Colin Milburn, “Nanovision” Part II: Beyond Fabrication

Nanovision, Part II: Beyond the Limits of Fabrication

Read Part I here

Colin Milburn, in his 2007 book “Nanovision,” closely examines the tropes of nanotech discourse, which does not merely arise out of nanotech research, but also shapes the form that research takes. Milburn claims that this holds true right down to the primary instrument used by nanotech researchers, the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM). This device is envisioned by researchers as both an imaging device and a probe, an extension of sorts of the human hand. That is, it “sees” the nanoworld, but it also “touches” it. This “haptic vision” (from Giles Deleuze), a synethesia combining the sense of vision and touch, allows for both viewing and manipulating. Milburn’s claim is that this is how the instrument is conceived, designed, and utilized, and thus not a metaphor tacked on after the fact, but rather a metaphor constitutive of the design of the device from the beginning, in the same way that the entire field of nanotechnology arose out of science fiction (see Part I). Milburn calls this prescriptive metaphor a “tropic protocol,” or “the diagrammatic and symbolic dimension underwriting and orienting the signifying operations of probe microscopy…” (63)

In a significant way, then, our ability to manipulate at the nanoscale arises out of our ability to image, and our ability to imagine. That is, what we “see” at the nanoscale is predetermined by metaphors. We image/imagine the nanworld as a “landscape” and think of it as a “frontier,” tied to older discourses of “westward expansion” and “Manifest Destiny” in the American West. Milburn points out that a significant early nanotech achievement involved constructing what the researchers dubbed a “quantum corral,” a circle of iron atoms that enclose surface state electrons. The STM is an extension of the human hand as well as the eye: it images and manipulates, and thus acts at the critical intersection of discovery and domination: “The ability to ‘see’ atoms within an optical register, the technical capability to survey the molecular terrain as if with one’s own sensory apparatus, appears to inspire a drive toward complete domination of the material world.” (65) Another powerful image generated by nanotech researchers was a “Gold-Dot Map of Western Hemisphere,” a symbolic representation of mastery of the large through the (extremely) small, the conquering of matter itself. When inaugurating the National Nanotechnology Initative, President Clinton stood in front of an enormous projection of this image.

As the gold-dot hemisphere image indicates, what’s at stake is the whole world; that is, the key to control over the large is control over the small: “Nanovision makes the world small and engineers the future by taking the scanned probe micrograph as a map of the molecular landscape already colonized; but in occupying this colonized space, the subject of nanovision–the technoscientific viewer– no longer remains the same.” (74) That is, in the interface between the human and the nanoscape, “…the instrument reconstructs perceptual experience, shrinking the sensorium into the nanoworld even while the body remains in our world…” (85) The STM effects a conflation of two scales that ultimately collapses the very notion of scale: nanotech fabrication is imagined as both top-down (humans manipulating atoms) and bottom-up (macroscale objects, including organic life, assembled from self-replicating nano building blocks). Matter becomes data, data becomes flesh.

All of this is, we must remember, just a way of seeing: we begin to perceive on the nanoscale, to think on the nanoscale. This is why the very notion of the unitary human subject is disassembled by nanovision: by thinking on the nanoscale, we are already thinking past the Singularity, imagining endless possible combinations of matter, erasing the distinctions upon which our conceptions of the human rely: outside-inside, organic-machinic, micro-macro… For Milburn, this is both terrifying and seductive. It means the discursive end of humanity (for again, Milburn is talking about nanotechnological discourses, not actual achievements to date) but also the possibility of an unprecedented intimacy with matter, “the opening of a way of interrelating with forms of molecular being that are not predicated on the logic of control.” (107) He sees this as the beginning of “a posthuman ethics of the interface.” (108)


Read Part III here

“Nanovision” at

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  1. […] Part I: Science and Fiction Part II: Beyond the Limits of Fabrication […]

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