Global Algorithm 1.5: The Nanotech Future: A Digital Conversation with BC Crandall

Special Issues: Global Algorithm

Global Algorithm 1.5: The Nanotech Future: A Digital Conversation with BC Crandall

This interview was conducted both on site in San Francisco and on the Internet. BC Crandall is the founder and director of Molecular Realities and the founder and president of Memetic Engineering. He is also the cofounder of Prime Arithmetics, Inc. He edited the proceedings of the first international conference on nanotechnology, Nanotechnology: Research and Perspectives, which was published by The MIT Press in 1992. The Molecular Realities website can be found at http://www.well.com/~bcc/MolecularRealities.html [dead link]. His most recent book is entitled, Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance, and will be published this fall by The MIT Press.

CTHEORY: What is molecular engineering/nanotechnology? What are some of the key emergent trends in nanotechnology?

BC Crandall: Molecules are collections of atoms. Molecular engineering is the art of making objects with molecular precision. The field is called nanotechnology because simple molecular components are measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter. For the past two hundred years, chemists have done rather simple things with a large number of relatively small molecules. Nanotechnology aims to build a wide range of quite complex micro- and macroscopic objects with molecular precision. For perspective, consider DNA, which is 2.3 nanometers wide, or LSD, one of the larger psychically active molecules, made up of some 50 atoms, which is about one nanometer across. The field is just emerging from the coalescing efforts of genetic engineers, chip manufacturers, and research scientists pushing around individual atoms with their scanning probe microscopes to make raked-gravel Japanese gardens with atoms and their electrons.

The key goal of nanotechnology is the creation of self replicating molecular systems that are not based on the mechanisms of DNA. The world envisioned includes completely liquid environments with massive processing and robotic capabilities. The equivalent of several thousand robotic Cray computers could operate in a space smaller than a blood cell. Materiality would be addressable atom by atom.

Several traditional fields are becoming molecular and more will soon join them. Computer chip manufacturers are beginning to toy with molecularly precise components. Dr. Robert Birge at Syracuse University is working in the lab – and in a start-up company – to create gigabyte memories smaller than sugar cubes using lasers to “read” and “write” stacks of closely packed molecules similar to the ones that register photons in our retinas. Drug manufacturers are using molecular modeling software to design molecules that might lock or unlock a number of proteins in an effort to more “rationally” develop new pharmaceuticals. Biology, and all its sub-domains in anthropology, ecology, forensics, medicine, and so on, have all resolved themselves to view the world with molecular precision.

Perhaps nanotechnology can best be understood as a fairly new set of memes with particularly dramatic material consequences. Our species has never experienced such a challenging opportunity; the potential for losing our evolutionary purchase on the planet is very real, as is the possibility of boldly carrying DNA to where no man – and no woman – has gone before. But this will only be possible, I feel, if we are able to substantially reconfigure major portions of human culture through a process of memetic engineering.

CTHEORY: Why is our future “memetic engineering?”

BC Crandall: The term “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976. A “meme” is a piece of patterned information carried and expressed by a human brain, just as a “gene” – which rhymes with meme – is a piece of patterned information carried and expressed by DNA. By taking in that last sentence, you become infected with the meme about memes. Memes are a new form of self-replicators, or viral life. They are atomic and molecular fragments of human “culture.” Memetics is very far from the “mimetic” judgment Plato passed on materiality – that it consists of poor imitations of “True Forms.” Memetics is the antithesis of metaphysics, insisting that matter matters. Felix Guattari performs a kind of memetic analysis when he argues that a wide range of heterogeneous machinic components lead to the production of contemporary subjectivities.

As material structures, memes are always on their way, transformationally, from medium to medium: speech vibrates air molecules that, if near an ear, enter the brain through the tuning forks of the inner ear and thus into more or less stable molecular patterns in the brain. Memes express themselves through the mouth, as words and song, through the hands – which have learned to use a growing range of signaling tools from paintbrush and keyboard to trumpet and fax machine – and through other “significant” gestures. Today, memes exploit the new media and travel as electronic and electromagnetic pulses and hibernate as magnetic patterns and as microscopic pits on laser-read compact disks.

Memetic engineering is the art of intentionally creating, nursing, annealing, and projecting an evolving matrix of these meat-based “ideas.” Memetic engineering can be found at the core of contemporary techno-corporate communication apparatuses as well as at the heart of Buddhist literature – wherever “effective means” are used to infect the flesh of a reader, listener, or viewer with a given meme. These processes of “teaching” and “learning” – intentional memetic transfer – generate “human” culture. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, “Memes are us.” To the extent that we participate in language, economics, history, or aesthetics, we inhabit a memetic realm. Using the energy of our living flesh to maintain, mutate, and express themselves, memes live in and through us. Their viral activity generates our hallucinated identities as “individuals.” You can identify the memes living in your flesh by inventorying your identities: If you call yourself “Christian,” “Marxist,” or “Postmodern” – or “Musician” or “Writer” – you do so because your body carries and expresses particular strains of memetic culture.

We are facing a crisis because the set of memes that can be identified as the ongoing technoscientific revolution is evolving with completely unprecedented success. Never before have the stories we’ve told each other about the world – the memes – had such capacity to rearrange the matter of the world. As the technological phylum discovers how to install itself as an evolving molecular presence, our animal survival depends on discovering the memes that we can live with. Without an effective methodology for discerning and modifying memetic forms our future looks quite bleak. Currently, the enacted consequences of the memes that we carry are causing the greatest reduction in species diversity on the planet of the past 60 million years. Leaking radioactive waste, lethal for hundreds of thousands of years, pockmark the “civilized” world. And soon we will face the prospects of genetically targeted molecular machine viroids!

As we “hack the future” with ever more powerful tools in our primate paws, we must continually re-engineer our memes so they inspire us to ever gentler action. Or perhaps another image – another meme – would be better, for we need to cultivate, nurture, and husband a garden of genetically beneficial memetic life forms.

CTHEORY: In your new book _Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance_, you claim that we stand at the “threshold of a molecular dawn.” Why do you think the future is molecular? And what will be some of key concrete results of the “molecular dawn”?

BC Crandall: Our future is molecular because if we do not take molecular care we will not be materially alive, and that brings all our fine conversations – political, philosophical, spiritual, economic – to a graceless halt. Conversely, if we can conjure up a skeleton key that will allow us to pass us through the molecular gate, and we find ourselves living amidst molecularly precise artifacts as cheap as dirt, the imagination of millennia – the madness and laughter of our species – will leap forth, generating incomprehensibly complex patterns of human becoming. Some of which, I imagine, may be quite enjoyable.

In the book, I present an historical argument that it is actually quite reasonable to anticipate the arrival of surprisingly powerful molecular machines in the next few decades. The contributed pieces in the book present technically sound speculations on several potential applications. These range from the blessedly mundane – diamond teeth – to “utility fog,” which would support you in an essentially liquid environment that could simulate almost any occurrence with full resolution at the limit of human sensory instrumentation. In fog, one might assume that every sensory impression would appear with a corporate logo in the lower right-hand corner. A suit of utility fog – while stimulating your senses – could carry you across the surface of the earth quite rapidly and, with a few modifications, could generate within its bulk a sufficient quantity of microscopic vacuum pockets to make the entire apparatus – with you inside – lighter than the atmosphere that it displaces; you’d bob up to the top of the atmosphere like a champagne cork released from the Titanic. Such a universal human-machine interface could act as a second skin and as the fundamental medium of “communities.” Those who share protoplasmic extensions of a given liquid envelopment – each “individual” a raisin in a digital tapioca pudding – could be in constant, broadband, full-body communication. (Parenthetically, the Latin-rooted “individual” is the etymological equivalent of the Greek-rooted “atom”; both mean “indivisible.”)

CTHEORY: You cofounded a computer company, Prime Arithmetics, in 1990. Is that related to your work with Molecular Realities?

BC Crandall: Prime is based on the mathematical research of my cofounder Jack LeTourneau, who has shown that there exists a unique isomorphism between the natural numbers under the operations of “primeth” and “times” and hierarchical structures under the operations of “encapsulate” and “merge at the root.” This discovery has allowed us to develop a family of arithmetic techniques that are particularly efficient for describing and manipulating object oriented data structures. These techniques, which have just recently been partially approved by the PTO [Patent and Trademark Office], have immediate applications – especially in the area of network-based computing, where a number of small digital “objects” are drawn into temporary assemblies as needed – and in the molecular world we will soon inhabit.

In particular, it’s clear that cellularization – the process of grouping molecular components into increasingly complexity assemblies – has provided DNA life with one of its most fundamental techniques for generating ever more capable life forms. An efficient method for modeling the aggregation and evolution of object-oriented systems will have value, I believe, as we begin to create molecular mechanical instanciations of artificial life forms. I also imagine that whatever “Global Algorithms” are used to effect the next transformations of the planet, they will need data structures and data-structure management mechanisms. Prime offers a mechanism that’s as universal and as “natural” as the natural numbers: zero, one, two, three, four, and so on.

CTHEORY: In Nanotechnology you state: “Nanotechnology poses a difficult question: What will we human primates do when some of us learn to manipulate matter as finely as the DNA and RNA molecules that encode our own material structure?” Now, we know that some of the early adopters of nanotechnology will be multinational drug companies who intend to apply to molecular engineering the same war-like strategies that they have already applied to the pre-nano world. Is nanotechnology doomed to recapitulate the often violent history of modern engineering, or does the possibility exist that memetic engineering may have a heretofore silent ecological ethic. In other words, is there a “Green nanotechnology?”

BC CRANDALL: There must be, or we will not long survive. Technology, as Heisenberg pointed out, is a fully natural phenomenon. He called it “a biological process on the largest scale.” If this is the case, it is not a question of managing *our* technology in a kinder gentler manner, but rather one of ridding the global orgasm that is shuddering its way across the planet. Our choices seem to be encouraging this thundering undulation in the direction of birthing a multitude of post-planetary, DNA-life colonies, or dully observing its crescendoing explosion in place – an event that I do not believe will be very hospitable for our delicate hominid flesh.

In the next few decades, with the development of nanotechnology, a window of opportunity will open, during which we will be able to use early applications of molecularly engineered materials to launch a multitude of substantial, ecologically self-sustaining – and primate supporting – ecosystems into the previously untenable ecological niche of space. These colonies would provide new homes for DNA with one essential characteristic: complete molecular separation from one another. While terrorism and stupidity are likely to remain serious challenges, the void of space would serve to separate the various attempts to generate viable memetic and genetic cultures with human-directed, molecularly precise interventions. If one colony failed, the whole game wouldn’t end. Currently, we know of only one molecularly interconnected DNA experiment: the Earth. For as long as we fail to multiply the instances where DNA life can continue its four and a half billion years’ exploration, we face an ever increasing risk that molecularly machined artifacts generated by one species of DNA life will accidentally destroy the planet’s capacity to support primates, and potentially its capacity to support all forms of DNA.

The “ecological ethic” inherent in nanotechnology emerges when we realize that it is indeed the end of the world as we know it. When groups of humans gather together – with the intention of forming self-sufficient, molecularly independent communities of DNA life with plans to leave the Earth at the earliest opportunity – it will be on the basis of an understanding that individual, bodily health and well being is utterly dependent on the ecological vitality of the place you call home, be it San Francisco, Berlin, Jakarta, or a centrifugally spinning necklace of Earth-life pods in near-Earth solar orbit. How such communities will form and the manner in which they will sustain themselves is the question that I am most interested in at this time. Clearly, this is fundamentally a question of memetic evolution.

Today, the deterritorializing memes of capitalism will continue to distract us from the primary pleasures of the meat – breathing, moving, eating, touching – with a growing blizzard of secondary representations, in an effort to constantly maximize return for the “owners.” In this storm of accelerating combinatoric culture, it is critical that those of us interested in surviving begin to practice some form of memetic annealing – a kind of cybercalisthenics for domesticated primates in reclining civilizations. The goal of annealing is simple: remember that “Everything you know is wrong,” or “The map is not the terrain,” or whatever aphorism stands in your matrix as the navel, the omphalos, the Klein-bottle point at which “you” disappear. While Buddhists and others have developed a wide range of activities to induce such an experience, the event itself is utterly natural: meat returning to meat. This saturnalia of the soul which deconstructs the dominant hallucination in a temporary conflagration allows one’s current set of memes to reorder their relationships. One is “reborn” – as yet another memetically infected ape.

Annealing becomes particularly important as we are ever more likely to find ourselves in molecularly altered states of consciousness. While certain psychedelics and alcohol are older than cities, most of us, including those of European decent, have had less than 400 years to adapt to the molecular intrusions of caffeine and nicotine on our brain meat. Prozac has been with us for only twenty-two years, and it passed a billion dollars in sales when it was only eighteen – the year Zoloft was born. Each of these molecular regimes, these post-modern material gods of consciousness, effect the beliefs and values – the memes – that guide our actions in the world. Avital Ronell’s image of receiving a “six-month girloid program” as a molecular implant, and Neal Stephenson’s questions, “‘Is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?’ – ‘What’s the difference?'”, point to the criticality of waking up to the material – the molecular – nature of the memes we each host.

Given this fundamental materiality, it is clear why memetic annealing always proceeds as an activity, a movement of the flesh. Whether the gross movements of dance or yoga, or the subtle movements of conscious breathing and mindful attention, annealing invites our meat to choose: what activity, what belief, what memes feel best for this meat right now? Nietzsche suggested that one sit as little as possible, and argued that we should “give no credence to any thought that was not born outdoors while one moved about freely.” By taking the fundamental creative act – drawing a distinction – and handing the baton to our breathing, feeling flesh, we just might be able to choose and construct memetic forms that will allow the dance of human and DNA life to continue.