Nanomeme Syndrome

In both the philosophical and visual sense, ‘seeing is believing’ does not apply to nanotechnology, for there is nothing even remotely visible to create proof of existence. On the atomic and molecular scale, data is recorded by sensing and probing in a very abstract manner, which requires complex and approximate interpretations. More than in any other science, visualization and creation of a narrative becomes necessary to describe what is sensed, not seen. Nevertheless, many of the images generated in science and popular culture are not related to data at all, but come from visualizations and animations frequently inspired or created directly from science fiction.

From “The Nanomeme Syndrome: Blurring of fact & fiction in the construction of a new science” in Volume 1, Issue 1, of Technoetic Arts, a journal of speculative research, by Jim Gimzewski and Victoria Vesna, some legitimate hardcore nanotechnologists. Gimzewski won the Forsight Insitute’s Feynman Prize in 1997 for leading the team that made that nifty IBM logo written in atoms.

The article is well written and I think well balanced. In general I tend not to read stuff about nanotechnology, especially by nanotechnologists, because it makes me nervous and jumpy. But this article was good and did not make me jumpy. It’s philosophical but approachable, and it seems that it’s connected with a museum exposition in Los Angeles that looks to be megacool.

Also I like this article because they list my Acts of the Apostles on its (fairly short) list of related readings. Which is how, of course, I found this article in the first place:ego surfing on google for “sundman apostles”.

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3 Comments

  1. Stearns says:

    A wonder-full tour!

    Let us not concentrate too much, however, on the degree to which nanotechnology presents a unique paradigm shift from mechanical models. Any number of other disciplines require a great deal of visualization and abstraction outside of the normal human interpretation of the physical: radio astronomy, computer science, frequency domain electronics, writing, storytelling, mathematics, law, …

    I think we’ve got some time before we have to figure out what’s different here. It generally takes a generation before a new technology is widely adopted by society, and I think that clock starts after the first consumer application, not the first laboratory experiments.

    It’s interesting that Chrichton gets so much attention and honor. As I understand it, you can’t get DNA from an amber entombed mosquito. No dinosaur blood survives from the insect’s last meal because only the hard shell survives the sap-to-amber chemical process. I feel that the rules of science fiction’s art of the impossible may be too easy to truly point the way to understanding the nearer term issues in nanonotechnology. The art of the possible rules of the military-industrial entrepreneur may be more immediately relevent.

    Not withstanding this feeling and the author’s acknowledgement of John’s “Acts of the Apostles”, I think maybe, John’s “Cheap Complex Devices” is more relevent, if indirectly so. Some of the Nanomeme article, and much of CCD’s metaphor, is about emergent phenomenon. I am personally not so very horrified about isolated applications of nanotech, like the army using nanotechnology for body coverings. In my mind, the nightmare scenarios don’t have anything to do with either scale or paradigms of perception: they have to do with the emergence of a stable (or growing) self organizing swarm that is more than the sum of its parts. We’ve had a devil of a time trying to deliberately create such systems with software programs and networks. However, we have always created markets, fads, wars, and gods that have taken on a life of their own that we do not understand well enough to predict and control. Combining this and nanotechnology is truly scary to me. Conversely, nanotechnology without stable emergent phenomenon is not so different from other tools such as, say, nuclear engineering. And frankly, I think I think the ability to predict and control self organizing systems is scary enough even without nanotechnology.

  2. John says:

    Howard,

    I like this:

    “. . . the nightmare scenarios don’t have anything to do with either scale or paradigms of perception: they have to do with the emergence of a stable (or growing) self organizing swarm that is more than the sum of its parts. We’ve had a devil of a time trying to deliberately create such systems with software programs and networks. However, we have always created markets, fads, wars, and gods that have taken on a life of their own that we do not understand well enough to predict and control. . .”

    Sounds like you’re channelling Nick Aubrey! Look for me to rip off this quote in an upcoming wetmachine essay sometime in the next few weeks.

  3. The nanomeme article was a new experience for me to go beyond the walls of the lab and science and to venture to open up my research ideas and what I learned to a wider audience. I am happy to see the dialog which it is meant to provoke. The museum piece exists in LA till Sept 04 see http://nano.arts.ucla.edu

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