the dark singularity

I read a pretty cool interview with Vernor Vinge, in H+ magazine, where he talked about the coming technological singularity, which I thought was really productive. I've read and participated in a lot criticism of "Singularity Theory," where people make the argument that the singularity is just a mystification on the process of normal technological development, and that all this attention to the technology distracts from "real" issues, and/or that singularity is too abstract, too distant, and will only be recognizable in retrospect.

From reading Vinge's comments, I've come to several realizations:

  • Vinge's concept of the singularity is pretty narrow, and relates to effect of creating human-grade information technology. Right now, there are a lot of things that humans can do that machines can't, The singularity then, is the point where that changes.
  • I liked how--and I find this to be the case with most "science theory," but the scientists often have very narrow theories and the popular press often forces a much more broad interpretation. I think we get too caught up with thinking about the singularity as this cool amazing thing that is the nerd version of "the second coming," and forget that the singularity would really mark the end of society and culture as we know it now. That it's a rather frightening proposition.
  • Vinge's comparison of the singularity to the development of the printing press is productive. He argues that the printing press was conceivable before Gutenberg (they had books, the effects, however were unimaginable, admittedly), in a way that the singularity isn't conceivable to us given the current state of our lives and technology. In a lot of ways, the technological developments required in the Singularity, without attending to the social and cultural facts. The singularity is really about the outsourcing of cognition (writing, computers, etc.) rather than cramming more computing power onto our microchips.

As i begin to understand this a bit better--as it's pretty difficult to grok--I've begun to think about the singularity and post-singular experience as being a much more dark possibility than had heretofore. There are a lot of problems with "the human era," and I think technology, particularly as humans interact with technology (eg. cyborg) is pretty amazing. So why wouldn't the singularity be made of awesome?

Because it wouldn't be--to borrow an idea from William Gibson--evenly distributed. The post-human era might begin with the advent of singularity-grade intelligences, but there will be a lot of humans left hanging around in the post-human age. Talk about class politics!

Secondly, the singularity represents the end of our society in a very real sort of sense. Maybe literature, art, journalism, manufacturing, farming, computer terminals and their operating systems (lending a whole new meaning to the idea of a "dumb terminal"), and the Internet will continue to be relevant in a post-human age. But probably not exactly. While the means by which these activities and cultural pursuits might be obsoleted (tweaking metabolisms, organic memory transfer, inboard computer interfaces) are interesting, the death of culture is often a difficult and trying process, particularly for the people (like academics, educators, writers, artists, etc.) "Unintelligible" is sort of hard to grasp.

And I think frightening as a result. Perhaps that's the largest lesson that I got from Vinge's responses: the singularity is on many levels something to be feared: that when you think about the singularity the response should be on some visceral level "I'd really like to avoid that," rather than, "Wouldn't it be cool if this happened."

And somehow that's pretty refreshing. At least for me.

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