The Hybrid Breeding of Nanomedia

Renata Lemos Morais



If human beings have become a geophysical force, capable of impacting the very crust and atmosphere of the planet, and if geophysical forces become objects of study, presences able to be charted over millions of years—one of our many problems is a 'naming' problem.
                   - Bethany Nowviskie

The anthropocene "denotes the present time interval, in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities" (S.Q.S.). Although the narrative and terminology of the anthropocene has not been officially legitimized by the scientific community as a whole, it has been adopted worldwide by a plethora of social and cultural studies. The challenges of the anthropocene demand interdisciplinary efforts and actions. New contexts, situations and environments call for original naming propositions: new terminologies are always illegitimate at the moment of their first appearance in the world.

Against the background of the naming challenges of the anthropocene, we will map the emergence and tell the story of a tiny world within the world of media studies: the world of the term 'nanomedia' and its hyphenated sister 'nano-media'. While we tell the story of the uses of this term, its various meanings and applications, we will provide yet another possible interpretation and application to the term, one that we believe might be helpful to interdisciplinary media studies in the context of the anthropocene.

 Contemporary media terminologies are usually born out of fortuitous exchanges between communication technologies and their various social appropriations: hypodermic media, interactive media, social media, and so on and so forth. These terminologies are either recognised as the offspring of legitimate scientific endeavours by the media theory community, or are widely discredited and therefore rendered illegitimate. Scientific legitimacy comes from the broad recognition and embrace of a certain term and its inclusion in the canon of an epistemology. Illegitimate processes of theoretical enquiry and the study of the kinds of deviations that might deem a theory unacceptable have been scarcely addressed (Delborne). Rejected terminologies and theories are marginalised and gain the status of bastard epistemologies of media, considered irrelevant and unworthy of mention and recognition.

Within these margins, however, different streams of media theories which involve conceptual hybridizations can be found: creole encounters between high culture and low culture (James), McLuhan's hybrid that comes from the 'meeting of two media' (McLuhan 55), or even 'bastard spaces' of cultural production (Bourdieu). Once in a while a new media epistemology arises that is categorised as a bastard not because of plain rejection or criticism, but because of its alien origins, formations and shape. New theories are currently emerging out of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary thinking which are, in many ways, bearers of strange features and characteristics that might render its meaning elusive and obscure to a monodisciplinary perspective. Radical transdisciplinary thinking is often alien and alienated. It results from unconventional excursions into uncharted territories of enquiry: bastard epistemologies arise from such exchanges.

Being itself a product of a mestizo process of thinking, this article takes a look into the term nanomedia (or nano-media): a marginal terminology within media theory. This term is not to be confounded with the term biomedia, coined by Eugene Thacker (2004). (The theory of biomedia has acquired a great level of scientific legitimacy, however it refers to the moist realities of the human body, and is more concerned with cyborg and post-human epistemologies. The term nanomedia, on the contrary, is currently being used according to multiple interpretations which are mostly marginal, and we argue, in this paper, that such uses might be considered illegitimate). ’Nanomedia’ was coined outside the communications area. It was first used by scientific researchers in the field of optics and physics (Rand et al), in relation to flows of media via nanoparticles and optical properties of nanomaterials. This term would only be used in media studies a couple of years later, with a completely different meaning, without any acknowledgment of its scientific origins and context. The structure of this narrative is thus illegitimate, and as such does not fit into traditional modalities of written expression: there are bits and pieces of information and epistemologies glued together as a collage of nano fragments which combine philology, scientific literature, digital ethnography and technology reviews.


Illegitimate theories might be understood in terms of hybrid epistemologies that intertwine disciplines and perspectives, rendering its outcomes inter or transdisciplinary, and therefore prone to being considered marginal by disciplinary communities. Such theories might also be considered illegitimate due to social and political power struggles which aim to maintain territory by reproducing specific epistemologies within a certain field. Scientific legitimacy is a social and political process, which has been widely addressed. Pierre Bourdieu, in particular, has dedicated most of his work to deciphering the intricacies of academic wars around the legitimacy or illegitimacy of theories and terminologies. Legitimacy also plays a role in determining the degree to which a certain theory will be regarded as relevant or irrelevant:

Researchers’ tendency to concentrate on those problems regarded as the most important ones (e.g. because they have been constituted as such by producers endowed with a high degree of legitimacy) is explained by the fact that a contribution or discovery relating to those questions will tend to yield greater symbolic profit (Bourdieu 22).

Exploring areas of enquiry which are outside the boundaries of mainstream scientific discourses is a dangerous affair. Mixing different epistemologies in the search for transversal grounds of knowledge might result in unrecognisable theories, which are born out of a combination of various processes of hybridisation: social, technological, cultural and material.

Material mutations are happening that call for new epistemologies, due to the implications of current technological possibilities which might redefine our understanding of mediation, and expand it to include molecular forms of communication. A new terminology that takes into account the scientific and epistemological implications of nanotechnology applied to communication [and that also go beyond cyborg metaphors of a marriage between biology and cibernetics] is necessary. Nanomedia and nanomediations are the terminologies proposed in this article as conceptual tools to allow these further explorations. Nanomedia is here understood as the combination of different nanotechnological mediums of communication that are able to create and disseminate meaning via molecular exchange and/ or assembly. Nanomediation is here defined as the process of active transmission and reception of signs and meaning using nanotechnologies. These terminologies might help us in conducting interdisciplinary research and observations that go deeper into matter itself and take into account its molecular spaces of mediation - moving from metaphor into pragmatics.


Within the humanities, the term 'nano-media' was first proposed by Mojca Pajnik and John Downing, referring to small media interventions that communicate social meaning in independent ways. Their use of term 'nano-media' proposes to be a revised alternative to the plethora of terms that categorise such media actions, such as alternative media, community media, tactical media, participatory media, etc. The metaphor of smallness implied in the term nano-media is used to categorise the many fragments and complexities of political appropriations of independent media. Historical examples of the kind of 'nano' social interferences listed by Downing (2),

include the flyers (Flugblätter) of the Protestant Reformation in Germany; the jokes, songs and ribaldry of François Rabelais’ marketplace ... the internet links of the global social justice (otromundialista) movement; the worldwide community radio movement; the political documentary movement in country after country.

John Downing applies the meaning of the prefix nano (coming from the Greek word nanos - dwarf), to independent media interventions. His concept is rooted in an analysis of the social actions performed by local movements scattered around the world, politically engaged and tactically positioned. A similar, but still unique, proposition to the use of the term 'nano-media' appeared 2 years later in the work of Graham St John (442):

If ‘mass media’ consists of regional and national print and television news, ‘niche media’ includes scene specific publications, and ‘micro media’ includes event flyers and album cover art (that which Eshun [1998] called ‘conceptechnics’), and ‘social media’ refers to virtual social networks, then the sampling of popular culture (e.g. cinema and documentary sources) using the medium of the programmed music itself might be considered nano-media.

Nano-media, according to Graham St John, "involves the remediation of samples from popular sources (principally film) as part of the repertoire of electronic musicians in their efforts to create a distinct liminalized socio-aesthetic" (St John 445). While Downing proposes to use the term nano-media as a way to "shake people free of their obsession with the power of macro-media, once they consider the enormous impact of nano-technologies on our contemporary world" (Downing 1), Graham St John uses the term to categorise media practices specific to a subculture (psytrance).

Since the use of the term 'nano-media' in relation to culture seems to be characterised by the study of marginalised social movements, portraying a hybrid remix of conceptual references that, if not completely illegitimate, would be located in the border of legitimacy within media theories, I am hereby proposing yet another bastard version of the concept of nanomedia (without a hyphen).  Given that neither of the previous uses of the term 'nano-media' within the discipline of media studies take into account the technological use of the prefix nano, it is time to redefine the term in direct relation to nanotechnologies and communication devices.

Let us start by taking a look at nanoradios. Nanoradios are carbon nanotubes connected in such a way that when electrodes flow through the nanotubes, various electrical signals recover the audio signals encoded by the radio wave being received (Service). Nanoradios are examples of the many ways in which nanotechnologies are converging with and transforming our present information and communication technologies. From molecular manufacturing (Drexler) to quantum computing (Deutsch), we now have a wide spectrum of emerging and converging technologies that can act as nanomedia - molecular structures built specifically to act as communication devices.


Beyond literal attempts to replicate traditional media artifacts using nanotechnologies, we find deep processes of mediation which are being called nanocommunication (Hara et al.) - mediation that takes place through the exchange of signals between molecules:

Nanocommunication networks (nanonetworks) can be used to coordinate tasks and realize them in a distributed manner, covering a greater area and reaching unprecedented locations. Molecular communication is a novel and promising way to achieve communication between nanodevices by encoding messages inside molecules. (Abadal & Akyildiz)

Nature is nanotechnological. Living systems are precise mechanisms of physical engineering: our molecules obey our DNA and fall into place according to biological codes that are mysteriously written in our every cell. Bodies are perfectly mediated - biological systems of molecular communication and exchange. Humans have always tried to emulate or to replace natural processes by artificial ones. Nanotechnology is not an exception. Many nanotechnological applications try to replicate natural systems, for example: replicas of nanostructures found in lotus flowers are now being used in waterproof fabrics, nanocrystals, responsible for resistance of cobwebs, are being artificially replicated for use in resistant materials, and various proteins are being artificially replicated as well (NNI 05).

In recent decades, the methods of manipulation and engineering of nano particles have been perfected by scientists, and hundreds of nanotechnological products are now being marketed. Such nano material levels are now accessible because our digital technologies were advanced enough to allow scientific visualization and manipulation at the atomic level. The Scanning Tunneling Microscopes (STMs), by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer (1986), might be considered as the first kind of nanomedia devices ever built. STMs use quantum-mechanical principles to capture information about the surface of atoms and molecules, allowed digital imaging and visualization of atomic surfaces.

Digital visualization of atomic surfaces led to the discovery of buckyballs and nanotubes (buckytubes), structures that are celebrated today and received their names in honor of Buckminster Fuller. Nanotechnologies were developed as a direct consequence of the advancement of digital technologies in the fields of scientific visualisation and imaging.  Nonetheless, a direct causal relationship between nano and digital technologies is not the only correlation between these two fields. Much in the same manner in which digital technologies allow infinite manipulation and replication of data, nanotechnologies would allow infinite manipulation and replication of molecules.

Nanocommunication could be as revolutionary as digital communication in regards to its possible outcomes concerning new media. Full implementation of the new possibilities of nanomedia would be equivalent or even more revolutionary than digital networks are today. Nanotechnology operates at an intermediate scale at which the laws of classical physics are mixed to the laws of quantum physics (Holister). The relationship between digital technologies  and nanotechnologies is not just instrumental, it is also conceptual. We might compare the possibilities of nanotechnology to hypertext: in the same way that a word processor allows the expression of any type of textual structure, so nanotechnology could allow, in principle, for a sort of "3-D printing" of any material structure.

Nanotechnologies are essentially media technologies. Nanomedia is now a reality because digital technologies made possible the visualization and computational simulation of the behavior of atomic particles at the nano level. Nanomachines that can build any type of molecular structure by atomic manufacturing could also build perfect replicas of themselves. Obviously, such a powerful technology offers medical and ecological dangers inherent to atomic manipulation. Although this type of concern has been present in the global debate about the social implications of nanotechnology, its full implications are yet not entirely understood. A general scientific consensus seems to exist, however, around the idea that molecules could become a new type of material alphabet, which, theoretically, would make possible the reconfiguration of the physical structures of any type of matter using molecular manufacturing. Matter becomes digital through molecular communication.

Although the uses given to the term nano-media in the context of cultural and social studies are merely metaphorical - the prefix nano is used by humanists as an allegorical reference of a combination between 'small' and 'contemporary' - once the technological and scientifical realities of nanomedia present themselves as a new realm of mediation, populated with its own kind of molecular devices, it will not be possible to ignore its full range of implications anymore. A complexifying media ecosystem calls for a more nuanced and interdisciplinary approach to media studies.


This article narrates the different uses of the term nanomedia as an illustration of the way in which disciplinarity determines the level of legitimacy or illegitimacy of an emerging term. We then presented another possible use of the term in the field of media studies, one that is more closely aligned with its scientific origins. The importance and relevance of this narrative is connected to the present challenges we face in the anthropocene. The reality of the anthropocene makes painfully evident the full extent of the impact our technologies have had in the present condition of our planet's ecosystems. For as long as we refuse to engage directly with the technologies themselves, trying to speak the language of science and technology in order to fully understand its wider consequences  and implications, our theories will be reduced to fancy metaphors and aesthetic explorations which circulate around the critical issues of our times without penetrating them.

The level of interdisciplinarity required by the challenges of the anthropocene has to go beyond anthropocentrism. Traditional theories of media are anthropocentric: we seem to be willing to engage only with that which we are able to recognise and relate to. Going beyond anthropocentrism requires that we become familiar with interdisciplinary discussions and perspectives around common terminologies so we might reach a consensus about the use of a shared term. For scientists, nanomedia is an information and communication technology which is simultaneously a tool for material engineering. For media artists and theorists, nano-media is a cultural practice of active social interference and artistic exploration. However, none of the two approaches is able to fully grasp the magnitude of such an inter and transdisciplinary encounter: when communication becomes molecular engineering, what are the legitimate boundaries of media theory? If matter becomes not only a medium, but also a language, what would be the conceptual tools needed to rethink our very understanding of mediation? Would this new media epistemology be considered legitimate or illegitimate?

Be it legitimate or illegitimate, a new media theory must arise that challenges and overcomes the walls which separate science and culture, physics and semiotics, on the grounds that it is a transdisciplinary change on the inner workings of media itself which now becomes our vector of epistemological and empirical transformation. A new media theory which not only speaks the language of molecular technologies but that might be translated into material programming, is the only media theory equipped to handle the challenges of the anthropocene.


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nanomedia, media theory, nanotechnology

Copyright (c) 2014 Renata Lemos Morais

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