Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell Knows Why You Want Nanotech

In his review of Chris Anderson's Free, Gladwell addresses Anderson's discussion of the 1950's optimism about atomic energy: that it would make energy too cheap to meter. It's 2009 and guess what?

Gladwell points out that it's not just the cost of power generation itself but the transmission system, among other things, that result in the cost of electrical power. He then expands this to a more general principle that, without intending to, crisply exposes the singulatarians' yearning for nanotechnology:

This is the kind of error that technological utopians make. They assume that their particular scientific revolution will wipe away all traces of its predecessors — that if you change the fuel you change the whole system.

Nanotechnology as the term is usually used is really just magic, disguised by modern-sounding words; and in exactly the way Gladwell calls out, it frees us from the tyranny of legacy systems, at least in the minds of its enthusiasts. No more costs associated with commitment to previous infrastructure! The atoms will just rearrange themselves! That's great; and I assume unicorns are going to help you do it? (Oh wait, that's ridiculous? For more on unicorn science, go here.) The idea of the world remade in man's image at the molecular level (and intelligence per unit mass skyrocketing beyond human ken) falls apart on the most basic questioning. As Drew Endy said at a LongNow Foundation discussion: what will power it?

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