“For Singularity to have a positive outcome requires a belief that, given enough power, the system will somehow figure out how to regulate itself. The final outcome would be so complex that while we humans couldn’t understand it now, “it” would understand and “solve” itself. Some believe in something that looks a bit like the former Soviet Union’s master planning but with full information and unlimited power. Others have a more sophisticated view of a distributed system, but at some level, all Singularitarians believe that with enough power and control, the world is “tamable.” Not all who believe in Singularity worship it as a positive transcendence bringing immortality and abundance, but they do believe that a judgment day is coming when all curves go vertical.
Whether you are on an S-curve or a bell curve, the beginning of the slope looks a lot like an exponential curve. An exponential curve to systems dynamics people shows self-reinforcement, i.e., a positive feedback curve without limits. Maybe this is what excites Singularitarians and scares systems people. Most people outside the Singularity bubble believe in S-curves: nature adapts and self-regulates, and, for example, when a pandemic has run its course, growth slows and things adapt. They may not be in the same state, and a phase change could occur, but the notion of Singularity—especially as some sort of savior or judgment day that will allow us to transcend the messy, mortal suffering of our human existence—is fundamentally a flawed one.“
Over the weekend John Naughton at Teh Graun provided some much-needed deflation regarding the religion of machine learning and “AI”. I am in full agreement with much of what he says — indeed, I have been singing from that songsheet for quite a few years now, as have a number of other Jonahs and Cassandras.
However, I feel the need to take polite objection to Naughton’s misrepresentation of Clarke’s Third Law. (You know the one: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.) While it’s quite correct to say that the thought-lords of Silicon Valley (and their PR people) have peddled Clarke’s Third as justification for and endorsement of whatever it is they’ve decided they’re trying to do this week, to assume that’s how Clarke meant it to be used is to do the man a disservice, and indeed to misparse the aphorism in exactly the same way that the techies have. (This seems to happen surprisingly often.)
The thing is, no one believed less in magic than did Clarke; those of a similar age to myself may recall him as a dogged debunker of woo and myth, both in books and on television. Firstly, Clarke’s Third does not conflate magic and technology; on the contrary, it merely points out that to anyone not initiated into either mystery-system, both mystery-systems are equally opaque with regard to cause and effect. Or, in other words, both magic and technology seem miraculous unless you have an understanding of how the trick is performed.
Which leads us to the second point: when Clarke said “magic”, he meant stage magic: illusion, prestidigitation, misdirection. He didn’t believe in the supernatural (though he took a while to come to that position, admittedly, after an early fascination with the paranormal), but he understood the power of showmanship when combined with a lack of knowledge in an audience — and he recognised that technology’s appeal lies exactly in its seeming magicality, its something-out-of-nothingness; that’s how you sell it.
It was true in the time of Edison and Tesla, and it’s still true now, that “technology” (which is itself a suitcase word that has come to refer to shiny consumer products rather than sociotechnical systems of practice) is largely an obfuscatory front-end to the provisioning capacities of infrastructure. That’s why Edison, cunning bastard that he was, worked so hard on developing usable light-bulbs: he understood that infrastructure is too abstract a proposition, but that applications are an easy sell. As such, Clarke’s Third Law is best understood as a proleptic critique of solutionism — though I suspect Clarke himself might have balked at that characterisation. (He was rather more an optimist than I am.)
There’s a lot more to this riff, and I’m currently rather too busy trying to find some gainful employment to write about it at length — but if you’ve 45 minutes to spare, and you’d like the full unpacking of Clarke’s Third Law as it relates to technology and infrastructure in the 21st Century (all wrapped up in a furious critique of transhumanism, which is basically Clarke’s Third elevated from mere business model to the status of a religion without a god), then y’all might want to watch the this video of a talk I gave in Munich last year:
Dresden Codak. Started following his original webcomic way way back in the Noughties, when it was just as much of a one-person labour of love as it is now (though the artwork has gone from good to astonishing over the years).
Back then DC (and I, for my sins) were fellow-travellers of transhumanism; DC is, I suspect (on the basis of my reading of their work, rather than any direct knowledge), still a smidgen closer to that scene than I am these days, but the Dark Science series (go read some) has been steadily developing what feels like a much more posthumanist position — an understanding of the cyborg as a (sociotechnopolitical) metaphor, in other words, rather than the naive concretised misparsings of sf images so fetishized by the transhumanoids. This panel seems to confirm that feeling quite bluntly, at the same time as it resonates with stuff I’ve been discussing over the last few weeks*. Plus I thought maybe it was time I posted something that wasn’t just words.
* Things have been quiet because I’ve been in Sweden for close to three weeks, a “visiting scholar” set-up that is now drawing to a close. It’s been insanely busy and tiring, but very much in the positive sense.
Talk delivered at the Munich Volkstheater on 14th October 2017 for Bayerischer Rundfunk’s annual Zundfunk-Netkongress.
(Or: what I did on my holiday, by Paul Graham Raven, aged 40 ¾)
Many thanks to the lovely people at Bayerischer Rundfunk for inviting me to their annual conference in Munich, putting me up in what looks to be possibly its most characterful hotel, and giving me a stage from which to expose the noxious back-stage ideologies of transhumanism to a receptive and insightful audience. Doing little video bits like this is a small price to pay for such a privilege… but let’s be frank, that’s a face made for radio.