Nerd rapture, redux: Annalee Newitz on why the Singularity ain’t gonna save us

Paul Raven @ 15-10-2010

Well, this should infuriate the usual suspects (and provoke more measured and considered responses from a few others). io9 ed-in-chief Annalee Newitz steps up to the plate to lay the smackdown on the Singularity as glorious transcendent happily-ever-after eschaton:

Though it’s easy to parody the poor guy who talked about potato chips after the Singularity, his faith is emblematic of Singulatarian beliefs. Many scientifically-minded people believe the Singularity is a time in the future when human civilization will be completely transformed by technologies, specifically A.I. and machines that can control matter at an atomic level (for a full definition of what I mean by the Singularity, read my backgrounder on it). The problem with this idea is that it’s a completely unrealistic view of how technology changes everyday life.

Case in point: Penicillin. Discovered because of advances in biology, and refined through advances in biotechnology, this drug cured many diseases that had been killing people for centuries. It was in every sense of the term a Singularity-level technology. And yet in the long term, it wound up leaving us just as vulnerable to disease. Bacteria mutated, creating nastier infections than we’ve ever seen before. Now we’re turning to pro-biotics rather than anti-biotics; we’re investigating gene therapies to surmount the troubles we’ve created by massively deploying penicillin and its derivatives.

That is how Singularity-level technologies work in real life. They solve dire problems, sure. They save lives. But they also create problems we’d never imagined – problems that might have been inconceivable before that Singularity tech was invented.

What I’m saying is that the potato chip won’t taste better after the Singularity because the future isn’t the present on steroids. The future is a mutated bacteria that you never saw coming.

Newitz’s point here, as I understand it, isn’t that technological leaps won’t occur; it’s that those leaps will come with the same sorts of baggage and side-effects that every other technological leap in history has carried with it. The more serious transhumanist commentators will doubtless make the point that they’ve been trying to curb this blue-sky tendency (and kudos to them for doing so), but they’re struggling against a very old human habit – namely the projection of utopian longing onto a future that’s assumed to be transformed by some more-than-human agency.

The more traditional agency of choice has been the local version of the godhead, but technology has usurped its place in the post-theistic classes of the developed world by glomming on to the same psychological yearnings… which is why the Ken MacLeod-coined “Rapture of the Nerds” dig is well-earned in many cases. The more blindly optimistic someone is about “the Singularity” solving all human problems in a blinding flash of transcendence, the less critical thought they tend to have given to what they’re talking about*; faith isn’t necessarily blind, but it has a definite tendency toward myopia, and theists hold no monopoly on that.

Newitz closes out with the following:

All I’m saying is that if you’re looking for a narrative that explains the future, consider this: Does the narrative promise you things that sound like religion? A world where today’s problems are fixed, but no new problems have arisen? A world where human history is irrelevant? If yes, then you’re in the fog of Singularity thinking.

But if that narrative deals with consequences, complications, and many possible outcomes, then you’re getting closer to something like a potential truth. It may not be as tasty as potato chips, but it’s what we’ve got. Might as well get ready for the mutation to begin.

Amen, sister. 🙂

[ * I fully include myself in this castigation; when I started writing for Futurismic, I was a naive and uncritical regurgitator of received wisdoms, though I like to think I’ve moved on somewhat since then. ]

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4 Responses to “Nerd rapture, redux: Annalee Newitz on why the Singularity ain’t gonna save us”

  1. Your Obedient Serpent says:

    The best summary of this perspective is Charles Stross’ Accellerando, which very neatly sums up the catastrophic problems that arise in the wake of the Singularity.

    If the singularity is “the Rapture of the Nerds”, then Accellerando is Left Behind — as written by Lovecraft.

    (I have no idea how Charlie the Antipope would react to that description.)

  2. Wintermute says:

    The thing I can’t stand about the Singularity is its clinical one-dimensionality. 🙂

  3. Ted says:

    Working for a company where every email/phone call/breath must be tracked on a CRM system, I can’t fight the sensation that much of society hugely overestimates the ability of AI/computer intelligence to function in a human society. At my company, we now define the issues we face by numbers trackable in CRM, where we hadn’t in the past, at least not to the extreme degree we do now. Unfortunately, I think this has just provided a new way to sidestep careful, personal focus on the actual issues we face. What did Mark Twain say about lies, damn lies, and statistics?
    In an introduction to “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Ursula Le Guin wrote, “The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future- indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the ‘future,’ on a quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.”
    Maybe the singularity is not a utopian/dystopian speculation, but a reflection of our current obsession with the amalgamation of data. Perhaps the singularity is not a vision of the future, but an echo of the present.

  4. Rick York says:

    Isn’t it fascinating how so many progressives – and, other idealistic folks – always look to the future as paradise? And, fundamentalists and many cultural conservatives – not libertarians, though – look to the past.

    It seems that utopians of all stripes tend to believe that any time is better than the present