Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Singularitarian Hype and the Denial of History

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 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.


Summerspeaker said...

Though I haven't read Standage's book, I'm familiar with telegraph lines and the nineteenth century, including the considerable parallels between then and now. The similarities often strike me as I read through periodicals from the turn of the century. However, I find your (Standage's?) claim that telegraphy was bigger deal than the internet difficult to swallow. Given sufficient magnitude, quantitative changes become qualitative too. The speed and spread of the network has increased exponentially, and this matters.

As usual, I concur with many of the points you make - the inevitable march to the end of history is nonsense, the internet has a material existence enmeshed in the horrors of industrial capitalism, politics aren't going to magically disappear, etc - and find this article particularly lucid. (Are Singularitarians reading? I hope so but doubt it.)

We disagree over the assessment of Kurzweil's two central theses: the law of accelerating returns and transformative power superhuman intelligence. I think there's something of intellectual merit here despite all the progress triumphalism and reactionary politics; you think it's purely a mistake and/or scam.

Dale Carrico said...

I find your (Standage's?) claim that telegraphy was bigger deal than the internet difficult to swallow.

Fair enough. Let me put it another way. Since we are living in THIS chapter of what I am calling the Long Century of the Internet rather than one of the earlier chapters, the ones defined by telegraphy, or early radio broadcasters, or Ma Bell, or the Big Three networks, or what have you, it is absolutely and objectively right that the materializations aren't a big deal to us the way net access via desktops and handhelds are. As you allude to in the very visceral metaphor of "hard to swallow" here, part of what I think you are rightly pointing out is that OUR OWN AGENCY is indispensably materialized in these desktops and handhelds, so of course that is going to be a bigger deal to us. I think this is right. What I am trying to foreground is that we need to take care when framing the narrative of the technodevelopmental vicissitudes through which our agency has been materialized-mediated, and not confuse the subjective priority of our moment for an objective one. When we realize the internet did not come from no-where and did not Change Everything I believe we are less likely to think/ hope/ fear it is going somewhere comparably ineffably no-where upon which it will Change Everything again.

I am doubly skeptical of Kurzweil's chestnut. First, I always like to quote Lanier: "If anything, there's a reverse Moore's law observable in software: As processors become faster and memory becomes cheaper, software becomes correspondingly slower and more bloated, using up all available resources." I don't think this is actually universalizable enough to be called a proper Law but I think its failure exposes an at least comparable failure in Moore's. As for the broader contours of Kurzweil's point, I am drawn to the late lamented blog "Infeasible" by HP LaLancette whose Law of Accelerating Toilet Brushes appeals both in its argumentative concision and satirical incision -- it should be part of the eternal canon singularitarian skepticism.

By way of conclusion, let me add that I definitely believe in the transformative power of human intelligence, but I think it expressive itself primarily in collective social struggle and in the offering up of works of art to the hearing of a world which collaborates in their significance through the judgements and readings they are provoked to by them. I believe that this intelligence and the actions and judgments it releases into the world is radically unpredictable and that this is in large measure the register of human freedom.

Cheers, and sorry our last exchange was needlessly vitriolic on my part -- I get brittle and defensive online when I'm taking hits from lots of directions at once, something that has been happening much more since the brief burst of attention that damn "unbearable stasis" thingie got.

Summerspeaker said...

On the conceptual level, I find the Singularitarian obsession with everything changing useful. While the dominant narrative indeed stands out as overblown and pregnant with stereotypical millennialist fervor, contemplating superhuman intelligence and/or molecular manufacturing serves as way to think beyond the status quo. I've yet to experience it and may well never, but the evidence suggests abrupt social transformation has happened and could again. (If nothing else, asteroids and gamma ray bursts indicate that Change Everything events occasionally do come from nowhere or at least outer space.)

Lanier's observation hits home and throws a hefty bucket of cold water on Kurzweil's fire. Eir plant-of-the-help-desks scenario strikes me as thoroughly plausible. I'm not terribly impressed by the toilet brushes. It's good but obvious. Yes, as my Statistics 101 professor said, trends only continue until they stop. In this case, however, we've got a number of vastly wealthy and capable folks working on computing hardware and software. According to Lanier, most of them subscribe to the Singulitarity worldview. It's a historical trends bolstered by considerable present-day effort and a compelling (at least to adherents) ideology. I'm not confident they won't succeed at some level, as unpleasant as the results might be for the rest of us.

jimf said...

> we've got a number of vastly wealthy and capable folks working
> on computing hardware and software. According to Lanier, most
> of them subscribe to the Singul[]arity worldview. . .
> I'm not confident they won't succeed at some level. . .

"Unluckily, it is difficult for a certain type of mind to grasp
the concept of insolubility. Thousands...keep pegging away at
perpetual motion. The number of persons so afflicted is far
greater than the records of the Patent Office show, for beyond the
circle of frankly insane enterprise there lie circles of more and
more plausible enterprise, until finally we come to a circle which
embraces the great majority of human beings.... The fact is that
some of the things that men and women have desired most ardently
for thousands of years are not nearer realization than they were
in the time of Rameses, and that there is not the slightest reason
for believing that they will lose their coyness on any near
to-morrow. Plans for hurrying them on have been tried since the
beginnning; plans for forcing them overnight are in copious and
antagonistic operation to-day; and yet they continue to hold off
and elude us, and the chances are that they will keep on holding
off and eluding us until the angels get tired of the show, and the
whole earth is set off like a gigantic bomb, or drowned, like a
sick cat, between two buckets."

-- H. L. Mencken, "The Cult of Hope"

Bear in mind that whatever the "worldview" of either management
or rank-and-file at places like Intel or HP or Oracle or Google,
"achieving the Singularity" is **not** in the business plans of these

In any case, since there no metric for specifying how much closer
the business activities of any of these firms might have nudged
the world closer to the Singularity (or the Second Coming of
Christ, for that matter), this cannot be a figure of merit
included in the annual report.

> . . .as unpleasant as the results might be for the rest of us.

Keep in mind that Dale has never "opposed the Singularity"
because the results (of a Singularity actually **happening**!)
might be "unpleasant". That fear (as well
as the paradisiacal hope) is strictly in the realm of the
True Believers.

Dale is dismissive of Singularity-hype as wishful thinking
because it 1) distracts ostensibly intelligent folks from
doing something that might be useful 2) if taken seriously
by policy makers and constituents
who don't know any better, **could** damage public
debate on matters of funding and regulation of technology
3) can be used by incumbent interests to deliberately sway
political debate in their favor, just as other religions
have been so used and 4) tends to be associated with some
of the **least** socially progressive political views in
the modern world (however ostensibly "technologically
progressive" the "Singularitarians" may think of themselves).

We're not (certainly **I'm** not) skeered that the results
of such an imaginary apocalypse "might be unpleasant for the
rest of us". Any more than we're scared of Judgment Day.

Dale Carrico said...

On the conceptual level, I find the Singularitarian obsession with everything changing useful... contemplating superhuman intelligence and/or molecular manufacturing serves as way to think beyond the status quo.

It may seem paradoxical, but I am suspicious of what singularitarians are counting as a belief in Changing Everything. As I said, I think the belief that the emergence of the digital internet was a qualitative event that Changed Everything is a profound misrecognition of what was in fact a quantitative re-materialization, the latest chapter in the Long Century of the Internet. One way of looking at it is to say it was this misrecognition was the inaugurating Hype that gave rise to the serial hype that subsequently attached to so much discourse about the internet.

On this view, faith in the singularity itself is the ultimate hype, hype deranged into religious claims for techno-transcendence. But I also think it pays to look closely into the nature of these claims, as you say, "conceptually."

I know the transhumanists like to advertize themselves as more brave in their willingness to contemplate total transformation than mehum sheeple types like me who fail to measure up to their futurological shock levels and all that assertive nerd-jock nonsense, but have you noticed how utterly reasurring the furniture of their futures tend to be?

It is one thing to claim to embrace "total change" but it is quite another to indulge in infantile wish-fulfillment fantasies of a return to the ease and plentitude of mama's breast. The Robot God takes care of you, nano-genies give you everything you want for free, "enhancement" gives you back your youth, but even makes you the better you dreamed about staring youthfully in the mirror pining for buff Biff and your own pony, superintelligence protects you from the humiliations of being caught out in an error or ignorance or humiliated (think of the geeks whose daydreams these are!), and then, a SENS technician with his wrench or a deed freeze and leap into holodeck heaven -- and you don't even have to die!

Dale Carrico said...

Quite apart from the delusiveness of all this nonsense (and my ire at those who debauch science by claiming serial marginality from scientific consensus is actually a sign of transhumanoid championing of science when it is the opposite) and the distraction of all this nonsense (you know what I think we should be doing -- applying shared knowledge to our shared problems, struggling to distribute the risks, costs, and benefits of technoscientific change equitably to diversity of its actual shareholders, a permanent and fraught progressive struggle we happen to be losing), it seems to me profoundly questionable to describe this as a true openness to change at all.

Daydreams of an amplification of your current capacities and an amplification of your present satisfaction isn't really change at all, it is me -- better! (and better very much in the terms me now thinks in), it is now -- better! (more now, more!). It looks to me very much the same as the "imagination" that drives television commercials and marketing more generally -- youth! sex! riches! more!

I describe "futurity" as that aspect of openness in the present that arises from the fact that presence-together is both shared and contended by an ineradicably diverse plurality of stakeholders with different capacities, histories, hopes. I agree with Arendt that the "stuff" of which freedom is made is the res publica, "the public thing," what the Founders called "public happiness" that emerges in this midst of this sharing/ contestation. I believe that "The Future" of the futurologists, refiguring futurity from its political substance into an imaginary unitary destination actually obliterates our grasp of freedom, rewriting the openness of freedom in the image of closure. The futurologists misconstrue freedom in instrumental terms (precisely as one would expect of techno-fetishists), thinking it as amplifying capacitation rather than as collective re-conciliation, re-opening, re-figuration.

Dale Carrico said...

(If nothing else, asteroids and gamma ray bursts indicate that Change Everything events occasionally do come from nowhere or at least outer space.)

You could get run over by a car tomorrow. A dirty bomb could go off in a major city. Resource descent could choke off the petrochemical bubble of "Western Civilization." Hell, you could fall in love with the wrong person and screw up your life. Sure, an asteroid could hit earth. Life is bedeviled (and inspired) by accident, we are mortal, aging, vulnerable, error-prone, clumsy communicators, heartbroken, frustrated beings. The word for it is finitude. And far from embracing it, the transhumanoids spend most of their time in profoundly unhealthy denial of it.

we've got a number of vastly wealthy and capable folks working on computing hardware and software. According to Lanier, most of them subscribe to the Singulitarity worldview. It's a historical trends bolstered by considerable present-day effort and a compelling (at least to adherents) ideology. I'm not confident they won't succeed at some level, as unpleasant as the results might be for the rest of us.

Well, the neocons were the latest to remind us that a small klatch of white guys who are sure they are the smartest people in the room saying flabbergastingly idiotic things everybody laughs at can manage through perseverance and saying things rich powerful want to hear to find their way to a position to do unspeakable damage to the world. So, silly as they are, I agree they can have a terrible impact -- in fact already have in terms of the media frames through which urgent technodevelopmental deliberation is happening, to the cost of sense and equity. I am assuming you are describing the wealthy celebrity tech-CEOs as "capable" with your tongue in cheek -- of course they are mostly garish impresarios who are taking personal credit and appropriating personal profit for collective accomplishments. If you are referring to the guru-wannabes with the Robot Cult, you'll forgive me but I don't think any of them exhibit more than quotidian intelligence, although some have the kind of drive that gets stuff done while destroying the lives of everybody around them, their own first of all, I'll grant you that.