On a day where everybody is generously displaying their affections, sometimes in surprising ways, here comes another unexpected offering: the Mutable Matter Practitioner Handbook! The handbook is intended to introduce the project to people working in the field of public engagement with new technologies (especially nanotechnology). I have added ‘Version 1.0’ to the title to emphasise that it is a work in progress. Changes will be made on the basis of feedback.
The feedback will also inform publications on other experimental engagements that I have piloted and, of course, future experiments.
A friend just sent me an article about Nanotechnology from the Strange Horizons Web-Zine (thanks, Dave!), which provoked this Philip K. Dick-inspired title question. In this article, a somewhat tragi-comical speculation is made, namely, that the only people who know about nanotechnology might be science fiction readers, as the rest of the public is not given any information about it. An often cited reason for the lack of public information is the fear of repeat performance of the mass-scale genetic engineering rejection. A case is also made for just letting the public know ‘whether it’s good or bad’ instead of engaging them with the subject in a more detailed way (as if that would work!). In connection with the hundreds of nano products already on the market, the author concludes, ‘nanotech might possibly be the quietest technological revolution ever’.
The article not only made me think about my own work, but also of the book I read on my recent trip – a science fiction novel called ‘Aristoi’ by Walter Jon Williams (from 1992). It is set in a far Earth future, after Earth got destroyed through the misbehaviour of humans and build a-new again. In William’s society, any sort of molecular and atomic engineering sees wide-spread use, but is only really handled by a group of selected individuals, the ruling class of the ‘Aristoi’. Through the application of new technologies, the Aristoi are near-god like and some of them are even worshipped as gods. They create the populations of their respective domains by selecting the most beneficial genes, so that the inhabitants are non-aggressive, intelligent and healthy. Sometimes, they take the liberty to create fanciful individuals for specific (e.g. artistic) purposes, e.g. a group of opera singers with distinct vocal folds. They build worlds and whole star systems with the help of nanotechnology and also experiment with it (which occasionally results in ‘mataglap’ accidents). Central to this book are the questions ‘what is human?’ and ‘what is ethical behaviour’, and nanotechnology plays a huge role in defining the super-human identity of the Aristoi. When a group of rebel Aristoi plunges a part of society they are responsible for back into the Middle Ages, a war breaks out between the conspirators and the Aristoi who accuse them of reducing their vulnerable protégés to ‘mere humans’.
Now while this scenario does not reflect the situation on our Earth (one should hope?) and may even appear far fetched or silly (to non-SciFi readers at least), it illustrates how science fiction readers are already confronting questions (about ethics, responsibility, ‘what is natural?’ etc) that relate to nanotechnology. In the UK, a few experiments have been made to engage people with the subject, namely the NanoJury UK and the Demos Nanodialogues, which are both promoting ‘upstream engagement’. I hope there will be more to come.