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The Singularity
Solomon
catvalente
I was linked to this article by Vernor Vinge the other day, which involves some (rather arbitrary) comments on what might happen if the "singularity" does not occur. For those who do not live in our house and therefore do not have conversations involving said term at least once a month, the singularity refers to the technological revolution beyond which we cannot really imagine the state of our anything: daily life, rate of change, social patterns. Usually this means functional AI, and the resulting technologies: nanotech, FTL, etc. In short, it is the point at which "now" becomes that nebulous THE FUTURE.

I don't have all that much to say about the tech singularity, because by definition we can't really extrapolate--sure, we can talk about what the singularity might be, but to imagine life beyond it you need SF lit, and even there, one is always cautioned to Remember Leningrad--in Star Trek IV Starfleet headquarters reports the loss of power and plummeting temperatures in Leningrad as a result of the whalesongs (OMG SPOILERS). Of course, Leningrad was re-re-named St. Petersburg just a few years later, and is thus a nice shorthand for how the things which seem today like they will safely last forever can be gone by the next sequel.

So Vinge's singularity--and he coined the term--will most likely occur, and I'm not really convinced by the article, where he says that if AI doesn't develop, people will eventually more or less give up on computers. The singularity does not actually have to take the form of AI, much as we, raised on Data and HAL, might like to think it must. Our world as it exists today would be unimaginable to even someone from 300 years or so ago. Computers themselves comprised a singularity, as did flight and electricity. As did the breakup of the Soviet Union. There is no one singularity, and I believe that if AI doesn't wake up one day and rub its cyber-eyes and ask for coffee, humankind will still manage new and to-us-unfathomable technologies if we don't blow ourselves to shit first. I'm not really worried about it.

But because of the article I started thinking about the word "singularity" and what that has come to mean. While sitting at the breakfast table discussing the Big Scary S-word, I poked at my eggs-in-a-basket (which we, because we are dorks, generally call V-eggs or Vendetta in a Basket) and said:

"The thing is, I'm living in my own personal singularity, a point beyond which I, even right now, cannot imagine. I am post-marriage, post-publication, post-Navy, post-post. I don't know how to live my life right now, I'm past the edges of my own maps."

And that's true. I did not have any tools with which to build a mental model of a life which did not include being married, which did not involve being moved around by the Navy, or returning to graduate school. Which rested heavily on writing and publishing for my bread and board and a rather unorthodox living arrangement in the American Midwest. All these things were well beyond the threshold of imagining for my 23-year old self, which was not all that long ago.

I think everyone has these personal singularities. When you're a kid, it's that nebulous state of being GROWN UP, at which point everything will be more or less awesome and make sense, and you will not have to deal with the issues you have to deal with being eight and grounded. Marriage is another one--we are taught that everything will somehow evolve into kids and a house and grandparenthood after that, though the process is vague and involves a lot of handwaving. Some of us are still struggling to live in that singularity of adulthood in their twenties, thirties, forties. Probably in their fifties, too, but to my spring-chicken mind, that age is as unimaginable as driving used to be, or being able to buy any toy I wanted, so I can't testify. I realize, oh post-50 friends of mine, that that makes me suck. I accept this.

When you grow up, they often have to do with work: the site launch, the book, the promotion, tenure, going into business for oneself. Or children, the biggest singularity for most people.

What were yours? What are yours? What is the part of your life you cannot imagine yourself living beyond?

But the real nature of singularities is that they can't even be predicted. In some sense AI is such an easy answer to what the singularity will be. In actuality it will probably be some advance we can't even think about right now, as incomprehensible as the internet to a potato farmer in 17th century Ireland. He would not even have the tools to begin to understand what it was, let alone, and maybe more importantly, what use anyone could have for it, and why anyone would care. There are potatoes to pull, goddammit, leave me alone with that shit.

And it's like that in fleshy, messy singularities, too. In 2002, when I stood in front of a minister and had a ring put on my hand, I fully expected that by 2007, I'd be living in Greece, still married, still in the Navy. Maybe pregnant. If I was very lucky, I could almost imagine the slim possibility of having a book published by a very, very small press. Maybe self-published. And maybe in 2009 I could go back to grad school. I was comfortable with that timeline, I knew it very well. It was Life, and maybe I didn't like it so much, but you can't really change it, right?

Didn't happen. The books were the first singularity, Ohio was the second. And here I am, divorced before 30. I'm happy in my singularity, happier than in the analog, pre-quantum theory universe I inhabited before. But it does mean that I can't even project what my life will be next month. I have no maps here. Part of my late depression and existential crises are the growing pains, I think, of trying to form an accurate model of my life trajectory, and jettisoning the old one. That process is no joke, not for the weak of heart. Remember Leningrad.

The word singularity is a lie, both in SF and in life. There is no one singularity. You keep pushing through them, and it's fucking terrifying, and fucking amazing. You wake up and one day the USSR is gone and the tech boom crashed and you're divorced and you sell tires instead of playing professional soccer and your toaster wants to talk to you about pork futures and the size of your penis and your sofa wants to have a serious conversation about the works of Vernor Vinge. You wake up and you're making independent movies instead of selling tires and Europe up and got themselves a common currency and you had twin girls when you thought your birth control was top notch and the Supreme Court threw an election and gay marriage is so old-fashioned when there are four sexes and flights to Saturn leave daily.

You just keep moving. And in the middle of the night the blue glow of your intelligent sofa tells you it'll be okay, eventually. Singularities exist to be lived in, to be lived beyond. Embrace them. Embrace love in the midwest. Embrace AI. Embrace Vernor Vinge. Face down the new world--and don't flinch first.

hoo.
wow.
yes.
miss you.
I want to talk to you about this more, but LJ doesn't seem the place, somehow...

Miss Singularity herself. ;)

Email me, darling.

First off, freakin' stunning writing, VunderLass. Absolutely beautiful. I think it says more that I take it so much for granted from you that I almost didn't comment on it. Odd how most of my compliments exist in the not saying...

Anyway, I think the really interesting brain tickler is to consider different mundane events as singularity events and how they could go so off the scale. I mean, telekinesis, (re?)discovery/scientification of magick, practical quantum-scale computing/energy sources... those are the obvious ones. But what else? A new kind of egg? Sudden radical respect for other animals (or even just mammals)? The hallmark of the singularity event is that it changes things *SO FAR* that they are unrecognizable... but almost anything can do that if the limiting factors slip.

You're totally right--and in some sense "today" is always a singularity, the stretchy, taffy-like "now," on which we float, tipping the crest.

Well, yes, but I thought you'd made that point very well already.

Personally, I think "now" is more of a singularity for me than for most. Some would say that's because of my Zen-like focus on the present. Others would say it's because of my short attention span and utter absentmindedness.

For the record, I'm of the latter group. :-P

I have to admit that I'm a serious skeptic of "the singularity", if only because it implies a door or wall that one needs to cross, and most real changes in our lives are ones that sneak up behind you, move into the back room, and make a few peanut butter sandwiches and change all of the presets on your cable remote before taking the time to bite you on the butt. If anything, I get a distinct sensation that things could go the exact opposite way: enough of a technological boom that while the Cat Piss Men line up to have their minds downloaded and "discard the meat" because they couldn't get laid in Tijuana with a jockstrap full of $100 bills, a lot of others cut out all tech that doesn't directly influence their lives. I don't see a massive hippie back-to-the-earth movement, but instead a rational response to fifteen years of "We haven't thought of long-term effects or on mutagenic effects on our children, but isn't it cool?" As I like to put it, a Misha Nogha/Ernest Hogan future instead of the Cory Doctorow/Bruce Sterling wankfest.

That said, there is one singularity that humans are going to have to cross, and that's the susceptibility to future shock. The way things are going, the "good old days" are quite literally last month, and it's hard to keep people supporting intolerance and point-blank stupidity when their kids will be sneaking Internet access while they're asleep. Using "that's the way we've always done things" as an excuse for, say, the Texas Legislature won't cut it any longer, and the sooner people wise up to it, then the smoother the future's going to be.

Wow, that was a lot to consider in one post. Thank you.

(Deleted comment)
That's why I love Douglas Adam's description of "reality filters." Having some mechanism to filter out 99.99999% of what *IS* and leave us only with what we can deal with is the only way our poor brainmeats make it through most days.

As it was once said, 'Here Be Monsters'.., but someone had to take that first step past what was/is KNOWN, into the UNKNOWN.

In this particular situ, that someone is you. You get to be the brave soul who says, there are no monsters here, there is only more HERE to discover, new THEREs to find and more LIFE to live.

When there is nothing left to discover, nothing left that we believe is worth living for, then it can become a singularity. Then we might as well lay down, and say we die, for we have discovered it all and there's nothing left to do.

I can't say as a believe in "a singularity" so much as every day being a series of singularities as we step into each new moment. I never believed I'd live into my 30s, much less verging on 46 next week. Writing, the Navy, marriages and divorces, an ugly miscarriage, deaths of friends and family, all have been things I didn't imagine I'd get past. Hospitalization, hope, working my way past the worst of PTSD, they're more things I never imagined.

So much of life is surprising and eye-opening and terrifying and beautiful.

This moment is the singularity.

Hi Erynn! Damn, my LJ world is getting small. =)

Ooh, look! Another singularity! This one is of the event-horizon variety ;)

My singularity happened when I was between 22 and 24. Until 22 I had never left South Carolina, knew no black people except across the Jim Crow line, had never altered my mind with anything but alcohol, lived in a world where sex before marriage was a dirty secret. I didn't know openly gay people. And then in 1964 my life encountered the Civil Rights movement, pot, LSD, Berkeley, sex, music, Vietnam protests, gay rights, feminism, the whole 60's thing. I jumped in head first and didn't come up for a breath.

At the time, I though it was a singularity--so much of it seems cliched today, but just to take one example, it was made very clear to me that if I ever went out with an African-American guy, I would cross a line that could never be uncrossed. So of course I did it--only to find in a few years that the whole world had moved so far past that line we couldn't even see its shadow in the distance. I thought it had changed me into something unimaginable...but as I grow so much older, I can see how the world indeed is different but I really always was what I am now.

Because this says it better than I can

oursin

2007-03-20 09:58 pm (UTC)

[T]he wound is healed, the secret told, the riddle becomes plain, the reconciliation is made between man and what surrounds him. Each happening depends on the other. But if it was for all time, the flowers might go on blooming but the spirit would wither. It would be sad beyond all telling if the finding of the Grail were to happen once for all. Because then it could not happen again for anyone.

Naomi Mitchison, To The Chapel Perilous (1955)


Re: Because this says it better than I can

justbeast

2007-03-20 10:17 pm (UTC)

Oh wow. that's one hell of a quote.

I read this all the way through, so please don't feel like I'm being dismissive here.

I think that you seriously underestimate the Singularity.


*If* it happens, linear time, technological advancement, and so far as I can see humanity itself stop being meaningful concepts.

It isn't "everything is so different, I can't understand it!"

The terms everything, different, understand, and even *I* become meaningless.

The only reason for anyone to do anything is:

1. Hedonism
2. The chance that the Singularity won't happen
3. Hope that some random quality or position one has will make a difference when it hits

Property doesn't matter
Money doesn't matter
So long as you survive, your health doesn't matter

It's quasi-religious and trying to contemplate it makes me die a little inside, yet at the same time refreshes me.

I get what you are trying to say...and the things you talk about do matter... but trying to equate anything other than "Fiat Lux" or the Big Bang to the singularity shows emotion trumping logic.

The "singularity" you are talking about seems to have little to do with the actual concept of accelerated technological progress and everything to do with some kind of millenarian fantasy.

Also, your comment has nothing to do with the original post's discussion of personal, life-path singularities, to the extent that I think you saw the word "singularity" and blocked out any other words.

Part of my late depression and existential crises are the growing pains, I think, of trying to form an accurate model of my life trajectory, and jettisoning the old one. That process is no joke, not for the weak of heart.

Thank you, thank you for putting that into words, because I really think that I believed the Dark Time I went through post-college, when the "Sarah excels in grade school / Sarah excels in high school / Sarah excels in college / Sarah gets great-paying and fulfilling job / Sarah lives happily ever after" train derailed and I didn't know how to handle it, was just a sign of personal weakness, and not something that was normal and natural. But now I know better.

Thank you for your beautiful writing, and thank you for that.

What the extropians do not seem to understand is that a lot of people will simply ignore most of what changes and continue to live their lives as always except for odd minor changes. A lot of people will remain tech-poor, and not just in the third world either - most of the big advances involve spending money on new kit and as people age they are less able to afford it, or less interested in exploring it. Most of us have not bought high definition plasma screens because they are too pricey and the chances are that there will be something even better by the time our current wide-screen wears out. I am in my late fifties and so are a lot of my friends - my whole net presence, the fact that I do quite minor things like read people's LJs and comment thereon, that a couple of times a week I download shows and watch them at the same time as a friend in Korea commenting in AIM as we go, is considered by many of those friends to be a weird geeky eccentricity that they would rather not talk or think about.

There may be changes that affect everyone, but I am not even sure that they are changes which are possible - is there ever going to be cheap fusion or effective solar batteries or a way of taking carbon out of the atmosphere or even a way of persuading the religious that birth control might be a good idea? Absent those changes, and others like them, most of the proposed singularity tech is going to be top dressing that affects hobbyists in the first world, stuff that could disappear with an economic crash or a major epidemic or a serious war. Right now, by comparison with the inhabitants of the greater part of the world, most Westerners get to look much younger than people their ages have ever been, and this is even without plastic surgery and new cellular therapies when they emerge. We can eat a healthy diet; we are encouraged to look after ourselves; we know about too much sun and smoking. Is this a permanent change? Quite possibly not if things don't change in other respects. It could become a folk memory of the forever young and beautiful who went away...

I take your point absolutely about singularities in one's own life and this is the thing - they are not always about positive changes. What seemed to be at forty or so like dream freelance jobs that would keep me happy and affluent for the rest of my lives turned in my mid fifties into soap bubbles that vanished on the arbitrary whim of accountants leaving me beached on a far lower income. If the shift to writing my critical books and working on fiction and memoir results in my actually making more money than at present as the critical books accumulate or if I sell the fiction or the memoirs, that will change things back in a positive direction - but it will only be the case in hindsight.

Change is a fact of life, but whether it is a positive or a negative fact depends most of the time on outcomes. The only changes that one can embrace conscientiously at the time as positive ones are the ones which operate at an existential level - I didn't change sex, or stop sleeping with men, because I expected those decisions to make me happy. I did them to avoid despair of the most terrible kind - the same is true of changes that had no conscious element, like my loss of religious faith. We are less creatures of active will than most defenders of the notion of singularities aver.

*exhales* That's quite a post. Just.. beautiful.

I can remember pretty clearly what mine were, the points beyond which I could not imagine what life would be like.
* Coming to America.
* A first girlfriend, the idea that somebody at some point might love me (and I said to owlswater, "I would give up computers for that". Fortunately I didn't have to).
* Possibly graduations, highschool and college - but only in a minor way. Towards the end of each, I had a pretty good idea of what the next stage would be like. Same with marriage - by the time the wedding happened, I knew Liss for 6 years, lived with her for more than 4. So I had a pretty good idea what it'd be like.

You're certainly one.

What are they right now?
The main one... is the point where I could live off working from the road. A circus singularity?
Europe is one.
Launching my web project is certainly one. I fear more than anything that it will be beyond me. I can barely imagine what life will be like in either case, whether I succeed or finally give up.

And as for you -- one of the things you're really good at is finding mythical narratives for your life. You'll find new maps. Newer singularity points. We'll all be there to help.

(I love the last paragraph of this post, btw).

So does the fact that I didn't make you give up computers mean that I get a cookie?

.. yes. A cookie made of PURE AWESOME.

(I'm lucky to have met you, in general).

This post is amazing.

My life is uncharted territory right now, too, and you've perfectly captured why I've been feeling so itchy and ill-fitting of late--much the same way I felt as a kid when my mom would buy me shoes and I'd outgrow them two months later. Growing so fast, and so unpredictably, that I can't quite keep up with myself.

I've run up on a couple of personal singularities myself. The first was quitting grad school at Chicago and moving back to Kalamazoo, which was the first time I'd ever gone anywhere without a safety net - I didn't know where next month's rent was going to come from. The second, lesser singularity was coming back to grad school: new town, new house, new career path (for myself and otterkin both), uncertain financial situation (especially when the buyer on the Kzoo house fell through). Bear in mind as well that I am fundamentally a Beast of Habit - I do *not* as a general rule enjoy or seek out large-scale change.

What helps me through these periods, or at least gives me a mental model for them, is Trickster literature. Trickster stories always start with a set of assumptions about the world - and then Raven decides that he needs some light for fishing, or Eshu puts the razorblade in the man's hand and pushes him against a woman in the marketplace, and the world spins arse over ears. But it doesn't *keep* spinning - by the end of the tale, a new equilibrium is established, with the boundaries shifted a bit but not erased. Trickster stories generally happen on the road, but even Trickster doesn't *stay* on the road. He comes home, puts his feet up, and takes a nap for a while like anybody else.

It's the same with us, I think. The change wind blows, and we get caught up struggling to make sense of the day-to-day, and then one day we wake up and realize that the day-to-day has settled into its new configuration. We can have our "and the man came home with his new wife, and the village rejoiced at his good fortune" and settle in until the next time Coyote gets hungry and gets Badger to teach him to hunt. Which is pretty much what you said, except without the talking toasters. =)

If anyone can weather these, changes, I believe you can. You exude so much confidence; you are a creator and can remake your life to be even more than you'd expected.

An additional plus? The people surrounding you seemed to be full of love for you. It looked like you had the best family-by-choice that a person could ever ask for.

I very much like this as an intelligent response to make every time I get tired of hearing about the bloody Singularity.

And now I want to see a song parody of "Your Own Personal Jesus," done on the singularity.

I agree with the people who call it "the Rapture of the Geeks," since I think a lot of the speculation about it has comparable degrees of egotism and elitism rolled up in it as the evangelicals' Rapture. Your take avoids a lot of that, and allows for singularities like the Neolithic Revolution (why yes, I was an archaeology major; how can you tell?).

My own personal singularity, I think, is the end of grad school, but at the moment that's mostly a binary "a or b?" scenario in my head, so it might not end up qualifying when I get there.

Thank you for this.

I think the occurrence of the singularity over and over in lives is why it makes such a useful sfnal trope; we've always been a genre who wears metaphor right up there on the surface. I also think that the convergence between ideas of the singularity and religious ideas of the Rapture etc. is an indication of the universality of the process in lives; everyone needs some kind of metaphor to help them deal with it, and some base the metaphor in future-tech, some in future-God. The metaphor is true either way (although I think it's more liable to *happen* with future-tech, since in some ways it already has).

I'm past my own first singularity, the point where I got everything I'd ever wanted now what? and haven't the foggiest what to do, where to go, who to be (except as always a writer). It's terrifying, and liberating, and above all different. And normal will re-establish and come round again, and then it all will change in the widening gyre, and I'm happy with that. It's learning to enjoy having to change that's the trick, I think.

300 years? My great grandparents would be completely overwhelmed by our world!

But I don't think that it is the events that create the singularities so much as it is how we interact with the events. Rare is the life, really, that does not experience at least one. A man is widowed with small children; a Great Depression leaves a family homeless; a company closes, leaving a lifetime employee without a job. War kills a beloved son. A terrorist blows up the Twin Towers, and it doesn't matter where you live in this country, the world will not be the same for you ever again.

Eventually, someone you love dies, or you contract a fatal disease.

We call that by a very technical term: living. To try and point to such changes as "singularities" begins with the false premise that the average life follows an arc predictable to the person living it. And while there certainly are lives that do travel along a path so stereotypical that the only excitement comes from the beginning of the new TV season, such lives should not be our yardstick.

When I was a kid, I envisioned my life as college/marriage/children/grandchildren/retirement/immortality (because, c'mon, no one really believes they're gonna die), and I fulfilled that arc for a long time. Was it a huge change for me to divorce John and marry Ferrett? Damn straight! And then to go to law school? And now to be changing jobs and stepping out into the world of solo practice? WOW, are those huge changes! I couldn't envision that they would happen, I have only speculation about how it's going to be.

But to think that such changes are so unique would be incredibly arrogant. People have adapted, and they will adapt, and life will continue to change at an amazing rate (the notion that we will abandon computers is absurd - what, we're gonna go back to smoke signals? Dial phones?), but there are going to be few, if any changes that can be pointed to as separating the adults from the children (and the children would probably do better with them, anyway).

So what makes it a "singularity?" Not the event, only those people who are there to note it, to put a checkmark in history. Schroedinger's Singularity, only defined because someone took note of the change. If an iTree falls in the woods, does it make a wave if no one is paying attention?

Ask SegWay.

Fascinating, and touching. I like your introduction of multiplicity and polyvocality into singularities.

Mine is happening right now--I'm still making good progress on my folklore Ph.D., as I'd been expecting to... but I am moving in with my partner, and that's something I've never done before, and is scary and exhilarating all at once.

As a total aside, may I ask where you're doing your PhD? I'd love to do further grad stuff in folklore (I did English), but I'm unsure of where a good place to go is.

I'm doing my Ph.D. at Indiana University--it's the only place to get a Ph.D. in folklore in the U.S., the closest being Memorial University of Newfoundland. You can get a folklore M.A. at any dozen places--UC Berkeley, Ohio State University, and University of Oregon all spring to mind. Feel free to pop over to my LJ if you'd like more info on folklore grad program options. :)

Right on, sister. You're gonna do just fine.

This is a beautiful post. Thank you for it.

I think my singularity was 21. When I was 14, I conceived of it as my life's apex -- built this plan in mind where I was teaching myself to be a bard the old way, so 21 would be the high point before I died at 28. Stupid, isn't it? 21 would be the year I finished grad school, would be the year I moved to England, would be the year I found my soulmate and sold a novel, would be the year I launched myself out along the trajectory I'd plotted for myself since I started highschool. Except, not quite. It was a huge deal, and it's past, and the difference isn't even between a whimper and a bang so much as between a smile and a nod. And life goes on. I'm so glad you articulated that, about having no maps for this part of life. Maybe it's enough to just have a compass.

Thanks again.

Singularities are what make life worth living, I think. If it weren't for the unexpected and unpredictable why would we want to turn the page?

And then we finally reach the horizon and we see what it is that we've been chewing on. Turns out it is always, always our own tails. And then we exit, only to enter once again. And the world is new, but it is only new for a little while. And we have no memories but we recognize everything. We hunger and so we begin to chew, onward - toward that horizon.

What you call singularities, I call rebirths. When I was younger, I called them deaths.

1. when I ran away from home, then had to come back
2. when I got kicked out of private college as a freshman
3. when I had to pick a grad school
4. when I had to figure out where to go after grad school

Thank you.

I needed a reminder that other people go through these things.
"Face down the new world--and don't flinch first."
The new motto I desperately needed.
As always, you're my hero(ine).

Good luck.

iO9 linked this post in their article about singularities. I enjoyed reading this.