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.