Colin Milburn, “Nanovision” Part III: Gray Goo

Nanovision, Part III: Gray Goo

Part I: Science and Fiction
Part II: Beyond the Limits of Fabrication

In charting out the various futurist strands in nanotechnology discourse in his book “Nanovision,” Colin Milburn devotes a great deal of space to the “gray goo scenario.” This is the inevitable corollary to the dream of complete control of all matter: namely, that self-organizing nanobots, drawing no distinction between different sorts of matter (organic vs. nonorganic, for instance), could devour the entire world, turning it into amorphous, non-differentiated soup. This homogeneity and indiscrimination is meant to be captured by the term “gray goo,” and it figures prominently in nanodiscourse, both in scientific literature and science fiction novels. Milburn asks, “what kind of cultural work [this] fantasy [is] performing?” (119)

Goo, he notes, is the primordial ooze out of which life emerged, and the gray goo scenario figures a reversal of biological evolution: “goo is the loss of information,t he spillage of meaning, the death of coherence, the end of mastery.” (119) It is, then, the inverse of the dream of nanotechnology as outlined in Part I and Part II. It is also linked to the escaping of body fluids, released from the boundaries of the skin, and thus the dissolution of the unitary human subject itself. As he notes, this dissolution is itself part of an imagined “global ecophagy,” a “shaping of the world atom by atom,” a devouring of the world as it is currently formed, in order to reform it. But where scientists and novelists dream of a reshaping of the world according to human desires, this inverse nightmare sees the process carried out by technology in revolt that actually becomes matter in revolt. This imagined revolt is often framed by gender: the undifferentiated, unstoppable mass of matter is seen as feminine, surface without depth, and discursively opposed by the masculine forces of science and control.

Milburn deconstructs several examples here: Wil McCarthy’s nano novel “Bloom” details a future in which the earth and most of the solar system have been taken over by a disassembling swarm of nanobots, and involves a human expedition of “insemination” aimed to neutralize the Mycosystem. The film “Terminator 3” envisions a female Terminator who infects both humans and machines with “nanotechnological transjectors” that allows her to control them; she is only defeated by an act of penetration from the ultra-masculine T-1, played of course by Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a 2003 General Electric TV commercial advertising its washers and other appliances, a supermodel marries a professor of nanotechnology (“beauty and brains”) and have a child; the woman loads the washing machine while the infant—a miniature version of the male professor—takes control and programs it. In all three cases a rigid male protagonist regains control of a chaotic (or even, according to Milburn, a monstrous) feminine force through nanotechnology.

According to Milburn, nanowriting also traces out an alternative view of gray goo: one that embraces it in an act of self-disassembly, which is to say the disassembly of not only a particular unitary organism, but of the humanist subject itself. Again found in the writing of both scientists and science fiction authors, the vision here is one of “a new future of process and becoming. A world of difference, of polymorphing and mutability. An era of bodies without organs, matter without form, and nanotechnology without domesticity.” (160) Milburn dubs this subgenre of writing nano/splatter, after “splatter” horror films that depict the violent dismembering of humans as a sort of reconfiguration of human embodiment itself.

In nanofiction novels such as “Bloom,” Greg Bear’s “Blood Music,” and Michael Crichton’s “Prey,” nanobot infiltration of the human and nonhuman alike is viewed initially as horrible and fascinating (sublime), but ultimately welcomed as integration into the oneness of matter. The dissolution of the self does not have to be (literally or figuratively) a violent event that heralds death; it can also be figured as engendering life. Milburn quotes nanoscientist J. Storrs Hall, who has written, “What I want to be when I grow up, is a cloud.” (178)

Milburn describes this orientation as a “fundamental openness to the other already ‘inside, part of us by now’” (partially quoting “Blood Music”) (182). Further, this openness looks a lot like love. A post-gender, post-human, post-Singularity sort of love, certainly, but one in which life itself can be transformed, reconceptualized, reformulated, and reinvigorated.


“Nanovision” at

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