It isn’t science that drives the nanotechnology news agenda

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.

5 thoughts on “It isn’t science that drives the nanotechnology news agenda”

  1. So if nanotechnology follows the same hype and deflation trajectory as nuclear energy did in the 1950’s, then by extrapolation, will MEMS be the next enfant terrible on the horizon?

  2. Hi William,

    Actually Nanotech is so BROADLY defined, and so many people have hitched onto the bandwagon that even if it is all hype, the powers that be will still call for VICTORY.

    My belief is that Nanotech will follow biotech, and become BORINGLY sucessfull!


  3. Hi. Just trekking thru Technorati to see if anyone had written about last week’s Dana Centre event.

    I’m afraid I was really rather disappointed with the March 1 evening event – and this wasn’t entirely to do with the fact that 7 of 9 wasn’t mentioned. If I recall, approaching 70% of people in the room that night didn’t feel as if they’d learnt much at all or been challenged – we all had the opportunity to vote using the electronic pads in front of us.

    I felt that the film expert was particularly poor. There was so much skirting around the edge of the subject and not enough hardcore explanation of what it is all about with full social / political implications.

    I left the hall still wondering “So does this mean that nanotechnology won’t be able to grow cars in factories after all, then?” and also “So, is Nanotechnology the first step along the path to having, say, food replicators to solve third world famine?”

    I really wasn’t sure about who the evening was aimed at, to be honest. I have a media background but still wasn’t exactly blown away. The scientist, I forget his name, was the most engaging and interesting of the three speakres by FAR!

  4. Well, I was the scientist speaker, so it’s difficult for me to take offense at what you say. Have a look round this site; perhaps you will find more discussion of issues related to your questions here.

  5. Ahhh, the good one! 🙂

    I certainly will look around. I did leave feeling that maybe I’d bought into the hype a bit… which is perhaps why 70% of people hadn’t felt challenged? Maybe we’d all bought into the hyper hype and ended up just being a bit underwhelmed because nanotech has, thus far, been a bit oversold in the media? Which of course is our only great insight / interface with the subject as regular Londoners. Maybe that’s the issue and I’m missing the point, in fact. I did feel that the nanotechnology in films, as presented to us that night, was a tad tenuous or under-developed. Will look around, cheers.

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