Singularity beef, day 5

Paul Raven @ 27-06-2011

Yup, it’s still rolling. Here’s the post-Stross posts that came in over the weekend:

Anyone else catch any goodies?

[ * Interestingly enough, Fukuyama himself has more recntly veered considerably away from the theories espoused in The End Of History… ]

[ ** For the record, I really admire Brin as a challenging thinker; I’d admire him even more if he spent less time reminding me of his past successes. ]

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. ]

NASA debunks the 2012 Mayan apocalypse myth

Paul Raven @ 13-11-2009

Grand Jaguar pyramid - Tikal, GuatemalaNASA has taken a step into the rough-and-tumble world of conspiracy theory by posting a point-by-point debunking of the 2012 apocalypse meme, brought to public prominence by the recent movie based upon it [image by auntjojo]. You’ve got to admire the blunt certainty of it – here’s the first of the Q&As:

Q: Are there any threats to the Earth in 2012? Many Internet websites say the world will end in December 2012.
A: Nothing bad will happen to the Earth in 2012. Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012.

(Personally I’d have worded that more carefully, just for the sake of covering my own back. Nothing bad will happen in 2012? Nothing at all?)

The 2012 thing has been kicking around for quite a long while, at least if you move in the right circles. I was a dedicated student of conspiracy theory and speculative archaeology for a long, long time (old habits die hard – I still admire these stories for their tenacity and narrative zing), and I first encountered the idea of 2012 as an Omega point for humanity in the writings of Terence McKenna, who had that date as the end-point of his “Timeline Zero” novelty theory… which reads kind of like a psychedelic/spiritual equivalent to the Technological Singularity theories of Vinge and Kurzweil, interestingly enough (and is well worth investigating if you have any interest in anthropology, cultural evolution, psychedelic experiences, or all three – start with Food of the Gods).

The end of the Mayan calendar’s Long Count has provided a convenient hook for a lot of other related theories and marginal occult weirdnesses, too… Graham Hancock suggested it as a link to some form of cyclic geological apocalypse (if I remember correctly… crustal slippage, magnetic field reversal, maybe some combo of those two and something else), and a number of the people obsessed by the famous Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull have glommed on to the calendar’s end date as a critical moment in future history (though some suggest it will be a “soft apocalypse”, a return of benevolent deities to the abandoned tribes of the Earth or somesuch).

Most damning of all for the 2012 theory is that the Mayans themselves tend to denounce it as complete bunk, not to mention an exploitative twisting of their traditional beliefs that is putting a lot of money into the pockets of entertainment companies but none into their own. Having read quite a few of them, I suspect many of the earlier occult/secret-history theorists were motivated more by genuine (if misguided) belief, but the recent band-wagon pile-on by Big Media is a different kettle of fish entirely – we all love a good End Of The World riff, after all, and with a well-known temporal hook like that, well, you’d be a fool to pass over it, right?

Or perhaps Hollywood knows the truth, and the 2012 movie is a cynical attempt to scrape a little more hard cash out of us all so that the Secret Masters can finish building their space ark and flee the planet in the company of Xenu and his rainbow panoply of space-deities. Which, come to think of it, perfectly explains why NASA are debunking the story: it’s a straight-faced double-bluff! HOW MANY OF YOU WILL BE SAVED, NASA? EH? HOW MANY OF YOUR RICHEST AND MOST POWERFUL EMPLOYEES WILL BE RESCUED IN THE FINAL DAYS, LEAVING THE REST OF US TO REAP THE ANGER OF THE UNSEATED COSMIC BALANCE AT THE END OF ALL TIME? WHAT REALLY HAPPENED ON THE GRASSY KNOLL? WHAT WAS THE SECRET THAT DROVE HOWARD HUGHES SO CRAZY THAT HE HAD TO BE POISONED INTO A STATE OF CATALEPTIC INCOMPREHENSION? WHY HAVE YOU NEVER DEBUNKED THE WORKS OF ERICH VON DANIKEN, EH?

Oh, hello, Doctor – I didn’t hear you come in! Is it the red pills today, or the green ones? Sometimes I lose track of the sequence, the colours can be so… distracting…