In the Eye of Armageddon

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The pace of old age is best measured in the capacity to be numb.

I actually think the ‘Singularity’ is a problematic metaphor.

A few years back I gave this paper at Brock University called “Dragons Over Spaceships” (which I would just redact and post here, if it wasn’t buried somewhere in my dead computer) where I used the work of a conceptual historian named Koselleck to explain the relationship between fantasy and science fiction, and the ways in which the former could be considered a more fertile ground for a ‘literature of ideas.’ Koselleck defines Modernity (Neuzeit) as the changing relationship between what he called the ‘space of experience’ and the ‘horizon of expectation.’  The idea can be summed up as follows (though I’m working from memory in a state of moderate-to-severe sleep deprivation):  our space of experience is simply the ‘space’  of what we now know, the staples that presently make up our experience. Our horizon of expectation refers to how far we can map our present space of experience into the future. The example I always like to give is that of a medieval yeoman chewing his callouses in some German field. Not only can he assume that his son will by and large share his experience, but that his grandson will, and his great-grandson, and so on. His space of experience, thanks to social immobility and a creeping rate of technological change, possessed an almost preposterously deep horizon of expectation.

Given this simple conceptual cartoon, we can understand ‘modernization’ or ‘progress’ as the accelerating retreat of our horizons of expectation. We can’t even reliably predict what our own lives will look like in twenty years time, let alone the ‘experiential space’ our children will some day inhabit. This gives us a way (and nothing more) to understand, for instance, the obsolescence of aging, the reason why the respect once accorded to the elderly seems to have all but evaporated in contemporary consumer society: their experiences no longer apply the way they once did.

Expressed in these terms, the ‘singularity’ is simply the point where the accumulation of technologically mediated knock-on effects renders the future almost entirely opaque, and our horizon of expectation, our ability to extrapolate our experiences, collapses altogether.

Given that the process has been accelerating over centuries, there’s no reason to assume that the trend will not continue. Given that we humans have fixed tolerances for social and environmental change, there’s good reason to assume that at some point technologically mediated social change will accelerate beyond our ability to cope, individually and collectively. (Just to give an example, one of the things I fret about with my daughter is that some experts predict that teenagers in her cohort will be abusing some forty-plus recreational drugs (compared to the four that almost did me in!) thanks to the pharmacological revolution). 

I’ve seen all kinds of ‘anti-acceleration arguments,’ none of which I find remotely convincing, let alone powerful enough to defease the pessemistic induction above. Most of them seem to turn on some kind of humanistic exceptionalism: so for instance, some think the sheer complexity of the brain will render it a black box in perpetuity – that it is incomprehensible in principle – and that this comprises some kind of brake that will pull us up short of the brink. Maybe the brain will resist the brain’s attempt to comprehend it in its entirety, maybe not. Maybe we’ll need machines to do this for us (or to us). Either way, comprehensive understanding has nothing to do with our ever-increasing ability to intervene and instrumentalize the brain’s functions piece-meal, therapeutically or otherwise.  Look at the technologies in Neuropath. Or better yet, think of the present technologies of cochlear or deep-brain implants as versions of Edison’s first recorder, then try to imagine the Blueray versions of those (and many other) technologies in a hundred years time. Some seem to think that humanity will realize what’s happening, then band together to legislate some kind of brake on those particularly menacing technologies. But again, history and markets argue otherwise. Short of any obvious and immediate deleterious effect, markets generally seize upon and exploit any innovation that provides some competitive advantage. At what point do we realize that neurocosmetic surgery is driving us insane?

As for the transhumanistic optimism that some espouse, I can’t help but think this is simply wishful thinking. Social change typically generates conflict, plain and simple, and we’re talking about change on a literally unimaginable scale. Our toys become ever more powerful, while our conceit and delusion remain more or less constant. The question, it seems to me, is simply one of how many bullets are we capable of dodging.

The answer to this strikes me as obvious: only so many.