The event on nanotechnology at the Dana Centre in London last night was interesting in that it focused, not on what scientists or technologists think that nanotechnology is or will be, but on the way the subject is portrayed in popular culture and the media. The conclusions are rather sobering for any scientists who still believe that it’s their laboratory work that sparks public interest in nanotechnology.
Clare Wilkinson, working at the University of Plymouth, talked about her comprehensive study of treatment of nanotechnology in British national newspapers between 2003 and 2004. What’s striking about her results is how little of the media coverage was generated by science correspondents (only 13%), and how small was the proportion of stories that were sparked by a research report or journal article (only 15%). And what’s not at all surprising to anyone who’s been following press coverage of nanotechnology is the way stock images and metaphors are used, again and again, to place stories in context.
What are the favourite stock images? Nanosubmarines and nanobots, of course, and to see where that’s come from one only has to look at the treatment of nanotechnology in the cinema. David Kirby, another of last night’s speakers, traced the history of nanotechnology in the movies from the inevitable Fantastic Voyage, through Star Trek: The Next Generation, to the recent crop of Virtuosity, Minority Report, The Hulk and Agent Cody Banks. He singled out Spiderman 2 (2004) as the first explicit invocation of something like the Grey Goo nightmare, pointing the way, perhaps, to the nano-dystopia of Prey. That film we’re still waiting for; but perhaps James Cameron’s remake of Fantastic Voyage will be even more significant. David’s research, based at the University of Manchester, has involved extensive interviews with the scientific consultants for Hollywood studios, and he reports that virtually every script that’s now being considered that has any kind of technological component is invoking nanotechnology in one form or another.
It’s clear that nanotechnology now has a status akin to nuclear energy in the fifties; an unseen power that serves as a universal plot device, facilitating miracles, on the one hand, and breeding monsters on the other.