2011 began with high hopes. Given the early January headlines, I find myself speculating on what we can already gather from the tone of a new year. Deaths of birds and fish across the globe fueled the apocalyptic eschatology which has become an ever-present subtext in popular discourse. An American Congresswoman was targeted in a brutal and horrifying assassination attempt, while other people were tragically killed and injured by her side. And Facebook has received a shot in the arm of half a billion dollars. It is not cheerful fare. Wikipedia and NASA have marked some crucial anniversaries in the past two weeks, but those testify to the mind-boggling changes we have endured in terms of information-based and technological innovations in the past three decades. The fact that Wiki is only ten years old, yet is already a monolithic institution shows how rapid the changes are.
The anticipated Technological Singularity is narrowly defined on Wiki as an exponential acceleration of technological change past a point which we can currently comprehend. From Wiki: "Many of the most recognized writers on the singularity, such as Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, define the concept in terms of the technological creation of superintelligence, and 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 superintelligent entities."
Video Source: Youtube.
But there is more to this Revolution than new gadgets, or genetic breakthroughs, or ground-breaking work in Quantum Physics and Nanotechnology. Beyond the concrete discoveries, there is the sheer power of accessible information. It might be more frightening that we instantly know about all the dead birds falling from the sky and can piece them together with the dead fish washing up on beaches - than the actual phenomenon itself. This web of awareness and knowledge is changing our societies worldwide. It is changing us as individuals. While some of those changes are clearly beneficial, we are pressed to push further and further. We are inventing new modes of behaviour and communication - and new languages to match new manners. Above this all is the unknown. For many, this is a heady, exhilarating time. All these things beckon: to cross boundaries and be reshaped, without any possible perception of consequences; to watch the structure of labour, professions and economies alter beyond recognition; to use the traditions of our different cultures and bend them to new ends; to observe other societies with immediacy hitherto unknown and perceive in those worlds both friends and enemies; to find the immense power of the popular voice of 6.9 billion people.
In these ways, the standards that lent stability to our lives are wasting away; nor will this process stop. The strange ideas, the people who will float to the top, the reshaping of social classes are all inevitable. This entry into no man's land reminds me of a great line in Peter Jackson's King Kong, which cites Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The script is online here:
Jimmy: Why does Marlow keep going up the river? Why doesn't he turn back?Hayes: There's a part of him that wants to, Jimmy. A part deep inside himself that sounds a warning. But there's another part ... that needs to know. To defeat the thing which makes him afraid. "We could not understand because we were too far ... and could not remember ... because we were traveling in the night of first ages ... of those ages that are gone ... leaving hardly a sign, and no memories. We are accustomed to look ... upon the shackled form of a conquered monster ... but there ... there you could look at a thing monstrous and free."Jimmy: It's not an adventure story ... is it, Mr. Hayes?Hayes: No, Jimmy. It's not.
You can read Conrad's original here for free at Project Gutenberg. Conrad's passage from which Jackson, Walsh and Boyens drew runs as follows:
We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river and remain sustained faintly, as if hovering in the air high over our heads, till the first break of day. Whether it meant war, peace, or prayer we could not tell. The dawns were heralded by the descent of a chill stillness; the woodcutters slept, their fires burned low; the snapping of a twig would make you start. We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand, because we were too far and could not remember, because we were traveling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign—and no memories."The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.
While Heart of Darkness (1902) both criticizes and indulges in the presumptions of a colonial era, especially the contemporary contrast between savagery and civilization, the passage above takes on a startling aspect if we consider how people of the future, post-Singularity, might appear to us - and we to them. Will we be the savages hanging around the bend in the first age of darkness, fearfully observed by our successors? Or, if we were able to look forward in the future, would we regard our successors, who will cross all the lines we hold dear and familiar, with horror? Would we even be able to recognize each other as fellow humans? Or would we, as I have often argued on this blog, find that there are constant features of human behaviour that transcend time? Would our attachment to the past render an unimaginable future familiar?
For two of my earlier posts on our move beyond the pale, go here and here.
For all posts related to the Singularity, go here.