World's Fair

This is the third of three parts in our Nanotechnology series with Cyrus Mody. (Part I; Part II; plus, a previously unmentioned angle on it.)

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The Wild West? Perhaps. It’s the OK Corral of the nanoscale.

For all installments of this Authors-meet-Bloggers series, see our archive.

…Continuing from Part II.

TWF: Is nanotech really like biotech? No, of course – but why? Hold on. So what is it like? I guess the better question is, what’s a good question to ask here?

CCMM: Perhaps the “right” question is: why is it like biotech? There seems to be this assumption among policymakers, nanobusiness proponents, some scientists, and (sadly) many nano-studies researchers (I’m talking about you, bioethicists, economists, and political scientists) that “blahblahblahtech” is a natural kind, and that whatever the current “tech” is it will just organically follow the same path as the last one. According to this “theory” (ideology? faith? axiom?) nanotech will simply unroll the same way biotech did (with minor course corrections to avoid “what happened with GMOs,” naturally). Well, I’m rather skeptical. It seems to me that it matters that nanotech is happening in the aftermath of biotech. Since the creation of “nano” as an organizational phenomenon was such a policy-driven affair, and those policymakers are the ones who constantly invoke the biotech analogy, then maybe (just maybe) nano is like biotech because it was designed that way.

I was in an interesting discussion with Sarah Kaplan from Wharton a couple months ago where she pointed out that in the management literature people now see biotech not as an industry or a discipline or a research area – what counts as “biotech” is just too diffuse for it to be anything like that. Instead, biotech is best understood as a business model – it’s a model for creating and sustaining a particular style of business. My response is that nano can be understood as a “military-industrial-academic complex” model. That is, it was a conscious attempt to extrapolate from biotech to create a model for creating and sustaining a particular style of interconnections among government, industry, and academia.

TWF: But the analogy has its downsides too, I know.

CCMM: That said, yes, the biotech analogy has all kinds of pitfalls. First, why exactly do policymakers want a new version of biotech? You see all these regional development people running around trying to create biotech clusters in their backyard; and now most of them are doing exactly the same things to try to get a nanotech cluster. But virtually all biotech companies are money-losers and the industry as a whole is deeply deeply in the red (red’s the bad accounting ink, right?). For almost all regions, trying to create a biotech cluster just digs you deeper in the hole. Even regions that do well out of the industry don’t do all that well. So if you set out to create nanotech clusters on the model of biotech, you’re going to get a nanotech industry that behaves much the same way.

Second, there are all kinds of other historical analogies that illuminate various aspects of nano. Sticking to just one analogy – particularly biotech – clouds our judgment. You could say, for instance, that nano bears a very close resemblance to materials science. Both were policy-driven transdisciplinary physical science/engineering disciplines nucleated by the creation of special government-funded academic centers. Indeed, it’s clear to me that nano is both genealogically and analogically linked to materials science – the institutions created for the one partly grew into the institutions of the other. In general, there are probably lots of fields that have that relation to nano – we just need to go look for them and think about what they teach us.

TWF: We ever getting anything besides stain resistant pants out of this?

CCMM: Well, sure. I don’t know what we’ll eventually get but there will probably be some cool things. I’m mildly optimistic that we’ll get some renewable energy technologies (esp. solar cells) and some medical applications and maybe some filtration schemes for environmental cleanup or desalination (is it okay to be pro-desalination? I can never tell). But, really, there’s a lot of nano out there already that we don’t talk about. Your laptop has a ton of nano in it – from the thin films in the read head to gates on the transistors. So my guess is we’ll get some stuff out of nano but that it’ll kind of creep in quietly (as it has already) rather than suddenly revolutionizing everything the way both Drexler and some of his critics claim.

TWF: I don’t want to touch a nerve here, but are you interested in nano because it is the scale at which you could measure the variation in elevation of your boyhood home Kansas?

CCMM: Ah yes. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’m interested in nano because I like things (like my home state) about which most people have a plethora of misconceptions.

TWF: [Ouch!]

CCMM: If you’ll stop your jeering, there is a semi-serious side to your question. The connection between landscapes and nano isn’t just coincidental. A lot of images of nanoscale entities are rendered to resemble the mythical landscapes of the Old West, with their OK Corrals and their mesas and buttes (yes, I said “buttes”). You could make the claim (and Alfred Nordmann has) that nano is really about taming this wild landscape, and that much of the rhetoric and science of nano taps into American myths of manifest destiny, expansion into the frontier, and domestication of the environment. Seems plausible to me.


The Mesas and Buttes of Nanotechnology?

TWF: Then there’s all this about Korean films, or are they martial arts movies, or what?

CCMM: Martial arts movies? I have no idea what you’re talking about. Now, if you were to ask me about my love of the Korean Broadcasting System’s historical epics I would gush enthusiastically. These are “martial arts movies” the way The Count of Monte Cristo is a treatise on proper use of the spoon or The Grapes of Wrath is a buddy road-trip book. I don’t know where to begin. You get everything out of these shows – a handbook on democracy and virtuous living; a history lesson; lots of peasant humor; fiendish plots; sincere counsel; etc. etc. You have young kids – I strongly urge you to wean them off the tractor-mania and get them hooked on the Korean historical epics. I assure you they will grow up to be responsible citizens, good family members, compelling storytellers, and so forth.

TWF: We better leave it at that. I’ll go rent one.

CCMM: Please do.


  1. #1 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 29, 2007

    “Is nanotech really like biotech?”

    I read two different questions in that.

    (1) Is the Nanotech Industry similar to the Biotech Industry? The answer would deal with total capitalization, specific cities that dominate activity (as with La Jolla, Cambridge, San Franciso Bay area, Pasadena-L.A., etc. for biotech) globalization, boom-and-bust, Venture capital, hype, role of governments, established company’s (i.e. Big Pharma) R&D versus start-ups from university or other sources, Big Science (Human Genome Project) versus small science, mergers & acquisitions, Bill Gates paying for The Institute for Systems Biology of Dr. Leroy Hood M.D., the maturity of the industry, whether the market is dominated by one or many roughly coequal firms, databse-driven and computaional complexity issues, and the like.

    (2) Is nanotech based more on dry hard stuff (silicon, carbon nanotubes, diamondoids, ..) or wet squishy stuff (proteins, RNA, DNA, and so forth in vivo, in vitro), or mostly simulations (in silico)? The was an early schism, with Drexler pushing for diamonoid mechnical systems, and Jonathan Vos Post pushing for reverse engineering living cells and retrofitting nanocomputing and the like inside those cells). Drxler’s “Engines of Creation” and “Nanosystems” had a mechnical engineering bias; Post’s research and presentations emphasized distributed metabolic systems with computation happening in chemical phase space, Laplace Transform domain nanotech and protein quantum effects rather than classical mechanics or rods and gears.

    This also relates to top-down versus bottom-up nanotech, biomorphic systems, and the combinatorial explosions in genomics, proteomics, transcriptomics, lipidomics, chronomics, and the other -omics.