16 September 2008

The Singularity Trap

Sue Lange and I struck up a correspondence recently, and at one point she mentioned a slight obsession with the idea of the singularity. "Really?" I said. "Tell me more..."

Sue is the author of We, Robots, part of the Aqueduct Press Conversation Pieces Series.



When Matthew suggested I blog at the Mumpsimus on the subject of the Singularity or any other weirdity, I opted for weirdity. I needed a change. The Singularity is threatening to swallow me whole these days. Too often I feel trapped in it.

I know the Mumpsimus readers are an eclectic bunch. They are not all science fiction fans. For those who have no idea what the Singularity is, I invite you to take a quick primer via an excerpt from my book, We, Robots and meet me back here.

Everyone make it back? Great. Moving forward. The problem with not writing about the Singularity is that anything I do these days: orcharding, horse back riding, applescript writing, pie throwing, etc., seems to relate to it somehow. I can't think about the least little thing without tying it in somehow to nanorobots invading the environment or whether the latest OS will interface with the forthcoming brain implants.

Something as innocuous as a local music festival -- a very weird event more reminiscent of Dante's Inferno than any paradise of virtual reality -- turned into a blog rant on how strange and ugly non-Hollywood humans (i.e. you and me) are in the flesh. That's not what the music fest was about, but that's what I got out of it. This happens with me with everything now. No matter the subject, event, or location, the Singularity is somewhere in the middle of it, whipping the scenario into something ridiculously futuristic.

Here's a werdity I'd rather write about: the telephone, specifically plain old telephone service (POTS). On the surface, not very Singularityish, but not very weird either. Below the surface, though, down where we're going to go, things are different. Think of your great grandmother (Or great, great grandmother, depending on your age. I'm 50 thinking of my great grandmother, so calibrate your thoughts accordingly.) Think of your great grandmother stating, "If God had wanted us to be on the moon, He would have put us there instead of on Earth." Remember how she died in 1968, a year before the Eagle landed?

Good ol' great grandma. She really missed that one. Yet there was probably a time when her mother stated something like "When God wants people to speak to each other, He brings them face to face. None of this talking into a box nonsense." I'm sure great grandma laughed at such Luddism years later as her own phone rested cozily on the shelf in the breakfast nook. Yet she scoffed at Earth to moon communications. I'm sure she never envisioned cell phones, videophones, or free long-distance via SKYPE either. She died on the eve of the revolution secure in the idea that God had no more interest in inventing, developing, or filing for patents.

Why is that weird? Because, at 50, I can see back into great gran's life and recognize her mistake of not believing the unbelievable. Certainly she had the evidence, but she didn't buy it. She couldn't see where we were heading even though it was right in front of her. Things moved slower in her lifetime. The curve to the Singularity was still flat.

In my lifetime things have not moved so slowly. The curve is steeper. I can look up and see where we're heading and at the same time look down and see life without the Internet or instant communication with the entire world. I actually knew people that believed it wouldn't ever be possible. In other words, I experienced the past but I see the future as well. I remember quaintly answering essay questions and I've also filled in circles on standardized tests. Which is the best way? Which is better, and better for you?

Dunno, but even weirder: everything old is new again. I remember when natural childbirth was brought back into style. I watch organic farming--farming the old-fashioned way--become edgy, avant-garde with new science coming out about it every day. I saw Russia's economy turn around because they were the only country still making amplifier tubes and American rock guitarists, well, you know how fanatical they are about "getting their sound."

The point is, my lost generation not only sees the new superceded by the newer, but we also see technology go away and then come back. Great grandma saw only the old superceded by the new. Likewise, the younger folks see nothing but new. Even old stuff coming back is new to them. It's not weird to them that farming with highly designed pesticides and frankengenes is called "traditional" farming. They're so far beyond that, they actually see themselves under a glass dome on Mars, manipulating the soil, temp, and moisture on a world where they don't belong.

I'm not buying it. I'm not looking forward to it. Then again, I don't have to. My unique place in the world allows me to pick and choose my technology. I'm not frightened by software upgrades, but I don't feel the need to buy a new fancier cell phone every year either. If I like the old, I keep it. If the new is too far gone for my little head, I ignore it. Kids demand new and newer. They will have no problem embracing phone implants in their heads when that becomes available. Half of my generation don't even own a cell phone, and if we do own one, we leave it home half the time. I myself use a rotary dial. Of course my DSL comes in through the same line. I see no disconnect there (literally). It's not eccentric to me. It all makes sense.

Me and my peeps prefer wood over plastic, natural fibers over nylon, fresh food over liquid lunch, but only if it's affordable. The new generation is so past that. They'll race beyond plastic and embrace virtually created commodities. The new toys won't even be there, they'll just think they are, and that's good enough for them. The new stuff will certainly be affordable that's for sure. That'll bring us oldsters around and we'll all be happy then.

Meantime, I will scoff at the Singularity with every calcified bone in my body because if God wanted us to live forever She would've given us the perpetual motion machine. She would have given us some way of extracting work with no energy input, because that's what it's going to take: free energy. Living forever--the great promise of the Singularity--is wonderful in theory but who's going to pay for it? What if you're not born wealthy? What if you have to work for a living? How can the working/middle class ever retire under the life-eternal scenario? What if you're a ditch digger or a cleaner of portable johns? Omigod. What if you're a third grade school teacher? How would you like to be forever reminding eight-year-olds to bring their pencils to class and zip their trousers when exiting the bathroom. Sounds like a never-ending nightmare. Ask any third grade teacher if he or she wants to live forever.

Of course there might be no more third grade. As long as there's a set of implants for every American and DSL in every home we can kiss that scenario good bye. But then isn't third grade actually kind of great from the third-grader's perspective? Do you really want to forego third grade bliss?

All I'm going to say beyond that is, the Singularity is not a fake theory or a bit of science fiction fluff. It is a valid idea about as crackpotted as thinking about walking on the moon in 1968 was. Apparently God did want us on the moon after all, so extrapolating...well...kind of scary falling into the Singularity trap, eh?

2 comments:

  1. The Singularity strikes me as Platonism, the doctrine of ideal forms, carried to absurd lengths. That it is absurd does not mean that it will not happen; indeed, to be truly a Singularity requires that it be absurd. For myself, I prefer the beauty of the Earth I know, however despoiled, however transient, to "life" in the mediated light of an electronic cave.

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  2. 3rd grade wasn't very great for me at all. Just like the rest of my childhood/youth.
    As I recall, the Singularity was made to sound like something we just don't know what is on the other side of at all, so it is anyone's guess. I do think some folks are pinning too much hope on it, as if it will solve everything, when we don't even know if it will happen. [But I find myself hoping. There is a bit of Platonism in me.]
    If I found my life extended [and health restored], I would consider this an opportunity to learn to do something better than the menial stuff we all dread. As it is, I feel the end creeping up on me, and me having done so little.
    I don't know if a singularity will lead to life in an electronic cave or emergence from said cave into a world restored by new knowledge.

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