FLS: Patrick McCray: From Space Colonies to Nanobots to Xanadu

Event Date: 

Thursday, December 3, 2009 - 12:00pm

Event Location: 

  • Engineering Sciences Building 1001

From Space Colonies to Nanobots to Xanadu: California’s Technological Enthusiasts, 1970-1990

The idea that America and other industrialized societies faced limits to their power and future economic growth helped define the 1970s. While scientists and free-market economists criticized this perspective, these Malthusian views stimulated fierce debate about the need to adopt a steady-state lifestyle. "Limits" to resources, energy, wealth, even life itself - became a staple theme for movies, television shows and fiction.
This motif of impending doomsday, however, was only one possible vision of the future that emerged in the late 1970s. This talk explores alternative and competing visions of the technological future - much of it originating from California - that was just as widely debated in the 1970s and 1980s.
During this time, futuristic technologies such as space colonization, nanotechnology, and early internet-based commerce captured the public's imagination. These California-based, pro-technology movements also stimulated the creation of privately funded research institutes and investment from high-tech entrepreneurs. Whereas utopian crusaders of the nineteenth century were inspired by a broad wish to perfect society, the technological visionaries my talk examines were also motivated by a desire to make a fortune and overcome inherent biological limits. By examining the political and social context of several exploratory technologies and the communities of the scientists, technologists, and futurists who advocated them, a clearer understanding of how we view modern technological utopias emerges.