For Comparison: Nanotechnology

I often flatter myself by comparing these pages and my other writings with those of Erik Drexler, author of “Engines of Creation”.

Drexler has done an excellent job of weaving technological fantasy, going carefully over the hard points and answering all the objections, but the book itself contains no real analysis of the literature, to say nothing of empirical research. Yet he succeeded in saying enough about this fantasy of his to justify a lot of subsequent research.

But there is something else about Drexler’s book that turned my heart the moment I saw it. This is what I said about it at the time:

On a cold wet Saturday in January I sit and read about amazing technological ideas that could transform the world: genetic engineering, molecular assemblers and replicators, hypertext networks. My head spinning from all these exciting new concepts, I leave my quiet apartment and wander out to the corner store to pick up milk and a newspaper. The weather is not at all pleasant, and as I pass the inevitable hooker on the streetcorner I notice her sad expression as she shivers with cold in her inadequate clothing.

Returning home I pause to leaf through the paper before getting back to my afternoon’s reading: “Engines of Creation”, by K. Eric Drexler. I don’t read much of the paper these days, its too depressing: terrorists kill innocent people with a bomb, a mother murders her young child and hides his body, nuclear waste leaks into the water table, a politician is arrested for influence peddling, a schoolteacher for molesting children.

I put down the paper in disgust and pick up the book I was reading, but I feel a pang of conscience. It’s fine to read about the technological marvels of the future, but it doesn’t help to solve the social problems of today. Even Drexler, optimistic about everything else, is worried about the social problems that may accompany the new technology. He talks of elaborate methods for ensuring that nanotechnology does not turn into another arms race, and to keep it out of the hands of terrorists. He takes for granted that we will still have social unrest, terrorism, and international conflict in the future.

That’s where my pang of conscience comes from: I see a way out of this mess, a way of fixing what is wrong with society, so we won’t have all these depressing troubles. And that’s the last sentence 90% of you will read. As soon as anyone talks about having a solution to social problems, everyone tunes out. Back to their television set or dimestore novel. Me too, frankly. I usually force myself to glance at the next page or so, to see if just by some remote chance there’s a new idea involved, but really, almost anything that offers global solutions to social problems is too nutty, too unreadable, too dogmatic.

Drexler’s first paragraph gives me a clue. He talks about coal and diamonds, dirt and strawberries, pointing out that it’s all a matter of how the atoms are arranged. This is true: arrangement, organization, structure, that’s what is important. We can all see that. My point about the social network is similar: it is the arrangement of human beings that matters, that’s what distinguishes the great places and periods of history, from the squalid and miserable.

I like Drexler’s notion of assembling atoms one at a time in a very purposeful way to build something that could never have existed in nature. For me the parallel idea is about creating social structure, a person at a time.

Marx said something I can’t quite remember about the purpose of studying society was not knowledge but change – to change it.

Marx had a point, but he’s not quite right, it’s a bit too arrogant, suggesting he knew what the changes should be, which he certainly thought he did.

I don’t know what the changes in society should be any more than Drexler knew the right way to assemble the atoms in any of the products he imagines, but the general idea of assembling social-atoms to form some great structure is a very big idea, an enormous idea.

I’d refine it one more step by adding that it is entirely up to the social-atoms to choose the details of whatever they are to become, but the basic idea of assembling people, step by step, one person at a time with the strong bonds that are possible between very compatible people is a very big idea. Call it what you want, and even criticize, say it is wrong, if you must, but surely you can recognize that it is a very BIG idea.

Copyright © 1998 Douglas P. Wilson

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