Let’s assume for a moment that nanotechnology works out just as its proponents hope it will – that in the course of the next few decades we develop the power to easily manipulate matter at the atomic level, and that we also develop safeguards to keep it from spinning out of control. This is both the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario. Because in its advanced conceptions nanotech is simply too powerful a technology to allow human meaning to exist in its shadow.
Its proponents see a day, not far off, when ‘universal assemblers’ will be able to deconstruct matter and produce finished products more or less at the touch of a button: feed dirt in one end of your magic machine, set the programme and a steak will pop out the other end. ‘A potato is disassembled atom by atom and the information is recorded in an outrageously powerful nano-computer data bank,’ the editors at Nanozine.com explain in a cheerful essay titled Nanotechnological Pursuit of Happiness. ‘One can broadcast this information to the other side of the Earth or to a moon of Jupiter. Then, with the right feed stocks (carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, etc) and a few trillion nano-assemblers, one can reconstruct an exact copy of a potato.’ In the words of inventor Ray Kurzweil, the technology will ‘solve humanity’s material needs’. Eric Drexler, the father of nanotech, puts it this way: ‘The closest thing we have seen to this type of transformation was the Industrial Revolution, and that comparison somehow doesn’t seem adequate.’ Others have gone further: it’s the biggest deal since the invention of fire, they say, since we figured out how to farm.
Or maybe even bigger.
All those other transformations, right up through the Industrial Revolution, have involved figuring out new ways to accomplish the work of survival. But nanotechnology is about abolishing the work of survival – about replacing human effort once and for all. ‘People will have fewer and fewer attributes to sell,’ predicts British Telecom’s official futurist Ian Pearson. ‘[But] production and output could greatly increase… so we could all have a better quality of life without having to work.’
But can you have a better quality of life without having to do work? The futurists speculate that we will spend our time pursuing literature and painting (or maybe playing video games). Even here, they are happy to report, the new technologies will be a great aid. In a volume published a few years ago by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a man called Tom McKendree offered a sweeping view of the coming era of ‘nanotech hobbies’. Model railroaders, he said, ‘could build a working replica – small but visible – of the entire US railroad network’. For needleworkers, who like ‘the pleasant calming effect’ that stitching produces in their souls, ‘nanotechnology could [remove] some of the petty annoyances. A piece of cloth could have a pattern printed directly on it that faded away at each stitch or sounded a gentle alarm if one mis-stitched a thread’. Once we’ve perfected nano-medicine, McKendree added, thrill seekers would be able to engage in ‘hand-to-hand combat using medieval weapons; this activity could be quite realistic, down to producing wounds that would today kill a person’.
I don’t know for sure what this world would feel like. What it would mean if we were ‘seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines’ or if the ‘realm of the born and the realm of the made... become one.’ I can imagine what a cat feels like stretched in the late afternoon sun, but I can’t quite channel what it would be like to inhabit a ‘warm, energised, super-sensual morphing device of graceful complexity and beauty.’ It’s like imagining you are a car, trying to sense the asphalt against your rubber, the fluid coursing through your brake lines. Try as I might these seem to me deadening, muffling technologies, without even the promise that accompanies some of the talk of genetic engineering. They would cut us off even more fully than we already are from the rest of the natural world.
Look: there are technologies too powerful to coexist with a human future. We either rein them in or we bow off the stage. Nuclear weapons were one; there was no way to contemplate a human future in which they were regularly employed. And nanotechnology may be another, though it comes wearing a big shiny smile. Human meaning is produced by human effort. I have a neighbour who grows organic potatoes. His operation is called ‘Golden Russet Farms’. All year he works to figure out how best to do it – when to plant, when to water, when to pick. He is not rich, but he is powerfully engaged. Deeply happy, I think. Meaning is already in somewhat short supply in the Western world. Sometimes we have to manufacture it by running marathons. But we cannot live without it. Otherwise we might as well be robots.
The proponents of this kind of work anticipate the disappearance of humans with ill-disguised glee. They speak of a ‘post-human future’, of ‘fast-forwarding our evolution’. They talk frankly and openly of the world they foresee. It’s worth taking them seriously and asking if it’s a world we really want, or if – like King Midas – we may find ourselves someplace where it’s impossible to live the lives we need to live.
Bill Mckibben is the best-selling author of The End of Nature. His new book, Enough: genetic engineering and the end of human nature (Bloomsbury, £17.99), comes out in the UK this month.
A Nano Reading List
Small Times – the trade magazine of the nanotech industry (also covers Mems – Micro-Electronic Mechanical Systems)
The Wolfe Report – a joint publication of Forbes magazine and Lux capital; regular and pricey overview for investors of what’s happening in the nanotech sector
Other magazines that regularly follow nanotech developments include Red Herring, Wired, Scientific American, New Scientist, Forbes,Nature and Technology Review.
Engines of Creation, K Eric Drexler. The book that popularised nanotechnology and introduced Drexler’s theories of self-assembling molecular manufacturing and nanobots (Anchor Books, 1987)
Nanosystems: molecular machinery, manufacturing and computation, K Eric Drexler. Technical companion to Engines of Creation (John Wiley, 1992)
Unbounding the Future, K Eric Drexler and Christine Petersen. Essentially an update of Engines of Creation (Quill, 1993)
Nanotechnology: molecular speculations on global abundance, edited by BC Crandall. A Drexlerian collection of essays and lists imagining what nanotechnology might one day achieve (MIT Press, 1996)
The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil. MIT artificial intelligence guru speculates that the combination of nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence will give rise to a shift in human evolution (Available online; Penguin, 2000)
Our Molecular Future, Douglas Mulhall. Self-proclaimed nano-ecologist argues that by harnessing the convergence of genetics, robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology humanity can overcome ecological collapse, asteroid hits, tsunamis and other natural disasters (Prometheus Books, 2002)
Nanotechnology: shaping the world atom by atom, Mihail Rocco. General introduction from the US government (Available online at: www.nano.gov)
NBIC (Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno): converging technologies for improving human performance, Mihail Rocco, Newt Gingrich, et al. Collection of over 80 essays and presentations examining the possibilities of NBIC convergence (Available online at: www.wtec.org/ConvergingTechnologies/)
The ETC Century: erosion, technological transformation and corporate concentration in the 21st century, Pat Roy Mooney. How nanotechnology is driving the erosion of human rights, rural livelihoods, the environment and democracy (Dag Hammarskjold Foundation 2000; available online at: www.etcgroup.org
Atomtech: technologies converging at the nano-scale, the ETC Group The first comprehensive report by a civil society group to critically examine the current developments in nanotechnology (Available online at: www.etcgroup.org)
Electronic news sources
Small Times online (www.smalltimes.com) – daily features, news and an extensive archive
Nanodot (www.nanodot.org) – newswire run by the Foresight Institute, which anyone can post to
Nanogirl News (www.nanoindustries.com) – weekly news roundup by Gina ‘Nanogirl’ Miller
TNT Weekly (www.CMP-cientifica.com) – European consultancy that also runs the European NanoBusiness Association; regular weekly nano-industry news
Nano Apex (www.nanoapex.com) – news website on nanotechnology and Mems
Nanotechweb (www.nanotechweb.org) European-based news website with weekly email roundup
Betterhumans: www.betterhumans.com – ‘trans-humanist’ site that closely tracks nanotechnology news
This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2003