“Why, then,” Cosma Shalizi asks, “since the Singularity is so plainly, even intrusively, visible in our past, does science fiction persist in placing a pale mirage of it in our future?”
Well, because the singularity is not realized as SF people would have it. The constraints of space and time still hold pretty firm – there’s no life beyond the body, there’s no consciousness without meat so far, no FTL travel (even were that possible).
Also, the Singularity in SF terms really represents not just a technological paradigm shift but a consciousness shift out of human into transhuman – and by that I mean into something genuinely different to the creatures that brought you the Cold Monsters and willingly became their (largely ignorant and laughably complicit) slaves.
Technology didn’t alter anything a damn bit, it merely let us merge and emerge more widely. I never saw anything inhuman in all of that list. Rather baffled by it.
The singularity always struck me as sf’s Rapture. Its rapturous reception of–& metaphor for–the bubble economics of the last 30 years. The money’s gone now and that loony toon with it. This understanding was visible from the first use of the word (& utterly clear by 2000). There is no economics of increasing returns. When the money stops, the “future” stops. The singularity was the secular rapture of 1990s boosterist economics, the Tono Bungay of its day. Just another of the many cloud cuckoo lands & Googies that sf cooks up for times of bull market.
That just doesn’t seem right, considering that the state of the economy, even at its worst (depression), has put no more than a blip in the graph of accelerating returns. I do think that Kurzweil has a knack for predicting dates too early — and too precisely, for that matter. But we’re so close to somatic gene therapy and three-dimensional molecular computing that it seems heedless to shrug it off as the giddy reflection of a bull market.
These are the avenues we’re traveling down. At what speed, I don’t know. Perhaps Kurzweil is so committed to it now that he’s looking for corroboration in everything. And perhaps I’m defending it because I’ve just finished a novel on the subject. But I find the setting as interesting a place as New Venusport, and as morally adrift. I don’t see it as a time or place of rapture. And I’m more interested in those left behind anyway.
“These are the avenues we’re traveling down. At what speed, I don’t know.”
Eh…It seems to me that we’ll turn the planet into a giant cinder before any of these fantasies (somatic gene therapy and three-dimensional molecular computing) come true. In any case, supposing that they do come true, I don’t see that we’ll be different or better in any sort of fundamental way by virtue of having them. These avenues are just more dead ends.
I never looked at the singularity as a type of rapture. More like an expression of the desire to be in contact with everything at once, but still remain sheltered from it all. It seems an apt endpoint: what’s the point of the industrial revolution without a consumer society? And what’s the point of being consumer if you can’t consume everything? Cue an endless short circuit here.
I wonder if, cognitive dissonance being what it is, the looney tune will really go away with the money. Seems likely to me that the loonies will get loonier, fervently believing in the same old shit while growing increasingly distant from any sort of awareness that they were chasing shit to begin with.
My aren’t I cheerful today.
Hi Justina. Just to add: the singularity might now be a metaphysic–a religion that has withdrawn behind its event horizon of implacable, self-bootstrapped internal logics–but it began with the idea that technological & economic turboing would act as the bridge to “irreversible” change. ie, it started, like most sf ideas, as an unconscious metaphor for events already visible in the world around. Therefore, as satirical puncture & shorthand political criticism, I think Cosma Shalizi’s observation holds.
Hi Evan: For me, continued belief in the singularity, like Neal Stephenson’s continued belief in the species-changing nature of mobile phones, is an example of what I was trying to talk about in the posts “Remembrance of things past” & “What is the exact nature of the catastrophe ?” below: how a class or generation resists conscious awareness of a major change in its circumstances until that change has already happened & its belief systems are visibly outdated.
The Reagan years sparked in sf a renaissance of one of its perennial themes: perpetual motion, the triumph over entropy & the transcendence of death. The never-ending bull market. The perfect match of sf & fantasy, only real at last… I think the singularity generation has made the mistake of every generation. Because it fought so hard to replace the worn-out, irrelevant old ideas of the father, it would now be the father & never be replaced. But of course that was what the father thought, & why he had to be replaced.
Let’s talk in 100 years? Funny, because I see both the triumph over entropy and the transcendence of death as catastrophic. Maybe I see it as THE catastrophe and maybe that’s my problem, viz. ‘why he had to be replaced.’ But what I find so interesting about the singularity is its assumption of achieved Meaning. Putting God at the end of the story instead of the beginning. How can’t that be disastrous?
>>Let’s talk in a hundred years ?
My thought exactly! At least we agree that the singularity would be a catastrophe–although I’m more interested now in the fictional catastrophe which would best express the decline of the context that gave rise to it–the Day of the Triffids of the singularity generation. (I’m not interested in writing it, I might add.)
Hi DH. Sorry, your post arrived as I was writing mine. I see the singularity as a type of rapture for exactly the same reason as you don’t, ie it’s “an expression of the desire to be in contact with everything at once, but still remain sheltered from it all”. Taken up, living inside God or money or A.I. Mother, it’s a thing for the (self) chosen. Like Evan I feel more for those left behind, the 99% who didn’t have the savvy to divert the techno-metaphysical revenue stream their way. But I’m less interested in the content of the concept (to discuss that is, I agree, to fail to see the innate lunacy of what sf calls “extrapolation”) than the context that gave rise to it.
Could you expand a bit on that ‘innate lunacy’ thing?
Hi Justina. One of the charms of the genre is that for all their belief in themselves as rational, sf writers are really just visionaries who misappropriate the scientific paradigm as a rationale for the visionary flight. More often than not it’s a kitsch vision, metaphysically not much above the level of lolcats; sometimes it’s The Instrumentality of Mankind or Childhood’s End or the absurd epiphany of The Sirens of Titan. Sf writers pride themselves that what they write is never metaphorical, but the word “extrapolation”, used in the sf sense, is already a metaphor. So for me, the use of the word marries the innate looniness of the visionary (see Childhood’s End again) with a failure to understand your own motives so heroic it can only charm the observer’s socks off.
What happens when the singularity simulates a singularity? (et ad inf.) Do we all get to go quietly home for the day and stop cosmos bothering?
Thank you. I agree. And I see now why you liked the earlier remarks of the blog you pointed to. However, given the nature of scientists, humans and the visions it seems to me quite likely that some approximations of the technologies that allow the visions to materialise will be sought after. What puzzles me at the moment is how I feel like the genre still wants to pursue those visions when actual technology and machineries have ‘solved’ the issues, which is I suppose your point. The end point of the visions however, is not seen as achievable via present means – ie shared virtual realities (and I mean both real ones and MMOs etc).
Actually the more I think of it the more I realise this all just looks like religions under another name…what is the collective term for religions, political ideologies and other emergent virtual machines? Is there one? Memeplexes?
Thanks also for highlighting this issue. I wouldn’t have thought about it this way if it weren’t for you – well, maybe I would but it would have taken me a lot longer. 🙂
I’ve not read a great deal of “singularity” fiction, but I suspect the very notion of singularity (defined as the abolition of scarcity) is pretty much a fiction-killer. In Charles Stross’s “Glasshouse” he starts in a post-singularity, anything’s-possible world, then moves to an artificially constricted world (a kind of caricature of repressed, sexist 1950s culture), which seems to be necessary in order to generate any significant story at all.
The point has of course been well-made that in times of plenty human culture has generated scarcity – real scarcity, by the failure to distribute food, water and shelter; and perceived scarcity, by the constant marketing of expensive intangibles and unnecessary shiny gadgets.
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