In 1997 my dad bought me a desktop PC for school. It had a 2 gig hard-drive because, he said, “I thought you needed something you could grow into.” It had Microsoft Office and came with a disk for a web-service called Gowebway.
I remember unpacking the computer, anticipating all the things I could do with it, like word processing and…well I didn’t know what else. I didn’t have any reason to make a spreadsheet. I’d never emailed. The web was an abstraction. It was like Encarta apparently, but more so.
When my folks left my place, I started up my computer, loaded Gowebway, hooked up my phone line and within minutes, I was online. A minute after that I was looking for porn. A few seconds after that, I found porn, and lots of it. Before the day was through, I had signed up for a $30/month subscription service (seemed like a deal), and had spent the whole night—and many days and nights after—having a one man bacchanal. It was a fitting entree to my online life, which has been the mental equivalent of a lifetime’s supply of Cheetos. Like Cheetos, online content is satisfying going down, but leaves you totally unnourished no matter how much you consume.
But who knew that my solitary iniquity was a sign that the Singularity was near?
If you are not familiar with the concept of the Singularity, or the “Technological Singularity,” it is, according to Wikipedia:
A hypothetical event occurring when technological progress becomes so rapid that it makes the future after the singularity qualitatively different and harder to predict. Many [exponents]….allege that a post-singularity world would be unpredictable to humans due to an inability of human beings to imagine the intentions or capabilities of super-intelligent entities.
If superhuman intelligences…[could] bring to bear greater problem-solving and inventive skills than humans, then it could design a yet more capable machine, or re-write its source code to become more intelligent. This more capable machine then could design a machine of even greater capability. These iterations could…allow enormous qualitative change before any upper limits imposed by the laws of physics or theoretical computation set in.
In short, the Singularitites believe technology is going to get us out of the quagmire we are unquestionably in. Or as Singularity guru Stewart Brand puts it, “We are as gods, we might as well get good at it.” Humans will make technological angels to save the day (and those angels will make better angels). Nano-knitters are going to mend the atmosphere. Nano-oncologists are going to kill cancer cells and all other diseases. Nano-computers will be grafted into brains making us “post-humans”—able to immediately access infinite amounts of information. The nano-UN will create world peace.
Singularity is not mere science-fiction. Its exponents really believe this is mankind’s path to salvation. It seems fairly obvious that we need salvation, but is the Singularity the to get way there?
Thirteen years after getting my PC, I have a phone that has more processing power and backup than that fifty pound beast. My current laptop—now four years old—has a 130 gig hard-drive. I can load free streaming videos of almost any type of porn I want without clogging up the landline I no longer have. I have six email addresses. I have over six hundred Facebook friends.
And I’m a technological welterweight. Everywhere I go, people are glued to their devices—either staring at them, typing on them, talking to someone or clutching them for dear life, waiting for new jolts of information. Friends sit across from one another texting other friends who are sitting at remote tables with other friends who are texting other friends still. Walks down the street are spent watching Spiderman 2 on three-inch screens.
This bounty of information, communication and computational tools are part and parcel with the Singularity’s ethos, which believes that more is always better—more choices, more information, more speed, more years to live, etc. More to the point, “Moore” is always better, as in “Moore’s law,” which states that the number of transistors that can be placed on a circuit will double every two years, a law that has proved true since 1965.
Let’s leave aside the feasibility of realizing the Singularity’s vision, which many, but not me, have trouble buying. I suspect the planet might be uninhabitable or that humans will destroy each other in a nuclear holocaust before the technologies come to fruition, but that’s neither here nor there.
My difficulty with the Singularity concerns the implication that what we have—our mental, physical and spiritual resources—is not enough.
I won’t argue that things are in a dire state. Humans are mercilessly raping Mother Nature. We are killing off creatures, human and otherwise, with depressing efficiency. The poor starve and the rich glut. Things are ugly.
What I don’t believe is that we’ve tried to deal with things with the resources at our disposal. What if we know what to do, but just aren’t doing it? What if all the resources we need are here now? We know simple responses to current problems like consuming less, giving more, eating less processed food, reducing stress, etc. But we don’t do these things.
These questions could be countered with, “If we knew what to do, we’d be doing it. Why not create tools to finally do the things we know we need to do?” But the second you say something like this, it puts agency in “not this.” And as long as transformation is “not this,” it will always be “that,” something over there, in the future, waiting to be improved, when we have more. In this way, our problems become external. And when problems are external, the problem is never us. We no longer need to take responsibility for the state of affairs. We no longer need to use the resources at our disposal.
The Singularity misses another big issue that seems so urgent today. Our realities are ceasing to be our own. We can’t see, hear, taste or feel because everything we experience has become mediated by a third party. We take in countless words, ideas and images that mediate our experience of the world whether we know it or not. It should be called the Plurality because our experience of the world is now a cacophony of various information, little of which concerns our immediate environment. This third party mediation also serves as a barrier to making our own observations, since our worldview becomes difficult to disentangle from the externally sourced one.
This mediation is something the Singularity promotes. They suggest that we are no longer thinking in solitude. In the near future, a master neural network, far more intelligent than its individual constituents, will fix all of our problems. Perhaps.
What I’ve experienced at this stage of online information diffusion is that the information mediators are primarily the people who’ve subscribed to the merits of more. And because the bulk of our information comes to us via the web, our opinions about the merits of technological profusion becomes hard to extract from this technological boosterism (much of which also has a commercial agenda, but we’ll leave that for another day).
All of this mediation is making us kind of stupid. We can’t observe and evaluate things because someone or something does it for us. In the online world, we let mediated information, much of which is disinformation and rubbish, serve as a proxy for direct experience and knowledge.
An example of this phenomenon concerns a friend I know through a twelve-step group. He is very into online dating, but he also has crippling issues with codependency, a tenuous grip on sobriety and a spotty past with honesty. Judging from his volume of dating, I don’t believe he includes these details on his OKCupid profile. He is mediated by his personal mythology. He states that he’s a gastronome and works in finance (true fragments that misrepresent the whole). I am confident women only date him based on that mediation, not their direct experience.
Another example stems from my relationship with pornography. Sure, I was into pornography before the internet, but I would have the same magazine for a year or two. If anything it built up my ability to be turned on by the same thing. With the internet, if I don’t like a girl’s nose, I can switch to the next image or movie. Every subsequent sexual encounter is colored by this ability to satisfy the most minute caprice.
One of the most shortsighted aspects of this movement is the supposition, exaggerated, but not limited to the Singularitites, that if things can be done in an easier way, they should be.
Shortly after moving to New York City, I tried online dating. I liked the idea of finding a romantic partner based on practical data and pictures. I scanned hundreds of profiles, looking for my perfect match. I thought I could meet the woman of my dreams without having to confront my fear of women and personal insecurities. The promise of love without risk was too enticing to pass up.
But the promise was never delivered. There was always a discrepancy between online character cropping and the real deal. Girls don’t write down that they have anxiety issues or are looking to salve the pain of a recent breakup. There was also a discrepancy between online photo cropping and the real deal. Somehow the girls always looked more comely online than in person.
The thing I realized through online dating is that the endgame of a romantic partner was less important than the process by which I got there. My problem wasn’t that I lacked the tools to meet women. The problem was that I was scared of woman and emotionally shut down. By choosing to see these things as things to be mastered, not avoided, I was able to transform my interactions with women. The problem wasn’t addition. I didn’t need more tools or ideas. The problem was subtractive. I needed to let go and face fears. Had I continued to avoid confrontation with those fears through passive online interaction, I don’t think the imperative to shift my behavior would have ever come about.
Perhaps the extreme version of bypassing necessary processes is the Singularity proponent’s aversion to aging and death. People like Aubrey de Grey and Singularity-celeb Ray Kurzweil see aging, sickness and death as a technological challenge to overcome.
But maybe there’s something important about the process of dying. Never mind the fact that no one has quite escaped its pull. Maybe death is something to neither fear of fix. Maybe it’s something like Krishnamurti’s interpretation:
Life is not permanent. Like the leaves that fall from a tree, all things are impermanent, nothing endures; there is always change and death. Have you ever noticed a tree standing naked against the sky, how beautiful it is? All its branches are outlined, and in its nakedness there is a poem, there is a song. Every leaf is gone and it is waiting for the spring. When the spring comes it again fills the tree with the music of many leaves, which in due season fall and are blown away; and that is the way of life.
But we don’t want anything of that kind. We cling to our children, to our traditions, to our society, to our names and our little virtues, because we want permanency; and that is why we are afraid to die. We are afraid to lose the things we know. But life is not what we would like it to be; life is not permanent at all. Birds die, snow melts away, trees are cut down or destroyed by storms, and so on. But we want everything that gives us satisfaction to be permanent; we want our position, the authority we have over people, to endure. We refuse to accept life as it is in fact.
What if death, pain, fear, sickness, reading, eye contact, vacuuming—all the things technology and the Singularity promise to make easier are not meant to be easier, are not meant to be avoided or abolished? What if they are things whose processes strengthen us?
I don’t believe technology, nor anything outside of oneself, will save the world. As long as we keep grasping for external solutions to our problems, as long as we keep avoiding what’s in front of us, as long as we avoid finding out what is important for and by ourselves, as long as we delude ourselves into thinking that online pornography is a sufficient replacement for human touch, as long as we try to bypass realities like death, sickness, poverty and personal inadequacies, salvation will elude us. The answer will be something out there. And out there is never, ever here.
Fortunately, I think the bad news is also the good news. We don’t need anything to fix all the world’s problems. We don’t need faster processors, better algorithms to figure out who we should date on eHarmony, more midget porn, a 10G network for our cellphones, or anything else. In fact, we might not need to fix anything. Maybe we just need to be present with what is going on—to deal with reality directly, with the resources at our disposal, without judgment, without delay. We don’t need a health app to live healthily now. We don’t need a kindness app to be kind. We know these things, we just need to be them. Now.
And perhaps everything is going to shit. There’s a solid chance the world is on the verge of environmental catastrophe. War and violence may well spell the ruin of the world’s population. Worse still, we might live forever, plagued with poor health and an incapacity to connect with our humanity, similar to the movie Wall-E’s dystopian future dwellers. But like the Buddha and many others taught, all things are impermanent, rising and falling, being born and dying. Why not humanity? Why are we special? And why is this a problem to be fixed rather than a reality to accept?