I’m in the early stages of a new project at the Institute that is turning into a test of my notion that STS and history of science tools can be applied to the study of the future. The project is on the future of nanotechnology, or perhaps more accurately, two futures: the future of the field of nanotechnology, and the future of a world with nanotechnology. Ever since I landed at the Institute for the Future, I’ve been working on figuring out how to apply the things I learned as an historian of science to my current work.

I’m proceeding on the assumption that one thing you need to do in order to make reasonable scenarios is an understanding of how the field of nanotechnology has evolved: specifically, what its institutional landscape is like, where the funding comes from, how specialties have been defined, how boundaries are constructed and maintained, and what kinds of moral economies govern work and careers in the field. Why is this worth knowing? Simply put, money, institutional arrangements, and moral economies help shape what people work on, what problems are defined as critical, and what resources are devoted to solving them. They also influence what technologies and processes make it into the market first (though not necessarily those that prove most important in the long run). This is an approach that blends Thomas Kuhn, Joseph Ben-David, Robert Merton, Lou Galambos, Robert Kohler, and a little Edinburgh School.

Will it turn out to be a useful technique? Obviously I think so, but knowing whether you’re right as a futurist is no easier than knowing if you’re right as an historian. Just as you can’t go back in time to see if your arguments were accurate, you can’t skip ahead to the future to see if your projections have come true.

Another interesting aspect of the nanotech world that has some historical resonance is this: it’s divided, broadly, into two camps. There are those who see nanotech as a kind of very advanced industrial chemistry or materials science, turning out buckyballs and carbon nanotubes to strengthen plastic composites. On the other side are the visionaries, who want to create 10,000-mile tall carbon nanotube elevators into space, develop “utility fogs” of swarming nanobots that can become anything from a house to a car to an airplane, and inject cancer-seeking nanobots into their bloodstreams. Two very different visions, in other words: not unlike the vastly contesting nineteenth-century visions of evolution or electricity or natural philosophy or mesmerism that Adrian Desmond, Alison Winter, Iwan Morus, and James Secord have studied. And, like the radical and conservative evolutionist camps of mid-Victorian London, these are connected in some interesting ways: the visionaries are useful as publicists to a degree and they give out a major prize for research in nanotechnology (the Feynman Prize)which tend to go to established, academic researchers.

Perhaps an even better comparison would be between the Renaissance Neoplatonists, Paracelsians, or Rosicrucians, all of whom had a strong interest in what we would see as mathematical tools and experiments, but who ultimately saw the world quite differently than the likes of Galileo or Bacon. This first group saw a universe that was equal parts natural laws, magic, and mathematically-shrouded mystical forces; they would have agreed with Galileo that the book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics, but differed greatly on the translation.

Another way in which this Renaissance world seems to have some resonance with the current world of nanotech: One of the hottest areas in nanotechnology is fabrication. Hot not just in terms of commercial potential, but in terms of scientific opportunity: it seems that you can do some real science when you’re working on fluidic self-assembly, or other processes. Renaissance mechanics, optics, metallurgy, and a few other fields were places in which serious scientific questions, knotty technical challenges, and high-value commercial processes overlapped.

I wonder if it might be worth exploring all this in an article. A piece that is partly about the field of nanotechnology, and partly about how my research on the ecology of the discipline informs the Institute’s efforts to chart a nanotech-enhanced future. A couple friends who read “STS@Work” commented that they would have liked to see more detail about how STS ideas actually get worked into projects. That always struck me as a reasonable suggestion, if one that I didn’t think I could quite fit into that article. But it would be worthwhile, and this project might offer a good vehicle for it.