The Visioneers by McCray W. Patrick

The Visioneers by McCray W. Patrick

Author:McCray, W. Patrick
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9781400844685
Publisher: Princeton University Press


California Dreaming

As I’ve said many times, the future is here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.

—William Gibson, science fiction author, interview on National Public Radio, November 30, 1999

Only a few years after nanotechnology had blossomed into a global research initiative that consumed billions of government and corporate dollars, one well-placed observer claimed the field, if indeed nanotechnology could be delimited to such a thing, was experiencing an “existential crisis.”1 But how could the “brave and wondrous new world” of nanotechnology already be in such a perilous state?2

One answer was that nanotechnology wasn’t new. Quite the opposite. Despite the oft-used revolutionary rhetoric, its foundations were rooted in Cold War–era microelectronics and molecular biology. Scientists like von Hippel and Feynman proposed a future in which precise manipulation of the molecular realm was attainable. Early nano visionaries like Conrad Schneiker and Eric Drexler built on these imaginative ideas, adding concepts drawn liberally from two decades of advances in biology, microelectronics, and computer engineering. Schneiker had even deliberately used the term “Feynman machine” to “emphasize the fact that this field wasn’t just something that came up, that these ideas weren’t brand new.”3 Drexler, meanwhile, proceeded to popularize what he only gradually, and somewhat reluctantly, called nanotechnology.

The existential quandary also emerged because there was no single entity to which one could point and say “That is nanotechnology.” Nanotechnology wasn’t like Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine or Henry Ford’s assembly line. It was instead a broad and enabling set of technologies for production and a rubric of ideas that purported to contain the seeds for radical social and economic change. Seen this way, it more closely resembled the scientific management of Taylorism, the early-twentieth-century principles of “scientific management” that proposed how assembly lines and factories should be organized. Much closer to an ideology than to actual nuts-and-bolts engineering, Taylorism (and nanotechnology) helped unite a community of adherents and boosters in pursuit of a new future for industry and society.

Like Ford’s assembly lines, nanotechnology appeared during and drew on an extraordinary period of American technological and industrial change. Following the end of World War Two, a powerful new social contract emerged between universities, business, and government. The participants in this “triple helix” framed scientific research and technological development as essential components of America’s global power during the Cold War.4 Established disciplines like physics and chemistry grew handsomely while new fields like materials science, molecular biology, and computer science emerged and thrived. Although nanotechnology today has the cachet of cutting-edge science and engineering, its proponents foraged extensively on the many intellectual and technological frontiers that researchers had opened during this prolific period.

Even among its early supporters, nanotechnology possessed a certain plasticity. This flexibility allowed proponents such as Schneiker and Drexler to interpret and imagine it in diverse ways. Following Drexler’s successful popularizing, “nanotechnologists” from a wide array of academic disciplines—biology, physics, chemistry, materials science, engineering, each with its own argot, professional societies, conferences, and journals—embraced a broad ensemble of tools and techniques. Meanwhile, the visioneering of people like


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