Colin Milburn, “Nanovision” Part I: Science and Fiction

Colin Milburn tackles nanotechnology from a cultural/science studies perspective in his whirlwind 2007 book, “Nanovision.” He is particularly interested in nanotech discourse; that is, how and why nanotech narratives are produced by scientists, popular news media, and science fiction writers. His basic thesis is that when we trace these narratives out, we find them inextricably linked to one another as mutually constitutive. While certainly not claiming that nanotech research is unscientific, he does claim that such research is prescribed by the nanotech discourse—that the form it takes arises from discourse that is as much fiction as science. The two cannot be separated.

To see how this could be the case, we have to understand what nanotech is all about. Milburn starts off by noting how nanotechnology is deeply linked by its proponents and popularizers to the concept of Singularity, a limit-point of technological development beyond which the human race will be altered into something completely unfathomable through a mastery over our own constitution vis-a-vis matter itself. The Singularity involves not just a physical transformation, but a perceptual one: anything will be possible and nothing will be predictable. This will occur when nanotechnology reaches a critical developmental mass, the point at which it becomes a tool with which we (as human subjects) can gain control over the constitution of all matter, down to the atomic level. The (or one) paradox here is that once matter becomes completely malleable at the subatomic level, our status as human subjects cannot help but to be altered completely, based as it is upon concepts such as bodily unity, organic matter, etc; concepts that will no longer have any meaning. This is the great paradoxical promise of nanotechnology: complete control over everything:

“Nanovision respects no unitary construct above the atom, reducing everything to a broadly programmable materiality and demolishing metaphysical categories of identity. Accordingly, it does not support any sort of abstracted, theoretical construction of the body because it unbounds the body, putting its surfaces and interiors into constant flux.” (51)

Milburn’s eponymous nanovision refers to a way of seeing nanotech that is produced by the discourse that surrounds it, as well as a type of vision that nanotech is meant to afford us: a vision into/past the Singularity. He notes that nanowriting (“visionary” texts by nanotech proponents) is explicitly futurist, “strongly inclined to speculate on the far future and to prognosticate its role in the radical metamorphosis of human life.” (23) Nanotechnology as a field is animated as much by possible applications of hypothetical future technology as by actual technology achievements. In this sense it is uniquely speculative, equally fictional and scientific, a relationship formulated by Milburn as “Science (fiction).”

The conflation of science and science fiction permeates the discourse: when nanotechnology textbooks speak nanotech possibilities, Milburn claims they invariably invoke science fiction tropes that have long become cliches: matter transporters, self-replicating nanobots, utility belts (J. Storrs Hall’s concept of “Utility Fog”), nanosyringes in the bloodstream, etc. Most surprisingly, nanotech discourse always locates the origin of the field in a 1959 lecture by Richard Feynman titled, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” which Milburn notes contains images and concepts lifted directly from Robert Heinlein’s celebrated 1942 short story, “Waldo,” about a scientist who manufactures an interface that can reproduce itself at ever smaller scales, until it reaches the nanolevel, allowing him to manipulate matter at the molecular level through actions at the macrolevel. Indeed, nanotechnology was described in detail by science fiction writers long before it was studied in the lab; what is surprising is that the writings of scientists working in the field differ little in form from those science fiction stories. While many nano-researchers distance themselves from the “visionary” nanowriters and attempt to publicly maintain a sharp distinction between science fiction and science fact, Milburn claims that the dreams of the nanotech field arise from science fiction, as as does the form that such research takes. Of course, this forms a feedback loop, as science fiction writers take up the tropes of nanotech research. The distinction breaks down at every level; it is not surprising that science fiction narratives are in many ways indistinguishable from nanotech textbooks and popularizations, and that the scientists are often not only science fiction fans, but science fiction writers.

Thus when scientists think about nanotech, they are thinking in science fiction tropes as much as in concrete achievements. Similarly, when government agencies and private industry fund nanotechnology, they are really funding the future as envisioned by these narratives.

-ZH

Read Part II here
Read Part III here

“Nanovision” at Amazon.com

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