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Two, not one, singularities
December 1, 2011 3:36 AM   Subscribe

With everything rolling towards the abyss, our only hope for a bright future seems to be the Singularity, a technological transformation of what it means to be human. But in a talk for TEDx Brussels, science fiction and horror writer John Shirley argues that there are really two Singularities — and yes, everything will be terrible in the short term. So why is he optimistic about the future of the human race? Read on.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (52 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's forbidden.
posted by ZaneJ. at 3:37 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, perhaps that's the point.
The remote future will be great.
We won't get to see it.
Causality is left as an exercise for the reader.
posted by hank at 3:44 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


tl,dr: It's gonna be Zardoz, and you probably won't get to be one of the immortals.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:04 AM on December 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


I just read the article. Meatbomb's assessment is surprisingly accurate. No mention of red Speedos, however.
posted by KHAAAN! at 4:13 AM on December 1, 2011


To clarify, I read it... I am providing a service to those with limited time and desiring a pithy summary.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:15 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, I'll give a science fiction and horror writer credit for writing a mix of science fiction and horror.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:17 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wish he linked to the sources more (than not at all).
posted by hat_eater at 4:29 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


The article seems to boil down to ' things are going to get better because things are going to get much, much worse.'

Mr. Shirley seems to be doing some serious hand-waving at the end, about how humanity will find consensus and come up with some common-sense rules for the stewardship of spaceship Earth. Sorry, but I don't see it. Human nature hasn't changed much in the last 10,000 years, and I really don't see how it's going to turn on a dime in the next 100 or 200, no matter how close humanity comes to extinction-type events. All I see for the future is more of the same: lots of wars, lots of famine, disease, pollution, inequality, injustice, etc. with a few new shiny gadgets and gizmos for the wealthy and privileged to play with.

And I don't know about anyone else, but I'm pretty damn well tired of hearing about how great things will be, long after I'm dead.
posted by KHAAAN! at 4:39 AM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah KHAAAN! We might as well just give up!
posted by azarbayejani at 4:43 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


While I have a pessimistic outlook, I don't think individuals should 'just give up', thank you very much. It's just that I don't see the people in charge of the world giving a damn about the masses, in any real sense, now or in the future. I'm hoping that humanity saves itself, in spite of itself.
posted by KHAAAN! at 5:00 AM on December 1, 2011


...gosh, it really seems like this guy feels some strange need to give everything an artificially happy ending or something...

John Shirley's new novel is EVERYTHING IS BROKEN, coming in January from Prime Books.

Ah.
posted by fetamelter at 5:12 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


azarbayejani: Well, I agree. I, like you, take solace in the fact that the scions of the wealthy will live in a perfect society. Hell, I'm proud to just be grist in the mill that gets them there.

So, yeah, things are looking up for the human race!
posted by absalom at 5:15 AM on December 1, 2011


Shirley's assumption that only the rich will get the high tech flies counter to everything that's happened in the last 40 years. I'm sure in 1990 one could make a similar argument that one day you'll have a handheld device that can play and record movies and establish instant communication with any other such device; surely, only the rich will have those.

As for his rant about life extension being available only to the rich, it could just as easily play out as Kim Stanley Robinson wrote it in the Mars trilogy, where it really is so infuriating that the masses are dangerously aroused and the rich realize that they have to make it universally available or risk being overrun and torn limb from limb by people who no longer care that the first few waves will be killed.
posted by localroger at 5:32 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anyone have a readable link, that doesn't end up in that weird Gawker-script-horror universe?
posted by aramaic at 5:33 AM on December 1, 2011


Apparently he's read Oryx and Crake, because his article is basically a short summary of that novel.
posted by longdaysjourney at 5:34 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


science fiction and horror writer John Shirley argues that there are really two Singularities

That's two, two; two Singluarities in one!
posted by octobersurprise at 5:46 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Shirley's assumption that only the rich will get the high tech flies counter to everything that's happened in the last 40 years.

...except that whole "oil as increasingly scarce resource" thing.
posted by gerryblog at 5:53 AM on December 1, 2011


Perhaps when you're suggesting that two things are gonna happen, you would want to use a term for them that doesn't pretty much imply one thing.
posted by Hobgoblin at 5:58 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hey everyone! I have some good news!

You are a human being! Do you have any idea what that means? That means that you -- YOU! -- are in nearly complete control of the full power and resources of an entire planet. You and lots of others of your species. And you got to the point where you could wield this almost unimaginably god-like power by being a tremendous evolutionary and adaptive badass. You are the result of an unbroken chain of seemingly feeble and fleshy upright-walking naked apes who, contrary to all appearances, simply could not be destroyed before they reproduced. Not by terrible weather, not by giant animals with sharp teeth and claws, not by earthquakes or meteor strikes. Not by war, or disease, or starvation. Not by nothing. You are the pointy end of five thousand generations of unkillable evolutionary badasses.

So yeah, the climate's changing. We're running out of oil. We done goofed with some of the planet's major resources. But you, my friend, are a HUMAN FUCKING BEING. Are you gonna let any of that end you? Hell no, you're not.

Hell no, you're not.
posted by rusty at 6:08 AM on December 1, 2011 [15 favorites]


I'm reading this comment in Bill Pullman's voice.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:14 AM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Are you gonna let any of that end you? Hell no, you're not.

You heard him, boys! Get out there and REPRODUCE! Or wait ... DON'T REPRODUCE! Maybe reproduce a little bit. Also, try to use your towels more than once.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:19 AM on December 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


The greater the crisis, the more likely people are to revert to extended family group structures. I think this is beneficial.
posted by rebent at 6:26 AM on December 1, 2011


There's more money in sellin technology to every single person on the planet rather than a few rich elites. That's why there won't be a super class. We will eat them then turn on ourselves.
posted by blue_beetle at 6:33 AM on December 1, 2011


Yeah KHAAAN! We might as well just give up!

With a name like KHAAAN!, I think the suggestion is that we should do something right now, rather than rest assured that it will be better after we are dead. Of course, with a name like KHAAAN!, I also suspect that there will be explosions, sparks and wires falling from the ceiling, slightly ripped shirts, and a small trickle of blood at one corner of our mouths. But the future will get at least a little better right now!

Or we will punch it again.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:34 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


We will eat them then turn on ourselves.

I think you mean "turn ourselves ON, baby."
posted by rusty at 6:34 AM on December 1, 2011


The thing is, science fiction does predict the future, but always in the things that get overlooked. Like, John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up - the novel is mainly about the experience of pervasive social and sexual corruption and decadence, plus a huge overdetermined environmental/social disaster. But it's not really predictive on that level - writing in the early seventies, Brunner assumes that a loosening of sexual mores, for example, will feel really gross and crass and miserable and everyone will secretly hate it. Actually, yes, sexual mores have changed a lot, sort of in line with Brunner, but despite the icky pornification of everything that change has given a lot of freedom, openness and pleasure. And we've certainly had plenty of overdetermined social and environmental disasters, but they haven't been immediate ones of the "and the entire continent of North America is in flames" variety - they're more of the "slow and uneven decline" kind. Brunner basically assumes that the future will be understood/experienced by its citizens as if they were people of 1972 dropped into the medium term future - which is pretty standard, it's very difficult to create a convincing illusion of a future subjectivity.

I mean, it's possible to predict certain events, but it's very difficult to predict future subjectivity. Like, Oryx and Crake does a pretty good satiric job (I think) of talking about the uneven, piece-by-piece rejuventation-for-rich-folks/rejuvenation-scams-for-poor-folks industries, but does a rather unpersuasive job of characterizing the people who live in that world, who all come across as rather flat and naive compared to how regular people are in our world today.

I wish we'd get immortality-in-one-step, because then people would indeed rise up and kill the rich if it were denied to the masses. But it will be cumulative treatments and specialty surgeries, and it will be just like good-quality food, reliable heat and regular medications now - poor folks won't get it and no one will do anything.

(If you want some substantial characterization and a depressing future, read the Marq'ssan books by L. Timmel Du Champ. The writing is uneven in the first one and the aliens (who are very peripheral) are kind of flat, but the characters, good and evil, are absolutely well-drawn and persuasive future citizens. Granted, it's a future past by now, since the books were written in the eighties.)
posted by Frowner at 6:44 AM on December 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Whenever I hear that the so-called "singularity" is inevitable because we've exhausted the possibilities of these jiggly hungry fragile fucking thirsty shitting gross human bodies, to employ the usual invective thread of the laughable "transhumanists," it just reminds me that the speaker in each case has exhausted their own ability to imagine what we can still do without turning ourselves into mutilated walking human facebook terminals. Such a boring scifi trope, and yet it's so pervasive.

Like that interminable creative cliche about how there are no stories left to tell, though, it's all only true for those so limited by narrow, lifeless, doctrinaire thinking that they refuse to truly explore what's really out there.

A world with shortages is just a world where we work things out. My grandmothers' generation did it, prospered, lived happily and with great satisfaction, and just because we've had a couple generations of whiny entitlement doesn't mean that the seed of resourcefulness isn't still there.

Soylent Green had us eating each other by now. Wonder how we dodged the bullet?
posted by sonascope at 6:46 AM on December 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Pretty smug about dodging Soylent Green there, sonascope. Ever visited the McRib factory?

I'm just saying.
posted by No-sword at 7:24 AM on December 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


turning ourselves into mutilated walking human facebook terminals

I'd rather be a ravening crystal war machine skittering & keening my way across a hellscape of shattered pavement amid blistering storms of cobalt-60. It would probably be best if my opponents were nuclear gorillas with arms like freeway onramps & hearts as black as coal.

Facebook might still be useful for target acquisition, I suppose?
posted by aramaic at 7:31 AM on December 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


I'm reading this comment in Bill Pullman's voice.

Cave Johnson's voice for me. I suspect this says something about me.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:46 AM on December 1, 2011


Soylent Green had us eating each other by now. Wonder how we dodged the bullet?

Um, cheap energy from nonrenewable fossil sources allowing for the continued economically viable production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer?

Also, Soylent Green is set in 2022.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:03 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Population growth has also fallen off of a cliff. In the 70s it looked like exponential growth might never end---they were on the tail of the baby boom. It turns out that if women can make choices about career and education, population growth goes down.

So, yeah, feminism literally saved (and continues to save) the world.
posted by bonehead at 8:37 AM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's gonna be Zardoz, and you probably won't get to be one of the immortals.

I've always liked Zardoz's wry take on a dystopian future where the salvation of humanity was more of a prison and death avoided but deeply desired, but thinking about the 'singularity' and the spiritual concerns some have raised about what might happen, it seems more like a Twilight Zone-like 'Calvinist nightmare', where the 'elect' have built their own hell.

The singularity always reminds me of a line from Steven Jesse Bernstein's poem, The Sport:
We believe that the cybernetic approach to consciousness, whipped up frothy, would carry us to a plateau overlooking a pleasant mirror, but instead left us blathering in the dressed-up solitude of mannequin planets.
Personally, I don't think it will change humanity any more than the industrial revolution did: significantly, but not unrecognizably; I am including all the other side effects of the industrial revolution as well - genetics, health, education, social mores, etc.
posted by chambers at 8:40 AM on December 1, 2011


But we can avoid that fate by making laws requiring that rejuvenation for the most part goes to people who deserve it — you'll get points for art, for science, for good works, add them up and then get rejuvenated. (Full disclosure, that idea was borrowed from a Jack Vance novel.)

Picture the cover of O magazine stomping on a human face forever. (Full disclosure: that idea was borrowed from the People's Choice Awards.)
posted by y2karl at 8:42 AM on December 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


Metafilter has become my repository of i09 articles that I saw and then forgot to read.

Not really a complaint. I wanted to read this, thanks.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:10 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


An interesting thing that may be changed with all this is the perception of time. What would be different about this Zimbardo lecture (RSA animated) if it were made 50 years after the singularity?
posted by chambers at 9:13 AM on December 1, 2011


I'm reading this comment in Bill Pullman's voice.

Cave Johnson's voice for me.

I'm sorry, but you're both wrong. It's the voice of Steve Buscemi from "Con Air." Steve Buscemi. Thank you.
posted by rusty at 9:14 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]




Shirley's assumption that only the rich will get the high tech flies counter to everything that's happened in the last 40 years. I'm sure in 1990 one could make a similar argument that one day you'll have a handheld device that can play and record movies and establish instant communication with any other such device; surely, only the rich will have those.


Broseph, we're the rich. Being in the 99% doesn't mean folks in the industrialized world aren't closer to the top of the 99% than the bottom.
posted by liketitanic at 9:21 AM on December 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


I wish we'd get immortality-in-one-step, because then people would indeed rise up and kill the rich if it were denied to the masses. But it will be cumulative treatments and specialty surgeries, and it will be just like good-quality food, reliable heat and regular medications now - poor folks won't get it and no one will do anything.

I wouldn't be so sure of this. It is quite possible for a poor person to live to be 100. The advance in life expectancy created by (expensive) modern medicine hasn't changed the upper limit; it just increases the number of people who get up there by buying a route around some of the hazards that kill you first. But no matter how rich you are, you're not going to make it much further than 100.

True life extension will require finding the switches that turn off as we age and turning them back on. Once that is accomplished, it's likely our natural healing processes will do everything else. It might be a one time only genetic treatment, or a recurring or ongoing drug therapy, but it's probably going to be quite dramatic and hard to conceal.
posted by localroger at 9:45 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


liketitanic, you can back it up a few more years and just drop the movie recording and playing features, and it would have seemed just as implausible in 1970 and now half the population of the world has them.
posted by localroger at 9:46 AM on December 1, 2011


Two singularities? No. There's only one. "Eternal life" is not a singularity by itself; it's a side-effect of the technological singularity.

The singularity is what happens when the feedback loop between the rate of technological advance and the technology it produces really picks up. I.e., when we design an AI that is capable of creating a more advanced AI, which in turn creates something even better. And each of these iterations happens faster and faster. It's a fixed point computation on intelligence that only stops when it is constrained by the laws of physics, and the end result will be something that is to humans as we are to single-celled organisms. For this new kind of intelligence, solving problems like how to make people live forever will be trivial, although it seems a little presumptuous to think that this intelligence will be interested in helping humanity instead of, say, ignoring or exterminating it.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:29 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


man i want some ursula leguin space anthro future not this bullshit ipod future
posted by beefetish at 10:32 AM on December 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


Of course, with a name like KHAAAN!, I also suspect that there will be explosions, sparks and wires falling from the ceiling, slightly ripped shirts, and a small trickle of blood at one corner of our mouths.

And rich Corinthian leather.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:06 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


The entropy generated during the drive to this "singularity" is what is going to make the whole system crash and burn before any transcendence occurs.

Remember folks: Malthus also talked about singularities. The point wasn't that anything went to infinity. The point was that the exponential growth precipitates global collapse.
posted by mondo dentro at 11:08 AM on December 1, 2011


TED is already pretty lame and TEDx talks tend to be pretty ridiculous. Maybe they mined out everything interesting to talk about, or maybe they just don't have good standards anymore.
posted by delmoi at 11:20 AM on December 1, 2011


Maybe they mined out everything interesting to talk about

Communications singularity?
posted by aramaic at 11:34 AM on December 1, 2011


this post actually goes here
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:39 AM on December 1, 2011


liketitanic, you can back it up a few more years and just drop the movie recording and playing features, and it would have seemed just as implausible in 1970 and now half the population of the world has them.

Cite, please. Which I never say around here, but I think it's a stretch to imagine some sort of truly democratic proliferation of technology across the global population. Steve Jobs didn't change "the world." He changed how the wealthiest quarter of the globe, relative poverty aside, use technology.
posted by liketitanic at 12:30 PM on December 1, 2011


I was wrong. It's actually 77% of the world's population who have cell phones.

And those plain cell phones overtaking the third world would have been just as incredible in my childhood, when there were "radio phones" that only rich people had and you had to go through a mobile operator, as the iPhone would have seemed in 1990.

There are economies of scale, and making technology more pervasive also makes it cheaper.
posted by localroger at 1:53 PM on December 1, 2011


There are economies of scale, and making technology more pervasive also makes it cheaper.

It's interesting that though the rich may have the fanciest gadgets first, they are now available to everyone else very, very, quickly. If it's electronic products that is.

But seriously, who thinks they are going to get to be on the space ship off whatever is left of the planet by the time the technology is up to par? You think there will be a lottery? The rich will spend millions to get their name on a library, do you think they pay out to have their kid on a ship to the nearest solar system?

The interesting thing about the "elite" or "super wealthy" class is that there are SSOOO many of them compared to what their used to be.
posted by Staples at 4:14 PM on December 2, 2011


The thing about elites, they never feel complete unless they have some non-elites around to rob, rape, marry or murder.
posted by Goofyy at 1:30 AM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Kadin2048: "Also, Soylent Green is set in 2022."

Sure, but Make Room! Make Room! was set in 1999.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:03 PM on December 21, 2011


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