Hyping the singularity

11/03/2013 § 4 Comments

Let’s see if I can pull this all together in 500 words or fewer.

Via social media (h/t Rob), we have predictions about how Google Glass will change everything, Everything I Tell You! Let’s think about what Glass does. It takes something we are seeing and overlays information. Really neat for consumption activities like tourism — your own personal tour guide — and useful for certain kind of work — such as overlaying a blueprint on the house that we see. But…

  • we can already do most of that, just in a clunky sort of look-up-look-back way
  • the information still needs processing in our brains
  • who is guaranteeing the information (y’know, like the facial recognition of known criminals)?

Brad Delong linked to Cosma Shalizi, who tried to get us to see (in 2010) that the singularity had already happened. Unpredictable growth, dis-orienting changes, ‘Annihilation of the age-old constraints of space and time?’.

But that’s not right. I live very much like my dad and his dad. I have a desk computer instead of a typing pool and slide rule, my car is safer, my TV is bigger. But I still get colds at inconvenient times and still buy mass-produced clothes that don’t quite fit and still mess up the stove when the potatoes boil over. I still need my 8 hours of sleep or I’m cranky and I still need to move with time through space in a car or plane to go places.

Delong embellishes and expands: the core is really that

At the bleeding edge of the urban North Atlantic and East Asia today, few focus on making more of necessities….We have crossed a great divide between what we used to do in all previous human history and what we do now. Since we are not in the realm of necessity, we ought to be in the realm of freedom.

I sometimes wonder about those bleeding-edge places, living as I do far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy farthest reaches of the old British Empire, thousands of miles from the gravitational centres of humanity. They are different, well, somewhat different. The ‘Asian aesthetic’ — the hyperactive TV shows, the youth culture of masquerade — wouldn’t play well here in New Zealand, or in Virginia, or other places in the OECD. The go-go life of Silicon Valley and its East Coast analogues makes no sense in New Zealand. I wonder what this freedom is. The freedom to commute 2 hours a day and work 60 hours a week to impress neighbours you never meet? The freedom to worry that your mortgage is under water and you’ve taken a loan against your retirement?

A limiting factor is that we still need to think and understand and respond. We aren’t doing that faster. I was preparing lectures on probability over the weekend and realising that students will still need to do problems themselves — draw probability tables and multiply numbers together — or they will not understand Bayes’ law. I was also teaching algebra to my daughter, like my dad taught me calculus. You start where the student is — what do you understand about this problem? — and then take them the next step, and the next. And they need to participate, be actively involved in the thinking and solving.

This ADHD lifestyle lived by some few people isn’t singular; it isn’t necessarily anything. It is a cultural affectation overlaid on ordinary, mundane lives. With the right goggles, you, too, can learn to see the singularity. I’ll even sell you a pair.

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§ 4 Responses to Hyping the singularity

  • Grant says:

    Oh, you are so right, Bill! This insightfulness may even be a zeitgeist: the New York Times just published this,

    • Bill says:

      I’m not sure about a zeitgeist, but this voluntary simplicity thing — movement? consciousness? lifestyle? — is fascinating. I found it interesting that this particular guy went from wealthy to simple. It made me wonder what the pathway from middle class to simple is, given the middle class’s _Fear of Falling_. Thanks for the link.

  • Eric says:

    nice Douglas Adams reference. however, having said that, I don’t think the full ramifications of the “computer revolution” have settled out- change everything, no. change the world in still unforseen ways- yes.

    • Bill says:

      Oh, no doubt it isn’t over and the full effects will be unforeseen. In the process, we are going to learn more about — and possibly re-define — what it is to be human.

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