The Myth of Singularity, Composing, 20/05/2014

It’s not exactly novel of me to say that there’s a common mood of human civilization that’s trying to grip conceptually the reality of humanity’s end. If you ask Slavoj Zizek or another Lacanian, he’d tell you that climate change denial wouldn’t be spoken so powerfully if we didn’t all basically know this might be the end. Contemporary human technology, which in my Ecophilosophy manuscript I call enormous industry, is absolutely unprecedented in human existence, and it’s reasonable to say that its effects may ruin us all.

If I were to make a bet on it, I’d say we’d go down to a combination of more extreme weather from climate change wrecking our infrastructure, toxic pollution of our ground water and other food sources reaching a tipping point, and the extinction of pollinating insects from pesticide use crashing our agricultural system. 

There’s been quite a lot of art, among other forms of speculation, produced about the end of Earth and the end of humanity. But the Johnny Depp film, Transcendence, doesn’t seem to be one of those at first glance. Instead, it’s a film about the dystopian aspects of the singularity, the conception of what would happen to humanity when artificial computer/machine intelligence surpasses the power of humans. In his own discussion of the film, my elder compatriot from the social epistemology group, Steve Fuller, describes its Faustian themes and its very Christian take on the singularity, the moment at which humanity transcends itself. But a link that Vaka Rangi sent me to a Washington Post article makes a slightly different point.

The third time Johnny Depp has become a vision of
humanity's sad dystopian end. Jarmusch and Gilliam did it
much better than this, though.
The singularity is another example of the end of the world, but it’s taken to be a positive one. Even if humanity doesn’t survive this process of its machines surpassing its own abilities, it will have created a legacy in those machines themselves, which would carry the human story forward. If we are our narratives, then the singularity, even the dystopian formulations that Transcendence, AI, and the Terminator franchise offer us, is ultimately a utopian vision. Like the dying grandfather of a huge, proliferating family, we continue indefinitely into sempiternity, beyond our mortal deaths.* 

* A note on nerdy philosophical terminology. Sempiternity refers to the continuation of the processes of flowing time indefinitely into the future. Think of the Latin semper, meaning always. Eternity is the kind of immortality that transcends time, an escape into changelessness that negates the reality of time itself. 

All these ideas are important to how I conceive of my Alice stories, the science-fictional imagining where I’m spinning my stories of an immortal android sage travelling the galaxy for thousands of years. There are two story ideas that I’ve thought of so far that would use this character. One has a 20-minutes-into-the-future setting, and the other is in a vastly distant timeframe, thousands of years from now, when humanity has proliferated across light-years, having lived for so long that they may eventually forget where Earth was.**

** I acknowledge my debt to Isaac Asimov’s late Foundation novels, even as the basic ideas with which I’m developing this story is a complete philosophical and narrative rebuke to his own ideas in those books. Asimov was the first serious science-fiction that I ever read, really. His legacy on me is inescapable, even as my own priorities as a writer are completely different.

The story about a sort-of-contemporary Alice will be told from the perspective of an all-too-human human, a colleague of Alice’s human partner and original commissioner. This bastard Dr Farkas will investigate Alice to the point of stalking her, obsessed with how his nebbishy colleague could have attracted such a beautiful, vibrant creature. The irony is that he didn’t attract her; he had her custom-built. 

Farkas will, because of his pretentious and erudite personality, think about such androids in the dystopian way that Transcendence conceives of the singularity. It is a promise that becomes a threat, the type of superiority that augurs our displacement and replacement. Of course, this plays into my repugnant narrator’s personality: part of his motivations for his sexist, exploitive behaviour is a hostility to women. There is fear involved in this vision, though fear isn’t the only factor. I don’t like designing characters with only one clear motive for their actions; it’s very unrealistic.

Farkas’ paranoid vision is inadequate for the same reason that Alice’s other story that I have in mind now takes place thousands of years in humanity’s future. I see nothing incompatible about the co-existence of humanity with artificial intelligence. There have been multiple forms of intelligent life on Earth before (and I believe this is still the case; the complexity of whale sonar signalling and the solemnity of elephant graveyards signify a lot to me). There will be again. Only human arrogance sees our ascendency as a throne with room for only one occupant at a time. 

Alice laughs at that profound arrogance in the same way I laugh at slapstick comedy.

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