Within a few hours of my posting this, you will be dead. Not just you, in fact, but every one you have ever known and every one they have ever known — all evidence that the human creature ever graced this sphere — in fact this lovely globe we call Earth itself will all cease to exist in a mercifully short instant as local spacetime collapses, taking the whole ball of wax with it.
In but a few scant hours from my posting. Poof.
Now, on the off chance you are reading this come Wednesday morning, then one of two things has happened:
A) When spacetime collapsed, the universe bifurcated and you find yourself in a world identical to the one that you split off from, save the key difference that this one exists.
B) The Large Hadron Collider did not in fact end the world when it performed its calibration test run at 3:34am EST. There were no rogue black holes, and no strangelet impacts, sending civilization as we know it screaming down the crapper.
But that’s okay, it’s early in the morning and there will be other apocalypses over breakfast. Belief and preparation for a manifest Apocalypse is even entering the political debate here in America where the Republicans have picked a vice Presidential Candidate who is allegadly knee-deep in End Times Preparedness, herself.
And of course, when you turn on your computer in the morning, happy that it seemingly hasn’t been torn to atoms by a visiting black hole, you’ll see probably see a handful of references to the Singularity.
Because if it’s not one Apocalypse, it’s another.
Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended. — Vernor Vinge
History is a heat, it is the heat of accumulated information and accumulated complexity. As our culture progresses, we find that we gather more and more information and that we slowly start to move almost from a fluid to a vaporous state as we approach the ultimate complexity of a social boiling point. I believe that our culture is turning to steam. — Alan Moore
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. — Francis Fukuyama
I promised a couple of our readers that my next post would be more upbeat and cheerful, so in that vein, let’s talk about the end of the world. I’ve been wrestling with this post for a while, because while I set out to find a specific point and skewer it to the wall, the simple fact of the matter is that I’m of at least two minds about the Singularity and Eschatology in general.
Science fiction author Vernor Vinge popularized the use of the term “Singularity” to describe a point in near-future history when human intelligence would be augmented via biological enhancement or man/machine interfaces to the point that existing models of human behavior, society and thinking are useless. He took his usage of what was normally considered a term of mathematics and astrophysics from Manhattan Project scientist and the conceptual father of nanotechnology, John von Neumann.
From there it has further been confused and conflated with a variety of New Age or more metaphysical “End Times” scenarios, particularly Terrance McKenna’s Timewave Zero. There’s a geek rapture, a nerd rapture, thirty flavors of Christian Rapture — more and more, even in our fairly mundane daily lives we are awash in Eschatology.
And here’s where I start running into trouble, because quite frankly I firmly believe that as a Futurist?
Eschatology is the Enemy.
The End of History in any of its forms, be it world-smashing, Big Dad in the Sky giving spankings, or simply a near point at which which all narrative breaks down due to metaphysical/extra-temporal (Timewave Zero) or technological (the Singularity) influences or effects seems to be a really horrible way to contextualize the present if you’re in the business of future building. The end becomes a thing that you can either A) Wait for or B) plan for. If you allow history to be contextualized by its endpoint, you’re looking at pretty good odds of embracing stagnation or nihilism. By establishing a narrative of the end of history, the context of history is far easier to frame in ways that dis-empower its participants.
I also tend to think that the Singularity, to pinpoint a particular Eschatological vision, in particular is the enemy of the Future. Now, let’s save any particular nitpicking of any one version of a Technological Singularity for later — I’m just interested in the idea of a technological concresence, for the moment. A point where technological innovation changes everything. I can’t help but feel that that kind of projection of the future doesn’t take into account the boiling frog.
So, as the story goes, if you put a frog in cold water and then sllllowwwwllllyyy turn up the heat, then the frog will never notice it is getting hotter until *bam* said frog is done and boiled. Well, the story is, of course, not at all true, but I find it to be a useful metaphor nonetheless. Let’s say that the narrative of history is leading up to a Technological Singularity of one form or another. We, the human organism, are deeply immersed into the liquid of history and I don’t know if we are actually prepared to guage whether the water is (as Mr. Moore says) turning to steam. I know it seems we are on the cusp of some product of a vastly accelerated chain of events, but I can’t help but wonder if that’s not how it has always felt when engaged with the ongoing drama of human existence.
I can’t argue that I live in a vastly more information rich environment than my parents, and they one richer than their parents and so on, but does that recognition equip us to tell what the thing that changes everything is going to be? The End of the Cold War, the widespread outbreak of AIDS, 9/11. All of these events, in my lifetime have been billed as THE thing that changes everything. But they didn’t. In fact, we can only really judge what events did really cause massive shifts in society with reflection.
I can’t help but think that this is a process we’ll see repeated with the Singularity, should it come to pass. Things happen, like they do, and things will change and shift and life will move on and one day someone will turn around and say to themselves “HOLY FUCK, THAT WAS THE SINGULARITY!?”
But by then, they will probably be more concerned with whatever new point of complete change is just around the corner.
History will change, context will always shift, the weird will get weirder, narratives and how we relate to them will continue to be in a constant state of flux, but I do not think that the Singularity as we tend to think about it, will ever come.
Which, come to think of it, is an odd position to take for a person who does tend to believe in the existence of a transcendental object at the end of time.
Anyway, I’ve been wrestling with this for a while and it’s not meant as a screed or a rant, but an invitation to hear your thoughts on the matter. Singularity: Yay or Nay? Why so much obsession on the Apocalypse leaking around the edge of mainstream consciousness? Is time speeding up or is it an illusion? Is there leftover Millennial tension from 2000? Can Eschatology be liberating? What the hell is a Transcendental Object at the End of Time?