Nano geekery and otherwise

Brief conversation over caipirinhas last night one evening last November with one of the folks responsible for I feel a trifle guilty still, in that I busted forth on him with a rush of questions and provocations that had to be more than a little out of place in the cozy downtempo milieu…but it’s hard to keep a geek down when once s/he’s scented the object of fascination.

I excuse myself on the grounds that my excitement, however d0rky, is defensible. I don’t run into that many people who are both knowledgeable enough to have a meaningful conversation about nano and skeptical enough about its benisons to maintain the proper critical distance.

And I can understand that. I certainly get how seductive the prospects are: recuperating the sunk energy investments of past centuries, for example, by turning all those waste dumps, landfills and slagheaps into something useful, or bringing the age of material scarcity to a close. It’s the old promise of “effectively complete control over the structure of matter,” as Eric Drexler famously and succinctly put it. I, too, Want To Believe.

The trouble is that when people get enthusiastic about nano, they tend to get enthusiastic. Perspective and experience so often fly straight out the window, and we’re back to a touching and almost childlike faith in Progress, as if the prospect of a mere nano-fabricated architecture isn’t interesting enough. Even without getting into the more baroque and distastefully Extropian directions, so many conversations about nano at their core rely on the assumption that technology with a capital T is the secret escape hatch from the densely interconnected set of problems we’ve built for ourselves. (Note that I’m not necessarily tarring with this brush; the tendency is endemic to the domain.)

You see a similar lack of perspective breaking out around the related notion of the Singularity, too – though more the one that emerges from Ray Kurzweil’s breathless and rather silly telling than Vernor Vinge’s original conception.

I’m not sure what reality-distortion field comes into being around these ideas, but under its influence otherwise intelligent folks begin to treat Technology as if it were some entirely autonomous presence in the world – as if our tools came into being and proceeded toward their infinitely hot and dense omega point untouched by human hand or habit. (Maybe it’s the potent image of self-replicating nanoassemblers that gets to them, the notorious idea that once set loose in the wild, such things would be a mere matter of hours away from turning the planet into one big boiling foam of self-aware goo.)

In a context like this, it gets difficult to discuss the actual promise (and very real limitations) of nanotechnology in any levelheaded way. Even the word “nano” begins to taste like embarrassment in the mouth.

How might this potent set of ideas and methods be recuperated? We could start by acknowledging that technology – like Soylent Green, if you must – is made of people. Our tools are nothing but frozen maps of our needs, desires, lacks and weaknesses. I think we’d be far better off recognizing these all-too-human qualities – and attempting to understand how they influence the design, adoption and use of particular technologies – than lunging after some maximally improbable transcendence. It’s a simple, maybe even an obvious point, but it seems to be one that quite a few technoenthusiasts of every stripe (ubicomp no less than nanotech) haven’t quite yet grasped.

One response to “Nano geekery and otherwise”

  1. Joshua Ellis says :

    Techno-determinism has been maybe the primal driving force behind geek culture since the end of WWII — just throw the widgets out there and human society will order itself around them. Take the prefix “nano-” and replace it with the world “atomic” and suddenly half these folks sound like 1950s pulp writers. And their futures aren’t necessarily any more viable.

    Nanotech — like blogs or ubicomp — solves one specific, limited set of problems, not all the ills of the world. (Though admittedly, the promise of nanotech is pretty goddamn breathtaking. But so was the promise of cheap, clean nuclear power in the 1950s.)

    This, by the way, is a lot of what my ‘grim meathook future’ talk in Berlin and theoretical forthcoming book is about, Adam.

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