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The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future

by W. Patrick McCray
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2012
366 pp., Trade, $29.95; eBook, $29.95
ISBN: 9780691139838; ISBN: 9781400844685.

Reviewed by Roger F Malina
University of Texas at Dallas and CNRS


I first became familiar with historian of science Patrick McCray through his 2004 book “Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology.” There, he chronicled the development of the increasingly large and complex instruments that have driven modern astronomy to a new era of big science and major new discoveries. In his 2008 book, “Keep “Watching the Skies!: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age,” he went on to describe how during the Space Race thousands of people across the planet seized the opportunity to participate in the start of the Space Age, creating a deep connection between popular culture and high technology. Known as the "Moonwatchers," these largely forgotten citizen-scientists helped professional astronomers by providing critical and otherwise unavailable information about the first satellites.  These books lay the groundwork for understanding how high technology and the popular imagination become joined at the hip, but also the emergence of a new kind of marketing of science.

In this new book “The Visioneers,”  McCray crisscrosses the same post-war historical period examining how a number of exceptional scientists or engineers with unusual promotion and marketing skills, managed to impose themselves on the landscape of government, corporate and university research with blends of futuristic promise and popular appeal. He begins by describing the work of Gerald O’Neill, advocate of orbiting space colonies as the new frontier for human colonisation. Within his entourage, the young engineer Eric Drexler went on to promote a utopian vision of nano-engineering and nano science that birthed large scale government funding; stoked by a wave of popular enthusiasm stoked by Drexler’s book “Engines of Creation,” by popular publications such as Guccione’s OMNI and the counter culture MONDO 2000, and by the work of Californian futurists, such as Stewart Brand. McCray chronicles the low and high points of these ‘movements, the appearance of other related groups such as those led by Ray Kurzweil and the work of Diamandis and the X Prize ( who went on together to create the Singularity University in Silicon Valley). He ends the book with a quote from J.D Bernal : “There are two futures, the future of desire and the future of fate, and man’s reason has never learned to separate them.” McCray closes with a rather techno-optimistic statement that “Technologies are ultimately tools we use to consciously construct our future rather than simply accepting fate… the choice between the future we want and the one we ultimately make is ours.”

“The Visioneers” benefits from McCray’s extensive use interviews with the remaining living personalities as well as to the archives of Gerald O’Neill, Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalogue, the Foresight Institute and other actors of the last 30 to 40 years. His research reveals the interlocking social networks between the California technological hotbeds, the counter and alternative cultures, the East Coast establishment institutions, and government advisory groups. There are winners and losers, and the process is not always pretty but reveals how much recent science and technology policy have relied on the appearance and promotion by succeeding ‘visioneers’ who use their techno-scientific credibility coupled with utopian marketing promise. In 1968 Brand in the first pages of the Whole Earth Catalog optimistically states: “ We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” The Visioneers take this challenge seriously.

Soon, some of the visioneers were accused of pseudoscience and developing what were essentially cults of true believers. McCray elaborates a more subtle argument that defines two emerging kinds of nano sciences, the one falling within a Popperian vision of techno-science espoused by Drexler and a more Kuhnian normative science rooted in chemistry and materials science. Where Drexler felt that his computer modelling of nano systems had the status of a theory that had to be falsifiable, refuted, or tested with technological experimentation whereas that espoused by researchers such as Richard Smalley were more incremental relying on scientific understanding and extrapolation. Smalley, one of the co discoverers of Buckminsterfullerene, went on to develop a well funded scientific empire whose goal was ‘the ability to arrange atoms into structures engineered on a nanometer scale.” Both types of nano-science continue to develop though Drexler himself became marginalised.

A key backdrop to The Visioneers is the parallel story of the “Spaceship Earth’ vision of a world constrained to limits of resources and technological solutions. The Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth” appeared in 1972 and provided a much more pessimistic argumentation, one that has been re-occupied with the current debate about climate change. O’Neill’s space colonies, Drexler’s nano-bots, and Kurzweil’s ‘singularity” can be understood in reaction to the more sober promoters of ‘sustainable societies’ that must live with limits and constraints. This is a deep debate that is embedded in the cultural imaginary, articulated in science fiction and popular culture. It is a debate that at its base is rarely amenable to reasoned discourse. As the world community has become more connected, the different ‘worldviews’ have, in effect, become disconnected from  each other; with the internet billionaires funding the visioneers, or even in the case of space tourism become visioneers themselves, and the advocates of sustainable development with their own counter-visioneers like U2’s Bono or Bill Gates. As shown by Bruno Latour and colleagues in the case of scientific controversies, the web enhances  the self-reinforcing nature of the advocacy groups. Space solar power and asteroid mining are not even on the radar of the “limits to growth’ advocates.; one group’s pseudo science and techno-catastrophism,  the other’s holy grail.

The Visioneers also captures the dramatic change in science policy management over the last 30 years. The time when a Vannevar Bush, and the inner circles of government could create a roadmap for future government science policy is long gone. It is no longer the time when a small group such as a Walt Disney, Charles Bonnestel and Werner Von Braun, and a receptive president could capture the popular imagination and launch a massive technoscience program; these processes are being replaced by massive social network movements and emerging media companies as likely to promote the end of the world as the cure for cancer. When Ray Kurzweil is appointed Director of Engineering for Google, the visioneers find themselves in a very different place.  When Edward Teller in 1983 convinced Reagan to launch the Star Wars initiative, it was the end of an era. Today scientists no longer sit at the president’s table but jockey for funding in line with other government priorities. Today the President of the European Research Council, Helga Nowotny, calls for a more ‘socially robust’ science that engages large scale public participation in its priority setting; the bruising policy battles over genetically modified organisms and climate change are evidence of a new science environment very different from those that was put in place immediately after the second world war. This new emerging landscape of science is one where the visioneers such as O Neill and Drexler will surely be seen as the first of a new generation of science marketeers who realise that science must be sold using all the tools of emerging media and popular culture and not just through smoked filled rooms of government science advisory boards.

Perhaps one final comment. In his Acknowledgements McCray notes funding for his research came in part from the UCSB Center for Nanotechnology in Society through a grant from the U.S National Science Foundation. The US National Nanotechnology Initiative has now spent over $350 million on  “How nanotechnology research and applications are introduced into society; how transparent decisions are; how sensitive and responsive policies are to the needs and perceptions of the full range of stakeholders; and how ethical, legal, and social issues are addressed will determine public trust and the future of innovation driven by nanotechnology.” In essence, McCray has been an ‘embedded historian’ working within one of the institutions whose task is to make real the promises made by the ‘visioneers’. This makes him both an informed observer but inevitably a participant ( I first met McCray at a workshop organised by UCSB  Center for Nanotechnology in Society).This approach to ‘impact of society’ through government funding within the research and implementation programs is perhaps one element of the socially robust science that Nowotny calls out for; perhaps the impact is perhaps homeopathic.

I recommend McCray’s The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future to all readers interested recent history of science in the making and, more generally, in the place of science in society. The marketing of science is entering a new era and many of the visioneers described by McCray may be seen as the first of a wave of new kind of figures in the history of science, both techno-scientists and visionary promoters.

Last Updated 1 January 2013

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