Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, December 2, 2010

less than singular

Cosma Shalizi (click through to the original for important links):

The Singularity has happened; we call it "the industrial revolution" or "the long nineteenth century". It was over by the close of 1918.

Exponential yet basically unpredictable growth of technology, rendering long-term extrapolation impossible (even when attempted by geniuses)? Check.

Massive, profoundly dis-orienting transformation in the life of humanity, extending to our ecology, mentality and social organization? Check.

Annihilation of the age-old constraints of space and time? Check.

Embrace of the fusion of humanity and machines? Check.

Creation of vast, inhuman distributed systems of information-processing, communication and control, "the coldest of all cold monsters"? Check; we call them "the self-regulating market system" and "modern bureaucracies" (public or private), and they treat men and women, even those whose minds and bodies instantiate them, like straw dogs.

An implacable drive on the part of those networks to expand, to entrain more and more of the world within their own sphere? Check. ("Drive" is the best I can do; words like "agenda" or "purpose" are too anthropomorphic, and fail to acknowledge the radical novely and strangeness of these assemblages, which are not even intelligent, as we experience intelligence, yet ceaselessly calculating.)

Why, then, 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? Perhaps: the owl of Minerva flies at dusk; and we are in the late afternoon, fitfully dreaming of the half-glimpsed events of the day, waiting for the stars to come out.

Beautifully put. But I would argue that any Singularity that can happen without our noticing, or whose happening is a matter for debate, cannot be the Singularity that its worshippers hope for. The unrecognized eschaton is no eschaton at all.


  • Michael Straight said...

    Vernor Vinge, who coined the term "Singularity" and was the first to write about the concept wrote:

    “For me, superhumanity is the essence of the Singularity. Without that we would get a glut of technical riches, never properly absorbed.”


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