Twitter is the telegraph of the impending Singularity.— rachel lichtman (@DJRotaryRachel) June 6, 2012
In his excellent book The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage proposes, in effect, that the birth of the internet should be located with the invention of the telegraph and the development over the second half of the nineteenth century of the global telegraphy network. Of course, the way Standage tells his story is to remind online enthusiasts at the height of the irrational exuberance of the dot.com era (his book was published in 1998) of the endlessly many analogies between the ways telegraphy was incorporated into corporate, military, and mass-media formations and materialized in everyday lives in splashy tales of online romance, gossip, criminal detection, threats to privacy over a century ago, and the commonplace experiences of his own readers as networked personal computers were incorporated in their everyday lives and as these networked computers digitally incorporated in turn the prior iterations of inter-networked media forms, books, journalism, telegraphy, telephony, cinema, radio, television, cable, journals/zines, and so on.
What is crucial about this framing of the digital moment was its recognition that the emergence of telegraphy represented an incomparably more qualitative social and cultural phenomenon than was the emergence of the internet, which was the latest in a series of quantitative amplifications of an already-existing network embedded in the material and ritual artifice of our leading institutions and interpersonal dynamisms. The point of such an observation is not to deny the significance to individuals of the actual prosthetic forms their culture takes from moment to moment -- the material furniture of everyday life always matters, it is how lifeways literally matter, that is to say are literally materialized, in history -- but to warn us about the ways we are liable both to hyperbolize the discontinuity of our own moment in history, caught up as we are in its distresses, as well as to naturalize the continuities of our own moment in history, consoled as we are by its familiarities.
Contrary to the parochial triumphalism of a pop guru like Raymond Kurzweil, scholars like Standage tell a tale of the Long Century of the Internet not as a self-congratulatory fable of Manifest Destiny -- in which the characteristic desires of Kurzweil's privileged techno-fetishizing readership are declared to be prevailing over the available co-ordinates of existence in ever-accelerating ever-amplifying ever-consolidating ways on their way toward heaven as a mirror in which we see nothing but ourselves as we think we want to be, the reactionary imagination of futurological transcendence -- but instead as a tale of ongoing opportunistic unpredictable technodevelopmental changes, incorporations, provocations. Neither is Standage telling, by the way, a tale of Spenglerian decadence, though the realization that the fantasized "spirit-stuff" of which "Cyberspace, the Home of Mind" is actually made is fueled by poison gas and coal and accessed on toxic devices made by slaves and destined for landfill suggests all too palpably that such a narrative may be more apt.
Singularitarianism usually amounts to the claim that "accelerating change" has a kind of material momentum drawing humanity irresistibly toward some history-shattering discontinuity (sometimes, instead, it is an hypothesized Event, connected to the creation of a post-biological "super-intelligence," possibly created by humans, possibly arising spontaneously out of creations by humans, possibly created from "enhanced" humans themselves), whatever it is imagined unimaginably and often rather unimaginatively to be, and it tends to function as kind of black box into which its enthusiasts stuff all sorts of transcendent dreams and apocalyptic nightmares of theirs.
It seems to me crucial to point out that this singularitarian faith is mobilized out of two fundamental misrecognitions: First, singularitarianism arises out of the misrecognition of the emergence of the late twentieth century form of the internet as an historical discontinuity prefiguring another, wishful, historical discontinuity, rather than as yet another episodic, quantitative re-materialization in the Long Century of the Internet. Second, singularitarianism arises out of the misrecognition of privileged people of the destabilizing experience of precarity and distress provoked by the outsourcing, union-busting, deregulation, austerity, and financial fraud of neoliberal globalization -- facilitated by digital networked monetary transfer, targeted marketing, and surveillance -- as instead an experience of promising and progressive "accelerating change."
Rachel Lichtman's would-be prophetic tweet, re-posted above, that "Twitter is the telegraph of the impending Singularity" is a perfect symptom of these enabling singularitarian misrecognitions. What she is treating as an analogy illuminating "The Future" for the present is in fact an assertion of ignorance in the present of the past on which that present depends. Twitter as an internet form is a vestigial echo of the now-disavowed birth of internet in networked telegraphy. In the mostly vacuous stream of tweets, testifying in real time to the most ephemeral present -- the state of one's digestion, impressions, off-the-cuff observations, unjustified opinions -- the Singularitarian discerns an accelerationalization for a wish-fulfillment fantasy of an urgent forward progressive momentum leading irresistibly out of the historical planetary quandaries (environmental catastrophes, widespread exploitation, amplifying war-making) that have come to seem too hard to grapple with on the only terms available to actually progressive technodevelopmental social struggle, the terms of education, agitation, organization, and legislation to ensure that the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change are equitably distributed to the diversity of stakeholders to that change.