Nanovision by Colin Milburn
Colin Milburn tackles nanotechnology from a cultural/science studies perspective in his whirlwind 2007 book, “Nanovision.” He is particularly interested in nanotech discourse; that is, how and why nanotech narratives are produced by scientists, popular news media, and science fiction writers. His basic thesis is that when we trace these narratives out, we find them inextricably linked to one another as mutually constitutive. While certainly not claiming that nanotech research is unscientific, he does claim that the form such research takes arises from discourse that is as much fiction as science. In the world of nanotech, the two cannot be separated.
Nanotechnology posits as its dream and goal (and prediction) the seizing of control over the constitution of all matter, down to the atomic level. The (or one) paradox here is that once matter becomes completely malleable at the nanoscale, our status as human subjects cannot help but to be altered completely, based as it is upon concepts such as bodily unity, organic matter, etc; concepts that will no longer have any meaning:
"Nanovision respects no unitary construct above the atom, reducing everything to a broadly programmable materiality and demolishing metaphysical categories of identity. Accordingly, it does not support any sort of abstracted, theoretical construction of the body because it unbounds the body, putting its surfaces and interiors into constant flux." (51)
Milburn's eponymous nanovision refers to a way of seeing nanotech that is produced by the discourse that surrounds it, as well as a type of vision that nanotech is meant to afford us. He notes that nanowriting (“visionary” texts by nanotech proponents) is explicitly futurist, “strongly inclined to speculate on the far future and to prognosticate its role in the radical metamorphosis of human life.” (23) Nanotechnology as a field is animated as much by possible applications of hypothetical future technology as by actual technology achievements. In this sense it is uniquely speculative, equally fictional and scientific, a relationship formulated by Milburn as “Science (fiction).”
The conflation of science and science fiction permeates the discourse: when nanotechnology textbooks speak nanotech possibilities, Milburn claims they invariably invoke science fiction tropes that have long become cliches: matter transporters, self-replicating nanobots, utility belts (J. Storrs Hall's concept of “Utility Fog”), nanosyringes in the bloodstream, etc. Most surprisingly, nanotech discourse always locates the origin of the field in a 1959 lecture by Richard Feynman titled, “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” which Milburn notes contains images and concepts lifted directly from Robert Heinlein's celebrated 1942 short story, “Waldo,” about a scientist who manufactures an interface that can reproduce itself at ever smaller scales, until it reaches the nanolevel, allowing him to manipulate matter at the molecular level through actions at the macrolevel. Indeed, nanotechnology was described in detail by science fiction writers long before it was studied in the lab; what is surprising is that the writings of scientists working in the field differ little in form from those science fiction stories.
This feedback loop between narrative and scientific research extends directly to the primary instrument used by nanotech researchers, the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM). This device is imagined and utilized by scientists as both an imaging device and a probe, an extension of sorts of the human hand. That is, it “sees” the nanoworld, but it also “touches” it. This “haptic vision” (from Giles Deleuze), a synethesia combining the sense of vision and touch, allows for both viewing and manipulating. Milburn's claim is that this is how the instrument is conceived, designed, and utilized, and thus not a metaphor tacked on after the fact, but rather a metaphor constitutive of the design of the device from the beginning, in the same way that the entire field of nanotechnology arose out of science fiction. Milburn calls this prescriptive metaphor a “tropic protocol,” or “the diagrammatic and symbolic dimension underwriting and orienting the signifying operations of probe microscopy...” (63)
Thus our ability to manipulate at the nanoscale arises out of our ability to image, and our ability to imagine. That is, what we “see” at the nanoscale is predetermined by a metaphoric framework itself dependent upon fictional narrative. We image/imagine the nanoworld as a “landscape” and think of it as a “frontier,” tied to older discourses of “westward expansion” and “Manifest Destiny” in the American West. Milburn points out that a significant early nanotech achievement involved constructing what the researchers dubbed a “quantum corral,” a circle of iron atoms that enclose surface state electrons. The STM is an extension of the human hand as well as the eye: it images and manipulates, and thus acts at the critical intersection of discovery and domination: "The ability to 'see' atoms within an optical register, the technical capability to survey the molecular terrain as if with one's own sensory apparatus, appears to inspire a drive toward complete domination of the material world." (65) Another powerful (and telling) image generated by nanotech researchers was a “Gold-Dot Map of Western Hemisphere,” a symbolic representation of mastery of the large through the (extremely) small, the conquering of matter itself. When inaugurating the National Nanotechnology Initative, President Clinton stood in front of an enormous projection of this image.
This is why the very notion of the unitary human subject is disassembled by nanovision: by thinking on the nanoscale, we are already thinking past the Singularity, imagining endless possible combinations of matter, erasing the distinctions upon which our conceptions of the human rely: outside-inside, organic-machinic, micro-macro... For Milburn, this is both terrifying and seductive. It means the discursive end of humanity but also the possibility of an unprecedented intimacy with matter, “the opening of a way of interrelating with forms of molecular being that are not predicated on the logic of control.” (107) He sees this as the beginning of “a posthuman ethics of the interface.” (108)
While some scientists, journalists, and science fiction writers warn or predict that self-organizing nanobots, drawing no distinction between different sorts of matter (organic vs. nonorganic, for instance), could devour the entire world, turning it into amorphous, non-differentiated soup (the so-called “gray goo scenario”), others, including Milburn, imagine instead, “A world of difference, of polymorphing and mutability. An era of bodies without organs, matter without form, and nanotechnology without domesticity.” (160) Milburn dubs this subgenre of writing “nano/splatter”, after “splatter” horror films that depict the violent dismembering of humans as a reconfiguration of human embodiment itself.
In nanofiction novels such as “Bloom,” Greg Bear's “Blood Music,” and Michael Crichton's “Prey,” nanobot infiltration of the human and nonhuman alike is viewed initially as horrible and fascinating (sublime), but ultimately welcomed as integration into the oneness of matter. The dissolution of the self does not have to be (literally or figuratively) a violent event that heralds death; it can also be figured as engendering life. Milburn quotes nanoscientist J. Storrs Hall, who has written, “What I want to be when I grow up, is a cloud.” (178)
Milburn describes this orientation as a “fundamental openness to the other already 'inside, part of us by now'” (partially quoting “Blood Music”) (182). Further, this openness looks a lot like love. A post-gender, post-human, post-Singularity sort of love, certainly, but one in which life itself can be transformed, reconceptualized, reformulated, and reinvigorated.
Milburn, Colin. Nanovision : Engineering the Future. Durham: Duke UniversityPress, 2008.
Does “nanovision” accurately characterize the way of “seeing” of contemporary scientific practice more generally? Is science situated at the crossroads between narrativization and imaging?
See my post below on the last question in this series, but don't I see the relationship between narrativization and imaging as one of opposite axes. A narrative is a kind of image, just as an image or imaging is a kind of narrative (especially those images associated with data visualization, which often imply a kind of temporality or diachronic structure). So, rather than science situating itself at the crossroads between narrativization and imaging, I think we can better understand the relationship between science (and other discourses of knowledge and imaging), as one of translation. In this way, we could think of nanovision not only as a mode of seeing or of breaking down perceived bodily boundaries, but also as a mode of condensation.
How do narratives frame and visualize information? What is the nature of the imaging-imagining articulation? How does this articulation enable manipulation, the dream of control?
At what point on the imaging-manipulation axis does the human subject dissolve?
As information becomes a nano-phenomenon (which nano-fabrication, quantum computing, and nanoscale self-replication all prefigure), how can we visualize it? And more importantly, how can we visualize human interface with it?
What is the relation between knowledge production and narrative production? Which produces which? How does this feedback loop function?
Well, the way we have been envisioning this process in our project is as precisely that, a "feedback loop" in which some kind of (for our case) theory or "knowledge" work produces a narrative, which in turn produces responses, which in turn produces more knowledge work, which produces more narrative, etc. Hence the serialized format of our narratives. However, as we know, and as the metaphor of a feedback loop suggests, knowledge and narrative are never separate. Knowledge, at least the kind of knowledge I am used to working with (dare I say all knowledge?) is continually and constantly being "narrativized" so it can be understood, applied, and reworked (one might even say it's already narrativized as soon as we know it as "knowledge"). And, of course, as a student of literature, it would be quite bold of me to claim that what I study, written narrative, is not a form of knowledge. What this suggests to me is that, instead of a feedback loop, what we are really dealing with here is an issue of translation. How is knowledge being translated into narrative and vice versa?
Having said that, we do need to think about the semantics of turning a disparate bunch of theoretical discussions into narrative. It might be helpful to start thinking about what the idiomatic expressions of each type of knowledge-production are. In theoretical discussions, for example, one can explain and explicate one's points in great detail. One tries to be as precise as possible while still addressing the complexities of one's argument. One proceeds logically (or at least pretends to): an approach/area of study is situated and appropriate context is given, a thesis is stated, an argument following from said thesis is given, the argument is brought to some kind of closure with a conclusion. In more overtly creative/artistic forms of narrative, much more is shown than is explicated, much more is suggested than is argued. Where more theoretical or philosophical narratives attempt to elide their representational qualities (usually, at least), more artistic and creative narratives question/interrogate/revel in these qualities. The issue, then, becomes one of learning how to suggest explications. I hate that I'm turning to a Freudian metaphor right now, but here I go: it's about condensing dense theoretical discussion into images, into representations that, despite their apparent simplicity, suggest the fact of their condensation.
Subject: condensation of ideas/information
Suggestions: character dreaming? cyberspace as dream?