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Nanotechnology Before Nanotech was Cool

Updated on January 13, 2015

The Diamond Age

For many people, nanotechnology- the idea that we can manipulate things on a scale smaller than a billionth of a meter (a nanometer) is this wild new concept they found out about by watching "The Day the Earth Stood Still" or maybe a Discovery channel documentary a couple of years ago, or maybe just recently with "Transcendence" (which, despite all its other flaws, did a great job with the nanotech depictions). For me, though, this discovery happened in 1996 when I was asked to read "Th Diamond Age: A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer" by Neal Stephenson for a literature class in college.

Wow, professor. Excellent choice.

The Diamond Age was the winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards for 1995 (pretty much like saying "best science fiction book ever", or at least for a few years), and as such, we read it during the contemporary portion of "Modern Literature" at VCU. To say that I was blown away at the time does not adequately describe the mind-opening glimpse into the near future I got when I turned the pages.

First and foremost, Neal Stephenson described the mechanism by which nanotech worked in his incredible near-future world- materializers that made anything you wanted out of atoms, minuscule robots flying around and cleaning up the dust in the air, extremely small devices that would slice a person in half from the inside. In addition to the vivid descriptions of how the nanotech would work, Stephenson foretells:

  • Google Glass and other Heads Up Displays (HUDS) - he calls it he "phenomenoscope"
  • Virtual Reality (VR) and the Oculus Rift - they're called "ractives" in the book
  • The iPad and even more futuristic versions (everything is done on paper that starts out as simple 8.5 x 11 inch blank leaves, but becomes things as you talk to it)
  • Siri and Google voice recognition software

What's somewhat eerie is that all of the above are not only around today, but also commercially available to middle class Americans with a modest budget (I'd say Google Glass is the exception, but the price is rapidly dropping).

Nanotech pioneer Eric Drexler

Open your mind

Not only was my mind opened up by the possibility of all these technologies in the future, because Stephenson explains how each of them actually works, but other inventors and developers were inspired by The Diamond Age to create the products discussed. One vivid example of this is Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, who code-named the Amazon Kindle "Fiona" after one of the main characters in the book (and the Kindle itself is largely modeled after one of the aforementioned innovations in the novel).

If you're interested in the future like me (and you really should be), even if your'e not a technological evangelist the way I am, you should read The Diamond Age. Everyone has heard of Snow Crash, and it is truly one of the greatest sci-fi novels of all time, but The Diamond Age foretells the near future with a much higher degree of accuracy and descriptiveness that only Stephenson can deliver. 20 years later, his story is looking more and more like reality.

Snow Crash: A Novel
Snow Crash: A Novel

The classic, arguably the greatest science fiction novel of all time.


Nanotech today

Nanotechnology is, essentially, technology that takes place on the nanoscale, or the scale of a nanometer in dimension. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, which is... well, almost unimaginably tiny. It turns out that machinery actually works well at that scale- almost surprisingly well, as it goes much, much faster (by scale) than machinery at the scale of a meter. It also uses proportionally less energy, too.

Nanotech today is very much a work in progress, but devices are being built to travel around inside the human body, and machines with industrial capabilities seem to be in the very near future. There are innovations in the field virtually every single day, and the rate at which innovations are happening is itself accelerating.


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