Small, but Determined: Technological Determinism in
Cyrus C.M. Mody*
Abstract: Analysis of technological
determinism by historians,
sociologists, and philosophers has declined in recent years. Yet
understanding this topic is necessary, particularly in examining the
dynamics of emerging technologies and their associated research areas.
This is especially true of nanotechnology, which, because of its roots
in futurist traditions, employs unusual variants on classical
determinist arguments. In particular, nanotechnology orients much more
strongly to the past and future than most traditional disciplines. This
non-presentism strongly colors its proponents’ articulation of the
field’s definition, purview, and likely development. This paper
explores nano’s non-presentism and suggests ways to further explore
Keywords: nanotechnology, non-presentism,
futurism, social construction.
Is (nano)technology a product of society, or
society a product of technology? Do social groups construct what counts
as ‘progress’ in the development of a technology, or do artifacts and
systems evolve according to their own, internal rules? These are the
questions that once sparked vigorous debate over ‘technological
determinism’. Yet in the past few years philosophers, historians, and
sociologists of technology have largely steered away from these thorny
issues. Stark versions of determinist thinking, such as Lynn White’s
(1962) claim that feudalism was a product of the stirrup and the heavy
plow, or, for that matter, Marx’s (1963/1847) remark that "the hand
mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill society
with the industrial capitalist" today seem too oversimplified even to
provoke scholarly discussion. As one of the last important
contributions to this debate, the edited volume Does Technology
Drive History? (Smith & Marx 1994), answered its eponymous
question – ‘not really’.
One of the problems with sustaining analysis
technological determinism is that there is little agreement about what
it is. Indeed, in the decade between 1985 and 1995, there briefly
flourished a cottage industry devoted to splicing apart the various
threads of determinist thought, giving them names, and associating them
with different schools of philosophy and history.
As Bruce Bimber (1994) pointed out in a landmark article, technological
determinism "exists in enough different incarnations that the label can
easily be attached to a range of views". Within this range, one can
find a spectrum from ‘strong’ to ‘weak’ determinism – for some,
technology may be the driving force of social change, while for
others (most notably Thomas Hughes) a technological system may seem to
have an autonomous, extra-social ‘momentum’ (Hughes 1983, 1994) that
drives social change only because society itself provides the soil to
grow networks of power, standards, institutions, and artifacts that
entrench the system by enrolling vast numbers of stakeholders.
Thus, much of the attraction of determinist
representations of technology’s development and effect on society may
lie in the interpretive flexibility of applying both ‘technology’ and
‘determinism’ to any particular case. Yet, though marking out the
different senses latent within technological determinism was an
important project, it has tended to end rather than provoke debate. For
the purposes of this article, therefore, I wish to point to conceptual
territory that may lie beyond the parsing of definitions. To do so, I
will rely on a two-handed definition of technological determinism
borrowed from Bijker (1995). In Bijker’s summary, technological
determinism encompasses both the idea that technological
development proceeds via an autonomous, internal logic (a logic
determined only by a unidirectional calculus of engineering
considerations, rather than a dense weave of contradictory aims that
are both ‘social’ and ‘technical’) and the idea that technology
determines the social organization of a society (and therefore pushes
rather than pulls societal change). As Bijker points out, though, the
two notions are intertwined. Because technology is seen as prior to,
rather than an upshot of, society, it is easy to think of technological
choices as having their own, pure logic; and because technological
changes are thought to accumulate under their own power (and
simultaneously provide the motive force for societal change), it is
almost axiomatic (at least in North America and many other Western
societies) that technical development can be used as a (or usually the)
yardstick in measuring how ‘advanced’ a culture is.
The advantage of this particular definition
it highlights elements of technological determinism within both
mainstream, popular ideology, and academic philosophy and history. To
be sure, outside of technology studies circles determinist talk is
still alive and well. Popular representations of technology, as well as
policy statements by proponents and opponents of particular artifacts
and systems, paint technologies as possessing autonomy, as developing
along ineluctable pathways, and as being the core around which society
is structured and measured. Indeed, this provides its own fodder for
analytical debate as historians and sociologists examine how advocates’
and opponents’ representations of technology as autonomous
shape both the design of artifacts and the social order surrounding
them in ways that recursively give the technology a deterministic
social reality. As historians Gabrielle Hecht and Michael Thad Allen
[I]nstead of continuing to ask ‘Does
drive history?’ we should ask questions such as ‘When or why do
historical actors believe or argue that technology drives history?’
Addressing such questions leads us to view technological determinism –
and other beliefs about the relationships between technology and social
change – as political practices. [Hecht & Allen 2001, p. 14-15]
Though determinist talk of all stripes –
weak, nuanced and simple – is ubiquitous, it is often easiest to
capture and analyze pronouncements made about emerging
technologies. This may seem counterintuitive; after all, emerging
technologies are thinly connected to networks of people and
institutions, are easily reconstrued as new participants have their
say, and continually face the specter of failure and disappearance.
Unlike many entrenched technologies, emergent systems usually spawn a
variety of contradictory voices. Yet, though these voices differ, they
still often reinforce a technologically determinist worldview by laying
out a determined path for the technology’s development and a means by
which the technology will ineluctably reshape society. The strong
association between emergent technologies and determinist talk seems
less paradoxical, though, if we see such statements as performative,
rather than reflective, of a determinist viewpoint.
Technology’s advocates build networks of people and institutions through
determinist talk and action, and in doing so they conjure up the thick
social ties that make such determinism plausible.
Few of today’s emerging technologies fit this
better than nanotechnology. Nano’s proponents, in particular, are not
shy about saying that current research will inevitably generate a brave
new world that will look completely different from pre-nano society. In
engaging analytically with such promises, scholars of science and
technology have a tremendous opportunity. Nano represents a scientific
and technological movement in the making (or, perhaps, unmaking). Nano
should be viewed as an exquisite field site for testing our ideas about
how people generate knowledge and artifacts; how they integrate new
technologies into their practices and organize themselves around new
kinds of artifacts; and, indeed, how they use emerging technologies to
push the limits of human instrumentality.
For these reasons, nano is fertile ground for
sharpening historical, philosophical, and sociological analysis of
technological determinism. Yet, nano, as currently constituted, also
displays a number of wrinkles on classical determinism that make it
interesting as more than a mere test case. Most fascinating and
analytically useful is its proponents’ cultivation of it as a
simultaneously scientific and technological endeavor. Nanoists
routinely mix scientific and technological registers in their talk; and
in their practice, they devise experiments that can easily be construed
both/either as generating interesting scientific knowledge and/or
useful technological artifacts. Interestingly, nanoists often project
this synthesis far back into the past and forward into the future by,
for instance, saying that nanoscience has been gathering steam (perhaps
unnoticed) for a very long time in the guise of research in fields such
as chemistry and materials science, or that nanotechnology has long
been present in practices such as glass-making and blacksmithing where
craft knowledge can produce striking nanoscale effects.
Moreover, they say, nature (or ‘biology’) has
doing nanotechnology for billions of years; every virus, bacterium, and
cell is a nanomachine of enormous complexity. Indeed, it is around this
point that some nanoists invoke a complex but strong form of
determinism. After all, nature’s nano-achievements show us that
nanomachines are possible, and nature’s version of nano has completely
restructured the earth and produced human life, culture, and
consciousness. The progress of science, they say, means that it will
inevitably be possible for us to understand and mimic nature’s
nanomachines; once we have done so, our own nanomachines will develop
in a way determined by biology, chemistry, and engineering design; and
as they do develop, our inventions cannot help but revolutionize our
world just as much as nature’s nanobots did.
Thus, nano – and the determinist rhetoric
surrounds it – plays with and synthesizes distinctions between science
and technology in interesting ways. This makes nano ripe for the kind
of analysis that extends almost a century-long tradition of using the
philosophy, history, and sociology of science and technology to cast
light on each other. The strands of this tradition that I will draw on
here begin with Dewey and Heidegger, and pass through Bachelard and
Wittgenstein and Kuhn, but have taken on many colors with the advent of
the science and technology studies literature in the late 1970s.
Indeed, today scholars as diverse as Don Ihde, Trevor Pinch, Gabrielle
Hecht, Ian Hacking, Peter Galison, and Bruno Latour have used our
understanding of science to sharpen analysis of technology and
Of these post-Kuhnian literatures, this article draws most heavily on
the social construction of technology (or SCOT) model associated with
Bijker and Pinch (1987).
SCOT is particularly appropriate here since the model cut its teeth in
the 1980s on the debates over technological determinism. In particular,
by showing that there is ‘interpretive flexibility’ in the way
engineering choices are made (and therefore no wholly autonomous logic
of design is possible) and that technologies are continually reshaped
and reinterpreted as new social groups become relevant to them (and
therefore technology cannot straightforwardly ‘impact’ social
organization), SCOT countered most (strong) determinist arguments and
contributed to the shift away from the debate on technological
The lessons of SCOT and other post-Kuhnian
literatures are many, but a few are key in examining the role of
determinism in the relationship between nanotechnology and its
constituent communities of practice.
First, whatever the metaphysical nature of reality, the sciences as
they are actually constituted deal almost exclusively not with the
‘real world’ but with a world that has been appropriated for human
action. That is, scientists engage with a world that they manufacture
to be more amenable to the generation of knowledge, and then they learn
what they can about that world. They clean this reconstituted
world, they filter it, they abstract it, they mold it into model
systems, and they stimulate it to produce and be populated by some
entities rather than others. Thus, the scientific world is inherently
technological, and scientists create knowledge by piecing together
generative relationships between different made objects –
microscopes, accelerators, electrons, lab rats, etc.
Hence, different regions of science and
have quite different epistemic materials and therefore quite different
practices and bodies of knowledge.
Different disciplines and subdisciplines have a certain autonomy
because of their arcane knowledge of how to tame the world in their
peculiar way and learn something about it. Thus, the knowledge of one
science should not be seen as reducible to the knowledge of another,
nor should the work of engineers in creating a world that is amenable
to their technological expertise be seen as a mere ‘application’ of any
scientific discipline’s body of knowledge. From this also follows the
Kuhnian point that these crafted worlds make scientific progress
difficult to measure. Disciplines change their world-creating practices
over time, and hence the knowledge of one era relates to a set of
entities that is, in some sense, incommensurable to the knowledge of
another era. By the same token, this line of reasoning problematizes
notions of technological determinism. Fine-grained studies of
scientific practice show that new laboratory technologies do not fit
unproblematically into ongoing research communities; rather, the
technologies have to be reworked and made compatible with the
community’s practices. Thus, the design of a technology does not
determine its use, and there is no determined relation between a
research community’s organization and the technologies it employs.
Yet, technologies can travel between
communities, different disciplines clearly can communicate with
each other, and different kinds of practitioners can
harmonize their practice. What is required for this are bits of crafted
world – ‘boundary objects’ (Star & Griesemer 1989) – that can be
passed as tokens and made the focus of work that is sufficiently, but
not completely, harmonized between different kinds of practitioners.
Again, this way of looking at things brings out many of the most
conspicuous characteristics of nanotechnology. Like any of the
traditional big scientific disciplines, nanotechnology is a community
of communities – it contains an overlapping yet mixed bag of surface
scientists, probe microscopists, semiconductor physicists,
supramolecular chemists, molecular biologists, computer scientists,
electrical engineers, materials scientists, UV and electron
lithographers, micro-electromechanical systems experts, and so on.
Unlike the traditional disciplines, though, there has been little
attempt to claim, so far, that the expertise of the constituent parts
of nanotechnology is fully commensurable. Policy specialists,
practicing scientists and engineers, and sociologists and philosophers
of science and technology have all had tremendous difficulty even
arriving at a coherent definition of nanotechnology, much less
a common jargon for all of the knowledge created by self-described
Several of the constituent communities of
nanotechnology are drawn from the engineering sciences – materials
science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, fluid
dynamics, computer science, MEMS, etc. Since the 1970s, these
subdisciplines have spawned their own literature in the science and
technology studies tradition, a literature that has consistently
engaged and critiqued technological determinism in ways that will be
helpful in understanding nanotechnology. Scholars such as Ed Layton, Ed
Constant, Walter Vincenti, Ron Kline, Eda Kranakis, and Thomas Hughes
have shown that engineering has its own practices, its own kinds of
instrumentation, theories, and heuristics, and a body of knowledge that
cannot simply be reduced to physics.
Moreover, these scholars have demonstrated that rhetorical repertoires
of ‘science’ and ‘technology’ or of ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science are
historically situated and closely connected to struggles over the
disciplinary identity and autonomy of the engineering sciences (Kline
1995, 2000). The historical sensibility these authors provide is useful
in considering nanotechnology as merely the latest in a long line of
attempts to provide a heuristic and organizational umbrella over
different patches of the engineering disciplines, and the rhetoric of
nanoists as performative in the construction of their umbrella.
Nano also has a strong constituency from
subdisciplines, especially those currently housed in traditional
chemistry departments. Even before Dalton and atomism, chemists knew
their discipline dealt with very small objects, and modern chemistry is
the birthplace of canonically nanotechnological ‘artifacts’ such as the
nanotube, the buckyball, and the DNA computer. In the past, because of
the reductionist bent of certain kinds of logical empiricism, and
because of the social prestige of physics, chemistry was often
overlooked by sociologists and philosophers; there were very good
histories of chemistry, such as the classic Guerlac (1961), but little
exploration of how the epistemics and social practice of chemistry
differed from physics. As with the engineering sciences, though, there
is now a burgeoning literature showing that chemists have their own
kind of relationship to instrumentation, that they treat issues of
purity and contamination in their own (epistemically significant) way,
and that they have a different kind of bodily engagement with their
experiments and representations than other scientists.
Most importantly, this literature draws out the sense in which
chemistry is the consummate science of making
‘epistemic things’ – materials that provide a stage for ongoing
experimental work and that yield up some small part of the world for
scrutiny. The purview of chemistry is the making of molecules,
integrated with the equipment, concepts, and processes that allow
chemists to simultaneously generate knowledge and nanoscale objects.
2. Drexler and Non-Presentism
Engineers and chemists both bring a
thing-making orientation to nanotechnology. What is perhaps new for
chemists, though, is the idea that the epistemic materials they
are making should be construed primarily as technological
artifacts (or parts thereof). It is this process of recasting that has
provided much of the hype of nanotechnology, as well as some of the
internal frictions of the nano community. It is not immediately obvious
in what sense molecules or supramolecular assemblies should be viewed
as technological artifacts; and those who have made that leap have
sometimes attracted criticism for doing so. This is true of no one more
than Eric Drexler, the popularizer of the term ‘nanotechnology’ and one
of the most influential visionaries of the field. It is worthwhile
examining Drexler’s rhetoric, and his evolving place in the nano
community, to understand how this synthesis of chemistry and
engineering can yield new forms of technological determinism.
Interestingly, Drexler’s background is as a
futurist, rather than as a practitioner of any of nanotechnology’s
constituent communities. During his undergraduate education at MIT in
the late 1970s, he became a protégé of space travel
visionary Gerard K.
O’Neill and artificial intelligence futurist Marvin Minsky.
At the same time, he kept close track of the dramatic changes in
molecular biology and genetic engineering of the day and began
developing his own ideas about how artificially engineered biomolecules
could be used to further his mentors’ dreams of space exploration and
artificial intelligence. By 1981 he had begun publishing his vision
under the label of ‘nanotechnology’ – a vision in which very small
‘assemblers’, modeled on biological machines (cells, ribosomes,
viruses, etc.), could reconstitute raw materials into almost
any physically possible artifact (Drexler 1981).
In 1986, Drexler and his wife, Christine
along with a group of like-minded friends, moved to Palo Alto to found
the Foresight Institute, an organization dedicated to predicting and
planning for the dramatic changes caused by nanotechnology. At this
time, Drexler formed personal and intellectual links with other
futurists in the Bay Area, particularly Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole
Earth Catalog, that helped legitimate Drexler’s project and
provided a model for the niche he began to fill.
This tradition of futurism, with roots going back through Werner von
Braun and Arthur C. Clarke to at least as far back as H.G. Wells and
Jules Verne, has left a profound imprint on nanotechnology. All
nanotechnologists – whether supporters or critics of Drexler – must
deal with his legacy, even if he can no longer fully control his
bequest; and that legacy bears the mark of the futurist community.
This futurist inheritance ought to spur
kinds of analytical discussions of nanotechnology. Historians and
sociologists, for instance, will have to place Drexler and
nanotechnology in this visionary tradition and delineate the linkages
between different kinds of futurism latent in his work. Philosophers,
meanwhile, should investigate the unusual time horizons that govern
nanotechnological work. It may be useful, for example, to develop a
concept of ‘presentist’ and ‘non-presentist’ disciplines. Physics and
chemistry, for instance, have a more or less presentist orientation.
Results generated in the now are drafted into a body of knowledge that
is conceived as applying regardless of date. Except for sub-fields like
cosmology and geochemistry, the past and future are conceived as being
essentially like the present, so that the present is the only arena of
experimentation that matters.
Nanotechnology, on the other hand, seems
non-presentist. Most traditional disciplines restrict their focus to
the materials and instruments (the ‘made world’) presently available to
them. As Drexler and other nano elites often point out, though,
nanotechnology came of age at the same time as widespread, powerful
computing. Thus, nanotechnology is intensely grounded in computer
simulations, and much of the ‘made world’ of nano has a virtual,
yet-to-be-realized quality (Lenhard 2004). Nanotechnologists work as
much in this future world as in the present. Drexler himself nicely
sums up this orientation and its debt to the futurist tradition:
Scientists are encouraged by their colleagues
their training to focus on ideas that can be tested with available
apparatus. The resulting short-term focus often serves science well: it
keeps scientists from wandering off into foggy worlds of untested
fantasy […] [E]ngineers share similar
leanings toward the short term […]
[S]cientists refuse to predict future scientific knowledge, and seldom
discuss future engineering developments. Engineers do project future
developments, but seldom discuss any not based on present abilities.
Yet this leaves a crucial gap: what of engineering developments firmly
based on present science but awaiting future abilities?
[…] Imagine a line of development which
involves using existing tools to build new tools, then using those
tools to build novel hardware (perhaps including yet another generation
of tools) […] Recent history illustrates
this pattern. Few engineers considered building space stations before
rockets reached orbit […]
Similarly, few mathematicians and engineers studied the possibilities
of computation until computers were built. [Drexler 1990, pp. 46-7,
italics in original]
Currently, nano experiments often yield knowledge
that is siphoned into the experimenter’s home discipline (physics,
chemistry, etc.); but the epistemic value
of the experiment for nano itself is that it provides a ‘proof of
concept’ for some process or mechanism that – in the future – can be
integrated into a more complex nanomachine. That is, nano results are
framed in terms of how they contribute to an envisioned path of
engineering evolution that necessitates small, cumulative design
advances along the way.
To flesh out the roots of nanotechnology’s
non-presentist orientation, it is worth doing a close reading of
Drexler’s first popular book, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era
This is the book that first pushed nanotechnology into the public
consciousness, and, through its influence on policy makers, science
fiction writers, journalists, and practicing scientists, continues to
shape the practice of the field. It lays out Drexler’s vision of
atomically-precise technology, then jumps from one staid futurist topic
to another (space travel, artificial intelligence, immortality, new
media) demonstrating that nanotechnology will revolutionize each of
them. The basic points on which the book’s argument hinges are
unabashedly determinist and non-presentist: nanotechnology is
inevitable, and when it comes it will change everything.
Assemblers will take years to emerge, but
emergence seems almost inevitable: Though the path to assemblers has
many steps, each step will bring the next in reach, and each will bring
immediate rewards. The first steps have already been taken, under the
names of ‘genetic engineering’ and ‘biotechnology’ […] Barring
worldwide destruction or worldwide controls, the technology race will
continue whether we wish it or not […]
To have any hope of understanding our future, we must understand the
consequences of assemblers, disassemblers, and nanocomputers. They
promise to bring changes as profound as the industrial revolution,
antibiotics, and nuclear weapons all rolled up in one massive
breakthrough. To understand a future of such profound change, it makes
sense to seek principles of change that have survived the greatest
upheavals of the past. [Drexler 1990, p. 20]
The reason nanotechnology is inevitable is
have a model for how to proceed: natural, biological nanoscale
‘machines’. According to Drexler, we are on the verge not only of
understanding these biomachines, but of mimicking them:
[S]imple molecules make up passive substances.
complex patterns make up the active nanomachines of living cells.
Biochemists already work with these machines, which are chiefly made of
protein, the main engineering material of living cells […]
[P]rotein machines are unusually flexible. But like all machines, they
have parts of different shapes and sizes that do useful work. All
machines use clumps of atoms as parts. Protein machines use very small
clumps. Biochemists dream of designing and building such devices, but
there are difficulties to be overcome […]
When they combine molecules in various sequences, they have only
limited control over how the molecules join. When biochemists need
complex molecular machines, they still have to borrow them from cells.
Nevertheless, advanced molecular machines will eventually let them
build nanocircuits and nanomachines as easily and directly as engineers
now build microcircuits or washing machines. Then progress will become
swift and dramatic. [Drexler 1990, p. 6]
Why will progress be swift and dramatic? In Engines
of Creation and his more technical sequel, Nanosystems:
Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation,
Drexler makes an exact, systematic analogy between biological
‘nanomachines’ (and their parts) and macroscale engineering artifacts
(and their parts). In Drexler’s view, nanotechnology will inevitably
progress by translating the principles of macroscale engineering into
their nanoscale equivalents:
The similarities between nanomachines and
macromachines are pervasive and fundamental. At the analytical level,
systems of both kinds can be described by applying classical mechanics
to objects that occupy space, exclude other objects from that space,
and resist deformation. At the design level, systems of both kinds must
apply forces, guide motions, limit friction, and so forth […]
Because functions at the system level can usually be implemented in
many different ways at the component level, the parallels between macro
and nanoscale systems can be even stronger than those between their
components. Accordingly, many of the lessons of macroscale mechanical
engineering can be applied directly. When nanomechanical designs are
drawn at a scale and resolution that omits atomic detail, they can be
almost indistinguishable (save for dimensioning labels) from designs
for macromachines. [Drexler 1992, pp. 315-6]
Reading Drexler’s technical work can be a bit
like flipping through Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopedie
– he introduces all the classical machines and their parts, and then
offers simulations of their nano-equivalents. Note, for instance, the
sub-headings of sections 10.5 through 10.7 in Nanosystems, in
which he describes a series of simple machines made from small numbers
of atoms: ‘Nuts and Screws’, ‘Rods’, ‘Springs’, ‘Bearings’, ‘Spur
Gears’, ‘Helical Gears’, ‘Rack-and-Pinion Gears and Roller Bearings’,
‘Bevel Gears’, ‘Worm Gears’, ‘Belt-and-Roller Systems’, ‘Cams’, and
‘Planetary Gear Systems’.
In articulating his argument, Drexler relies
form of technological determinism that Wiebe Bijker (1995b) calls the
‘autonomous logic of technological development’ variant. That is,
Drexler sees nanotechnology unfolding in a stepwise, progressive
fashion, where each step is related to the next by an inherent design
rationale – a rationale that can be made visible through the analogy to
macroscale technological systems built up from individual machines that
are themselves composed of simpler components. Note, though, how
Drexler’s vision for the evolution of nano-design relies on an historical
analogy to the evolution of macro-design. The quaintly Enlightenment
character of Drexler’s nanomachines is symptomatic of a pervasive,
forward- and backward-looking non-presentism in his writing.
Hardly a page goes by in Engines of Creation
without a pronouncement about a myriad of pasts. Sometimes, Drexler
presents nanotechnology as a radical break with these pasts:
[M]odern technology builds on an ancient
Thirty thousand years ago, chipping flint was the high technology of
the day. Our ancestors grasped stones containing trillions of trillions
of atoms and removed chips containing billions of trillions of atoms to
make their axheads […] The ancient style of
technology that led from flint chips to silicon chips handles atoms and
molecules in bulk; call it bulk technology. The new technology
will handle individual atoms and molecules with control and precision;
call it molecular technology. It will change our world in more
ways than we can imagine. [Drexler 1990, p. 4, italics in original]
At other times, Drexler offers views on a past
can be mined for lessons in organizing this new molecular technology.
Indeed, a central – and often overlooked – part of Drexler’s argument
is that nanotechnology has a long, long past that demonstrates the
inevitable success of efforts in the present:
Simple molecular devices combine to form
resembling industrial machines. In the 1950s engineers developed
machine tools that cut metal under the control of a punched paper tape.
A century and a half earlier, Joseph-Marie Jacquard had built a loom
that wove complex patterns under the control of a chain of punched
cards. Yet over three billion years before Jacquard, cells had
developed the machinery of the ribosome. Ribosomes are proof that
nanomachines built of protein and RNA can be programmed to build
complex molecules. [Drexler 1990, p. 8]
Ribosomes are ‘proof’, and a three billion
proof at that; here and elsewhere, we see that Drexler’s nanotechnology
possesses an epistemic frame in which ‘proof’ is not a demonstration of
certain knowledge about the present state of nature, but rather a
performance of a new kind of relationship between how things once were
and how they will, inevitably, come to be.
3. Non-Drexlerian Echoes
Though he made the term ‘nanotechnology’
current, and continues to profoundly influence the debates surrounding
it, Drexler is by no means the only voice for the field. Indeed, at
least since the founding of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative
(NNI) in 2000, Drexler’s perspective has continually faced challenges
from all of the other stakeholders in the enterprise. Those who seek to
make nanotechnology a coherent, well-funded, publicly-supported
discipline in the present have tried hard in the past few years to
separate the field from its futurist past. Above all, this means
separating it from Drexler, and both prominent and ordinary
nanotechnologists have participated in his ritual expulsion in an
attempt to mainstream their discipline.
Debates between Drexler and his critics often center on his
non-presentist, determinist reasoning. Some of his critics find his
analogy between humanly engineered nanomachines and biological
‘machines’ unconvincing; therefore, they do not accept the three
billion year old proof that molecular assemblers can work; hence, they
do not see nanotechnology traveling down the path of progressively more
complex nanomachines that Drexler lays out; and, therefore, they find
Drexler’s vision of how the world will be transformed by nano
These objections to Drexler’s framing of a
non-presentist, determinist nanotechnology can be seen in his
well-known debate with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard Smalley. The
crux of the debate is the so-called ‘fat fingers, sticky fingers’ issue
– the idea that molecular assemblers will be unable to pick up and
precisely release atoms (as Drexler envisions) because chemical bonds
are too ‘sticky’ and because any assembler will be unable to choose
exactly which of many atoms it will interact with (its fingers are too
‘fat’). We will return to the image of nano-fingers and nano-limbs
later in this paper, but for now it is important to note that Smalley’s
critique centers on the conspicuous features of Drexler’s reasoning
that I have outlined above:
You [i.e. Drexler] write that the
assembler will use something ‘like enzymes and ribosomes’ […]
But where does the enzyme or ribosome entity come from in your vision
of a self-replicating nanobot? Is there a living cell somewhere inside
the nanobot that churns these out? There must be liquid water present
somewhere inside, and all the nutrients necessary for life […]
Biology is wondrous in the vast diversity of what it can build, but it
can’t make a crystal of silicon, or steel, or copper, or aluminum, or
titanium, or virtually any of the key materials on which modern
technology is built […] If the nanobot is
restricted to be a water-based life form, since this is the only way
its molecular assembly tools will work, then there is a long list of
vulnerabilities and limitations to what it can do. If it is a
non-water-based life-form, then there is a vast area of chemistry that
has eluded us for centuries […] You cannot
make precise chemistry occur as desired between two molecular objects
with simple mechanical motion along a few degrees of freedom in the
assembler-fixed frame of reference. [Baum et al. 2003, pp.
Yet these key modules of Drexler’s argument
again and again in nano discussions, from supporters and critics alike.
For example, his likening of genetic material to a computer punch tape
that ‘instructs’ organelles (like some miniscule Turing machine) taps
into a broad usage that has old roots in fields such as postwar
genetics, information theory, and cybernetics that have branched into
Drexler’s more general, and exact, analogy between those nanomachines
that are old and biological and those that are new and artificial is
also ubiquitous in nano circles.
Imagine a motor measuring a few hundredths of
thousandth of a millimeter, running on and on. Or a data storage device
squeezing the equivalent of five ‘high-density’ floppy disks into a
thousandth of a millimeter […] We are
talking about complicated and highly efficient machines having a size
of only a few millionths of a millimeter. Unbelievable? Not at all, for
evolution solved these problems more than a billion years ago. The
motor mentioned above is already in existence – it is a system mainly
consisting of the proteins actin and myosin, and serves to power our
muscles. The data store, or chromosome […] determines your genetic
identity. [Gross 1999, pp. 3-5]
Drexler’s next conclusion, that the
analogy allows nano design to proceed quickly and progressively because
the principles of macroscale design can simply be translated down, has
met more resistance. Yet, the practice of nanotechnology shows that
many in the field have accepted this point. Nanotechnology journals are
filled with news about the latest nanogears, nanomotors, nanotrains,
nanoabacuses, nanoshovels, and other macroscale machines and devices
replicated on the nanoscale. The epistemic frame of nanotechnology
relies heavily on ‘simulations’ of all sorts – not just mathematical
models, but physical, miniaturized ‘models’ of macroscale artifacts.
Often, these simulations take Drexler’s translation from biological to
mechanical at face value; for instance, in one well-known experiment
(Soong et al. 2000), researchers bonded an adenosine
triphosphate ‘motor’ protein to a substrate and used it to spin a small
metal bar – an ATP ‘engine’ much like what Drexler describes. These
physical simulations ‘prove’ new processes or techniques, yield
components that can eventually be added together to form complex
systems, and signpost nano’s travel down a mechanically evolutionary,
more or less Drexlerian, pathway. As George Whitesides describes this
experiment, "at the very least, such research stimulates efforts to
fabricate functional nanostructures by demonstrating that such
structures can exist" (Whitesides & Love 2001).
Even Drexler’s critics (such as Whitesides)
accede to this part of his thesis while pointing out that biology may
offer lessons unknown to macroscale engineers – as in this
recommendation by a prominent science editor and analyst:
Why copy nature? Biomimetics has become such a
popular buzzword that there is a risk of it becoming its own
Yet there is little in the history of chemistry, materials science or
engineering to show that this need be so. The steam engine, internal
combustion engine, jet engine, and rocket engine owe no debt to
inspiration from nature […] [Meanwhile
m]icroelectronics continues its incredible shrinking act with only the
barest hint of any weakening of Gordon Moore’s ‘law’ […]
This reduction in scale brings engineering down to length scales
comparable with the dimensions of cells or subcellular constituents.
There are two ways in which one could respond to this situation. One
could regard the coincidence in scale as irrelevant, since
engineering’s traditional methods and materials have nothing in common
with those of the cell […] The other option
is to realize that the cell faces many, if not most, of the same
challenges as we do […]
The ideal position lies, as ever, somewhere in between. I feel that the
literal down-sizing of mechanical engineering popularized by
nanotechnologists such as Eric Drexler – whereby every nanoscale device
is fabricated from hard moving parts, cogs, bearings, pistons and
camshafts – fails to acknowledge that there may be better, more
inventive ways of engineering at this scale […] On the other hand, we
should remember that the cell’s objectives are not necessarily the
engineer’s. [Ball 2002, pp. 13-16]
Note how this author, like Drexler, references
everything about nano to an instructive past and a future shaped by
rules such as Moore’s Law.
Note, too, though, how the author uses
observations about the evolution of science and engineering in the past
to define a particular purview for nanotechnology now and in the
future. Interestingly, though they share the use of this trope, Drexler
and his critics disagree about how to apply it in defining the field.
Drexler sees the history and practice of engineering as providing analogical
design cues for how to build things with atoms once we have mastered
their precise control, and as giving a systems perspective that allows
us to make enormous complexes of nanoscale machines work in coordinated
ways – so-called ‘nanofactories’ that work almost exactly like
macroscale factories, with conveyor belts and assembly lines and
computer control. Yet, for Drexler there is little or no genealogical
connection between traditional engineering’s march of miniaturization
(the so-called ‘top-down’ approach) and molecular nanotechnology’s
atomic precision (the ‘bottom-up’ approach).
Non-Drexlerians, and some Drexler associates,
though, describe engineering’s unstoppable march down in length
scale as converging with chemistry’s and molecular biology’s journey upward
in the size of the entities they can comprehend. This convergence gives
nano its character, and makes a unified study of the nanoscale a
necessity. As Heini Rohrer, Nobel Prize-winning co-inventor of the
scanning tunneling microscope, puts it,
While solid-state science and technology have
down from the millimeter to the nanometer scale, chemistry has
simultaneously and independently progressed from the level of small,
few-atom molecules to macromolecules of biological size […]
The nanometer age can thus be considered as a continuation of an
ongoing development: for example, miniaturization in solid-state
technology [and] increasing complexity in chemistry. [Rohrer 1995, p. 3]
Compare this with a very similar passage from
a prominent Foresight Institute participant:
In the years that followed [Feynman’s 1959
chemists and biologists focused on untangling the molecular structures
that constitute materiality from the ‘bottom up,’ while physicists and
electrical engineers devoted their efforts to building ever smaller
machines from the ‘top down’ […] The recent
confluence of these two monumental efforts has produced an epochal
cross-fertilization of knowledge – and the inevitable conceptual
turbulence of two colliding world views […]
Nanotechnology arises out of this confluence and aims at building
complex, atomically precise machines by the trillions. [Crandall 1999,
Rohrer, Crandall, and others who write in this
almost always include charts and graphs that correlate the two key
variables of nanotechnological determinism: length scale and time.
Rohrer, for example, includes a diagram with length on one axis and
year on the other showing two converging lines: one for steadily decreasing
size of the smallest structures that can be included in the ‘made
world’ of engineering (microelectromechanical systems, semiconductor
chip features, etc.); and the other for steadily increasing
size of the largest molecules that make up part of the made world of
chemistry (dendrimers, nanotubes, buckyballs, and so on).
Many writers frame nanotechnology with a
describing conspicuous features and characteristic entities of length
scales from the humanly familiar (usually one meter or centimeter –
represented by a familiar animal such as a bee or a cat) to the
sub-nanoscopic (one angstrom – represented by a hydrogen atom) and
everything in between. Often, these writers juxtapose the chart of
length scales with a chart of significant nanotechnological
achievements and their dates; usually, such events include the birth
dates of the more artificial epistemic materials in the length scale
chart (e.g. buckyballs or integrated circuits), as well as the
dates of invention of new ways to handle or characterize these
the electron or scanning tunneling microscopes). Almost always, though,
this timeline includes exquisite outliers that make the history of
nanotechnology unfathomably deep; for instance, the first two items in
a nano-timeline from Scientific American are "3.5 billion
years ago the first living cells emerge" and "400 B.C.
Democritus coins the word ‘atom’" (Stix 2001, p. 36).
This is one of the most pervasive and
characteristics of nanotechnology, common to Drexlerians and
non-Drexlerians alike. Drexler and his allies tend to focus on the very
ancient biological precursors of nanotechnology, since this
helps them make the analogy between biological and artificial
nanomachines, and because Drexler has worked hard to limit the scope of
‘nanotechnology’ to only those activities that involve precise
positioning of individual atoms. This is a more limited scope with
fewer precursors in human history than that offered under, for example,
the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s definition of the field. Those
outside the Drexler camp, meanwhile, are more likely to point out very
old craft activities that would today count as ‘nanotechnology’:
The process of nanofabrication, in particular
making of gold nanodots, is not new. Much of the color in the stained
glass windows found in medieval and Victorian churches and some of the
glazes found in ancient pottery depend on the fact that nanoscale
properties of materials are different from macroscale properties […]
In some senses, the first nanotechnologists were actually glass workers
in medieval forges rather than the bunny-suited workers in a modern
semiconductor plant. Clearly the glaziers did not understand why what
they did to gold produced the colors it did, but we do now. [Ratner
& Ratner 2003, pp. 13-14]
The last part of this quote shows some of the
epistemic consequences of nanotechnology’s non-presentism. Nano, in
this formulation, produces new knowledge that maps onto old practice.
What makes nano new is that it brings understanding where
before there was only doing.
Though nanodots in stained glass are an extreme example, the epistemic
shyness of nano, and its strong predilection for creating knowledge by
creating nano-things, does encourage nanoists to mine past work
for present results. Indeed, in one of nano’s most important
constituent communities, surface science, researchers are exploring
practices that in the past they rejected specifically because they
yielded non-epistemic materials.
[Surface scientists] were interested in
understanding the science base of what was necessary in order to grow
materials of interest to the electronics community […]
You had to understand the surface in a lot of detail, how you grew the
thin film on top of it and kept a very fine, smooth surface. A
tremendous amount of work had to go into the preparation of the
surface, understanding how things settled down, what structures were
there, how you varied the process and conditions to get it. One of the
amusing things to me was that for many decades the people who were
trying to grow these superlattices worked very hard to get these
perfectly smooth surfaces, which they needed. So anytime they found
conditions in which you got a non-flat surface, they would turn around
and run the other direction. Which was appropriate at the time. Now
when we get into the nano, what they’ve discovered is that some of
those things they were trying desperately to avoid back then were
giving them ‘ordered nanostructures’. Which was killing them at the
time, but now becomes of a high degree of interest […]
Some of the things that were the poison back then now become the candy
that you can go back and say ‘ooh, yeah!’ We turned and ran the other
direction back then, but let’s go back and try ‘what happens if we push
harder, can we now enhance that growth rate and give us these little
I can only make exploratory gestures toward a
understanding of nano’s orientation to the past here, but it seems so
unusual and so central to the current framing of nanotechnology that it
deserves more intensive study. It is possible that nano shares this
kind of rhetoric with other non-presentist fields like astronomy, where
participants orient explicitly to pre-scientific ancestors of the
modern discipline (and even occasionally use the work of those
ancestors to better understand the history of the objects of study).
It is also possible that these kinds of
statements are necessary now,
when nanotechnology is being defined and woven into a coherent
discipline. For instance, rhetoric of this sort certainly helps nano
proponents convince various publics that nano has a long and hence
non-threatening lineage. This is similar to attempts by biotechnology
companies to persuade the public that genetic engineering is simply the
latest variant of an ancient tradition of plant breeding, animal
husbandry, and beer-making, rather than the dawn of a scary new
The need for boundary-drawing and credence also seems to be at the root
of nanoists’ constant search for prominent researchers of the past who
can be recast as heroes of proto-nanotechnology. This is especially
true of Richard Feynman, whose obscure after-dinner speech from the
1959 American Physical Society meeting, ‘There’s Plenty of Room at the
Bottom’ (Feynman 1999), has been taken up as a herald of all aspects of
the new field. The phenomenon is by no means limited to Feynman, though
– icons like Einstein, Schrödinger, and von Neumann are also
invoked as having done nano before there was nano.
Nanoists carry their boundary-drawing
the past in other ways as well. It is difficult, for instance, to find
a description of nanotechnology that does not call it ‘the next’ X or
Y. Even the official slogan of the National Nanotechnology Initiative
is that nano is the "second industrial revolution" (Anonymous 2002, p.
3). Different participants cast around for different historical models
and different kinds of lessons to draw from them. Drexler, for one,
usually points to fields – such as space travel, computing, or aviation
– with individual, visionary founders (Goddard, Babbage, da Vinci) who
were unsuccessful in their own time but eventually proven correct. For
investors, or those trying to attract capital, the relevant examples
are the rise of the biotech industry, the dot-com boom and bust, or the
law-like progress of semiconductor manufacturing. Finally, those who
are trying to build national infrastructures for
nanotechnology, or who are trying to make nano part of the
global economy, often draw analogies to the giant technological systems
of the past.
There is a curious, though surely quite
mixing of technological and social determinism in this way of arguing.
On the one hand, it is clear that nano is not completely determined on
its own merits; societies have some choice in molding it to look more
like some historical models than others. Yet, proponents and critics
both seem to say that once we figure out whether nano looks more like
the computer industry or the electricity industry or the biotech
industry then we can predict how it will proceed. Societies have some
choice at the highest level (do we do nano at all?), but once they dip
their toes in the water they will be swept along; and if they do not
jump in the river now, their competitors will quickly outdistance them.
Take, for instance, this assertion from a supporter of the US "21st
Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act":
From the dawn of modern agriculture to
the launching of the Information Age, government support has been a
powerful catalyst to drive basic research and accelerate technology
from the laboratory to the marketplace. In industry after industry, one
sees the same pattern: federal dollars encourage early discoveries in a
new technology, which then attracts private investment, which then
grows into a successful industry, with large employers and many jobs […]
We are now at a critical juncture in our technological evolution, and
timely passage of this bill will go far to assuring American leadership
in the global economy […] We see other
governments of the European Union and East Asian nations investing
heavily in major nanotechnology research and development centers. The
hard reality is that the worldwide race for preeminence in
nanotechnology is on, and America must push to stay in the lead. [Swami
Indeed, this is exactly the sort of reasoning
Drexler uses to motivate the founding of the Foresight Institute and
his continuing efforts to describe the inevitably coming, but still
Some force in the world (whether trustworthy
will take the lead in developing assemblers; call it the ‘leading
force.’ Because of the strategic importance of assemblers, the leading
force will presumably be some organization or institution that is
effectively controlled by some government or group of governments […]
Design-ahead can help the leading force prepare, yet even vigorous,
foresighted action seems inadequate to prevent a time of danger.
[Drexler 1990, p. 182]
Drexler and his critics agree, then, that nano
its way whether we choose to be part of it or not. They agree, too,
that when it arrives, everything will be different; society will have
to adapt to nano much more than the other way around. Drexler’s vision
of the post-nano world is perhaps the more sweeping, and it has clearly
influenced the vivid, exquisitely imaginative depictions of science
fiction writers such as Neal Stephenson and Kathleen Ann Goonan
(Milburn 2002). Interestingly, though, Drexler originally wrote in Engines
of Creation that a post-nano future would leave us free
from technological determinism; we would inhabit a world made so
radically malleable by nano that we could be liberated from the
constraints of any one technological system:
[The modern technological] system now sprawls
continents, entangling people in a global web. It has offered escape
from the toil of subsistence farming, lengthening lives and bringing
wealth, but at a cost that some consider too high. Nanotechnology will
open new choices. Self-replicating systems will be able to provide
food, health care, shelter, and other necessities. They will accomplish
this without bureaucracies or large factories. Small, self-sufficient
communities can reap the benefits. One test of the freedom a technology
offers is whether it frees people to return to primitive ways of life.
Modern technology fails this test; molecular technology succeeds. As a
test, imagine returning to a stone-age style of life – not by simply
ignoring molecular technology, but while using it. [Drexler 1990, p.
As Stefan Helmreich (1998) has pointed out,
theme of radical liberation made possible by new technologies is common
in futurist circles: whether freedom from the earth (space travel),
from the body (artificial intelligence and artificial life), or from
death (Drexler’s most-cherished application of nano is to allow frozen
corpses to be reanimated and healed, allowing immortality for anyone
born today). The freedom enabled by the massive changes brought on by
nano is not particular to Drexler alone, though. For instance, some of
his staunchest critics among practicing nanotechnologists and policy
makers promote the idea that nano is the key to a transhumanist future,
in which the very definition of human capabilities will have to be
redefined. Even a die-hard Drexler-skeptic like George Whitesides sees
a nano-future that bears little resemblance to today:
[N]anoscale machines already do exist, in the
form of the functional molecular components of living cells […] What
are the most interesting designs to use
for future nanomachines? And what, if any, risks would they pose? […]
[A]s for ravaging the earth: in a sense, collections of biological
cells already have ravaged the earth. Before life emerged, the planet
was very different from the way it is today. Its surface was made of
inorganic minerals; its atmosphere was rich in carbon dioxide. Life
rapidly and completely remodeled the planet: it contaminated the
pristine surface with microorganisms, plants and organic materials
derived from them; it largely removed the carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere and injected enormous quantities of oxygen. Overall, a
radical change. Cells – self-replicating collections of molecular
nanomachines – completely transformed the surface and the atmosphere of
our planet. We do not normally think of this transformation as
‘ravaging the planet,’ because we thrive in the present conditions, but
an outside observer might have thought otherwise. So the issue is not
whether nanoscale machines can exist – they already do – or whether
they can be important – we often consider ourselves as demonstrations
that they are – but rather where we should look for new ideas for
design. [Whitesides 2001, pp. 78-79]
4. Nano and Special Varieties of Technological Determinism
This quote from Whitesides sums up all three
of the arguments used by nanoists of all stripes that fall well within
classic notions of technological determinism: that nano is inevitable;
that it will develop with its own progressive, internal logic (though
we have some choice whether to follow the logic of biology or
engineering); and that nano itself, beyond the control of
society, will completely transform the world. Indeed, with regard to
the latter, Whitesides plays with fears of the so-called ‘grey goo’
problem – a catastrophic scenario in which nanomachines become so
completely autonomous and uninfluenced by social considerations that
they run amok and destroy life as we know it (perhaps the most extreme
form of technological determinism imaginable).
Whitesides also displays some of the
in the way nanoists handle determinist arguments, particularly in his
consistent non-presentism – it is difficult to imagine other sciences
where events of billions of years ago would so consistently be invoked
unless those events were themselves the objects of study (as is the
case in geology or cosmology but not in nanotechnology). I conclude by
examining two more tropes that nanoists have applied as technologically
determinist arguments, but that they have applied in such unusual ways
that they tell us a great deal about the field’s epistemic and
The first, which has been discussed much more
thoroughly elsewhere by Alfred Nordmann (2004), might be called the
trope of manifest destiny. Nordmann points out that much of the
epistemic shyness of nano research comes from practitioners’
conceptualization of the field as focused on a space (the nanoscale)
rather than a characteristic set of materials or practices or concepts.
Nano is oriented much more to expanding human control over
larger areas of the nanoscale and the entities that inhabit it than to
learning anything fundamental about ‘nature’ or ‘reality’. As we have
seen, control over the nanoscale has long been an aim of some of
nanotechnology’s constituent communities, such as chemistry or surface
science; but in those disciplines control was seen as a means
to generating fundamental knowledge about a few characteristic
materials (i.e., about creating an epistemically amenable ‘made
world’), rather than (as in nanotechnology) as an end unto itself.
Nanoists often represent their relation to
place, the nanoscale, as one of dominance and entitlement – it is their
manifest destiny to explore, control, and remake this undiscovered
Roots for this trope can clearly be found in Drexler’s original
formulation of the field; after all, the futurist tradition,
particularly with regard to space travel, has long been obsessed with
creating new ‘final frontiers’ where technological achievement
necessitates the outward expansion of control and exploration. Nano, at
least in the United States, is merely the latest effort to engage what
David Nye has called the ‘American technological sublime’ (Nye 1994) –
the attempt, so central to America’s self-conception, to create
something transcendent and beyond humanity through artificial
Drexler’s early work radiates the technological sublime, with his talk
of immortality, space travel, and radical transhumanism made possible
by molecular assemblers. Moreover, his description of the imminent
development of the nanoscale closely resembles a narrative of American
frontier expansion: from the first sighting of land (the imaging of
atoms with a scanning tunneling microscope), to interactions with
‘natives’ (biological nanomachines), to the appropriation of some
technologies from those natives and the wholesale importation of simple
non-native technologies (nanoscale bearings, gears, etc.), and
finally the imposition of state control over the lawless nanoscale and
widespread industrialization through the proliferation of
Non-Drexlerians, too, see just as certain a
manifest nanodestiny. After all, the US National Nanotechnology
Initiative calls its founding document ‘Small Wonders, Endless
Frontiers’ (Anonymous 2002) – a combination of the technological
sublime, frontier expansion into the nanoscale, and a postwar American
tradition, going back to Vannevar Bush’s (1945) Science, the
of seeing science as the next arena for the nation’s manifest destiny.
Nanoists perform this destiny in a variety of ways in their research
practices. For instance, in coming of age at the same time as
widespread computing, nanotechnology has made much more extensive use
of computer graphics than any traditional discipline. When they can,
nanoists use this software to render images of their made world as
breathtaking landscapes of wide-open vistas, often portrayed in the
coloring of the deserts of the American West. Often, such images
possess a great deal of visual éclat, but are more
integrate with theory than more traditional, non-perspectival
representations. At the same time, nanoists often stake a claim to
these landscapes by literally writing their ownership right into the
material itself – through various nanolithography techniques they can,
and do, inscribe their names, their favorite phrases, and, inevitably,
a series of flags, maps, and patriotic proclamations. Again, this goes
to the epistemic heart of nanotechnology – it is a field where ‘proof’
can be achieved just as readily by writing one’s name as by more
traditional methods for assuring the rigor of knowledge. It is
necessary only to show that one owns a patch of the nanoscale
to have contributed to nano’s body of knowledge.
The second, related, trope stems from
predilection for what I have called elsewhere ‘nanopresence’ (Mody
2004). Nanopresence is, basically, the endowment of nano-objects with
familiarity, tangibility, and even personality – the creation of a
sense that they can be touched, that they are ordinary and quotidian
objects of interaction. As the name implies, nanopresence owes some
debt to Heidegger’s thoughts on the nature of technology and his
distinction between ready-to-hand and present-at-hand (Heidegger 1962).
In Heidegger’s formulation, technological artifacts have two quite
distinct phenomenological casts – one we experience when we regard the
artifact as an object, something that can be theorized about, that can
be thought about apart from the act of actually using it; the other is
the artifact as we experience it when we are using it, when we and the
tool become extensions of each other and we cannot pause to consider
the tool apart from how we actively engage with it.
Nanotechnology can, in many respects, be seen
the coordinated attempt to recast nanoscale objects as ready-to-hand
tools, to move past the theories and epistemic pretensions of nano’s
constituent communities and instead use their knowledge to actively
engage with the nanoscale. Interestingly, ‘handedness’ has a very long
history in nanotechnology. In Richard Feynman’s original ‘There’s
Plenty of Room at the Bottom’ speech, he lays out a vision of
miniaturization in which he imagines a linked chain of progressively
smaller ‘hands’ that allow us to make progressively tinier bits of the
How do we make such a tiny mechanism? […]
[I]n the atomic energy plants they have materials and machines that
they can’t handle directly because they have become radioactive. To
unscrew nuts and bolts and so on, they have a set of master and slave
hands, so that by operating a set of levers here, you control the
‘hands’ there, and can turn them this way and that so you can handle
things quite nicely […] Now, I want to build
much the same device – a master-slave system which operates
electrically. But I want the slaves to be made especially carefully by
modern large-scale machinists so that they are one-fourth the scale of
the ‘hands’ that you ordinarily maneuver. So you have a scheme by which
you can do things at one-quarter scale anyway [¼]
Aha! So I manufacture a quarter-size lathe; I manufacture quarter-size
tools; and I make, at one-quarter scale, still another set of hands
again relatively one-quarter size! […] Well,
you get the principle from there on. [Feynman 1999]
As Colin Milburn and Ed Regis point out,
probably got this idea from a short story by Robert Heinlein. This is
not unusual for the field; indeed, it is one of the oddities of nano
that it relies so much on science fiction to supply thought experiments
and fodder for ‘proofs of concept’. It is perhaps not surprising,
though, that nano, with its predilection for simulation and the
re-enchantment of the material world, should recognize an affinity with
fiction, the art of making the unreal seem experienced and
Social constructionists have critiqued
formulation as containing its own kind of technological determinism –
the tool that is ready-to-hand seems pinned to one and only one use,
whereas with most technologies users show a great deal of flexibility
in alternately regarding and using artifacts in idiosyncratic ways.
Analysts interested in exploring this issue and pushing the
Heideggerian interpretation toward a more nuanced position will find
exquisite material in nanotechnology. On the one hand, nanoists have
really embraced the handedness of Feynman’s original vision. For
instance, almost incontrovertibly the most famous nano image thus far
produced is Don Eigler’s (Eigler & Schweizer 1990) ‘IBM’ written
with individual xenon atoms positioned by a scanning tunneling
microscope (STM). Eigler has his STM set up such that one can simply
move the STM tip around with a mouse, click on an atom, drag it to
where it should go, and release it. It is almost impossible when doing
so to think of the atom as an object of theory, as the heuristic
fiction so beloved of positivists a century ago. Instead, mouse and
atom are simply ready-to-hand, ready to be moved around, placed into
various two-dimensional structures, and generally experienced as a
bright spot on a computer screen with which one has some haptic
Other nanoists take this several steps further. Among nano experimentalists who specialize in building very high-end instrumentation (particularly in the scanning tunneling and atomic force microscopy community) there has been a rush in the past few years to incorporate more and more sensory engagement into their instruments, to make the nanoscale ever more ready-to-hand. Builders of molecule pullers, such as Paul Hansma (Viani et al. 1999) and Hermann
Gaub (Clausen-Schaumann et al.
2000), for instance, have designed instruments that slowly pry apart
the internal domains of complex biomolecules. Some of these pullers
have built-in resistance on the controls – the operator can actually
‘feel’ the domains popping, rather like feeling the jerks of a fish
caught on the end of a line. Other pullers have a simple circuit that
allows the shaking of the puller cantilever to be translated into a
sound; operators can listen to the molecular domains popping.
One puller designer describes how these instruments provoke a feeling
that the nanoscale is ready-to-hand, and how this handedness is
epistemically (and commercially) useful:
It’s really good at [trade] shows too, because
you’re actually introducing a subject to somebody, thermal noise for
example, it’s one thing to explain it to them, it’s another to hand
them a pair of headphones and say ‘look, this is what thermal noise is’
and you can explain the concepts of damping and things like that and
how the spectrum shifts because it’s totally obvious when you just hear
it, it’s like ‘yeah of course, that’s what’s happening.’
Perhaps the most well-known attempt in this
direction is the Nanomanipulator at the University of North Carolina
(Guthold et al.
2000). There, Rich Superfine’s group has built an atomic force
microscope with special haptic feedbacks and virtual reality controls.
Users can ‘stand’ in the landscape of the nanoscale, they can ‘feel’
how rough or smooth nanoscopic surfaces are, and they can even nudge
nano-objects (such as buckytubes) around.
At the same time, nanoists enjoy playing with
handedness of the nano realm by pushing their audience into an
ambiguous state where images and representations oscillate between the
ready-to-hand and the present-at-hand. Witness all the nano-plows and
nano-shovels and nano-trains and abacuses and whatnot – all these
nano-artifacts seem like tailor-made tools in Heidegger’s simple,
ready-to-hand kit. Again, this plays well to nano’s epistemic shyness;
just seeing an image of nanoscale abacus or guitar or train and
apprehending these objects instantly as such makes the
audience’s first experience of them an engaged, ready-to-hand
involvement rather than distanced, theoretical or conceptual
observation. Yet, that instant recognition carries with it a
simultaneous wonder and shock – the nano-object is all too familiar,
yet all too different and exotic. The nanoscale has become a place that
tourists can visit, where everything is different, yet exactly the same
– all the building blocks are atoms, at which we should wonder, but
they are being used to make ordinary, familiar, everyday objects whose
use is something we intuit rather than theorize about.
For now, I have to turn my spade in digging
phenomenon – I am not sure how to read the handedness of nano, though
it seems clear many layers of practice and rhetoric are involved. What
I would encourage as this, hopefully, becomes a topic for analysis is
that we remember that nanoists’ tweaking of intuitive understandings is
done, usually, in a spirit of fun and play. From Feynman’s first
playful call for researchers to make tiny motors and write words on the
head of a pin to today’s silicon zoo of tiny guitars, flags,
signatures, and so forth, nanoists have let themselves be seen to be
having fun. The debates between Drexler and his critics have taken an
acrid and unpleasant tone in the past few years, but analysts of nano
should not take this to be the whole show. For many practitioners, nano
is still a bit of a put-on, a bandwagon whose content they do not quite
understand but which they are trying to make the best of. This ‘making
do’ has a distinctively light-hearted cast, as practitioners trot out
parlor tricks that double as proofs of concept, and as they avoid
interdisciplinary frictions by sticking to relatively uncontroversial
play. Nanoists have created a technological sublime, but in shrinking
the dimensions of the sublime to such an extent, they have made it
provoke both awe and a bit of laughter.
More generally, we should keep this
mind in examining what uses nanoists make of determinist arguments. For
many nanoists, nano is inevitable and (nano)technology does
drive (some of) history. Yet there is little fatalism in the nano
community; practitioners seem more eager to ride the tiger of nano than
they are apprehensive that they will be crushed by it. Nanoists seem,
for instance, willing to play with the design logic made
possible by the analogy between biological and artificial nanomachines.
While they agree that everything will change because of the new
technology, nanoists have used this agreement to inspire both serious
discussion of how to prepare, as well as dramatic, sometimes
inspiring, flights of fancy about what
to prepare for. Nano is still an incoherent mass of often conflicting
communities. Determinist arguments advance the particular interests of
various kinds of practitioners within this mass, as well as various
critics and supporters on the outside. If we are to understand nano, we
must see how participants build these arguments into their practices,
and how they do so in ways that allow them to live with the field’s
 See, among
others, Bijker & Pinch 1987, Bijker & Law 1992, Bimber 1994,
Mackenzie 1996a, 1996b, Misa 1988.
 For an
interesting take on the performative aspects of Moore’s Law, see
works include Heidegger 1977, Dewey 1958, Kuhn 1996, Polanyi 1962,
works include Ihde 1991, Pinch 1986, Hecht 1998, Hacking 1983, Galison
1997, Latour 1983.
 For later
amendments to the SCOT program, see Bijker 1995a, Kline & Pinch
1996, Rosen 1993, and Mody 2000.
 For an
introduction to the communities of practice literature, see Wenger 1998.
 I find the
following useful in thinking about the ‘made world’ of science:
Knorr-Cetina 1992, Hacking 1992, Amann 1994.
 I draw the
idea of ‘epistemic
materials’ from Rheinberger 1997. For a nice analysis of the epistemic
and cultural disunity of scientific disciplines, see Knorr-Cetina 1999
and Galison & Stump 1996.
 See Schummer
 See Layton
1971, Constant 1980, Vincenti 1990, Kline 1992, Kranakis 1997, Hughes
include Francoeur 1997, Baird 1993, Reinhardt 2004, Mody 2001.
 I have used
biographical details from Regis 1995 in analyzing Drexler’s futurist
 For some
historical and ethnographic detail on Bay Area futurism, see Turner
(forthcoming) and Brooks 2003.
 For some
analyses of ritual expulsion and boundary work, see Gieryn & Figert
1986, Gieryn 1999, Sullivan 1994.
 As examined
in, for example, Kay 2000.
 From an
interview with a government scientist, July 6, 2000.
 My thanks to
Steve Hilgartner for discussions on this topic.
 My thanks to
Astrid Schwarz for discussions on this topic.
 See also Nye
2003 for Nye’s take on the role of technology in the ideology of
manifest destiny and westward expansion.
 From an
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Cyrus C.M. Mody:
Chemical Heritage Foundation, 315 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA
19106, USA; CMody@chemheritage.org
Copyright © 2004 by HYLE and Cyrus C.M. Mody