Sunday Jun 13, 2004

Singularity?

I went to see science fiction writer Bruce Sterling -- "The Singularity: Your Life as a Black Hole" -- on Friday nite. Now, I've never read a science fiction book in my life, and I have no clue who Bruce Sterling is. But when I read Simon's post directing me to WorldChanging for more Sterling info, well, then I was hooked. Gotta go. Especially since it was just 10 minutes from my apartment in San Francisco. And more importantly, I don't want my life to be a black hole, now do I?

So, here's my take. I don't buy this notion of "Singularity" ... where in the very near future technology progresses so rapidly that life becomes incomprehensible to us. In other words, a super paradigm shift, a complete break from the past, so utterly complete, in fact, that it transcends our very understanding and ability to describe it (which begs the question, of course, how we could have so many articles attempting to do just that). WorldChanging has links to some interesting pieces on this. I skimmed 'em. Sorry. I don't buy it. Sounds like the preachers of "the new economy" and the "end of the business cycle" just around, say, mid-2000, just before absolutely everything that Silicon Valley promised collapsed under it's own hollow hype. But that's just me. To be fair, there are some interesting bits in those articles, but "the singularity" as a concept sounds like science fiction. Nothing more. Could make a good movie, I bet, but I probably wouldn't read the book.

Sterling's speech, though, was excellent. He's an extremely clever guy and a great talker. Even though I don't know science fiction and didn't get most of his jokes, I found myself laughing at every turn. He's that good rhetorically. He spent most of his time poking fun at various Singularity proponents, carefully not going too far because, really, who knows, right? The guys over at WorldChanging summed up the speech up perfectly with this once sentence Sterling uttered near the end of his talk: "The future is a process, not a destination. The future is not a noun, it's a verb." I agree.

However, driving home I found myself more and more disappointed. Sterling spent too much time undermining the Singularity only to end on the remarkably anti-climatic, "The future is a process, not a destination. The future is not a noun, it's a verb." Pretty ordinary observation, I'd say. While at the same time he dropped bombs like, "We don't know what it means to be conscious" (rough quote), and "I'm not really concerned about a singularity as much as I am with the radical manipulation of human cognition ... because those people may have very little to say to us" (again, rough quote). Audience reaction? Silence. Wow. I would have loved for him to explore those issues because it seemed to me that was the real essence of Sterling's views. Maybe next time.

Note: If I'm wrong and this Singularity thing is real, then this excellent article articulates how open source can help ensure that a Singularity occurs in a way that benefits everyone, not just the powerful.
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