- The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future by W. Patrick McCray
I first became familiar with historian of science Patrick McCray through his 2004 book Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology. There, he chronicled the development of the increasingly large and complex instruments that have driven modern astronomy to a new era of big science and major new discoveries. In his 2008 book Keep Watching the Skies! The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age, he went on to describe how during the Space Race thousands of people across the planet seized the opportunity to participate in the start of the Space Age, creating a deep connection between popular culture and high technology. Known as the “Moonwatchers,” these largely forgotten citizen-scientists helped professional astronomers by providing critical and otherwise unavailable information about the first satellites. These books lay the groundwork for understanding how high technology and the popular imagination become joined at the hip, but also the emergence of a new kind of marketing of science.
In this new book, McCray crisscrosses the same post-war historical period, examining how a number of exceptional scientists or engineers with unusual promotion and marketing skills managed to impose themselves on the landscape of government, corporate and university research with blends of futuristic promise and popular appeal. He begins by describing the work of Gerald O’Neill, advocate of orbiting space colonies as the new frontier for human colonization. Within his entourage, the young engineer Eric Drexler went on to promote a utopian vision of nano-engineering and nanoscience that birthed large-scale government funding, stoked by a wave of popular enthusiasm for Drexler’s book Engines of Creation, by popular publications such as Guccione’s OMNI and the counter-culture MONDO 2000 and by the work of Californian futurists such as Stewart Brand. McCray chronicles the low and high points of these “movements,” including the appearance of other related groups such as those led by Ray Kurzweil and the work of Diamandis (who went on together to create the Singularity University in Silicon Valley) and the X Prize. He ends the book with a quote from J.D. Bernal: “There are two futures, the future of desire and the future of fate, and man’s reason has never learned to separate them.” McCray closes with a rather techno-optimistic statement: “Technologies are ultimately tools we use to consciously construct our future rather than simply accepting fate. . . . The choice between the future we want and the one we ultimately make is ours.”
The Visioneers benefits from McCray’s extensive use of interviews with the remaining living personalities, as well as the archives of Gerald O’Neill, Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, the Foresight Institute and other actors of the last 30 to 40 years. His research reveals the interlocking social networks between the California technological hotbeds, the counter and alternative cultures, the East Coast establishment institutions and government advisory groups. There are winners and losers, and the process is not always pretty, but nonetheless it can be seen how much recent science and technology policy have relied on promotion by succeeding “visioneers” using their technoscientific credibility coupled with utopian marketing promise. In 1968, Brand, in the first pages of the Whole Earth Catalog, optimistically states: “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” The Visioneers takes this challenge seriously. [End Page 304]
Soon, some of the visioneers were accused of pseudoscience and of developing what were essentially cults of true believers. McCray elaborates a more subtle argument that defines two emerging kinds of nanosciences, the one falling within a Popperian vision of technoscience espoused by Drexler and a more Kuhnian normative science rooted in chemistry and materials science. Whereas Drexler felt that his computer modeling of nano systems had...