, most often. Next in line came portrayals of advanced electronics, including faster computers and condensed data storage, and better kinds of materials. In order of frequency, authors also pointed to potential applications in energy or environmental protection, such as more efficient solar cells, and defense. The relatively low profile of military applications is surprising given the fracas over MIT’s supersoldier and American’s general enthusiasm for new military technology. Examples of so-called molecular manufacturing using nano- scale robots to build items from atoms up appeared with even more rarity. The only area cited less often was nanotechnological application to transportation, including space travel or supersonic flight.8 Nor were nanobots significantly more common in general mass media coverage of nanotech. 9

But nanobots were effective symbols of the most transformational and powerful visions of nano, and thus typically at the center of struggle among legitimate nanotechnological futures. Drexler’s Engines depicted almost every Utopian consequence of nano, from cheap space travel to immortality, as the result of self- replicating nano-devices able to manipulate single atoms and molecules. Though no friend of the idea of nanoscale assemblers, Gary Stix asserted in Scientific American that talk about bots “helped to create a fascination with the small that genuine scientists, consciously or not, would later use to draw attention to their work on more mundane but eminently more real projects” (Stix 36). Many of the visual images associated with nanotech that were available on the Internet during the early 2000s depicted nanobots performing various tasks.10 Similarly, nanobots have been one of the most common and memorable manifestations of nanotech in science fiction, appearing in novels and short stories from Carver’s From a Changeling Star to more recent works such as Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age (1995) or John C. Wright’s The Golden Age (2002). Nanobots have finally been read backwards onto science fiction that occurred well before Drexler’s Engines. Though mass media discussion of nanotech included little reference to specific pieces of science fiction, the 1966 film “Fantastic Voyage” was commonly called on in order to introduce the idea of nanobots.11

Invoking the notion of a miniaturized Raquel Welch was also a means of denying nanobots any serious consideration. For critics of overly Utopian visions of nano, bots have become the focus of claims about what legitimate nanotechnology was not and could not be. Science writer Ian Sample claimed that “the more time you spend investigating the ‘wow’ end of nanotechnology – trying to build tiny motors and so on – the clearer it becomes that the relatively dull end of nanotechnology – making very small particles – is what nanotech is really about (at least for now)” (Sample 4). Such skeptics commonly attacked nanobots as the stuff of science fiction rather than realistic science. Mihail Roco, the spearhead of U.S. funding for nanotechnological research and himself sometimes the target of those critical of overly Utopian visions, dismissed nanobots as “sci-fi.” Similarly Cambridge University professor of nanotechnology Marc Weiland claimed that “making nanobots is in effect science fiction” and that bots were “more science fiction than blue sky” (Bailey 50; Weiland, 21; Cushing 30). Similar comments emerged from industry as well. Dan Colbert, co-founder of a nanotube startup called CNI, asserted that the concept of a self- replicating nanobots is “science fiction and isn’t worth talking about unless you’re a comic book fan” (“Nanotech vs.” 4).

The vehemence and repetition with which opponents denounced nanobots was all the more intense because bots had a dark side that, many observers worried, could spark public fear or a backlash against nanotech. At the apex of a textual debate between Drexler and Smalley that was reprinted in a 2001 issue of Chemical Engineering News, the latter ended his case against assemblers by charging that Drexler and his ilk “have scared our children” and called on the chemical community to “join with me in turning on the light, and showing our children that, while our future in the real world will be challenging and there are real risks, there will be no such monster as the self-replicating mechanical nanobot of your dreams” (Smalley 42). Public commentators frequently linked fear of nanotech, either potential or actual, to the so-called “gray goo” problem. Drexler introduced this term in Engines to describe the possible result of self-replicating assemblers that ran amok and consumed the world, leaving only grey goo. Michael Crichton’s Prey (2002), which offered a somewhat non-Drexlerian scenario of nanobots out-of-control, and the concerns of Britain’s Prince Charles over the safety of nanotech in early 2003, which did not involve gray goo but were widely reported in the press as doing so, elevated worry over mass panic among some nano-boosters. A 2003 article entitled “Why Scientists Must Dispel Our ‘Grey Goo’ Fears” pointed to the media attention to Prince Charles’ worries and noted that “researchers and policymakers fretted that such coverage could poison public perception of all things nano” (Service 12).

As in the case of nanobots, defenders of more respectable visions of nanotechnology often claimed that “grey goo is science fiction” or belonged to the “realm of science fiction” (Harvey 12; “Nanotech Study” 1 1). Indeed, most of the invocations of science fiction in mass media discussion of gray goo occurred in 2003, in the wake of mounting concerns over a repetition of public outcry against genetically modified foods or nuclear power. This was around the same time that talk about science fiction peaked in nanotech articles more generally. Prey was used to show the root of Charles’ concerns in reading too much sci-fi or became the inevitable piece of evidence to support the assertion that “if grey goo sounds like science fiction, it is.” None of this flurry of rhetorical quarantine seemed to have anything to do with the actual state of public perception of nanotech. From 1986 to 2004, only about three percent of mass media nanotech articles mentioned anything about grey goo. Though somewhat tentative, results of early surveys similarly suggested that gray goo was not a wide spread concern. Among environmentalists and other skeptics of nanotechnological promises, the possible toxicity of nanobased materials and the specter of corporate control have loomed much larger than nanobots run amok.12 Nevertheless, public commentators have continued to imagine that “depictions of swarms of self-replicating nanobugs” have dominated “popular perceptions of advanced nanotechnology” (Drexler “Grey Gooed” 14). Nor did die questionable nature of their assumptions deprive attacks on nanobots and gray goo of their rhetorical effectiveness. Ultimately, Drexler himself offered a totally bot-less vision of nanotechnology in the summer of 2004. “I did not expect,” Drexler told one interviewer, “that efforts to quiet concerns over grey goo would lead to false scientific denials of feasible technologies” (Rincon).


Ultimately, people have used the category of science fiction to structure discussion of nanotechnology in a number of ways, but the most common has been as a means of inscribing a firm boundary between science and what it was not. I think we lose sight of this phenomenon in works, such as Milburn’s, that focus on trying to determine the true relationship of nanotech as a possible exemplar of post-modern science and science fiction rather than on the ways these entities and die flow of ideas between them were rhetorically constructed in practice. On the other hand, my conclusions do little to fully address questions about any affinity between the content of talk about nano and science fiction as a genre of literature. Certainly, there has been borrowing on both sides, though such interchange may not be particularly novel or uniquely post-modern. But we need not call diese shared ideas “science fictional.” Doing so only promises to exacerbate die confusion of science fiction as a rhetorical category and as a literary genre. Given Milburn’s points about the profoundly transformative potentials of nano-scale science and the blurring of borders between biological and physical realms in speculation about nanotechnological futures, we might instead say that people talking about nanotech have imagined its future in ways that are “transformational,”"convergent,” or “emergent.” By examining how science fiction has been invoked in practice, we can more clearly see some of the motivations behind those invocations. In particular, science fiction has become a powerful rhetorical tool for discussing the future. The rise of science fiction as a prominent boundary-making term has paralleled the rise of the future as a sought-after space in which to construct social and cultural relations in the present. Milburn and others also make this point or similar ones, but again I tiiink such analyses miss something. The most revealing issue has not generally been the creation of visions of the future. Attention to the world of tomorrow is, as I claimed above, overdetermined in much of modern western culture. The tools for talking about it are everywhere, not only in works of science fiction. This is another reason for not casting all depiction of the future as science fictional. Rather, the central task of many would- be late-twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century futurologists has been managing the forest of tomorrows that crowd around them, pruning away what seems either unlikely or undesirable and preserving what they judge to be possible or useful.

In the case of nanotech, talk about science fiction has for the most part played such an exclusionary role. Rather than opening up the future to speculation of all kinds, commentators most frequently used it to ground certain flights of imagination and to draw boundaries between those depictions of things to come that were legitimate and those that were beyond the pale. Among those concerned about the fortunes of nano, worry over the possibility of mass panic and popular rejection provided a major driver for use of science fiction as an example of not-science. Exorcising those aspects of nanotechnological prediction deemed to be potentially upsetting or unsettling to the shadowy realms of the science fictional could make what remained safe enough for general consumption. In light of Drexler’s own rejection of nanobots and the subsequent decline in talk about gray goo, such a rhetorical strategy has seemed to work – at least to ease the fears of nanotech’s boosters. Problems still remain, including the potential toxicity of some nano-structured materials. Though concerns about the more mundane health and environmental effect of nano have not yet begun to draw many claims about belonging to the realm of sci- fi, perhaps because of the persistent specters of real-world problems with asbestos and thalidomide, science fiction remains a potent rhetorical resource diat may well become useful when observers judge criticism has gotten out of hand.

This work was supported primarily by the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Initiative of the National Science Foundation under NSF Award # EEC-Ol 17770. I’d also like to thank Stephen Hilgartner for his help and ideas.


1. This conclusion is based on a search among newspaper and magazine articles focused on nanotechnology – the term appeared in either their headlines or lead paragraphs or was a search term for diat article – for those that mentioned “Drexler” somewhere in their texts. It was conducted on the Lexis/Nexis database on 17 December 2005.

2. Magazine articles with utles containing “future” and “history” were collected from Reader’s Guide for the period from 1890 to 1970. Before the 1940s, “history” dominated. After the 1 940s, references to “future” were more numerous. This search was conducted in May 2005.

3. One of the earliest public sources for the notion that nanotechnology could usher in the “next industrial revolution” appeared in 2000 (Longman, Rae-Dupree, and Petit 30).

4. My claims in the remainder of this paper are based on a survey of 320 newspaper and magazine articles focused on nanotechnology between 1986 and 2004 that explicitly invoked “science fiction” in their texts. These articles were found in March of 2004 by using the Lexis/Nexis database, then reading each individually to determine their actual relevance. QSR’s NVivo was used to classify all relevant invocations of science fiction. The relative frequency of the different models is as follows: separate spheres – 65 percent; science fiction to science – 30 percent; other – 5 percent. Sheryl Hamilton found a similar result – namely, the domination of these first two models – in the case of biotechnology (Hamilton).

5. This is a topic that could be explored a great deal more, but I have made an initial survey of articles on space travel that mentioned “science fiction” in their full texts from the New York Times and Washington Post during the period using the Proquest Historical Newspapers database. This search was conducted on 10 February 2004.

6. Vicki Colvin, Director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University, has analyzed talk about nanotech on a spectrum between extreme responses from “wow” to “yuck.” See her testimony before the House Science Committee on 9 April 2003 on the Society Implications of Nanotechnology. Many others have followed her lead.

7. There are other examples of the lack of impact of Utopian rhetoric on subsequent rejection of certain technologies or consumer goods. Plastics were, for instance, widely celebrated in Utopian terms before World War II in the United States. Distaste for plastic after mid-century was ultimately due more to the shoddy quality of many plastic goods than to a backlash against the failure of overly- optimistic predictions (Meikle).

8. In the reports surveyed, the areas of potential application appeared in this order: Medicine (52 citations); Electronics (41 citations); Materials (26 citations); Energy/ Environment (16 citations); Defense (9); Molecular Manufacturing (6); Transportation (3). A survey of 202 mass media articles listed in Lexis/Nexis for the years 2000 to 2004 gave similar results.

9. Only about 5 percent of newspaper and magazine articles from 1986 to 2004 mentioned “nanobots,”"assemblers,” or “nanites” in their full texts. This is based on a search of articles on nanotechnology included in Lexix/Nexis performed on 13 May 2005.

10. See for instance the “Nanomedicine Art Gallery” at http:// images.google.com/ imgres?imgurl=http://www.f oresight.org/ Nanomedicine/Gallery/lmages/ jj_ncmo.jpg&imgrefurl=http:// www.foresight.org/Nanomedicine/Gallery/Captions/.

11. Among my collection of 320 articles, 2 1 mentioned “Fantastic Voyage.” Hamilton also found a lack of references to specific works of science fiction in discussion of biotech during the 1990s.

12. The percentage quoted here is derived from a search of nanotech-focused articles listed on the Lexis/Nexis database mentioning “grey/gray goo.” It was performed in August 2004.

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Daniel Thurs received his Ph.D. in the history of science from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Subsequently he was a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University focusing on public discussion of nanotechnology. His forthcoming book, Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Cul