Engines of Creation, K. Eric Drexler

Anchor, 1986, 298 pages, C$13.95 tpb, ISBN 0-385-19973-2

(Also available online at http://www.foresight.com/EOC/)

Read enough reviews, and you’ll inevitably come a review lamenting a bad book by referring to trees cut down senselessly. Far less often, however, will you find the opposite opinion. Given the environmentalist thinking of the past decades, it seems vaguely heretical -or at least very uncomfortable-, to actually suggest that dead trees were justified.

Engines of Creation is the type of book that not only inspires this kind of devoted following bordering on fanaticism, but also includes the intellectual rationale to stop feeling guilty about it. Simply put; if what Engines of Creation proposes becomes true, we’ll be able to give back to nature what we’ve taken from it—with compound interest.

Heady assertion, but the book is that convincing. Let’s review the basic argument: We will eventually develop tools and techniques to manipulate matter at the atomic level. It’s not even a new technique; biology is, after all, the domain of this kind of manipulation.

Drexler spins this argument through its logical implications: We’ll be able to manufacture literally anything for a ridiculous cost. We’ll be able to build better immunological systems for our bodies. We’ll be able to feed, clothe and house everyone while simultaneously ending our dependence on natural resources. Limits to growth? Imperceptible.

Optimistic previsions are often harder to believe than the standard doom-and-gloom prophecies. That’s probably why Engines of Creation is a meticulously constructed argument. Drexler begins by explaining the drivers of change and the roots of projection. He warns about the wrong ideas polluting our mental landscape and then hammers down the counter-idea to the widely-held belief that there are absolute limits to our growth.

Engines of Creation is an invigorating book. It shows us a possible future that’s simply too good to miss. It’s also the kind of book that creates not only fans, but believers.

But it’s a mistake to assumer that Drexler’s opinion of nanotechnology is unqualifiedly positive. In fact, he spends most of the book discussing the horrors of nanotechnology run amok and the ways to ensure that it stays firmly under control. He’s as terrified of nanotech as anyone else, maybe because he understands it so much. Drexler, however, isn’t a doomsayer. He acknowledges the problems, but also proposes reasonable theoretical solutions.

This book is a joy to read for its clear writing style and the wealth of ideas blossoming from its pages. Beyond being the manifesto for the nanotech crowd, Engines of Creation is also a powerful book on the philosophy of science and technology, as well as a good volume of anticipation writing.

But beyond the optimistic outlook and the limpid writing, is Engines of Creation credible? Scientific non-fiction books usually have a very short shelf life: Before anyone knows it, science has progressed further and the fixed content of a book becomes obsolete. It’s fascinating to see that even though Engines of Creation was written in 1985, there only one obsolete chapter in the whole book. It’s even more interesting to realize that it’s the most convincing chapter: It talks about the Internet, predicting quite accurately the rise of global communication in scientific research and the wonderful possibilities raised by the cross-linking of texts. “It might even become addictive” warns Drexler. Little did he knew. If he was right about that, what about the remainder of the book?

It’s hard to over-praise Engines of Creation given its enormous cult following and the wonderful possibilities offered by the book. Suffice to say that it should be recommended reading for everyone. If there is even only a slight possibility that some of Engines of Creation becomes true, then we all need to be prepared for what’s coming up.

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