According to UNICEF, "783 million people do not have access to safe, clean drinking water, and 2.5 billion people live without proper sanitation… Across the globe, more than 3,000 children die each day from unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation facilities." So, the first thing to say to Travis James Leland is that Very Serious White Guys of "The Future" should take care about glib uses of pronouns like "we" when they want to crow about what marvelous "augmented lifestyles" WE enjoy. Hell, is Leland following the statistics for earning power, retirement readiness, education levels, and health outcomes even among comparatively privileged white Americans who happen not to be in the top two quintiles of income distribution these days, one wonders?
Some believe that the Singularity will be a time when our computers and other devices merge with the biological, making us cyborgs and/or immortal beings. Yet the gradual omnipresence of technology has led to us never being far from a device that will keep us in constant contact with everyone. We are glued to our smartphones, netbooks, desktops, internet-ready Blu-Ray players and other things.As I insisted yesterday, in the post just before this one, I disagree that humans are more deeply "technologized" today because they have cellphones than were hunter gatherers sharpening their flints. My point is not to deny that the material and technical artifice through which we shape and cope with the world doesn't matter, but to insist that it matters in its specificities. Loose talk of "high" technology, or "deep" technology, or "super" technology, or "ubiquitous" technology is not a way to get to these specifics but only a way to disavow specificity the better to indulge in reactionary forms of self-congratulatory fabulizing or disasterbatory soft-porn or consumer abandon.
There is unquestionably a kind of conspicuous and insistent mystification happening here, a selective assignment of the "technological" only to those artifacts and techniques that happen to enable a certain techno-fetishistic titillation for consumers of mass marketed techno-gizmos and breathless tech sector press releases while disabling any actual substantial or critical awareness of the material specificities or political stakes concerning these artifacts and techniques -- all in the name, of course, of performing Very Serious "futurological" speculation for transhumanoid Big Brains at Very Serious "technoscience policy" think tanks.
But I also have to say it really is flabbergasting just how cheap the standards, just how impoverished the imagination of the transhumanoids so often seems to be when you take a long look at what they are getting so hot and bothered about. Somebody glues a camera to a cellphone and the Robot Cultists want to announce the arrival of tech heaven? Somebody repackages a crappy heart medication that helps one in five people get a better night's sleep for reasons nobody knows while it turns one in twenty suicidal and one in a hundred homicidal and the Robot Cultists want to celebrate the arrival of "enhancement medicine"? A handful of sociopaths find ways to monetize coding tricks made collectively for free and for the joy of it by people other than them and then become celebrity CEO bazillionaires and the Robot Cultists want to kiss the hems of their garments and pretend they are in Valhalla when these parasites gather to congratulate themselves on top of their gold plated poop piles in TED schmoozes or at their phony Singularity U? I mean, are you kidding me?
Leland soldiers bravely on:
I believe the case can be made that the Singularity happened not as one moment, but the combination of numerous factors coming together. I believe that the internet itself is just the medium, not the Singularity itself. But the omnipresent access we have to the internet seems to have exploded recently. With our smartphones, we have all the information in the world literally at our fingertips and we can integrate it into our lives. We already have an augmented lifestyle, don’t we?Yes, there's that painfully ugly "we" again. Yes, again, there's that truly sad willingness to pretend a crappy iPhone is the End of History.
Actually, Leland, "access… to the internet" is far from "omnipresent." Actually, even were access to the internet to be omnipresent this wouldn't "literally" amount to "all the information in the world… at our fingertips." There is far more world to be known, Leland, than finds its way to the internet. Also, Leland, if I may, actually, access to the internet hasn't "exploded" recently… unless perhaps one is talking about the way predictable rainstorms and snowstorms now regularly disable the infrastructure needed to maintain that access because market fundamentalist ideologues (many of whom throng the ranks of futurological subcultures to this day) think public investment in infrastructure is eeeeevil socialism, or unless perhaps one is talking about the way predictable price gouging is making the costs of access explode because of the anti-regulatory work of lobbyists for the tech sector transhumanoids are forever drooling over. But I doubt that these are the kind of "explosions" Leland means when he announces this feeling he has that "the omnipresent access we have to the internet seems to have exploded recently."
Yes, "seems." Is that how it "seems" to you guys in the Robot Cult, is it? How very unexpected, how very exciting, how very nice.
Now, I can deride this sort of blissed out superficial pop-sci complacent consumer fanboy techno-fetishizing bullshit for days. Oh, you know I can! Sure, it's stupid, sure, it's lame, sure, it's reactionary, sure it's even a little bit evil… but I want to turn, by way of conclusion, to another typically futurological gesture exemplified by Leland's piece.
A handful of futurological muckety mucks have actually really made hay promoting the notion of the Singularity. Vernor Vinge (actually a very fine science fiction writer), but also hucksters like Ray Kurzweil and Eliezer Yudkowsky and various assorted futurological nuts and hangers on have spun this little apocalyptic neologism into an archipelago of institutions and best-sellers and tee vee spots and lecture circuit gigs. This turn of phrase has attracted a lot of attention (and in so doing, in my view, deranged a lot of public deliberation), it has made a lot of money change hands (and in so doing, in my view, wasted a lot of money that could have been more productively spent in almost any other imaginable way).
At the heart of the singularity narrative is the idea that artificial super-intelligence might soon be coded by humans or might soon emerge through interactions of coding with humans and that this resulting super-intelligence will end human history either by solving all our problems for us or reducing the world to goo. Usually, this narrative depends on the conjuration of an impression of technodevelopmental momentum, often involving genuflections to Moore's Law as well as to older intuitively powerful self-congratulatory narratives of Western Civilizational Progress, in which ever more powerful gizmos are accumulating a toypile heavenward the very irresistibility of which sublimes away any moral qualms, scientific skepticisms, safety considerations, or political concerns yielding something hard to distinguish from full-on fulminating faithfulness, but usually conjoined to a pseudo-scientific self-confidence and a bullying disdain for every other kind of faithful discourse (and I say this as a cheerful atheist thirty years in conviction).
Now, I happen to think Singularitarian discourse is hogwash even in its most "rigorous" varieties.
I think the western civilizational progress narrative is mostly a matter of centuries of criminal exploitation and violence preceding the more recent scam of inflating a petrochemical bubble that is about to burst.
I think Moore's "Law" is a skewed perspectival effect and that even on its own terms, to quote Jeron Lanier, "As processors become faster and memory becomes cheaper, software becomes correspondingly slower and more bloated, using up all available resources."
I think "accelerating change" is just what neoliberal precarity and neoconservative militarism looks like from the perspective of its beneficiaries (or those dupes who wrongly fancy themselves its potential beneficiaries).
I think the real substance of the Turing Test is that the attribution of intelligence to non-intelligent artifacts results in artificial imbecillence among the humans who fall for it.
I think that those who are really materialists about consciousness should have to grant that all actually existing intelligence so far worthy of that name has been incarnated in organismic material brains and in social struggles in material history and that those who are really materialists about information should have to grant that all information is non-negligibly instantiated on material carriers and that "cyberspace" is run on coal fires and accessed on toxic devices made by slave labor in exploited regions of the world.
Maybe alien or non-biological modes of consciousness and intelligence are logically possible, but that doesn't mean that it won't turn out to make sense to come up with a different word than "consciousness" or "intelligence" that does justice both to what it is and who we are. Maybe forms of narrative selfhood instantiated on silicon can be eternalized (not that there is any reason to think so if we are using actually existing computers as our reference point), but that doesn't mean we can "migrate" our own organismically materialized consciousness onto a different substrate without violating it or that we can extend the narrative form of our own selfhood beyond its present bounds without losing its integrity.
Just declaring techno-immortality or super-intelligence a matter of how things are now, only Better, only Longer, only More is a way of refusing to grasp what intelligence, consciousness, selfhood actually materially are, and then plugging the hole of that refusal with a bunch of infantile fears and fantasies and pretending that somehow this constitutes Very Serious intellectual activity somehow.
But whatever my criticisms of Singularitarianism as a conceptually confused, scientifically superficial, emotionally infantile, politically pernicious farrago of ill-digested science fiction conceits and hyperbolic corporate press releases and wooly theology and shrieking id, I have to admit at any rate that there is something like a there there, an actual viewpoint involving actual positions that are being offered up to public scrutiny.
If we accept with Leland that the Singularity denominates the stunning insight that, you know, more is going on than, like, we know about, or, like, nobody can predict exactly what will happen next, man, or the moment when lots of people started surfing the internet on their phones while they are on the subway, then I've got to say, the Singularity is worse than wrong, worse than stupid, worse than reactionary, but actually a big blank nothing.
Nobody has to join a Robot Cult to notice that there is a difference that makes a difference between consumers with cellphones and consumers with landlines, nobody has to join a Robot Cult to notice that things are complicated or that history keeps on breaking out in unexpected ways.
Futurological discourses have a distressing tendency to oscillate between bouts of manic techno-transcendentalism and retreats into the most blank bleak vapidity imaginable. In this tendency futurology exposes more clearly even than usual its essential kinship with marketing discourse: "The Future" is the tantalizing promise of fun! youth! sex! delicious! through which is forever re-packaged and re-sold and re-consumed the status quo and the elite incumbents who benefit from its endlessly reiterated redistribution on their terms.