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Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering: Science Fiction as Science
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Configurations 10.2 (2002) 261-295

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Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering:
Science Fiction as Science

Colin Milburn
Harvard University

Now nanotechnology had made nearly anything possible, and so the cultural role in deciding what should be done with it had become far more important than imagining what could be done with it.
—Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age (1995)
Long live the new flesh.
—David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983)

The Technoscapes and Dreamscapes of Nanotechnology

K. Eric Drexler, pioneer and popularizer of the emerging science of nanotechnology, has summarized the ultimate goal of his field as "thorough and inexpensive control of the structure of matter." 1 Nanotechnology is the practical manipulation of atoms; it is engineering conducted on the molecular scale. Many scientists involved in this ambitious program envision building nanoscopic machines, often called "assemblers" or "nanobots," that will be used to construct objects on an atom-by-atom basis. Modeled largely after biological "machines" like enzymes, ribosomes, and mitochondria—even the cell —these nanomachines will have specific purposes such as binding two chemical elements together or taking certain compounds apart, and will also be designed to replicate themselves so that the speed and scale of molecular manufacturing may be increased. Several different [End Page 261] types of assemblers, or assemblers with multiple functions, will act together to engineer complex objects precise and reproducible down to every atomic variable. With its bold scheme to completely dominate materiality itself, nanotechnology has been prophesied to accomplish almost anything called for by human desires.

These prophecies have run the gamut from the mundane to the fantastic: Nanomachines will be able to disassemble any organic compound, such as wood, oil, or sewage, then restructure the constituent carbon atoms into diamond crystals of predetermined size and shape for numerous purposes, including structural materials of unprecedented strength. Nanomachines will be put into your carpet or clothing, programmed to constantly vaporize any dirt particles they encounter, keeping your house or your wardrobe perpetually clean. Nanomachines will quickly and cheaply fabricate furniture, or car engines, or nutritious food, from a soup of appropriate elements. Nanomachines will facilitate our exploration of space, synthesizing weightless lightsails to propel seamless spaceships throughout the universe. Nanomachines will repair damaged human cells on the molecular level, thus healing injury, curing disease, prolonging life, or perhaps annihilating death altogether.

Nanotechnology has been extensively discussed in these terms, but despite the fancifulness of certain nanoscenarios, it is a robust and active science. Many universities, laboratories, and companies around the world are investigating nanotech possibilities, constituting a dense discourse network—a technoscape—of individuals and institutions interested in the potential benefits of this nascent discipline. 2 The U.S. National Science Foundation supports a National Nanofabrication Users Network to coordinate efforts at numerous sites, 3 and the National Nanotechnology Initiative, proposed by the Clinton administration in 2000 and augmented by the Bush administration in 2001, offers funding and guidelines to promote nanotech breakthroughs. 4 Arguably at the center of the technoscape is the Foresight Institute, a nonprofit organization established in 1986 by Drexler and his wife, Christine Peterson, to foster thinking and research related to nanotechnology. 5 Hosting conferences, sponsoring [End Page 262] publications and awards, the Foresight Institute strives to be a nanotech mecca of sorts, anchoring the morass of nanotechnological endeavors currently spreading across the globe. Since Drexler first proposed a program for research in 1986 with the publication of his polemical Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, 6 nanotechnology has gained notoriety as a visionary science and the technoscape has burgeoned.

Offering intellectual and commercial attractions, career opportunities and research agendas, nanotechnology foresees a technocultural revolution that will, in a very short time, profoundly alter human life as we know it. The ability to perform molecular surgery on our bodies and our environment will have irrevocable social, economic, and epistemological effects; our relation to the world will change so utterly that even what it means to be human will be seriously challenged. But despite expanding interest in nanotech, despite proliferating ranks of researchers, despite international academic conferences, numerous doctoral...