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March 2017

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bear by san

S1ngularity, and why I won't be going on the rapture of the geeks. (Keeping up with the future)

David Moles (who, I must say, I deeply respect--and not just because he pays me) made a comment in Jed's blog that "but if you don't address the Singularity (declaring its impossiblity by fiat doesn't count), you're living in the 80s" SF right now, and I'm like what? You are? Why, because it's SFnal consensus reality this week?

Because last week, SF consensus reality was cyberpunk, and the week before, it was Galactic Empires spreading Mom and Apple Pie to the stars. I don't buy Singularity--I've said it elsewhere--because I think it's an inherently naive concept, which (as SF, historically, has) ignores the fact that Much Of Humanity Ain't Like Us. Besides, I also kind of think Singularity is being worked pretty hard right now, and it's more interesting to address other things.

And I think the most interesting work done after the cyberpunk wave crested was the work that moved away from cyberpunk and toward something else--the work, in other words, that wasn't the trend. (there's also some interesting discussion of this over in nihilistic_kid today, which is why I went back and read the comments section today)

In other words, the rapture of the geeks is all very nice for the geeks, but what the hell do you do with all those telephone santizers? (Remember those telephone sanitizers? Remember the moral of the story? The moral of the story is, systems break down in unexpected way.) (In a related note, the more conservative definition of Singularity--the one where we can't keep track of the technology any more in any kind of a meaningful fashion? That happened in... 1993. Or thereabouts.)

What do you do with all the people who, for one reason or another, don't want to/get to go?

Very interesting to me, especially since one of the things I wanted to do with Worldwired is deconstruct Singularity a bit. Hammered is not-cyberpunk, or post-cyberpunk, in that I like to think it challenges some of cyberpunk's basic assumptions. Worldwired (and I don't think, given the title, it's too big of a spoiler to mention) does discuss the concepts of Singularity and Transcendent AIs; I wonder if I can claim it as post-Singularity the same way Hammered is post-cyberpunk?

Heh. Well, I probably could. But it would be awfully arrogant to presume I succeeded in what I was attempting, with regard to the genre dialogue. At the very least, I tried to take a few chips out of the monolithic idea.

(I sometimes think I'm a bit at the edge of the bell curve for being an SF writer who grew up working class. My parents and their parents are/were tradesmen and soldiers and white and pink collar workers, immigrants and the children of immigrants. And artists, and thinkers. My dad's a cabinetmaker and a luthier; my mother's a medical unit coordinator and a poet and a breeder of champion show dogs; my grandfather was a plumber and an incredibly talented sketch artist. And all of us were and are science fiction readers, and popular science readers, and mad speculators about the universe. I think it's a strength; makes me a bit suspicious of the middle-class assumptions that a lot of SF makes.)

Transcendent AI, I have different problems with. Which basically boil down to--why do we necessarily assume that thinking faster is thinking better? And what makes us assume that our problems would just be fixed if we were smarter and had smarter, friendlier AIs to look out for us? That's a big assmption right there, and it ignores such things as differences in individual motivation and the fact that the brightest of us can make mistakes. Or be monsters, for that matter.

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings--

I think Alan Moore put paid to that one already.

So yes, to me, a lot of the thought behind Singularity (and the search for it as a positive thing) reminds me of the charming sort of naivete that gave us the Organians and Q. (Which isn't to say that the *work* being done by various SF writers in Singularity-based universes is naive. Some of it is brilliant. But I think it's a wave that's crested already. And I think the idea that a Singularity can be expected in our lifetimes... well. That's unlikely at best.)

Very very smart people aren't necessarily right more often than anybody else. They're just wrong faster, and in more innovative ways. So again, the speed ofchange picks up, and the future becomes a blur, ad things happen before they get started? We're living that now. A science fiction novel I finished editing a year ago is already dated; it used to be you got a decade if you were lucky. Soon, it'll be a week. We can't keep up with the future now.

S'okay. We squint at the target and squeeze off a shot. What happens next is anybody's guess.

Which is cool, really. I didn't get my flying cars, and I didn't get my neural jacks, and I didn't get my galactic federation of Mom and Apple Pie, and I'm not getting the Matrix either. It doesn't matter. Science fiction isn't about predicting the future.

Science fiction is a useful form of allegory. It's is about discussing the now.

Comments

Verra nice, Bear.

I've wondered abit about the Singularity stuff, myself, wondering the same sorts of questions. I've been having a bit of fun diversifying "my" future, lobbing in bits and pieces of the various "in" things, seeing what sounds like maybe it could happen, for real, not just in some geek's wetdream. Hopefully I don't wind up looking like some kind of trend junkie.

I'm looking forward more to Hammered now, though, I think.
I'll be interested to see what you come up with.

Have you read Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon, by any chance?

The People Left Behind

Gene Wolfe's short story "The Hero as Werwolf" deals with those left behind. And, to some extent, so does Poul Anderson's novel Brain Wave.

Digressing a bit: I suspect that to people from the time of the Crusades, we would seem to have gone through the Singularity. All these modern gadgets such as horse-drawn farm machinery; incomprehensible political and economic theories; use of unreal money....

But some things change much less than one might expect. When the Crusaders took Jerusalem, refugees appealed to the Caliph of Baghdad for help. He sprang into action by appointing a committee to study the problem.

Re: The People Left Behind

You know, somehow, I find myself going back to "The Marching Morons."

I'm not saying Singularity is impossible, of course (as an SF writer, I must believe that nothing's impossible, if you build a compelling enough framework) but I think there's been a lot more buy in than the idea warrants. (I still object to that--you have to address it--thing.)

I still don't have my nutrition capsules. Although those square pink hothouse tomatoes are getting pretty close....

Class origins

"I sometimes think I'm a bit at the edge of the bell curve for being an SF writer who grew up working class. My parents and their parents are/were tradesmen and soldiers and white and pink collar workers, immigrants and the children of immigrants. And artists, and thinkers. My dad's a cabinetmaker and a luthier; my mother's a medical unit coordinator and a poet and a breeder of champion show dogs; my grandfather was a plumber and an incredibly talented sketch artist. And all of us were and are science fiction readers, and popular science readers, and mad speculators about the universe. I think it's a strength; makes me a bit suspicious of the middle-class assumptions that a lot of SF makes.)"

I'd consider Lester Del Rey the edge of the bell curve -- from a family of migrant workers.

My family was mostly skilled working class. My paternal grandfather was a farmer for a while (unusually for a Jew from Tsarist Poland, he grew up on a farm), but like many other Jewish farmers in the Catskills area he turned the farm into a summer vacation place. (The area doesn't have much good soil, to put it mildly.)

He wasn't the only one who went into business, but I think business was considered something you did if you couldn't get a real job.

My father was a tunnel worker for a while, but ended up as a construction plumber.

Re: Class origins

I thnk Lester may be the sign post at the end of the bell curve. *g* "Here be dragons."

Actually, I'm very pleased that SFF as a field continues to diversify--the strong Carribean and African-American voices emerging in the past couple of decades, the continued influx of women....

It can only be good for the genre, even as it widens the field of play between what Nick called the Analog Mafia and the Notorious Style Monkeys.

(Anonymous)

I have no idea what Singularity is. I only just found out that cyberpunk was dead, and I haven't even gotten around to reading Rudy Rucker yet.

Through the sheer force of my ignorance I defy the trends of genre fiction in all its forms!

I'm sure I agree with you completely, though.

(Anonymous)

And grammar!

Am I the Only One who Takes it Literally?

Am I the only one who takes the moral of the story about telephone sanitizers literally?

I've had people sanitizing the phones in our call center for years now. They stop for a while, and sure enough, half the staff calls in sick on the same day.

On the topic of transcendant AI.....I do think that thinking faster means being able to think of more alternatives faster, or at least realizing one's own errors faster. I'm not sure that AI is there yet....but when it come to allegory, compressing human experience into the transcendance of an AI seems to be as useful to me as any other framework.

Re: Am I the Only One who Takes it Literally?

Hmm. Maybe the telephone sanitizer story works on two levels....

Uuuuurrrrrgh. This one seems to have been around before, where 'everyone' in SF is supposed to be doing cyberpunk/nanotech/whatever because That's Where It's At. Bleah. As for thinking faster, thinking differently might be a better thing - see John Brunner's The Stone That Never Came Down (and he addresses similar problems in the better known Stand on Zanzibar).

Some considerable while ago an editor who was interested in my fiction told me that I should write something with X and Y and Z in it because that was what was selling at the time. (For various reasons, like the editor going off and doing something else, nothing came of this in terms of publication.) And a year or so later I read something in one of the publications of the BSFA by someone who was writing about having been given, it was clear, the exact same formula by the exact same editor. (And had found it writing very much against the grain, and had come up with something entirely different from what I did.)

In most cases this kind of thing is going to be cosmetic, interior decor, not architectural and structural, merely an overlay to the individual writer's underlying themes and story. Because Singularity or cyberpunk or nanotech or military sf may spark off creative ideas in some individuals: and others will go 'So what, yawn' and maybe sprinkle a few of the buzz-words and concepts over their work like restaurants putting slices of starfruit on dishes when it used to be kiwi-fruit, but no-one does kiwi fruit anymore unless they're being self-consciously retro.

I see the same thing in historical scholarship: certain areas, certain interpretative strategies, are all the rage (I was at a conference in which the organiser, only half-jokingly, deplored the fact that no-one was addressing constitutional and political issues like the Reform Acts and the Corn Laws any more). Lots of people using Foucault in a way that would probably have had Michel F tearing his hair (if he had had any) or causing small earthquakes turning in his grave.

I.e. okay, on the one hand there are issues that are around and likely to be appearing in people's writing; on the other hand there's fashion, which is people accepting Some Other Person's idea of What's Cool and Relevant.

Bingo. I agree with what you say here pretty comprehencively, and also note--

The ideal place to be is ahead of the crest, I think, but not too far. Shockwave riding, speaking of Brunner--

--there's a micropush on at the novel level right now for the dark, ecologically aware, periApocalyptic (ooo. I like that coinage. We're using it more often) brand of SF that I've been calling ecoGothic; the the-world-is-ending-now stuff. And I'm pretty sure that ones got a few more good years in it. This year's Atlantic hurricane season and last year's killer European heat wave have bought us sme room, I think. *g*

I have KSR's Forty Signs of Rain and Sterling's Heavy Weather on my desk right now, in the mean-to-read piles (there's more than one pile, alas) and I suspect from the way people talk about them these may be wandering in some of the same directions as Peter Watts' Starfish and my own Hammered. Both Peter's books and mine owe a very conscious debt to Brunner (His is more The Sheep Look Up and mine is more Stand on Zanzibar), but not having read the KSR and Sterling books yet, I can't really say if I can assign them to the same category of thought. (There's a particular thing that I mean when I say ecoGothic; it's a tone as much as anything, and then there's the little curlicues on the battlements)

I understand there's a few more books coming out in the near future with similar concerns. Something's gelling out of the zeitgeist on that one; it's kind of cool to watch.

I'm not saying it'll be The Next Big Thing after Singularity (what was the Last Big Thing? Nanotech? and before that, Cyberpunk? Did the New Wave have an Overhwelming Concern?)--and it may already be on the downhill curve.

SF/F romance is a boomtown these days. I suspect something interesting is goingto come out of that scramble, before it's done.
Brilliant, Sarah.

The Singularity might be the SF equivalent of the Rapture...something that a segment of the SF community wants to happen, and wants to believe can and will happen. Even if, should it happen, it would be a seminal, terrifying and possibly extinction-causing event.

Vinge's remorseless logic of it is all very good but I am not convinced that its an inevitability. And AI isn't here, we're missing something fundamental in understanding how and why WE think--which is a nice barrier to developing true AI, and the whole Singularity bit.

As far as why faster is better--its not so much that, but the fact that once you get something that does think significantly faster than a human AND can implement such thoughts, that's a huge advantage--even if the quality of those thoughts is not better than a human.

The future isn't ever what we think it is. I'm sure the world will not resemble that of the Hammered series, either. But its sure fun for the likes of me to read and speculate and apply the lessons and allegories you supply to everyday life.

I sure as heck hope the future doesn't look like Hammered. Although, ecologically and economically, we're closer than I like--

The future isn't ever what we think it is.

For me, I don't think science fiction actually *is* an attempt to predict the future. (Others may differ, of course.) But it's a good way to get some alienation to make talking about the present easier...
I've yet to figure out what anyone could possibly say about a Singularity that Clarke didn't address in Childhood's End.

The next Hot Thing after Singularities and the New Weird will be Well-Versed Skiffy. You heard it from me first.

---L.
Very very smart people aren't necessarily right more often than anybody else. They're just wrong faster, and in more innovative ways.

I had this debate with some writers a while back when discussing a cleaning-up-after-a-technological-collapse scenario. Others were convinced that it was the engineers and scientists who would become vitally important. I was arguing that we could manage without those folks--though they'd be helpful--but it was the farmers and rural workers of other sorts we were really going to need. And that there was no reason to think that those folks weren't as able, if not more able, to think creatively and figure things out as they need to.

I mean, when you talk to farmers and auto mechanics and the like, you quickly realize that they understand a lot more about engineering and how things work than we seem to assume.

Science fiction is a useful form of allegory. It's is about discussing the now.

Yes. Not so much about predicting the future, but understanding the present.

The class thing

I'm with you on this one, EB. The class thing resonates. (Semi-skilled manual background, and I don't think like many/ most SF writers either.) If the Singularity is coming, count me out. I rate it along with all those predictions on Tomorrow's World (ah, BBC nostalgia) that we'd be living on pills in 1998. It may well happen, but not in my navy...

I had the debate about the unrecognisability of the far future with a chum, and we had to retire to our corners and agree to differ. I'm in the camp that says regardless of the technology available, the fundamental drives of people will always remain the same. You can read the thoughts and ideas of people born millennia ago, and if you adjust for language, technology and "enlightenment", they sound just like us. Exploring how people manage these drives in changing environments - which, as you say, is why SF is actually allegory about the now - offers the writer the greatest challenge.

Re: The class thing

I've actually got something of a big far-future SF nove lcooking in the back of my head right now that postulates something very like a Singularity happening... and not all that much changing on a human level *g*

But I tend to argue that the history of civilization basically boils down to--faster conversations, bigger guns. *g*

By the way, *I* see your user icon image just fine--cover of Crossing the Line, yes?

(Anonymous)

Singularity in the '50s?

" A science fiction novel I finished editing a year ago is already dated; it used to be you got a decade if you were lucky. Soon, it'll be a week. We can't keep up with the future now."

Back in 1953 Asimov wrote a story about why Everest would never be climbed, and by the time it hit the stands it was out of date.

In 1964, Larry Niven had what I believe was his first story, "The Coldest Place", outdated almost before it was published. It seems to have set a trend: Ringworld needed continual patching, and he had to redesign Mars half a dozen times.

Re: Singularity in the '50s?

Bingo. *g* Such is the life we lead.

It's stem cell research and the impending collapse of String Theory that have me sunk. Ah well...

At least I was right about the buckytubes and the water on Mars.
Hi there! Surfing in via a link from genreneep...

I've said it elsewhere--because I think it's an inherently naive concept, which (as SF, historically, has) ignores the fact that Much Of Humanity Ain't Like Us.

If you've said it elsewhere then you've surely heard what I'm about to say: that's irrelevant. The whole point of a Vingean singularity is that once it starts somewhere, it affects everyone, regardless of class, country, race, religion, whatever.

That said, I absolutely think there are stories to be told around the fringes of singularities, because different groups would react in different ways. It's not an area that's being explored at the moment. The very few stories that deal with a singularity actually happening are told from within, not from without...the idea that the reader might know what's going on but the characters might not is a very interesting one to me.

(In a related note, the more conservative definition of Singularity--the one where we can't keep track of the technology any more in any kind of a meaningful fashion? That happened in... 1993. Or thereabouts.)

1993 is too early, I think, but people argue both ways. I don't see that it's an invalidation of the singularity as a concept, though (except for certain narrow definitions of the singularity). There are people still keeping up today; fewer than there used to be, certainly, but still some. And I don't know if you've read the Accelerando stories by Charles Stross, but this idea is basically explicit in one of the stories:
Back on board the Field Circus, Donna the Journalist asks the crew members when they think the Singularity took place. “Four years ago,” Pierre suggests. Su Ang votes for 2016. But Boris, the jellyfish drinker, says the entire notion of a Singularity is silly. To him, there’s no such thing. Wait a minute, Su Ang responds. Here we are, traveling in a spaceship the size of a soda can. We’ve left our bodies behind to conserve space and energy so that the laser-sail-powered Field Circus can cruise faster. Our brains have been uploaded and are now running electronically within the tiny spaceship’s nanocomputers. The pub is “here,” along with other virtual environments, so that we don’t go into shock from sensory deprivation. “And you can tell me that the idea of a fundamental change in the human condition is nonsense?”
-- this article.


why do we necessarily assume that thinking faster is thinking better?

We don't. It's thinking differently. Ian McDonald makes excellent use of this in River of Gods, pointing up the ways in which AIs would be fundamentally other (AIs as alien, if you like).

And what makes us assume that our problems would just be fixed if we were smarter and had smarter, friendlier AIs to look out for us?

We don't. In fact, I can't think of a single singularity story where that happens. As a general rule, either the new AI is indifferent to humanity (think the Eschaton in Singularity Sky) or humanity is royally screwed, often inadvertently (A Fire Upon The Deep). The point of a singularity is not that it's going to fix our problems, it's that it's the moment when history passes beyond human control or understanding. See my comment elsethread about the general implications of this, but basically it's future shock to the nth degree. Cool new technology does not usually mean a better world, and you seem to agree with all of this, so in the end I think I'm confused about what you're trying to say. Um, sorry.

In the end I think that 'if you're not dealing with the singularity you're living in the eighties' reduces to 'if you're not dealing with change you're living in the eighties'. Those futures are obsolete. You don't have to deal with the singularity, but you do have to deal with the fact that we can not longer see the future, even in the haziest sense, and it just happens that the singularity is (so far) the most compelling trope anyone's come up with for doing that.
In the end I think that 'if you're not dealing with the singularity you're living in the eighties' reduces to 'if you're not dealing with change you're living in the eighties'.

See, and I don't think it does. I agree unequivocally that "if you're not dealing with change, you're--" and I'd in fact push it back as far as on, 1955 or so. Because SF seems to me to have been about change continually since about the time we stopped spreading Mom and Apple Pie to the stars. (Well, some of still like a nice pan-fried steak in our starcruisers once in a while, but...)

And it's funny that I'm arguing this point, because my SF books (heck, let me take that back--both my SF and my fantasy books--deal with Singularity in both the broader and more specific senses you name: to wit, a transformative change.

But again, I'm not talking about fiction--note in the original post where I said that many fiction writers are doing very interesting things with Singularity as a concept. (Stross among them.) What I'm objecting to is the phrase "if you're not dealing with the singularity you're living in the eighties." Because I do not equate singularity with change.

That said, I find your point compelling argued, and if the word "change" (or even "accelerando") were substituted for the word "singularity" everywhere it appears, I'd be content to agree with you entirely.

And that said, welcome to my humble internet abode. *g*

Martin Luthier

My dad's a cabinetmaker and a luthier...

Wow. Small world. I was a self-taught luthier in high school. The plan was that I would repair guitars, perform in local bands, and write science fiction for the rest of my life. For various reasons, life didn't work out that way. (Shrugs.)

I probably should have nailed my life-plan proclamations onto my bedroom door at some point to remind myself that this was more important than what my family expected me to do.

Re: Martin Luthier

The world needs more luthiers.

This is him:

www.wishbass.com

although, you know, I like to remind people that I gave up writing for three years, twice, and yet here I am with a trilogy sold, about to turn 33.

So, you know.
Huh. I've been thinking of 'transcendence' (which I gather is closely related to singularity) as an authorial preference rather than a literary movement. Some writers, such as Arthur C. Clarke & William Gibson, seem to treat transcendence as the ideal ending: there isn't room enough in their worlds for a traditional happy ending, somehow, so humanity has to go somewhere else.

I have wanted to write a short story in which a human tries to get an AI to help him transcend and slowly realizes that the AI has no idea what transcendence means, either . . .
I have wanted to write a short story in which a human tries to get an AI to help him transcend and slowly realizes that the AI has no idea what transcendence means, either . . .

That's kind of a cool idea.

By the way--Nice bear!