Saturday, December 13, 2003

Nano by any memes necessary

My friend David Pescovitz, Small Times writer and BoingBoing blogger, recently taught me the meaning of memes -- ideas that spread through popular culture like a virus. He tells me that nano is among one of the most virulent memes out there right now. In an upcoming Small Times magazine column, he even credits my blog with helping to keep tabs on the nano meme, particularly my posts on nanotech's appearances in kids' TV shows and video games. David also tells me that the way a meme reveals something about our culture's relationship to an idea is through its context, rather than its content. For example, when the nouveau-Luddite branch of the political left flings the n-word around it means one thing in a particular context to a particular audience, yet quite another to, say, this guy, who thinks it's all just another prefix for hucksters and spammers to sell their amazing organ-growing technology.

So, it is with memes on my mind that I look at the "NANO" T-shirts pictured above, sold by a new merchandiser called Emergants. These shirts obviously were designed by nanotech fans -- although I have a feeling they might not have considered that designing a logo so similar to NASA's might drag nano down to the level of "disaster waiting to happen."

Anyway, I asked Emergants co-founder Jeff McHugh what he was thinking, and here's some of what he said:

    I became interested in Nanotechnology after I read Ray Kurzweil's "The Age of Spiritual Machines." That book along with the writings of Drexler, Regis, Merkle, and others such as yourself opened my eyes to just how drastically nanotech will change our lives in the very near future.  So, I just always wanted a way to make the knowledge of nanotechnology less exclusive. I was never much of a writer, so I couldn't really go that route. I'd rather read stuff like yours. Somewhere along the line I started thinking about how else I could spread the word of this exciting new and revolutionary technology.

    My friends and I were always into the alternative rock scene in college and I always found people with common tastes in music by the T-shirts they wore. T-shirts always represented to me another means of finding people that I might have something in common with or could easily strike up conversation with. I was thinking along the same lines with the Nanotech shirts. Chris (my graphic designer, partner and roommate) and I are hoping to start a lot of new dialogue and give people a symbol to represent their interests in Nanotechnology. I know a lot of folks are against sensationalizing nanotechnology, but we believe that its a good thing to excite people about science and technology.
So, they may just be a couple of roommates who thought it'd be cool to sell "nano" T-shirts, but it also sounds to me like they truly "get it." They know how an idea can really get a foothold in society, and it's rarely through official channels. It's happening right now: Completely under the radar of the government, the nanobusiness community and, yes, most of the media that cover nanotechnology, there is an independent nanotech movement. It is composed of  tiny, autonomous cultural ideas and associations that are self-assembling, and even self-replicating, until eventually it will become so pervasive that it will be impossible to ignore.

And that's when those who represent nanotech interests in government, business and the media will finally look beyond their insular world of scientists, businesspeople and self-congratulatory speeches and prizes to see, much to their surprise, that nanotechnology became embedded in popular thought and mythology without any guidance from them. Depending upon the nature of the nano meme, the "official" nanotech community will either launch campaigns against it, or take credit for its existence.


Update: Just going through some old posts and noticed that the T-Shirt guys are MIA. Oh well. My main point still fits, I hope. -- HL 1/29/04

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