Reading List: Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering

Oof. Much like “Train Tracks”, this strikes me as an article that carries on for far longer than its insight warrants, and that in the process “develops” its arguments to some quite impressively dumb conclusions.

The first part of “Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering: Science Fiction as Science” [pdf], which provides an overview of what nanotechnology is and how it presents itself to the world, is good, usefully highlighting how inflated the rhetoric of the field can be:

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 needed towards 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.

The problems begin when Milburn starts to dig into the fact that “many critics have claimed that nanotechnology is less a science and more a science fiction”. To be clear, I don’t actually doubt that this is the case. But here’s how Milburn characterises the words of one such critic:

Gary Stix, staff writer for Scientific American and a persistent critic of nanotech … maintains that nanowriting, a “subgenre of science fiction”, damages the legitimacy of nanoscience in the public eye, and that “[d]istinguishing between what’s real and what’s not” is essential for nanotech’s prosperity.

Here’s what Stix actually wrote:

Less directly, Drexler’s work may actually draw people into science. His imaginings have inspired a rich vein of science-fiction literature [see “Shamans of Small,” by Graham P. Collins, on page 86]. As a subgenre of science fiction-rather than a literal prediction of the future-books about Drexlerian nanotechnology 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.

The thrust of Stix’s piece is indeed what Milburn says it is – an argument that the improbable rhetoric around nanotechnology obscures the reality of the field – but at this point, Stix is not asserting that nanowriting is a subgenre of science fiction, as Milburn suggests, but rather that when nanowriting filters into science fiction it may serve the same inspirational function as other sfnal transformations of real science. For an argument centrally concerned with the distinction between speculative fiction and speculative science, that seems quite important, and for an article that often turns on paraphrase or interpretation of key texts, a little worrying. Here’s how he summarizes the relationship:

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, in positing the world turned upside down by the future advent of fully functional nanomachines, thereby falls into the domain of science fiction.

No, it doesn’t. There is a clear relationship between the two things. There are depictions of nanotechnology in science fiction, and science-fictional claims by nanotechnologists. But these two things are not the same, not in source or form or intent or effect. At the very least, if you’re going to argue otherwise, you have to show that they are the same by comparing examples of each, and while Milburn dissects several articles about nanotechnology at no point does he perform a similar dissection on a science-fiction text. (Although it’s noticeable that he doesn’t tackle actual nanotechnology research articles, but rather general commentary on the field and its potential, which for the most part is held to stand for the whole; when he does mention “celebrated experimental results”, they are presented “in no particular order”, rather than the logical, chronological order, which rather demonstrates Milburn’s lack of interest in the non-fictional side of nanotechnology.) Absent such analysis, no amount of assertion or appeal to Baudrillard will make nanotechnology “simultaneously a science and a science fiction”, such that “only a more sutured concept – something like ‘science (fiction)’ – adequately represents the technoscape”. (At this point my print-out of the article has “Oh, come on!” written in the margin.)

This is not to say the article is without good bits, although at times it’s hard to shake the feeling that Milburn is just on a mission to add “nano” to as many words as possible — nanotech, nanomachine, nanowriting, nanorhetoric, nanofuture, nanoscientists, nanological, nanosystems, nanofanciful, nanonarratives, and so forth. The analysis of the rhetorics of nanotechnology is interesting, such as the observation that so many of the “dreams” it promotes are drawn from golden age sf. There’s an intriguing, if not nearly as definitive as Milburn seems to think, suggestion that Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, owes a debt to Heinlein’s 1942 story “Waldo”, and an exploration of the ways in which Feynman’s talk is a much woollier affair than it is often presented as. And there’s a useful presentation and critique of the strategies nanotechnology advocates use to distinguish between their theorising and science fiction.

But much of the article is undermined by that failure to distinguish between the presentation of nanotechnology and the practice, or indeed just between informed and uninformed speculation. Here is the issue in microcosm, perhaps: Milburn writes that “despite many determined critics, nanotech managed to secure its professional future by combining fantastic speculation with concerted attacks on science fiction”, completely missing the point that the attacks are on claims that nanotechnology is sf, not on sf as a thing in itself. This leads to Milburn arguing for equivalence between a golden age sf story that imagines an application that could be achieved through nanotechnology – miniature surgery, for instance – and a contemporary nanotechnological speculation, and further that this equivalence “destabilizes” the division between theoretical science and science fiction. I would suggest that the relationship between the fiction and the science in the two cases is different, and that the division remains clear.

The final section of the article, having established to its satisfaction that nanotechnology is science fiction, takes a bit of a left turn into discussion of what our inevitable nanotechnological future will look like, summed up as follows:

As these scenarios suggest, nanotechnology has unprecedented effects on the way we are able to conceptualize our bodies, our biologies, our subjectivities, our technologies, and the world we share with other organisms. Whether positing the liberation of human potential or the total annihilation of organic life on this planet, nanologic demands that we think outside the realms of the human and humanism. Nanologic makes our bodies cyborg and redefines our material experiences, redraws our conceptual borders, and reimagines our future.

Stirring stuff! Although you start to wonder at that present tense, given that Milburn seemed to be arguing that nanotechnology remains science fiction, i.e. not yet real. And then you hit:

Accordingly, even before the full potential of a working nanotechnology has been realized, we have already become posthuman.

Oh dear. There’s not really any way to walk that back, is there? Unless … yes, I’ve got it! This article, which draws on science fictional imagery and techniques in its distortion of reality, is itself science fiction! I’m a genius.

(Some days, postmodernism makes me feel very tired.)


7 thoughts on “Reading List: Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering

  1. Unless … yes, I’ve got it! This article, which draws on science fictional imagery and techniques in its distortion of reality, is itself science fiction!

    Written, undoubtedly, for NaNoWriMo.

  2. I didn’t see a link to the copy of the article available online, so I thought I’d add one

    I’m entirely in agreement on the troubles that go with the po-mo approach. That said, I’m most interested in how dated Milburn’s article is. My personal impression is that the hype about nanotechnology, and in particular, the prospect of imminent molecular assemblers-has waned considerably since the time when Milburn was writing (the crest of that giant wave of ’90s tech boom techno-hype that pretty much laid down the idea of the Singularity as we know it today).

  3. Belated thanks for the link, Nader; I’ve got another nanotech article up next, so maybe it’ll offer a different perspective.

  4. I think I took more of the positives than negatives. There is a very interesting analysis of the ways in which nanotechnologists attempt to distance themselves from notions of sf. I suspect, at heart, Milburn is an sf fan tired of sf being dissed by scientists who share more in common with sf writers than they care to admit.

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