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Big Whig History and Nano Narratives

Effective Innovation Policy Needs the Historical Dimension

A semiconducting metal junction formed from two carbon nanotubes. SOURCE: Vin Crespi, Pennsylvania State Physics History that only considers success stories creates a very real danger for policymakers. Telling the story of nanotechnology in all its fascinating, sometimes weird, detail makes this important technology more human and approachable.

As America’s science and technology policymakers adjust to the new Obama administration, they would do well to keep the history of innovation policy in mind. This is advisable not because, to paraphrase Santayana, policymakers are doomed to repeat the past if they neglect history. Given today’s rapidly changing political and economic landscape, we’re not certain that one could repeat history even if one tried. Thus, calls for a 21st-century Manhattan Project or Apollo Program to create much-needed innovations in green technologies are problematic. The historical context is simply different than it was in 1942 or 1961. While historical analogies have power, pulling direct “lessons” from past experiences is of limited utility.

Nanotech contains some elements of recent vintage, but much of the nanotech enterprise is continuous with long-standing trends in science and engineering.

Historical context can and should inform policy decisions in more subtle ways than just providing a toolkit of questionable analogies. To make the case for historically-informed policy, we draw on our experiences researching the history of nanotechnology. This might appear to be a strange topic. As our colleagues ask sometimes, how can we study something that is so new or, to make matters worse, hasn’t even happened yet? Certainly, nanotechnology has yet to unfold in anything like the manner President Bill Clinton predicted when he committed the federal government to a major nanotech initiative in January 2000. Back then, policymakers imagined that nanotechnology would be the key driving force for the 21st century economy—much the same rhetoric we hear for green technologies today.

The cognitive dissonance created when we say we are studying the history of nanotechnology is amusing, but also dangerous. Nanotech contains some elements of recent vintage, but much of the nanotech enterprise is continuous with long-standing trends in science and engineering. The inability to recognize or acknowledge nano’s continuities can lead to obfuscation. As with many “miracle technologies,” both nano’s proponents and critics want it both ways in terms of novelty. For supporters, it is new, revolutionary, the next big thing, etc.—until you start talking about regulation, at which point advocates, particularly in industry, say something like “oh, it’s just molecules, we’ve known how to handle those for a hundred years.” Critics try to stir up passions about a new, scary, untried technology—but then they also want to picture nano as a continuation of a conspiracy by wealthy corporations in the West to exploit the little guy and threaten our environment. Indeed, some of the high-profile critics of nano, such as the ETC Group, started out as anti-biotech organizations and have recycled many of their critiques with “nano” replacing “bio.” We don’t want to imply that a sophisticated history of nano could adjudicate these uses of novelty, but if a properly informed history entered public discourse it would encourage supporters and critics to use more subtle arguments.

We research nanotechnology partly because it was the last “miracle technology” to appear—preceding green technologies, but coming after the Internet, biotech, the alternative energy bubble of the ’70s, nuclear power, cybernetics, and so on. Understanding how these come into being, why they (and not others) come to be perceived as miraculous, and how successfully they meet initial expectations will help us understand new miracle technologies as they appear.

The advocates of miracle technologies package plenty of folk history into their advocacy, such as “nanotechnology will succeed like biotech, if only we encourage the same academic start-ups that fueled biotech,” or “nanotech will be as world-changing as nuclear power or genetically-modified organisms, so we should try to defuse the public resistance that befell those technologies.” Unfortunately, advocates’ histories of nano often don’t support the weight placed on them. For instance, nano advocates often cite Richard Feynman’s 1959 speech “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” as the origin of nanotechnology, without mentioning that the speech was widely ignored until it was resurrected in the 1990s to give nano an intellectual pedigree. Or, advocates often claim that all nanotechnology was enabled by the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope, or STM, in the 1980s. But this narrative neglects the long incubation of nano in the ’80s and ’90s, when the pioneering figures were either oddball, sci-fi-inspired futurists or grant officers slogging through the bureaucratic infighting needed to create the National Nanotechnology Initiative—features of nano history that advocates apparently feel will tarnish nano’s halo.

We beg to differ—we feel that telling the history of nano in all its occasionally seedy detail makes this important technology more human and approachable. Understanding the grand arc of this history will be increasingly important in ensuring that the emerging debates about nano’s environmental, health, and safety dimensions capture the complexities of the issues, rather than boiling everything down to cartoonish dichotomies.

Even the term “nanotechnology”—coined in 1974—turns out to have a complex, and telling, history.

Let us give two examples of where our long arc of history departs from a schematic advocates’ history. First, as mentioned, many people claim nano is new because we now have instruments like the STM that can “see” individual atoms and therefore can do lots of new things at the nanoscale. But scientists have been able to image individual atoms since the late ’50s. Nanotechnology has been made possible as much by long-term improvements in old instruments like electron and optical microscopes as by the invention of sexy new instruments like the STM. As David Edgerton has written in The Shock of the Old, advocates’ focus on the novelty of high-tech makes sense for advocacy—but it skews the public policy debate.

Second, even the term “nanotechnology”—coined in 1974—turns out to have a complex, and telling, history. One of the great achievements of the NNI has been to encourage the growth of a series of coordinated, interdisciplinary, academic nanocenters. Yet several of those institutions are (and most are modeled on) institutions that have existed since the mid ’70s. At the time, those organizations had “micro” or “sub-micron” in their names—the then-current buzzwords for “small.” They adopted “nano” in their names in the late ’80s and ’90s, when “nanotechnology” was coming to mean “the technology that comes after micro-technology.” But nanotechnology is only the latest in a long series of buzzwords to describe “the next smallest technology.” Our colleague, Hyungsub Choi at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, found a wonderful one from the ’60s—“angstronics.” A decade earlier, Arthur von Hippel was writing extensively about what he called “molecular engineering” using rhetoric nearly indistinguishable from modern nano advocates’. Our point is that what today is called nanotechnology is part of at least a 50-year arc of science and engineering. The same story of continuity could be told for any of the other hot new technologies currently under consideration.

While they make for nice bedtime reading, tidy and packaged histories do a disservice to policymakers who want to—who need to—understand how innovation actually occurs.

These examples demonstrate a trap that policymakers could fall into if they insist that nano is exclusively new and revolutionary—what historians call “Whig history.” The term comes from the 18th century, when members of the English Whig party tended to see the past as continual progress toward the then-present state of liberty and enlightenment. When adapted to the history of science and technology, Whig history appears as a steady series of discoveries and successes. Instead of understanding the past in its own terms, the Whig version has “good scientists” working to uncover Truth while “bad scientists” appear to be holding back the inexorable march of progress. Widely rejected by professional historians, the Whiggish understanding of science and technology as a succession of events that take place in laboratories, stripped of any social context, is still popular with many philosophers and some scientists and policymakers.

Whig history applied to nanotechnology would have scholars focus only on success stories, tales of lab discoveries that led to new understandings of the world or which were translated into commercial successes. If a discovery turned out to be false or a prediction turned out to be unrealizable, it would have no role in Whig history. Whig history would, for instance, quite rightly uphold the STM as a great success. But it would ignore one of the STM’s great disasters—the claim that it could image (and potentially sequence) the atoms making up strands of DNA. That claim was quickly overturned, yet in its brief life it played an important role in building demand for a commercial STM industry.

Likewise, Whig history would ignore “angstronics” and von Hippel’s “molecular engineering” because they were not successful at the time—but doing so artificially reinforces the claim that nano is new (since its predecessors have been dropped from the historical record).

Finally, Whig history would neglect the role of futurists like K. Eric Drexler in the 1980s in popularizing fantastic visions of what radical nanotechnologies might accomplish. Scientists then—and especially now—dismiss the feasibility of Drexler’s “molecular assemblers,” yet even as fantasies these images helped create public interest in the field which, in turn, helped motivate science policy. Whig history would emphasize that Nobelist Richard Smalley did his best to discredit Drexler in 2001 and 2003. But it would ignore Smalley’s promotion of Drexler’s ideas in the early ’90s as a way to build support for his plans for nanotechnology at Rice University. And Whig history would leave aside Smalley’s own use of futuristic (and perhaps even outlandish) visions of nano-enabled space elevators to promote his research on carbon nanotubes. While both Drexler and Smalley’s futuristic visions have not (and may never) come to pass, these things were taken seriously at the time, and the job of an historian is to look at things as they were interpreted at the time.

Adopting a view of history that only considers success stories creates a very real danger for policymakers. Think how uninformed such an approach would be if applied to the history of the auto industry. The Whig methodology would restrict such a history to only those technologies that currently count as an automobile—i.e. internal combustion vehicles. To do so, though, would strip away any focus on all the alternative types of horseless carriages (electric, steam, etc.) that once existed, not to mention all the alternative forms of transport (e.g. trolleys) that were put out of business by the auto industry. The policy implications of such a restricted viewpoint are obvious: it makes the internal combustion car look “natural” and therefore the only game in town.

Our recommendations for policymakers in the new Obama administration are two-fold. When considering whether to advocate and fund “new” emerging technologies, they must be aware that technological change is rarely revolutionary—continuity is the norm, not the exception. Understanding and appreciating the historical arc that 21st century technologies emerge from is vital. Path-dependency matters. Institutions and social networks are built primarily from prior institutions and social networks. That means that attempts to command social entities into existence rarely work, and that the rules and values of preceding institutions and social networks will continue to influence new organizations set up to support an emerging technology.

At the same time, there is much to be learned by considering more than just success stories. While they make for nice bedtime reading, tidy and packaged histories do a disservice to policymakers who want to—who need to—understand how innovation actually occurs. That understanding can only be achieved by considering failures, anomalies, and oddities, as well as what actually worked. Research that fully illuminates the history of emerging technologies like nanotech may well help both critics and supporters to find common ground—for debate, if not for agreement. It may also help provide a better informational foundation on which to identify and nurture the innovations that will be needed in years to come. Good policies and good decisions are based on good history.

Cyrus Mody is an assistant professor of history at Rice University. W. Patrick McCray is a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a member of Science Progress’s Advisory Board. Both Mody and McCray are researchers at the NSF-funded Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS-UCSB). This essay reflects their views only and not those of either the CNS-UCSB or the NSF.


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