Eugene Thacker on 31 Dec 2000 19:22:49 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] Nanomedicine talk

Molecules That Matter: Nanomedicine & the Advent of Programmable Matter

Eugene Thacker

[Talk given at the Modern Language Association/MLA convention,
Washington D.C., 27-30 December 2000]

1. Music in the Blood

I'd like to start talking about the large-scale effects of the very
small, and I'd like to begin with science fiction. In Greg Bear's 1983
short story "Blood Music," Virgil Ulam, a nerdy biochemist working on
engineered protein-silicon biochips, takes his research to the extremes
of self-experimentation, injecting the "intelligent" biochips into his
white blood cells. The biochips begin to integrate themselves into his
biological system, improving everything from his metabolism, to his
skeletal structure, even to his sexual performance. As Ulam confides to
a friend, "I'm being rebuilt from the inside out." 

However, the biochips' ability to adapt and improve their own complexity
leads to some horrifying results. Ulam continues: "then one night my
skin started to crawl...I wondered what they'd do when they crossed the
blood-brain barrier and found out about me - about the brain's real

In the biochips' programmed endeavor to improve and complexify
themselves, Ulam's body shifts from being an improved human anatomy to
something very nonhuman. As the narrator puts it at the story's end: 

"In hours, our legs expanded and spread out. Then extensions grew to the
windows to take sunlight, and to the kitchen to take water from the
sink. Filaments soon reached to all corners of the room...I suspect we
resemble cells." The story closes with a giant question mark as to the
fate of "the human" as it is subjected to highly sophisticated
biomolecular technologies.

I wanted to bring up "Blood Music" because it expresses several
anxieties surrounding the ways in which our bodies may be transformed by
fields such as nanotechnology. On one level, the very idea of
technically integrating DNA or proteins with silicon microchips
represents an uneasy fusion of bodies and technologies, flesh and
machine, a discomfort concerning the unpredictability of these novel
hybrids: unstable media. In addition, these modifications of the
body-technology relationship are predicated on the ability to program
and control life at the molecular level - something that has been a
technical mainstay of molecular biology for some time.

Nanotechnology - the control of matter at the atomic level - is, like
biotechnology, a research field which promises a disease-free,
biologically-upgraded, posthuman future. But it is also a set of
practices which may transform our notions of what it means to have a
body, and to be a body. Nanotechnology works towards what one researcher
has called the "general capability for molecular engineering to
structure matter atom by atom." 

2. Nanomedicine / Nanotechnology

In 1959, physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman presented a talk
at CalTech entitled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." In this talk
Feynman speculated that, with the technological drive towards
miniaturization, it was possible to build machines which would construct
replicas of themselves at incrementally smaller scales, eventually
reaching the level at which individual atoms could be controlled. 

However, it wasn't until the early 1980s that a defined discipline
around this vision of engineering at the atomic level was formed. Eric
Drexler's book The Engines of Creation, put forth an ambitious program
for what he variously called "molecular engineering" or nanotechnology.
Put briefly, a nano-meter is one billionth of a meter, or six carbon
atoms wide. In contrast to what Drexler called "bulk technology," or
modes of technological production which handled matter en masse, a
nanotechnology would work in a "bottom-up" fashion, focusing on the
precision control of the individual atoms that compose matter.
Nanotechnology broadly aims to be able to control, engineer, and design
matter at this level - the very building blocks of the material world,
as it were. As Drexler points out, "molecules matter because matter is
made of molecules, and everything from air to flesh to spacecraft is
made of matter." 

In his book, Drexler outlined the types of nano-scale devices - or
"nanomachines" - that would have to be constructed. As we know, atoms
interact with each other with varying forces and stabilities, composing
larger aggregates, or molecules, which then function in diverse ways as
organic or non-organic matter. The technologies needed for design and
engineering at this level would themselves operate at this level,
somewhat like a tiny Tinker-Toy constructions. These include
"assemblers," or nanomachines whose primary function is to assemble
atoms into molecules, "replicators," or nanosystems whose goal is to
make copies of themselves, and "nanocomputers," or basic computational
devices constructed out of molecules and atoms. Drexler also outlined
the basis for a medical application of nanotechnology, what Robert
Freitas has termed "nanomedicine." As a specialized field within
nanotechnology, nanomedicine works toward bodily repair and even
enhancement through the use of engineered, in vivo probes and sensors
that would operate, in a semi-permanent fashion, within the body.
Freitas has published the first technical paper in nanomedicine for the
"respirocyte," or artificial red blood cells that are capable of
advanced filtering and diagnostics.

In the past 5 to 8 years, nanotechnology research has produced some
significant results, many of them within the domain of nanomedicine.
This is partly due to the development of new instruments for positioning
and visualizing atoms, and it is also due to an influx of research
funding. For instance, in 1990 researchers at IBM succeeded in spelling
out the company's name by positioning 35 xenon atoms; in the early
1990s, researchers at Japan's NEC constructed nano-scale wires out of
carbon atoms, which were shown to successfully conduct electricity; and,
just this past summer, a team at Bell Labs in New Jersey was able to
construct a molecular "motor" out of DNA. 

As Drexler and other proponents are aware, the implications of
nanotechnology are far-reaching. If it's possible to obtain precision
control over matter at the atomic level, then it's possible, quite
literally, to make almost anything. Drexler has prophesized a coming era
of global abundance, affecting manufacturing, information technologies,
health and medicine, the environment, and defense. Such grandiose claims
were undoubtedly part of what sparked the government's interest as well.
This past year, President Clinton publicly endorsed a $500 million
National Nanotechnology Initiative. The Initiative's report is
subtitled, "leading the way to the next industrial revolution."

3. From Proteins to Nanomachines

A curious thing to note however, is that, despite nanotechnology's
pervasive rhetoric of industrialism, the actual inspiration for the
field comes not from electronics or information technologies, but from
molecular biology. 

In a 1981 technical article presented to the National Academy of
Science, Drexler shows how protein production in the cell provides a
jumping-off point for the development of more sophisticated means of
controlling matter at the atomic level. For Drexler, protein production
in the living cell provides what is referred to as the "proof of
concept" of nanotechnology: that the ribosome in the cell provides us
with an example from nature that molecular-scale control and engineering
is indeed possible. 

Yet, what begins as an inquiry into the molecular systems of protein
production, ends up as a program for a miniaturized industrial factory.
Writing some ten years later in his book Unbounding the Future,
Drexler's vision of nanotechnology is markedly different:

"Nanotechnology will be a technology of new molecular machines, of gears
and shafts and bearings that move and work with parts shaped in accord
with the wave equations at the foundations of natural law."

In this research which begins by discussing protein production in the
cell, Drexler eventually moves towards a machine-view of the analogies
between microbiological components and industrial technologies: thus RNA
acts as a kind of conveyor belt, enzymes acts as clamps, ribosomes act
as construction sites, microtubules as struts and beams, and DNA as a
storage device. This is not exclusively a linguistic shift, but it is a
technical shift as well, affecting the kinds research practices which
are developed.

What is important to note here is that this shift from proteins to
nanomachines is also a shift from living to non-living matter, from
bodies to technologies. Nanotechnology researchers are explicit about
their interests in the instrumental character of being able to structure
matter at the atomic level. As Drexler states, "improved molecular
machinery should no more surprise us than alloy steel being ten times
stronger than bone, or copper wires transmitting signals a million times
faster than nerves." 

In this sense nanotechnology is indeed a new type of industrialism: it
adopts the conventional position of developing techniques for working
upon the natural world, including the human body. Nanotechnology is not
so much interested in being able to artificially produce proteins, but
it is rather invested in the production of protein-designing machines.
At issue here is design, and the relationship of design to the
materiality of the body.

4. Programmable Matter

What makes such a position possible for nanotechnology is a view of the
material world that resembles a kind of atomistic reductionism. Speaking
about the medical benefits of nanotechnology, Drexler puts it plainly: 

"The ill, the old, and the injured all suffer from misarranged patterns
of atoms, whether misarranged by invading viruses, passing time, or
swerving cars. Devices able to rearrange atoms will be able to set them right."

What is the body in nanomedicine? The body is a particularized
"arrangement of atoms" which has the macro-scale effect of being
designated as healthy, normal, or diseased. The body is thus like any
object - a complex aggregate of atoms that participates in the
universalized composition of matter. In such an instance, bodily disease
becomes an error in molecular construction, and the nanomedical use of
in vivo probes and sensors becomes a three-dimensional
pattern-recognition system. Writing about nanomedicine, Robert Freitas
reiterates this view:

"...nanomedicine phenomenologically regards the human body as an
intricately structured machine with trillions of complex, interacting
parts, with each part subject to individual scrutiny, repair, and
possibly replacement by artificial technological means."

Nanomedicine - and nanotechnology generally - are thus predicated on a
view of the body that is open to the interventions of medical design and
engineering at the molecular level. The body becomes what we might call
"programmable matter"; a materiality characterized by a constructionist
logic, and a total mutability induced through the intersection of
molecular biology and mechanical engineering.

But is there not something highly contradictory about nanomedicine's
view of matter in this instance? In other words, in the move away from
living to non-living matter, from proteins to nanomachines, does not
nanomedicine undermine it's claim for the universality of matter?

The challenge put to nanomedicine is this: In order for a nanomachine
such as an in vivo respirocyte to operate diagnostically, researchers
must have a sense of a clear difference between the in vivo nanoprobe
and the blood cells whose concentration it measures. In other words, for
nanotechnology to operate instrumentally, a distance must be established
between technology and its object. Yet, because nanomedicine involves
the use of engineered nanomachines operating inside the living body,
possibly in a permanent or semi-permanent way, the nanomachines must be
able to successfully integrate themselves into the body's molecular surround.

The result is that nanomedicine requires the incorporation of 
medical technologies into the biological body as self, so that 
those technologies can operate instrumentally as not-self. This is a 
dual strategy of being able to precisely control matter, and also 
being able to absorb its benefits in vivo.

Drexler's original move from proteins to nanomachines, from the
biological to the technological, seems to present us with a
contradiction, or at least a tension, in how matter is defined in the
medical application of nanotechnology. Either matter is a universal,
effacing the macro-scale distinctions between living and non-living
matter, or matter is highly differentiated and heterogeneous, in which
there may even be incommensurabilities between living and non-living
matter. While the former view provides us with a world that is
constructed from a universal set of components, the latter view provides
a distancing-effect with which to approach that world instrumentally.

5. Posthuman Bodies

In this way nanotechnology is an example of the privileging of a
technological domain through the contradictory regulation of the
boundary between living and non-living matter.

As proponents of nanotechnology have speculated, the applications for
medicine could include everything from cell and tissue repair, to smart
drugs, to cryonics and anti-aging techniques, opening the way to a
posthuman future of biomolecular design.

It is in this notion of the body as programmable matter that
nanotechnology will come up against some of its greatest challenges. As
a still-developing field, the line dividing medical healing and
biomolecular design is generally underexamined in nanotechnology. With
the promises and the research pointing to a so-called new industrial
revolution, nanotechnology will have to confront the tensions between a
total control of the material world, and the radical transformations
which such control will bring about.


Greg Bear. "Blood Music." Visions of Wonder. Ed. David Hartwell and
Milton Wolf. New York: Tor, 1996.

Drexler, Eric. Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology.
New York: Doubleday, 1986.

---. "Molecular Engineering: An Approach to the Development of General
Capabilities for Molecular Manipulation." Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA
78:9 (September 1981): 5275-5278.

Drexler, Eric, Chris Peterson, and Gayle Pergamit. Unbounding the
Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution. New York: 1991, <>.

Feynman, Richard. "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." Engineering
and Science (February 1960).

Freitas, Robert. "A Mechanical Artificial Red Cell: Exploratory Design
in Medical Nanotechnology (Respirocytes)." Foresight Institute: <>.

---. Nanomedicine. Volume I: Basic Capabilities. New York: Landes
Bioscience, 1999.

National Science and Technology Council. "National Nanotechnology
Initiative: Leading to the Next Industrial Revoultion." Supplement to
the President's FY 2001 Budget (February 2000): <>.

Soreff, Jeffrey. "Recent Progress: Steps Toward Nanotechnology." IMM
Report 19 (October 2000): <>.


Eugene Thacker
Pgrm. in Comparative Literature, Rutgers Univ.

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You Wholesale" @ Machine Times (DEAF_00,
V2 book,

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"The Post-Genomic Era Has Already Happened"
@ Biopolicy Journal <>

"SF, Technoscience, The Politics 
of Extrapolation" @ Art Journal 59:3 

"Point-and-Click Biology: Why Programming is
the Future of Biotech" @ MUTE (Issue 17 - archives


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