The OF Blog: Skeptical about the Singularity

Friday, December 23, 2005

Skeptical about the Singularity

This post isn't meant to be a very detailed, researched response to what I perceive as problems with the concept of the Singularity, but instead just an introduction to possible questions/shortcomings about this belief. So there won't be extensive citations or even elaborate explanations behind my statements. But hopefully this will encourage some discussion, either here or elsewhere.

The term Singularity refers to an expected near-future event (some futurists have stated that they believe it will happen during the 3rd decade of this century) in which future rates of technological development will have accerlated to such a point as to make predictions of human society and its development practically impossible. The term comes from the physics realm and is meant to mirror the uncertainties that happen around a black hole. Supporters of this concept cite things such as Moore's Law (where computational abilities double around every 18 months) and anecdotal evidence about how technologies have developed at an apparent exponential rate throughout human existence.

All well and good, I suppose. There seem, however, to be certain constraints that haven't been taken into account by most proponents of the Singularity model. Now once upon a time, I was training to be a cultural historian and I can't help but wonder at the near absence of references to the cultural dimension. Yes, some have claimed that society today would be almost unrecognizable to someone from a century ago, but that's just a misleading statement. Yes, technologically, the farmer from 1900 might be amazed by the computers, cell phones, radios, TV, airplanes, and mass transport systems, but after taking a few minutes to orient himself, that hypothetical farmer would see a lot more in common. From the language being nearly the same to witnessing a similar social organization scale into the Haves and Have Nots (and yeah, some things about historical Marxism are valid in this context - deal) to how human paralanguage is basically the same, there is still quite a bit of a lag between technological concepts and societal reorganization. In a world in which we use words formerly associated with horse-drawn transportation to describe our manipulation of motorized transportation, it seems that a linguistic Singularity at least is still in the extremely distant future.

Oh, perhaps proponents might argue that at some near-future point that the very concepts of communication will change, perhaps with bio-mechanical augmentation. Perhaps, but then comes the issue of availability and public acceptance. Just as the ancient Greeks invented a working steam engine or the Mesopotamian civilizations had the concept of a battery (as witnessed by what was found within some of their idols) but did not develop related technologies, what advantage will there be for societies to develop these technologies if it would mean a widespread change in societal organizations in the decades or centuries to follow? Will we see renewed attempts to limit the spread of new technologies, such as what Great Britain attempted to do in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution? Will there be benefits (such as age-related research) that will be denied to a certain population, with the possible risk of societal revolt?

On these fronts, I have seen very little mention from the Singularists. Maybe I'm just too much of a skeptic here, but I can't help but see quite a few issues that just haven't been addressed to my satisfaction. But perhaps others here can point out counterarguments to what I said above?

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