When William Gibson's sci-fi novel "Neuromancer" was published in 1984, it seized the popular imagination with a dazzling and dark new concept: "cyberpunk." Gibson's vision of a future society populated by noir characters that are both empowered and enslaved by cutting-edge technology crystallized the hopes and fears of the dawning "virtual reality" era.
Now, another form of technology -- nanotechnology -- is burrowing its way into art, literature, design, architecture and popular culture. It is searching for a set of metaphors to help illuminate it for a lay audience -- maybe even an ur-text like "Neuromancer" that would give it instant cultural cachet. So far, the leading candidate is Michael Crichton's scary bestseller "Prey," but you could just as easily go with "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," "Gulliver's Travels," Virginia Woolf's "The Waves" or maybe Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who!" Some even predict that a "nanopunk" aesthetic will replace "cyberpunk" as the futuristic flavor of the day.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 08, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
Nanotechnology exhibit -- In a Calendar article and photo caption on Dec. 22 about the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's exhibition on nanotechnology, a carbon-60 molecule was incorrectly described as "helical." It is actually a truncated icosahedron. The article also misquoted a phrase from a poem by William Blake. The correct phrase is: "To see a world in a grain of sand," not "To see eternity in a grain of sand," as the article stated.
That future is probably decades away. At present, nanoscience -- the manipulation of individual atoms to rearrange matter -- is practically as much theory as fact. But a just-opened exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is taking a bold first step into a brave new world where a handful of scientists, artists, architects and academics has begun swapping ideas about nanoscience and its potential to reshape art, language, human behavior and the way we perceive reality.
If LACMA's exhibit is difficult to describe in words, it's certainly timely. For roughly the last half a dozen years, the pop-culture buzz around nanoscience and nanotechnology has been slowly building. Eddie Bauer shoppers may be vaguely aware that their new "Nano-Care" cotton chinos have been treated at the molecular level to resist wrinkles and make it easy to sponge away pesky salad-dressing spills. Some cosmetics makers are using nano-engineering to develop sunscreens. Newspapers and magazines carry stories about microscopic machines that will scrape plaque from human arteries and course through our bodies, battling diseases.
Richard Feynman, the Caltech physicist credited with anticipating nanoscience in a famous 1959 speech, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," has become a cult figure. A cluster of sci-fi novels, including "Prey" and Greg Bear's "Blood Music" (1985), have imagined the consequences of nanotechnology run amok. Crichton's book spins out a blood-chilling scenario in which tiny self-replicating robots turn on mankind.
And in perhaps the most telling sign that nanoscience has penetrated public awareness, Congress is expected to soon send a bill to President Bush to launch the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office and authorize a $3.7-billion, four-year funding plan for research and development, according to a report in the New York Times.
"I think that people who write about nanoscience and nanotechnology emphasize its tremendous transformative potential, that this is a kind of science that has the potential to transform the conditions of everyday life," says N. Katherine Hayles, a UCLA English professor who helped put together the exhibit, which is simply called "nano" (from the Greek word for "dwarf").
That "transformative potential" is immediately obvious in the unusual nature of the exhibit itself. Museumgoers expecting displays of art "objects," each neatly summed up by a nearby wall didactic, are in for a shock. Instead, the installations are interactive, conceptual art pieces that give physical expression to what are still mainly abstractions. They are intended to suggest -- rather than to try to represent -- a world that is invisible to the naked eye. After all, how do you represent something that is one-billionth of a meter, or 1x10 (-9)? By comparison, a human hair is about 50,000 times thicker.
But while nanotechnology is more "a future possibility rather than present actuality," it already has become "a potent cultural signifier," according to a synopsis of a forthcoming collection of essays edited by Hayles, "NanoCulture: Implications of the New Technoscience." In one of those essays, Hayles writes that LACMA's exhibit "takes as its throughline the idea of scale intrinsic to nanotechnology and nanoscience, creating playful interactions designed to give visitors experiences suggestive of what it would be like to be a nanoparticle subject to quantum forces, wave/particle dualities, and atomic and molecular interactions."
That may sound daunting, but the exhibit is designed to be informal, nonintimidating and, well, fun. Imagine Alice falling down the rabbit hole and swigging back that bottle labeled "Drink Me," and you'll have some idea of the fanciful, mildly disorienting environments the designers wanted to create.