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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Automation '50s : : Nanotech '00s

The state of nanotechnology today -- the bottom-up process of manufacturing by assembling atoms and molecules, first envisioned in 1959 by physicist Richard Feynman and more elaborately in 1986 by K. Eric Drexler -- resembles that of automation in the 1950s. Experts and novelists imagine "fantastical future possibilities" for nanotechnology (in the words of a Times reporter yesterday), while actual progress proceeds at a "more mundane" level.
Kenneth Chang, "Tiny is Beautiful: Translating 'Nano' into Practical," New York Times, 2/22/2005, natl. ed., D: 1-4.
For a fictional treatment of nanotechnology, I especially like Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer.

Among experts and novelists on automation in the 1950s, John Diebold, author of the classic Automation: The Advent of the Automatic Factory (1952), played the role of evangelist, while Kurt Vonnegut, who caught wind of "numerically controlled machine tools" while working as a publicist at General Electric, envisioned the darker side in his novel Player Piano, also published in 1952. (By the way, I'm not endorsing by linking to its records for these books, but its "search inside this book" tool is so useful.)

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