Eric Rabkin on Science Fiction and Perceptions of Nanotechnology

One of the enduring joys of attending a large research university or living in close proximity to one is the chance to attend public lectures and presentations by faculty or experts on topics that pique your interest but don’t necessarily fall inside your chosen specialty. The Michigan Nanotechnology Institute for Medicine and Biological Sciences hosted an inaugural symposium yesterday and today. I skipped yesterday’s event but decided to get out of bed early today to see Eric Rabkin talk about science fiction, science, and perceptions of technology.

Last year Rabkin won the Golden Apple award for best lecturer at the University of Michigan. I’ve seen him present twice to large audiences so far and can attest that the reward was well-deserved. Last time I saw him he was talking on myths and narratives about Mars. Today he discussed the interplay between science and popular culture.

Rabkin started his talk with a reminder of what Frankenstein, the novel, was really about. For Rabkin the story is a myth about power and community. The monster is abominable because he is created abnormally by Victor Frankenstein, out of the parts of cadavers instead of through the normal human reproductive process. When the unnamed monster asks Frankenstein to create a wife for the monster Frankenstein initially complies but later reneges, forcing the monster to take revenge. It is a science fiction warning against transgressing the normal boundaries of human community.

The message of science fiction to nanotechnologists and medical science is to be aware of the community in which they work. If they step outside of this community or act against its interests they will be punished. Rabkin presented some evidence for this conclusion from his Genre Evolution Project and an interesting paper on the lessons of science fiction for medicine.

Rabkin also presented some interesting data about the use of the phrase ‘science fiction’ in the media. A Lexis-Nexis search returns more results for the phrase from regular news stories than reviews of actual science fiction. Most of time the phrase is used in the form of “it’s not science fiction anymore”, where the it refers to whatever technological development the reporter is writing about.

Reporters overwhelmingly praise nanotechnology and progress. This creates a disconnect between the fear of science in popular culture and the news. Science fiction stories such as Prey by Michael Crichton express this fear. Negotiating this dichotomy is crucial to the perception of nanotechnology by the public.

Rabkin cited a recent story by Niall Ferguson at Time magazine called “The Nation that Fell to Earth.” The story sets up a frame of looking back at 911 from the year 2031. In the 4000 word story almost 3700 words are used to talk about the years 2001-2006. The rest of the story mentions two technological breakthroughs that help the United States triumph in the future: the first is improved energy sources, and the second is surveillance technology that allows the government to keep tabs on those bad Islamofascists that might wish us harm.

Rabkin read the sentence aloud to the audience and there was a moment of silent disbelief and shock. Here were a bunch of people who are developing the technology that some of our media elite think will be the foundation of a surveillance state. The perception and use of the technology is still up for grabs.