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"The constant undertone of the singing formed the theme that bound her mind together, no matter how many different things she might do at one time."
January 4, 2010 2:18 PM   Subscribe

"The Gentle Seduction," by Marc Stiegler. A non-techie lives before, through, and after the Singularity. (via Reddit)

One of the best stories I've ever read.
posted by MikeHarris (93 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
She was surprised that he was interested in her. He was so smart; she was so ... normal. But he was interesting; he always said something new and different; he was nice.

She was 25. He was older, almost 33; sometimes, Jack seemed very old indeed.


*retch*
posted by elektrotechnicus at 2:29 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


elektrotechnicus: "*retch*"

And by then, it just didn't seem to matter.
posted by boo_radley at 2:33 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I wish the singularity movement wasn't so riddled with self-styled geeks salivating at immortality and terminator arms
posted by crayz at 2:37 PM on January 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


Still no flying cars?
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:37 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm enjoying prolonging my understanding of the hype of singularity for as long as I can manage it. It's not that I crave ignorance, but something about the way singularities are deified makes my brain go 'la la la la la' whenever a writer approaches the subject.
posted by cavalier at 2:41 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Whenever I see a Singularity story, I'm reminded of Le Guin's critique of "predictive" Science Fiction in Left Hand of Darkness. Scientists, she argued, would feed rats ridiculous diets involving huge quantities of a single substance to inevitably reach the conclusion that it causes cancer. "Predictive" Science Fiction authors were doing much of the same thing in taking some sort of socio-technical soapbox to ridiculous extremes to deliver the same inevitable conclusion.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:43 PM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


This singularity stuff will seem hilarious when the oil runs out.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:44 PM on January 4, 2010 [20 favorites]


HALP I ACCIDENTALLY DOWNLOADED MY CONSCIOUSNESS TO AN N-GAGE
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:48 PM on January 4, 2010 [27 favorites]


The antidote to a Singularity fetish is regular perusal of RISKS-L. With little mistakes like this one cropping up on a fairly regular basis, I know I have little to fear from the Dorknarok.
posted by jquinby at 2:51 PM on January 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


HALP I ACCIDENTALLY DOWNLOADED MY CONSCIOUSNESS TO AN N-GAGE

Sidetalkin'!
posted by GuyZero at 2:53 PM on January 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


Yes, about halfway through she swallows a pill that turns her into grey goo. EOF.
posted by GuyZero at 2:53 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I like how in the first part he is constantly correcting her by telling her how she actually feels about stuff.

And when I say "like" I mean *retch*.
posted by hegemone at 2:55 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Light Fantastic: "Still no flying cars?"

There's a strange lack of flying cars, sure enough.

Marc Stiegler's "Earthweb" is available on Baen's free ebook section and does having flying cars in it, if I'm remembering right in my pre-nanopill and pre-Omega-Point-resurrected non-computronium form. It also features alien spaceships that swing by Earth on a five-year cometary approach in order to nuke us, presumably because non-needleship aliens are colossal cosmic dicks. The alien spaceships can only be defeated by sending a team of astronaut commandos into them to hit their self-destruct buttons, and overcoming the boobytraps along the way by the aid of a planet-wide webcast and forum feedback. (One presumes that the moderator burnout from such an affair was really high.)

Also, his "David's Sling" features the Soviet Army getting its ass thoroughly trounced by robot hovercraft with miniguns. Admittedly, heavily armed robot hovercraft aren't flying cars, but they're an evolutionary offshoot of them.
posted by Drastic at 2:57 PM on January 4, 2010


On an emotional level, this seems very much like the hope for a beautiful, perfect, fulfilling place that exists beyond the border between life and death, and Jack's gentle wisdom in making it palatable to the unbelievers technology-averse seems sorta Jesus-y.

I think it's natural to hope for a better world. When the entree to that world is facilitated by transcendence, you're in religious territory, no matter what name you give to it.
posted by clockzero at 3:05 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'd highly recommend Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution series as an alternative take on this.
posted by Artw at 3:06 PM on January 4, 2010


Clockzero: That may be why he's 33.

But I have to second the *retch* response.
posted by jrochest at 3:11 PM on January 4, 2010


nerd rapture.
posted by wuwei at 3:19 PM on January 4, 2010 [9 favorites]


I'm reminded of Le Guin's critique of "predictive" Science Fiction in Left Hand of Darkness. Scientists, she argued, would feed rats ridiculous diets involving huge quantities of a single substance to inevitably reach the conclusion that it causes cancer. "Predictive" Science Fiction authors were doing much of the same thing in taking some sort of socio-technical soapbox to ridiculous extremes to deliver the same inevitable conclusion.

The Language of the Night, surely, since The Left Hand of Darkness is a Hugo and Nebula winner for best Novel rather than any sort of non-fiction.

I have immense respect for Le Guin but I'm not confident that she understands either how a substance is tested for carcinogenic properties or predictive science fiction. The proportion of so-called predictive SF is quite small. Even giving her a pass on that since TLotN was written at least thirty years ago and SF has changed markedly in the intervening years, I don't think so-called predictive SF is usually intended as predictive.

When a good or even middling science fiction author examines a single technological or sociological change and expands it to massive proportions he is generally not predicting that will happen, he is exploring some facet of human nature or of current society. Surely Le Guin knows this, unless we are to take The Dispossessed as predictive?

I'm, frankly, having trouble coming up with examples of "predictive" SF.
posted by Justinian at 3:22 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Justinian: Well a good example is the whole singularity fad which centers on a single aspect of technology development to the exclusion of others in order to come to the conclusion that we'll all be faced with runaway AI and transhuman evolution in the space of a half-century. There certainly was a ton of bad cyberpunk out there which, in all seriousness, predicted that we'd all be in corporate plutocracies by now.

And Left Hand of Darkness has an introduction you know.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:31 PM on January 4, 2010


It's interesting that, over the last twenty years, the dreams and promises of futurists have remained largely unchanged.
posted by muddgirl at 3:34 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Still no flying cars?"

Taking advantage of new FAA regulations in the Light Sport Aircraft category, Terrafugia developed the Transition® to provide pilots the convenience of a dual-purpose vehicle. Its unique design allows the Transition® to fold its wings and drive on any surface road with a modern personal airplane platform. Once at the airport, the wings extend and the aircraft is ready for take-off. Both folding and extending the wings is done from inside the cockpit.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:44 PM on January 4, 2010


I wonder what a product manager (you know, someone who actually creates roadmaps for new technologies) thinks about the so-called "singularity." A lot of the process of technological innovation occurs as a tough, long slog, with frequent dead ends.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:46 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


muddgirl: It's interesting that, over the last twenty years, the dreams and promises of futurists have remained largely unchanged.

Yeah, well, there's a word for saying or doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results....
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:49 PM on January 4, 2010


I think this was written by someone who thinks that all folks with different priorities just need re-education to see the light and enjoy the correct form of happiness. Those people are no fun to talk to at parties, and it's not a surprise that their fiction is even less fun.
posted by thedaniel at 3:51 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Chances are you are just a simulation inside and existng singularity anyway. If a singularity ever happens it will logically simulate extra consciousnesses in order to be able to recognize itself and explore hypitheitcals and have someone to talk to. If the other doesn't exist we create it, the Hebrews figured it out in Genesis.
posted by humanfont at 4:00 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm, frankly, having trouble coming up with examples of "predictive" SF.

Really? Pretty much all of early SF was laced through with "and this is how we will live in the WORLD OF TOMORROW, because of SCIENCE!" type stuff.
posted by Artw at 4:06 PM on January 4, 2010


KokuRyu -
I've determined that most techno-enthusiasts forget the main failure of human technology. They are simply tools to achieve a goal. The direction requires a task to be accomplished, thus, a Singularity is something that requires a total commitment of humanity as a whole to achieve. It will not be something that a few early adopters will start and spread to the rest of the world. Also, the massive failure of monoculturalism looms large in all stories of about this Utopian achievement. Unless the ones who achieve the Singularity have enormous powers to change the wiring of other peoples brains (and have an active knowledge and understanding of what those changes mean), you end up with the Borg. I'm actually pretty sure a lot of pro-Singularity people would love to be assimilated.
posted by daq at 4:11 PM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


this is a bad story.
posted by empath at 4:18 PM on January 4, 2010


Really? Pretty much all of early SF was laced through with "and this is how we will live in the WORLD OF TOMORROW, because of SCIENCE!" type stuff.

Which early SF? You mean the pulps earlier than Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein?

Justinian: Well a good example is the whole singularity fad which centers on a single aspect of technology development to the exclusion of others in order to come to the conclusion that we'll all be faced with runaway AI and transhuman evolution in the space of a half-century. There certainly was a ton of bad cyberpunk out there which, in all seriousness, predicted that we'd all be in corporate plutocracies by now.

Well, that's where we'll have to differ I guess. I don't think cyberpunk predicted we'd all be in corporate plutocracies any more than 1984 predicted we'd be in a Big Brother total surveillance state or Brazil in a dystopian bureaucratic nightmare.
posted by Justinian at 4:19 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Discuss: Are singularity metahumans the new abstinence vampires?

What's odd is that nerds try to act like the singularity isn't creepy as all hell, while vampires are pitched as "OOOO SCARY!" And yet for me it's the exact opposite.
posted by mccarty.tim at 4:22 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not exactly new - this is from 1989. I think since then people who are not transhumanists have played with the ideas more and it usually results in more ambiguous, or outright horrorific stories.
posted by Artw at 4:25 PM on January 4, 2010


Which early SF? You mean the pulps earlier than Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein?

Heinlein on SF: "a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method."
posted by Artw at 4:26 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Which early SF? You mean the pulps earlier than Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein?

Artw might be referring to (for example) H. G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come, which does what it says on the tin, basically.
posted by Prospero at 4:29 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


A little earlier than I was thinking of there, but god yes. Though I usually dig Wells I’d say that as a horrifically lumpen and portentous example of the “future history” genre it makes a good argument against doing that kind of thing.
posted by Artw at 4:34 PM on January 4, 2010


They did not believe they would need her for long, thousands of milliseconds at most.

Or, as I like to call them, seconds.

Yeah, it's a tad overwritten and not at all sciencey, but you could tell it was going for a certain poetic sensibility and emotional truth of the type that will be the first against the wall come the RevolutionSingularity.
posted by Sparx at 4:37 PM on January 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Though I usually dig Wells I’d say that as a horrifically lumpen and portentous example of the “future history” genre it makes a good argument against doing that kind of thing.

Also see Paris in the Twentieth Century. It's well thought-out, but as a novel it makes Ayn Rand look like Hemingway. "Novels" like that always have paper-thin plots and turn into rather boring lectures. More recently, White Mars - what a horrible disappointment.
posted by GuyZero at 4:37 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


And the 1936 movie, which is even worse, pretty much reflects the whole spirit of pulp of that era. Mankind will destroy itself, and then be saved by fascist nerds! Wings Over The World!

In fact with it's spacey ending this story is kind of a descendant of it, but without the fun war bits.
posted by Artw at 4:38 PM on January 4, 2010


Transcendental Object @ The End Of Time
posted by hortense at 4:41 PM on January 4, 2010


I hypothesize that the Singularity will occur if and only if P=NP.

Or maybe, I hypothesize that the above hypothesis is a valid statement if and only if P=NP. Because some say that only computers can show that P=NP. But maybe such technology can exist only if the P=NP problem is solved beforehand, allowing us to build said technology. Leading to a crazy recursive logical statement and possibly another terribly written scifi short (thus shaming all really good scifi short stories out there).

*brainexplode*.
posted by zonem at 4:45 PM on January 4, 2010


zonem - That's sort of how Accelerando read to me, and then I got bored and stopped reading it.
posted by Artw at 4:49 PM on January 4, 2010


Heinlein on SF: "a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method."

Yes, and Campbell said that it's science fiction if, presuming technical competence on the part of the author, he genuinely believes it could happen. But, thankfully, neither of them get to define SF and (most importantly for this discussion) neither of them really believed what they said or put it into practice in what they wrote or edited.

I'm sure both of us could list without a moment's thought a great number of Heinlein novels and stories which are not realistic speculation about the future or based on any particular knowledge or expertise. And with Campbell one only has to say the word "psionics".

Artw might be referring to (for example) H. G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come, which does what it says on the tin, basically.

Surely Le Guin was not referring to Wells. She was a fierce critic and proponent of science fiction, but it was a concern with science fiction literature at the time she was writing.
posted by Justinian at 4:51 PM on January 4, 2010


Oh, and I forgot the best bit of the giant spacegun in The Shape of Things to Come - it had a gigantic sight on the end of it.
posted by Artw at 4:52 PM on January 4, 2010


And yeah, I'm sure there isn't a hard luine between the pulp era and new wave science fiction where the concept of metaphor was invented and SF writers stopped using slide rules to figure out orbital trajectories, but sometimes a prediction that man will fly to the moon in big silver rocketships with fins on the side is just a prediction that man will fly to the moon in big silver rocketships with fins on the side.
posted by Artw at 4:58 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


In fairness, a lot of classic sci-fi predicted that the future world would suck and, well, here we all are.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:04 PM on January 4, 2010 [10 favorites]


Strange Horizon's Submission Guidelines a.k.a. Stories We've Seen Too Often covers far too many sci-fi/fantasy titles than I care to remember.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:04 PM on January 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


With a brief glance through the pages of the phone book, she found she no longer needed it.

Welcome to the Singularity!
posted by benzenedream at 5:08 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes, somehow nanotechnology arrived before they got rid of phone numbers.
posted by GuyZero at 5:12 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Singularity is SOOO 1990s. These days, the up and coming thing is James Nicoll's Nightmarish Future where Things Fail to go Wrong.

This future has the advantage in that SF fans reject its premises immediately, which is a sign that it's inherently more likely to come true. Besides, anything that annoys SF fans has got to be good.
posted by happyroach at 5:19 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ugh, yeah, the whole "silly stupid girl, I'll tell you how you feel" angle it takes from the beginning just pissed me off and predisposed me to dislike all of it. My favorite genres are fantasy and sci-fi, but crap like that, where the author doesn't really treat women as reasonable, autonomous beings but instead as beautiful simpletons, is why people complain about sexism in those genres. A real person would either be annoyed, amused, or feel bad, depending on their personality and level of internalizing bullshit that others foist upon them. It's possible to feel all those things and still feel curious about what Jack would say, so it's not as if it would have even ruined the story to make note of her feeling like Jack was a bit overbearing. But there's no mention whatsoever of her feelings in reaction to his telling her how she'll feel, and all you can gather from the dialogue is that she just accepts everything he says as gospel once he corrects her.

Not to mention that when he addresses her concerns about the future, he assumes it's all about preserving her beauty and watching babies. Then her entire life is summarized by its domestic component, without any mention of all the other things that would have made her a fully developed person; even women who are hardcore mommies have other things that make them who they are. This girl has no personality whatsoever aside from being a technophobe simpleton. To be fair, Jack was barely developed either aside from being overbearing and smart. Then the only thing that can save her from being an idiot and grant her a life of freedom is technology, and not only is that not enough, she has to look 32 again to feel worthwhile. Wow.

Then in her travels she's saved by a man. Unsurprised. Her tells her what to do and she listens. Unsurprised. Gradually, she becomes what Jack tells her she would. Unsurprised. There's a bit of a redeeming moment when it's revealed that her being a technophobe inspired Jack to keep technophobes in mind when implementing technology, at least. The whole "gradually changing but still being yourself" thing was the only thing about the story I even liked, since it makes the singularity more palatable. And though it's borderline, the whole rebuilding Jack because he was important to her seemed like something anyone might try to do with someone they cared about, so I don't hold that against the story.

You know, I would have much more appreciated the story if there hadn't been some magical asshole at the beginning telling her that her feelings aren't valid, and if she had just heard all that needless exposition at the beginning from her children and grandchildren since that comes up later anyway. Then her thought process, change of heart, and personality -- which would need to exist -- could be revealed through those conversations and her thoughts. I could have forgiven some stereotypical idea that women suck at technology -- because some women, like some men, do suck at or fear technology -- and even the meekness -- since people of all genders can be meek -- if she'd at least been treated like a real person.

As it stands, it left me with too much of a bad taste since the very first lines and it mostly got worse as it went on.
posted by Nattie at 5:21 PM on January 4, 2010 [10 favorites]


I don't think the singularity is something we need to worry about any time soon.
posted by generichuman at 5:31 PM on January 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


There certainly was a ton of bad cyberpunk out there which, in all seriousness, predicted that we'd all be in corporate plutocracies by now.

Heh.
posted by joe lisboa at 5:35 PM on January 4, 2010


joe beese: "This singularity stuff will seem hilarious when the oil water runs out."

ftfy :D
posted by mullingitover at 5:39 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


When I start my blog, the first post is going to be titled "Shut up about the effing sigularity already."
posted by chairface at 5:54 PM on January 4, 2010


KirkJobSluder: I pulled out my copy of TLHoD and re-read the introduction. It seems to me that Le Guin and I are actually saying the same thing. She isn't criticizing Science Fiction for being too concerned with mistaken extrapolation, she is defending it against the very charge you said she is mistaking.

"Fortunately, though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn't the name of the game by any means."
...
"Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive."

In fact, she begins the introduction thus:

"Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative."

So it is quite clear that she isn't the one describing it as such, she is responding to others making that false assumption.
posted by Justinian at 6:06 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


whoops, "the very charge you said she is mistaking" should be "the very charge you said she is making". Which makes slightly more sense, I hope.
posted by Justinian at 6:07 PM on January 4, 2010


Taking advantage of new FAA regulations in the Light Sport Aircraft category, Terrafugia developed the Transition® to provide pilots the convenience of a dual-purpose vehicle.

Ah, don't they have those in Alpha Complex? Did they ever fix that randomly-explodes-when-turning problem?
posted by JHarris at 6:27 PM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm, frankly, having trouble coming up with examples of "predictive" SF.

Really? Pretty much all of early SF was laced through with "and this is how we will live in the WORLD OF TOMORROW, because of SCIENCE!" type stuff.


Ben Bova completely predicted the Kindle in a story published in Analog in either 1984 or 1985—I don't feel like digging through my back issues again to find out which.

(Aha! Finally my recent penchant for reading old back issues of Analog comes in handy!)

Also, the linked story is good.
posted by limeonaire at 7:11 PM on January 4, 2010


Warren Ellis wrote the last word on the singularity about a year and a half ago:
The Singularity is the last trench of the religious impulse in the technocratic community. The Singularity has been denigrated as "The Rapture For Nerds," and not without cause. It’s pretty much indivisible from the religious faith in describing the desire to be saved by something that isn’t there (or even the desire to be destroyed by something that isn’t there) and throws off no evidence of its ever intending to exist. It’s a new faith for people who think they’re otherwise much too evolved to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or any other idiot back-brain cult you care to suggest.

Vernor Vinge, the originator of the term, is a scientist and novelist, and occupies an almost unique space. After all, the only other sf writer I can think of who invented a religion that is also a science-fiction fantasy is L Ron Hubbard.
posted by mhoye at 7:54 PM on January 4, 2010 [9 favorites]


The central problem I have with singularity fiction (and claimed nonfiction) isn't just that it's wrong, it's that it's earnestly wrong. It would have redeeming value if it was treated as a literary plot device similar to the Gethen, Billy Pilgrim unstuck in time, unobtainium, the Starship Enterprise, Alien Space Bats, and BEMs. Science fiction is at its worst when it tries to justify its Alien Space Bats. And while I can sometimes give Doctorow a pass for boring the shit out of me by interrupting the story with screeds about how decades-old network concepts will change the world, I'm less inclined to think kindly on the singulatarian's attempt to justify the economic equivalent of unobtanium.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:12 PM on January 4, 2010


The sad thing is that although the singularity will happen, somehow it will get co-opted by corporate interests and we'll all find ourselves living forever in a nano-existence with our personalities downloaded into NP-Gages spread throughout the universe by wormhole — but still spending 40% of our time doing nano-work so that we can pay the nano-rent. (And don't think that just because it's nano-rent it'll be cheaper.) Here, let me try a rewrite:
He shook his head. "Don't you want to see Mars? You liked the Grand Canyon; I remember how you told me about it. Mars has huge gorges--they make the Grand Canyon look tiny. Don't you want to see them? Don't you want to hike across them?"

It took her a long time to reply. "I guess so," she admitted.

He pushed the nano-paper filament across the ultratable to her. "So input your DNA echo here to join our Frequent Downloader program. You and up to two clones could be eligible in as few as 16 petaflop periods."

She thought carefully. A trip to Mars would certainly be good for the nano-kids. They needed new experiences for their application essays to Harv-4-U® and Prince2.0. But the fridge also needed fixing, and Michael-6's freely-chosen parental unit Homer Zeta always got grumpy when they spent the New Year Squared somewhere other than Virtual Nantucket Brought To You By Nantucky Fried Meat-Matrix...
posted by No-sword at 8:14 PM on January 4, 2010 [10 favorites]


We are already so lost without gps and facebook statis we might as well admit that the the superorganism is here. The abandoned Arrow truckers with their gas cards shut off and left abandoned on some interstate and the suddenly addressless Sidekick users are just the first warning signs. The singularity is not some new religion, it is a simple short term projection which will either be demonstrated as a fanciful bit of folly or proven out in 10 years. So far the singularitanisys seem to be on track with projections.
posted by humanfont at 8:39 PM on January 4, 2010


That 1989 date is interesting to me. Because in 1988, Marc Stiegler was working for Autodesk... on Xanadu . That's right, the world's greatest and oldest vaporware project, the one that was going to completely revolutionize the way we store and access information. And by "completely revolutionize," I mean something as different from today's internet as current medicine or engineering still is from the nanotech depicted in the story.

As best I can tell from the old Autodesk email archives about Xanadu, Marc was the project manager for Xanadu at Autodesk. (These were released publicly about ten years ago. This looks like it might be a link. As an aside, you have to like an archive that includes this snippet from him: "Dean, hill, discuss infinity.")

He clearly believed in the world-shaking vision of Xanadu -- in an early post he discusses the advantages a Xanadu-type system might have for tyrants, and how to nullify these advantages -- but you can see him trying so hard to get something shippable, something that could be brought to market. In other words, the incremental approach to the singularity he advocates in the story.

On Friday, March 16, 1990 he sent this email:
Thank you for that update on the features of AutoCAD, Greg. I had not realized that we had missed the boat for R11. I must confess, I am quite sad (crushed might be a better description), though I understand why, in a list of hard tradeoffs, this was a wise tradeoff for Autodesk to make.

In its own way, this surprising news about R11 is an opportunity for some of the people here at Xanadu. It is an opportunity to learn, and remember, what it means to take "just a few days longer".

Several times in the past year and a half we have discussed how difficult it is to fully appreciate the cost of being late, because the most important cost is the opportunities you miss that you never even know about. You can slip a day, and another day, and another, and there's no visible consequence...until one day you walk into your office and discover that you slipped too many days, and something really wonderful will not happen because of it.

Of course, the nebulousity of the missed opportunity makes it impossible for ordinary people to weight it as a factor when they are evaluating the urgency of their work. The only way I know of to grasp the true importance of speed is to seek out individual examples of the consequences of "just one more day", and hug them to your heart, and every time you find yourself saying "just one more day", remember that THIS is what it means.

It's probably worth a moment or two for some of the members of Xanadu to reflect upon the consequences of the opportunity lost here, to hug it tight, to experience what it means to be a few days late enough times so that, before you know it, a year has come and gone.

[...] Had AutoCAD been available on the day we announced Xanadu, there might have been some thousands of very easy Xanadu sales to large AutoCAD installations. Those thousands of sales have been lost. Those millions of dollars of revenue that the sales would have generated have been lost. Those millions of documents that would have been interlinked in Xanadu information pools at those thousands of sites have been lost.

[...] All now lost.

This is what it feels like to miss an opportunity. This is what it means to take just a few more days.

For those people at Xanadu who haven't before had a personal experience with the meaning of a slip, you now have a blinding example.

Please remember.
I don't think they met a single deadline after that, and in 1992 Autodesk pulled the plug on Xanadu. In 1999, what remained of the Xanadu Green and Gold codebase was released as open source, flirted with occasionally, but finally mostly ignored.

Who knows. Maybe someday someone will write a book about the Ent, and loafs, and fossils and canopies and dsps and wids and crums and berts and turtles and waldoes and snarfs and finally, inspire someone to change the world and bring about that singularity.
posted by bigbigdog at 8:45 PM on January 4, 2010 [9 favorites]


does the singularity happen before or after the rapture?
posted by pyramid termite at 9:12 PM on January 4, 2010


To be fair, it was written in 1989. Clunky sexism was still more common than not in English-language fiction, especially nerd fiction. I wonder if twenty years from now, we might look back on in our own writing and groan at our ignorance at something that right now, as we post here, seems utterly normal and ordinary.

As to the Singularity ... this is an interesting, if naive and overoptimistic, exploration of the concept, but it's not much of a story. It's religious literature. The point, and problem, of the Singularity is that we don't know what happens after it happens: what "it" is, in the simplest terms, is that a computer program or similar conceptual device becomes sufficiently more intelligent than humanity to accurately predict and account for what humanity and humans might do. This may actually be impossible; there may be limitations in biological computation that put us at or near the top end of "intelligence" (whatever that actually is), but I rather doubt that this is so.

If it's not impossible, or consume so much resources that it might as well be impossible, then it will probably happen ... eventually.

As per Kurt Godel's work, any given system cannot be fully described except by a system that encompasses it. (Which incidentally disproves the idea of omniscient God(s).) We cannot, by definition, predict the actions of minds sufficiently more intelligent than our own. They might kill us, they might preserve us, they might reward us, they might run simulant copies of us through all possible versions of our lives (Charles Stross's disturbing take on the dreams of Cthulhu), they might absent themselves from us; we can't know. It could be the Apocalypse instead of (or as well as) the Rapture. But on the whole, considering how much more resources it would take to make our lives Nirvana rather than simply end our lives entirely, I would bet on the Apocalypse. (Or the Butlerian Jihad, which is one of few ways out of the dilemma.)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:19 PM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Several times in the past year and a half we have discussed how difficult it is to fully appreciate the cost of being late, because the most important cost is the opportunities you miss that you never even know about. You can slip a day, and another day, and another, and there's no visible consequence...until one day you walk into your office and discover that you slipped too many days, and something really wonderful will not happen because of it.

Of course, the nebulousity of the missed opportunity makes it impossible for ordinary people to weight it as a factor when they are evaluating the urgency of their work. The only way I know of to grasp the true importance of speed is to seek out individual examples of the consequences of "just one more day", and hug them to your heart, and every time you find yourself saying "just one more day", remember that THIS is what it means.


That's really wise advice, or a recipe for an anxiety disorder, or both.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:21 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


You guys should go read The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect if you want an interesting story about the Singularity. It was written by localroger, now Mefi's own, but once one of Kuro5hin's strongest contributor's back in its heyday. (Hi localroger, I never posted at k5 but I was a fan years ago)
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:10 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]



Many believe super-intelligent machines are inevitable, but will we treat them as mere property?

noticed this newspinion piece in the globe and mail today asking how we will treat robots if they ever develop sentience (which will obviously come when someone encodes all the twits, and tweets of twitter, and compensating for the replys, and the retweets variables, measuring for the co-variance of the rate of subscriber-ship, in inverse balance with the method of twitter'ing, times the number of "improve your webfu" sales people subscribed, divided by the number of subscribers before and after each message and bilaterally barricaded to the the number of blocked users, times 1. alas, at this point a robot syntax which facilitates ai will be birthed... but that's just a prognostication for the occasion.) .... which was refreshing, in that it didn't jump directly to the sex-bot talk.... oh wait... no, yes it did, like every mainstream article or piece about robots includes invariably.
but if you ignore the blatant sexbot obsession, it makes other predictions... a curious question, with illogical answers.

I have to voice a voice in defense of Wells' future fiction film adaptation of The Shape of Things to Come. ... the special effects are beautiful, sets, story pacing, it is to me a very unique piece of film history.
I am referring to this...(Things to Come which features a final scene which presages flat screen real time video conferencing.)
and not this Canadian flick appperently loosely based on the book
posted by infinite intimation at 12:26 AM on January 5, 2010


which is wo-hoo, here. InternetArchive.
A Christmas time classic!
posted by infinite intimation at 12:32 AM on January 5, 2010


That's right, the world's greatest and oldest vaporware project, the one that was going to completely revolutionize the way we store and access information.

They literally had the most important and valuable idea in the history of computers (hypertext) and spent millions of dollars and decades trying to develop it, and then Tim Berners Lee comes along and programs it essentially by himself in a year.

They probably should have patented it.
posted by empath at 12:41 AM on January 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


That's really wise advice, or a recipe for an anxiety disorder, or both.

I think it's the former, in all seriousness. The much-abused Voltaire quote that translates to something like "the perfect is the enemy of the good" comes to mind -- at some point, it becomes more important to just goddamn finish something than it does to finish the best of all possible things, which of course can't ever be done anyhow. Echoing Voltaire was, if I am not mistaken, the towering intellectual force that is Motley Crue's Vince Neil (maybe it was Tommy Lee?) who said in a radio interview (that I recall hearing sometime around the time of this story's composition) words to the effect of, "When you're recording, sooner or later you gotta say, 'Fuck it, man, that's rock n' roll.'" Motley Crue will never bring us any closer to the dawn of the singularity, but they will emerge to thrill increasingly distressed and decrepit-looking women with huge hair and too much makeup as they go on tour again and again and again and again. Consider that, friends; make of it what you will.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:58 AM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I actually find the utter lack of any cryonics tech to be more surprising than the depiction of the protagonist. Why exactly did Jack the super-genius not have himself frozen for his nano-tech to resurrect at a later date? Really not a fan of this sort of writing, by the way; perhaps this is from reading a great deal by Eliezer Yudkowsky about how strong AI can go completely wrong (for us) in more ways than a human mind can comprehend.
posted by topynate at 4:00 AM on January 5, 2010


aeschenkarnos: If it's not impossible, or consume so much resources that it might as well be impossible, then it will probably happen ... eventually.

Pardon if I find this to be along the lines of the old argument that galactic civilization will happen, eventually, assuming that we are just plain wrong about general relativity.

As per Kurt Godel's work, any given system cannot be fully described except by a system that encompasses it. (Which incidentally disproves the idea of omniscient God(s).) We cannot, by definition, predict the actions of minds sufficiently more intelligent than our own.

An interesting shift there. Of course, full description and prediction are two different things. We can't fully describe the moon, but we can reasonably accurately predict its phases. And likewise I don't buy the argument that our reasonably robust theories of economics and technological change magically vanish now that we've passed the point of super-human intelligence.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:23 AM on January 5, 2010


Motley Crue will never bring us any closer to the dawn of the singularity...

OK, folks here's today's story prompt at the MeFi writing workshop: create an account of how Motley Crue can bring us closer to the dawn of the singularity.
posted by lodurr at 5:36 AM on January 5, 2010


He dealt out of Hollywood, she worked with trees, and the flowers that took hold on the side of the Mountain.

She was surprised that he was interested in her. He was not what you'd call a glamorous manl. But he had one thing that was easily understood; he was the one they call Dr. Feelgood.
posted by Drastic at 5:44 AM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


The problem I have with most "predictive SF" is that it doesn't realize it's not really trying to be predictive.

Put another way: I'm with Le Guin (and Wells and probably a dozen others I could think of) when she says that most SF is about the present, not any future in which it's set. (I think she extends that by analogy to fantasy as well, and I'd be with her there, too.) It's a feature. If you really tried to make it predictive, it would be pretty dreary. [insert obligatory comment about current story /]

I don't actually mind a lot of the dreary stuff (and have a different opinion about what's dreary in any case), because it gives me ideas and it's often better at explicating real world potentials than essays or articles would be. But I do get why a lot of people hate it. I'm reminded of the argument many of my friends have with themselves about the work of Ted Chiang: They love the stories, but according to everything they've been taught about how to build a good story, everything about them is totally wrong. (And indeed, when other people try to do what he does, it usually doesn't work very well.)
posted by lodurr at 5:44 AM on January 5, 2010


Drastic, would this be a good point to admit that I don't actually know anything about Motley Crue? Or were you on another track entirely? If the latter, maybe we could forget I mentioned the former....
posted by lodurr at 5:46 AM on January 5, 2010


On a related tangent: What is the exact difference between what Ted Chiang or Bruce Sterling does, and this kind of story?

One difference I see is that I think Sterling & Chiang (at their best) (& others like them, insert your favorites) are using narrative logic to test ideas, rather than explain them. This story is about explaining -- well, maybe explicating -- the ideas. There's a place for that, but it's ultimately less interesting than testing them.
posted by lodurr at 5:50 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


He shuddered. "Starting my day googling for Motley Crue lyrics scares me."

"There's no reason to fear it. You'll love it."
posted by Drastic at 5:51 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


It'll involve being excellent to each other and partying on.
posted by rlk at 5:58 AM on January 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Vinge believe a technological singularity will happen, but also says the odds of this kind of supermegahappy technological singularity are pretty slim. If I had time I'd go diving for the essay where he describes whole classes of futures that put the post in post-human.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:58 AM on January 5, 2010


Arthur C Clarke and the end of upbeat futurology
posted by Artw at 8:27 AM on January 5, 2010


(Looks like the comments are taken up by a rather dickish argument about whether 2010 can be called the beginning of a new decade, blah blah blah. Which is amusing as Clarkes the author of 2001 but then betrayed the proper-decadists with 2010)
posted by Artw at 8:30 AM on January 5, 2010


Ah, don't they have those in Alpha Complex? Did they ever fix that randomly-explodes-when-turning problem?

THAT INFORMATION IS CLASSIFIED ULTRAVIOLET CITIZEN.
posted by GuyZero at 9:58 AM on January 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


One thing that I've never really understood -- some descriptions of "the Singularity" seem to be just rehashes of the '70s idea of "future shock": the rate of change overcoming individuals' ability to cope with that change.

It seems to be the same idea, only Toffler saw it as a negative (or at least in a somewhat negative light, if not necessarily as something to be avoided), while the Singularity people seem to view it as a snowball effect that leads to transhumanism.

But Toffler's 70s idea of a coming future shock didn't really pan out -- whether because he overestimated the rate of technological change or underestimated the public's ability to cope with advancements, I'm not sure.

The book was written mostly in response to the wave of lifestyle-changing technologies that became commonplace in the postwar decades, including birth control, television, jet travel, space exploration, etc. In some ways I think it represented a glut of technology; all the advances that had been put solely to military use during the war (not so much in the case of birth control, but certainly in aviation) hit the market in a relatively short span of time, at the same time that a lot of other social changes were brewing. While technology certainly continued to develop in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, even if you include the PC and the Internet I'm not sure that it quite matches the steepness of the trajectory that we were on between 1955-70. (As evidence, just look at how some of the projections of what life would be like in the late 90s that were made in the late 60s, look like now. They weren't totally unreasonable at that point, extrapolating from the last ten years and looking ahead twenty, but the pace of development didn't keep up.)

But even if we set that aside and just concentrate on the technologies that did come out, people have done a much better job at integrating them into their lives than I think Toffler was ready to give them credit for. Lots of things have changed -- cellphones, for instance, changed voice communications completely! -- but the public has kept along. Most people may have only a very dim understanding of how their cellphone actually works, but we're not teetering on the brink of some meltdown as a result of it.

The whole idea that the rate of change is suddenly going to snowball and exceed our ability to comprehend it seems flawed. The public's ability to understand, and willingness to accept and use, new technology may well become the limiting force in technological change (somebody needs to pay for all this great stuff; if nobody buys it, it flops, no matter how good the tech is), but that would seem to inherently prevent some sort of tipping point where we become consumed by and thus achieve transcendence through our technology.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:30 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure future shock isn't here. Look at rise in diagnosis of conditions like Austism Spectrum disorders, psychological conditions like ADHD and PTSD or the emergence of new diseases like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It seems to me that vast cities like Detroit have been fully laid waste by the pace of technologic change resulting in the collapse of industry and overall downsizing of workforces. Perhaps we've just been numbed to it. Consider buildings like the Sears tower which were built to accommodate projected staffing needs for accountants and file clerks that never materialized partially because of business failings but also because of automation and computerization.
posted by humanfont at 1:13 PM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


aeschenkarnos: As per Kurt Godel's work, any given system cannot be fully described except by a system that encompasses it. (Which incidentally disproves the idea of omniscient God(s).)

Well, technically, it disproves the idea of such within the physical universe as its inhabitants are able to define or comprehend it. Just sayin'.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:54 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


....and then theres 2012 and Timewave zero, which was sort of the new age version of the singularity.

You know, sitting at the beginning of 2010 I'd say the chances of us all being swept away on a tiday wave of novelty in the next 2 years now seem far from certain.
posted by Artw at 2:01 PM on January 5, 2010


We have been sliding into the singularity since before I was born. Shortly after I was born, my blood was upgraded to be immune to Measles, Mumps, and Rubella. I'm putting off having my corneas sculpted until it gets cheaper and more reliable, but that's an option available to me. I read the story on my mobile phone/camera/diary/web browser/alarm clock while sitting in a cafe. I walked home in temperatures 25 below zero, and came to no harm, due to flexible and durable insulation between me and the outside. Everything from literacy and clothes to carbon-fibre bicycle frames and blood doping augments what we can do as "natural" humans. If you write these things off as trite and mundane... what can I tell you? You're posthuman. So was your granddad, in all likelihood.

I know enough optics to understand the spectacles which I rely on for everything I do everyday. I have a good idea how the LCD screen in my watch works (if we're not going into the specifics of the chemistry). I understand the digital bits of the watch, I'd have to dig into university notes to revise exactly how the transistors work, and I have no idea how they got printed onto silicon, although I understand that it's limited by diffraction. The computer in front of me, with the 4G internet connection and the touchpad that knows how many fingers I'm using - no idea, I understand parts well enough, but it's pretty much magic. My personal singularity.

I guess we'll know that The Singularity has arrived when the sceptics start saying things like "feh, what's it going to let us do that we can't already do?". And in the same way we describe our various bizarre meta-systems of government as "democracy", we'll describe post-Singularity life as "modern society".
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 2:30 PM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wrinkled Stumpkin: Which is my argument against the Singularity. In spite of incredible change over the last 200 years, people still love, fuck, make money, and cheat each other much as they did in Ben Franklin's day. Jane Austin's observations about love, reputation, status, and privilege are still meaningful. Heck, if you pulled a Roman out of time and into Time's Square, once she got over the shock of moving images and bright lights, she'd likely understand the motivation for all that cognitive shouting as analogous to public graffiti and tradesmen selling their wares.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:42 PM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


KJS: Rome is already post-revolution. Money, clothes, writing, agriculture, those were singularity-level events. Try explaining to a hunter-gatherer how fashion and technology and economics interact so that I can wear a jumper of the correct colour and cut to attract a mate who is only aware of what those things mean because they read about it in a magazine. You've just defined normal human to mean "humans two thousand years ago".

You can argue that changes of that magnitude happen only a handful of times in the lifetime of a civilisation, and that they've all happened already for us. But I'm pretty sure that money has changed the world significantly and unpredictably beyond the goals that the original inventors had in mind ("gee, it's tiring carrying these chickens, will ya take an IOU for now, I'll give you the chickens later?").

My null hypothesis is that the future will be at best extremely weird during my lifetime. The (now) usual old people stuff of new gadgets, not knowing how they work or what they do, new social movements (I don't care if they ARE human-equiv, I won't have a monkey as my home assistant!), new music, new drugs. Quite possibly it will be much stranger.

I just don't quite understand why we should assume that the major changes are all behind us, other than because we remember the past and not the future.

(All of this is kind of an aside compared to the daft SFnal singularity, which is going to happen just about now and make geeks into gods: at least it serves the function of giving good writers a very broad canvas and bad writers plenty of rope to hang themselves.)
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 4:23 PM on January 5, 2010


I hope it's one of the ones that has a story, rather than a bunch of crap strung together in the shape of a story.
posted by Artw at 4:37 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


This isn't even a story. This is an outline for a novel. A really boring novel.
posted by webmutant at 7:30 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Actually that was an accidental cross-posted comment about the next Bond film, but i guess it works well about Singularity fiction too.
posted by Artw at 9:04 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


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