New Dawn Fades?

Before K. Eric Drexler devised and proselytised for his particular, visionary, version of nanotechnology, he was an enthusiast for space colonisation, closely associated with another, older, visionary for a that hypothetical technology – the Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill. A recent book by historian Patrick McCray – The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future – follows this story, setting its origins in the context of its times, and argues that O’Neill and Drexler are archetypes of a distinctive type of actor at the interface between science and public policy – the “Visioneers” of the title. McCray’s visioneers are scientifically credentialed and frame their arguments in technical terms, but they stand at some distance from the science and engineering mainstream, and attract widespread, enthusiastic – and sometimes adulatory – support from broader mass movements, which sometimes take their ideas in directions that the visioneers themselves may not always endorse or welcome.

It’s an attractive and sympathetic book, with many insights about the driving forces which led people to construct these optimistic visions of the future. I was particularly taken by the counterpoint between these positive visions and the prevailing early 70’s talk of environment crisis and the limits to growth, as famously expressed in the study with that title by the Club of Rome. More than forty years on, the echoes of this debate persist: climate change presents a much more imminent and likely threat than the results of the Club of Rome’s simple extrapolations, but there are still techno-optimists and cornucopians seeking to downplay it. Looking further back, the historical pedigree of the visioneers is traced to pioneer ideologues of space travel like Tsiolkovskii, who combined a fervour for the idea of space travel as an essential part of the destiny of mankind with very matter-of-fact calculations of the basis by which rockets might work. From this background, it is easy to see the origins of O’Neill’s advocacy of space colonies, together with his speculative, theoretical engineering approach to devising pathways towards this goal. It’s perhaps less obvious that this project would provide the inspiration for K. Eric Drexler, as an idealistic MIT student, to develop his visioneering approach to an inner space of the nanoworld, sketching out a powerful nanotechnology which would provide the material requirements for humans to flourish in space.

The later discussion of the way Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology was received by the scientific establishment, exploited by that establishment to create the environment for a huge boost in funding, and then cleansed of Drexler’s influence, very much reflects Drexler’s own views. I found this part of the book to be less satisfying – it’s a somewhat uncritical account, which suffers from being almost entirely US-centric, and from having only a very superficial grasp of the complexity of the way the academic and business versions of nanotechnology emerged from many competing disciplines and individuals. Perhaps that is fair enough in a book which is about Drexler, not about nanotechnology. But by presenting the debate between the versions of nanotechnology as a personal and largely rhetorical one, between Drexler and Richard Smalley, McCray skates over the reality that Drexler’s vision did raise some serious and substantial science issues. Perhaps I am too sensitive to this having spent so much effort constructing such a science-based critique, as summarised elsewhere on this blog.

McCray has an interesting thesis about the failure of Drexler’s ideas to achieve purchase in the scientific community; he wonders whether this arose because Drexler failed to appreciate how science works as a sociological phenomenon, because he was too influenced by Popper’s philosophy of science. I’m sure there’s something in this, but nonetheless this argument is framed too much in what has become the standard conspiracy theory – that the grand, Drexlerian vision of nanotechnology was suppressed because it frightened the population with its spectres of out-of-control nanobots, and got in the way of the interests of nano-business, and their efforts to sell stain-resistant trousers. But neither is this view consistent with the actual sociology of global science. Science isn’t ruled top-down by people like Richard Smalley and Mike Roco, it’s enormously individualistic and competitive, so the question to ask is why, somewhere in the world, has some talented scientist or group of scientists not seized the vision and made it work – there’s no doubt that by doing so they would have become famous, whatever Richard Smalley might have thought of it.

The big question, then, is why McCray’s visioneers have, so far, failed. We seem much further away from founding space colonies than we were in 1975, when the L5 Society was founded, and Drexler’s universal assembler, able to make any molecular structure consistent with the laws of physics and chemistry from its component atoms, remains a distant dream. Were the visions simply too futuristic? Was it that the visions themselves were bad ones, fundamentally flawed in some way? Or were the prevailing socio-economic conditions such that it was impossible to mobilise sufficient resources to achieve them?

I think it was a mixture of all three reasons. I think it was just as well that society didn’t fully back McCray’s visioneers – I doubt the feasibility of Drexler’s nanotechnology in its most fully developed form, and I simply don’t see the appeal of space colonisation. But we can still regret that we don’t seem to be able, as a society, to get big stuff done any more. There is deep irony here. The political vision of the visioneers and their backers was largely libertarian, Hayekian, in favour of a small state. And it is the widespread adoption of the visioneers’ political vision that has ensured that such big technological visions can no longer be realised. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly that in the final chapter of McCray’s book, where he refers approvingly to the recent development of private space-craft as a result of the positive influence of the visioneers. But the most visible outcome of that libertarian dream of private space travel was the sub-orbital flight of Burt Rutan’s SpaceShip One in 2004. In technology terms, this wasn’t a new breakthrough, but a reprise of Joseph Walker’s 1963 mission in the X15 rocket aircraft. Within 10 years of that flight, the US government had taken 12 men to the surface of the moon and back. Ten years on, in the private sector remake, SpaceShip Two, which will take a few celebrities and paying passengers in a parabola to the edge of space, still seems to have technical problems. But its owner, Virgin Galactic, has a very impressive marketing operation. It would be a pity if this was all that the legacy of the Visioneers amounted to.

6 thoughts on “New Dawn Fades?”

  1. Perhaps the world belongs to those who optimize the technologies thus quickening the pace and retiring risks. For myself there is a less perceived need for “breakthroughs” such as a quantum computer or a new type of fission reactor.

  2. Hi Richard

    It seems that for my whole outlook on life has been shaped by the debate between the Cornucopian and the Limits to Growth points of view. And for most of my life I would describe myself as a moderate Cornucopian who takes the limits to growth seriously. But over the last several years my viewpoint has changed. Although, I still think that a mild form of Cornucopia is not impossible, I don’t think it is a very unlikely outcome. And I do think that the central outcome of the Limits to Growth study:
    Wide spread nonrenewable resource use
    rapid population growth,
    ecological overshoot,
    population crash to a much lower level
    is the most probable outcome.

    I am curious why you discount the basic thrust of the Limits to Growth. It seems to me that the basic outline is hard to avoid. Especially given the political power of the fossil fuel interests (companies, owners and users) ability to prevent effective political action.

  3. Because software copies very cheaply these visionaries were not strong on economics. Going to space is expensive and you need a cost effective return. SPM’s like what Moriarty builds are too expensive to assemble products one atom at a time.
    To prevent some types of super WMDs like pandemics and AI, seems to involve extending structural health monitoring and finding cheap scalable materials science so where today bridges are monitored for failure, tomorrow computing and health technologies will be such monitored. Among other papers to read I’ve the NASA budget which has some funding for this, and a patent for surface acoustic wave paint.

  4. Thanks Gerhard, fixed now.

    Jim, a couple of things made the Limits to Growth argument flawed. Firstly, population did in fact stop growing exponentially (not noticed at the time, but the end of exponential growth actually happened in the late 60’s). Of course, plenty can go wrong before the population actually stabilises, but it is important to the modelling to recognise that the point of inflection has passed and the growth rate is slowing, even if growth itself has a few more decades to run. Secondly, I do accept the argument of the economists that in general availability of resources does respond to price signals, up to a point. But, and it’s a big but, those price signals haven’t worked in the case of greenhouse gas emissions, and so we haven’t done the work that would lead to the innovation we need in sustainable energy.

  5. Hi Richard

    Maybe it is because I took a seminar in collage with the Meadows on the Limits to Growth Model that I have better understanding of what they were trying to do. Your criticism doesn’t really effect the model. The population growth for the standard run (business as usual) has tracked the actual population growth fairly well. And although the model does not incorporate a price mechanism the total amount of a non renewable resource does not effect the process of ecological overshoot and collapse. Having more nonrenewable resources just extends the time until collapse. The real problems (according to the model) are the time lags between action and effect. Things like the slow build up of persistent pollution, demographic momentum and “the back half of the chessboard” problem in resource consumption.

Comments are closed.