by Stewart Brand
Nanotechnology. The science is good, the engineering is feasible, the paths of approach aremany, the consequences are revolutionary-times-revolutionary, and the schedule is: in our lifetimes.But what?No one knows but what. That's why a book like this is crucial
molecular engineering andthe routine transformation of matter arrives. The technology will arrive piecemeal and prominently butthe consequences will arrive at a larger scale and often invisibly.Perspective from within a bursting revolution is always a problem because the long view isobscured by compelling immediacies and the sudden traffic of people new to the subject, some seizingopportunity, some viewing with alarm. Both optimists and pessimists about new technologies arenotorious for their tunnel vision.The temptation always is to focus on a single point of departure or a single feared or desired goal.Sample point of departure: What if we can make anything out of diamond? Sample feared/desired goal:What if molecular-scale medicine lets people live for centuries?We're not accustomed to asking, What would a world be like where many such things areoccurring? Nor do we ask, What
such a world be like?The first word that comes to mind is
. The second is
. Nanotechnologybreakthroughs are likely to be self-accelerating and self-proliferating, much as information technologyadvances have been for the past several decades (and will continue to be, especially as nanotech kicksin). We could get a seething texture of constant innovation and surprise, with desired results andunexpected side-effects colliding in all directions.How do you have a careful carnival?
Unbounding the Future
spells out some of the answer.I've been watching the development of Eric Drexler's ideas since 1975, when he was an MITundergraduate working on space technologies (space settlements, mass drivers, and solar sailing).Where I was watching from was the "back-to-basics" world of the
Whole Earth Catalog
publications,which I edited at the time. In that enclave of environmentalists and world-savers one of our dirty wordswas
. A technofix was deemed always bad because it was a shortcut–an overly focuseddirecting of high tech at a problem with no concern for new and possibly worse problems that thesolution might create.But some technofixes, we began to notice, had the property of changing human perspective in ahealthy way. Personal computers empowered individuals and took away centralized control of communication technology. Space satellites–at first rejected by environmentalists–proved to beinvaluable environmental surveillance tools, and their images of Earth from space became an engine of the ecology movement.I think nanotechnology also is a perspective shifter. It is a set of technologies so fundamental asto amount to a whole new domain of back to basics. We must rethink the uses of materials and tools inour lives and civilizations.