The future is multiple, not singular.

I’ve long enjoyed the blog posts by Richard Jones on economic productivity and growth – his perspective from physics is always interesting. As I met him in real life for the first time this past week, I also downloaded his free e-book Against Transhumanism (download here) – a brief, compelling demolition of the idea that digital technology is hurtling us towards a ‘singularity’. The most famous transhumanist is Ray Kurzweil, I suppose, of The Singularity is Near. Prof Jones points out that:

a) exponential growth (as per Moore’s Law) cannot deliver a singularity, as the value of expnential functions is finite – unless the rate of technological improvement is constantly increasing without limit. Seems a stretch, looking at either current productivity figures or any history at all.

b) transhumanism is an apocalyptic religion, not a scientific theory.

c) To quote the e-book: “The idea that history is destiny has proved to be an extremely
bad one, and I don’t think the idea that technology is destiny will necessarily work out that well either. I do believe in progress, in the sense that I think it’s clear that the material conditions are much better now for a majority of people than they were two hundred years ago. But I don’t think the continuation of this trend is inevitable. I don’t think the progress we’ve achieved is irreversible, either, given the problems, like climate change and resource shortages, that we have been storing up for ourselves in the future. I think people who believe that further technological progress is inevitable actually make it less likely – why do
the hard work to make the world a better place, if you think that these bigger impersonal forces make your efforts futile?”

It’s well worth a read, along with the Soft Machines blog.There is a super-clear explanation of the implications of nano-technology,as you might expect from the author of the Soft Machines book.

Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life

There’s also a chapter on why it’s unlikely you’ll ever be able to upload your brain to the cloud. Above all, though, the book explains why transhumanism is a Dangerous Idea. The idea of a Singularity has been described as the ‘Rapture of the Nerds’ (attributed to Ken McLeod), which makes it sound like the lunatic fringe. But as Prof Jones points out, the Silicon Valley crowd are seriously influential; and their view that technology has its own irresistible dynamic – the techno-determinism – elbows aside the truth that the results of technological discovery are socially determined: “Why would you want to think of technology, not as something that is shaped by human choices, but as an autonomous force with a logic and direction of its own? Although people who think this way may like to think of themselves as progressive and futuristic, it’s actually a rather conservative position, which finds it easy to assume that the way things will be in the future is inevitable and always for the best.”

Written by a physicist but like a true social scientist. The future is multiple, not singular.


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