A Singularly Utopian Delusion

Although I'm a techno-utopian by inclination, even my belief that things will get better has its limits. And one of those limits is the Singularity.

Well, I think that about sums it up, don't you?  Class dismissed?

The Singularity, for those who don't know, is something of a quasi-religious belief among certain techno-utopians, and like all religious beliefs it comes in a variety of forms. The one I'm most concerned with, here, is the idea that, at some point technology will become so advanced, so all-powerful and all-encompassing, that the fundamental nature of humanity will be irrevocably altered by it. We might all become code running on atom-sized supercomputers spread across the length and breadth of the solar system, or we might 'evolve' into beings of pure mental energy held in a grid projected by our omnipresent nanobots, or we may well just be perfect versions of ourselves, mobile but in a sense suspended forever in amber, kept at the peak of our physical and mental abilities through the most esoteric of methods. The point is, come the Singularity, everything is supposed to be fantastic, and fantastically different, for everyone, for ever.

But what technology has ever reached everyone? The home computer may be omnipresent in rich, infrastructurally solid Western nations, but they're significantly less so in Latin America and South-East Asia, and Africa has largely leap-frogged over home computers to smartphones and PDAs. Even within those rich, infrastructurally solid Western nations, technologies that would be considered commonplace in some areas are pearls beyond measure in others; for instance, just try to get cutting-edge broadband internet access in rural America, or northern Canada. The absolute best case scenario sees customers paying a king's ransom for what in an urban city centre would be sub-par access, and that rests on the assumption that such access even exists. In many small, isolated communities it doesn't matter how much money one has to spend – the access simply is not there.

"I'd trade every iota of this island paradise for one episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  And a hat."

And that's with a technology that doesn't confer immediate, personal and most importantly relative benefits on those who have it. Being a hyper-intelligence running on the distributed platform that is the information network of the solar system might be wonderful, but for many people out there it would be even more wonderful if there are still non-uplifted humans to lord over. Sharing the internet is one thing. Its greatest value is in its ability to link content producers, so having an isolated and private little internet is largely of no value to anyone.  Sharing the kind of technology that would make the elites, those who have undoubtedly invested huge amounts of whatever resource obtains at the time to bring this change to fruition, completely redundant is something else entirely. And something that, given the general thrust of, oh, all human history, seems decidedly unlikely.

And that's the real problem with the Singularity. It may be that it's possible to invent the sorts of technologies necessary to underpin the Singularity, paradigm-shiftingly-advanced though they may be, but it's another thing entirely to assume that the sorts of people who would provide resource backing to make it happen would be in favour of making it freely available to all. For a comparison, I'd invite anyone to look back at Nikola Tesla and his plan to provide world-wide free energy, and the response by his principal backer, J.P. Morgan. There's no reason to assume that those inventing the foundations of the Singularity-enabling technologies wouldn't face their very own J.P. Morgans, interested in nothing more or less than stopping such change dead in its tracks. The sorts of people who most benefit from the status quo are those least likely to tolerate changes to it.

This is J.P. Morgan.  He does not give a damn how many people you can uplift 
if he can't personally charge each and every last one of them a service fee.

The Singularity is a paradisaical dream, nothing more or less than that. Something approximating it may, some day in the far future, come to pass. But existing elites and institutions will fight it tooth and nail, and while they may not succeed in the long term, there is every reason to assume they can hold its implementation back for a very, very long time.


  1. In fairness to your analogy, Tesla's dream was just that - a dream and not actually possible. Also, many versions of the Singularity assume that human social and governmental structures would be radically altered. Often with the assumption that humans would no longer run the world, but that computers would run everything for our benefit. Under such a scenario, it's quite plausible that the machines would be free of the kind of greed that bedevils human economic systems. Of course, that would also assume a situation in which we humans are effectively pampered pets of a machine civilization, which has its own issues.

  2. It's true, plenty of Singulitarians posit some kind of benevolent post-human intelligence that will shepherd us along the path to whatever-comes-after. But before you can get to that post-human intelligence you have to write the program and construct the hardware, and probably change the laws such that it will be a person who can't just be killed by flipping the off switch. And that's where the J.P. Morgans of the world can jam their wrench into the gears. It may be impossible to stop the Singularity once it's actually a process in motion, but before it gets there it has to have all sorts of elite backing to achieve that level of omnipresence and small-scale omnipotence.

    Also, yay, my first comment!

  3. Anyone else find it funny that those people looking forward to the Singularity are already completed disconnected from reality?

    By that I mean the notion that we could be somehow "disembodied" or be something separate from our bodies. In that sense the Singularity is just the Rapture rehashed for a modern audience that regards souls as being fundamentally the same thing as a computer program.