The singularity will not make you a better person

One of Ray Kurzweil‘s more provocative theses from The Singularity is Near is that the singularity will clean up all the environmental mess from the past centuries, those slagheaps of our reliance on fossil fuels and dirty industry.  Postscarcity means that the sins of the father will no longer be visited on the sons, daughters, cousins, etc. As much as I can understand that Kurzweil is not coming from a position of optimism, but rather what he interprets as a logical inevitability of technological development (albeit with the Law of Increasing Returns taking a very questionable central role), I find it on some levels offensive. A little game I like to play with myself when bored is “Reasons the Singularity is will never happen” (my current favourite is ‘Athlone‘…), but when not being glib and doubting Kurzweil’s technoeschatology, I have other genuine difficulties.

If the singularity will erase our environmental misdeeds, what then of our historical transgressions? What of, for example, the disappeared in Chile? Will nanobots be released into the desert, combing through clay and dirt and sand in their millions, billions, to find the bones of those murdered by a fascistic regime supported and guided by corrupt governments elsewhere? Will they coordinate with swarms of satellites in space to locate the mass graves? Will they send results to labs for analysis where bodies have been crushed under caterpillar tracks of bulldozers into a gravel of mixed bones from hundreds of different bodies? Will this bring solace to the families? Will it give us the strength to finally confront our history at last, not only here, but regarding civil wars and genocide and failures of international solidarity everywhere? Now that such magnificent technologies will interrupt the entropy of forgetting, if not actually reverse it, will we have the moral expanse to confront this? This is not an attempt to rhetorically refute (if such a thing were possible, which it is not) Kurzweil, or those who consider technology as a route to improvement, and development.  But, how do we become posthuman when it is easily argued that we have not even come close to becoming human? If we have an ideal, and that is loosely held to be the singularity, the ideology of technologists, then what are we being coordinated towards?

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3 thoughts on “The singularity will not make you a better person

  1. I find the whole idea of the sudden onset of a technological utopia very hard to process. While completely willing to believe that it is because of ignorance on my part, I struggle to see how the human condition will suddenly change for the good.

    Even if we should subvert economies of scarcity, people won’t just suddenly become good. Humanity is caught on the wheels of our egos. The problem is that people who have no economic problems (or even the possibility of having one) still struggle with great moral failings. Are we saying that these will just go away? Will we stop oppressing other, just because we can’t oppress them economically any more?

    I think the time may come when we do actually grow into some Hegelian better way of being human, but I think this will happen gradually. Moral change always lags behind the technological. We don’t need better computers to make us better people. We need more better people.

    We haven’t even come close to being human, it’s true.

    My fear is that it isn’t how we deal with our history, but with our future that will define us. And it doesn’t look like we’ll get better any time soon.

  2. Regarding our future, I think history is a good guide at the least for those who have been left behind or marginalized along the way, and those who have simply been unwittingly excluded through whatever ideological blind-spots we have. You’re spot-on when you say “We don’t need better computers to make us better people. We need more better people”, and I hope we can move on from the extreme opposition set up between being moral (usually co-opted to mean “religious” and “dogmatic”) and regarding technology as a repository of hope for our collective future. I think the best thing for us to come closer to a nuanced view, whereby we can have morality and ethics at the centre of a technological discourse, and accordingly to drop the mystical idea of the singularity as Kurzweil and other hard-singularitarians would have it. We don’t need another theology, even if this one is a gnostic theology of silicon, quantum computers, nanobots.

  3. Thank you for a very thought provoking post. This was not a perspective I had approached the issue from before, but I appreciate that this provides a counter to Kurzweil’s predictions, which I believe do tend to neglect the human element somewhat (or possibly entirely). Your cartoon made me chuckle, thanks for that as well. I have just published an article about the singularity (or lack thereof) on my own blog, http://michaelakay.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/preachers-of-the-machine-messiah-the-misguided-assumptions-and-assertions-of-the-cult-of-the-singularity/ and would appreciate your thoughts on it if you have the chance to give it a read.

    Thanks again!

    Michael.

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