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Do Drones and iPhones Matter? June 11, 2012

Posted by Summerspeaker in Technology, The Singularity, Transhumanism.
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Falling asleep in 1912 and waking up in 1962 would be such a flabbergasting leap into future shock you would probably think you were still dreaming. Falling asleep in 1962 and waking up in 2012 would be such a shattering disappointment you would probably crawl back to bed to return to your dreaming. – Dale Carrico

Dale employs this assertion in order to refute the Ray Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns and characterize the latter portion of the twentieth century as a time of technological stagnation. After shaking away my shock at encountering a claim so at odds with my perception, I decided that this claim reveals much about skepticism and hostility to transhumanism and especially the Singularity movement. Dale’s exaltation of the period between 1912 and 1962 reminds me of how one of my parents occasionally longs for the days of eir youth and argues that the most meaningful technological developments had already happened by the middle of the fifties. If you dismiss the recent explosion of computing and communications as insignificant, the Singularity movement indeed seems preposterous. Thus assessing technological change over the last century merits engagement and discussion.

So what can we say about the earlier half-century in question?  Thanks to public health campaigns, vaccination, and so on, life expectancy in the United States increased by roughly twenty years. Factories churned out more and more stuff as industrialization developed, fueling consumer society, driving urbanization, and creating overproducing as a crisis for capitalism. Widespread radio receivers and telephones dramatically sped up communication, airplanes matured into a routine mode of travel, the automobile became a iconic part of daily life, television appeared, movie theaters emerged as a cultural space, and a host of household appliances became standard. Scientists invented the atomic bomb, space exploration and satellites transitioned from imagination to reality, and digital computing technology was established.

As a student of the turn of the twentieth century (say 1880-1920), I’m unconvinced that any of this would be so thoroughly mind-boggling to a time traveler from 1912. Rapid transportation and communications would surely impress, as would the terrible might of Cold War militaries and the convenience of washing machines, but all of these advances build directly on prior systems. Many folks in 1912 already had experience with or at least knowledge of railroads, telegraph lines, steamships, automobiles, and artillery. The most educated and forward-looking would have been familiar with rudimentary nuclear physics and aerial bombardment.

Now let’s examine the jump from 1962 to 2012. Satellites turned as mundane and ubiquitous as the cellular phones they enable, the processing power of computers increased by nine or ten orders of magnitude even as they shrank small enough to pocket, and the internet not only appeared but put millions under its sway. Automation, an inherent feature of industrialization, refined to point of fully robotic factories. Video games developed as new site for competition and distraction. The rigidity of the barrier separating animal and machine broke down thanks interfaces between the computers and the brain or nervous system. Scientists mapped the human genome. Genetically modified food hit the market and continues to arouse global controversy. Photovoltaic cells and wind turbine have come to dot the landscape. Body armor shifted from marginal and rarely used to a defense that renders soldiers highly resistant to small arms. Assassination via a missile strike from remote-controlled aircraft has solidified as a tactic U.S. foreign policy tactic. Reports of laboratory prototypes regularly suggest a coming era of science fiction brought to life.

What would an observer from 1962 think of all this? Like before, I suspect they’d be amazed but not bewildered. Adapting to internet culture would of course require a period of adjustment. However, in both cases, people remain virtual identical. That’s what transhumanists wish to change, but it’s crucial to remember that H+ hasn’t happened yet. We’ve got access to some valuable tools but we ain’t transhuman. Here John Smart’s emphasis on digital technology over biotechnology and human enhancement strikes me as well-founded. I concur with Singularity movement’s emphasis on the exponential advance of computer hardware as a monumentally important and portentous trend. Through the iPhone, you can literally hold fifty year’s of Moore’s law in the palm of your hand. You can even talk to the gadget or use it to send video around the world almost instantaneously. Information technology has precipitated a remarkable shift in human behavior. My days revolve around computers and cell phones. As Smart notes, biotech has no similar success story. I consider expanding automation and geometrically faster computers much safer bets than rejuvenation therapy and genetic manipulation.

Thus, from my experience with and understanding of the Digital Age, I find Dale’s claims baffling at the visceral level and intellectually misguided. If anything – likely because of my research interests – I’m more sympathetic to the argument that identifies the turn of the twentieth century as the era of dramatic technological change. In any case, this exercise underscores the difficulty of evaluating transformation. With either era, I omitted innumerable developments for the stake of brevity. What really defines an age, anyway? Linear notion of technological progress collapse upon even minimal reflection. Some in 2012 and 1962 lived or live much the same as some in 1912. Distribution of innovations varies, and novel techniques don’t necessarily extinguish older methods. The NATO protests in Chicago highlight this dynamic, as you have wooden clubs coexisting with livestreaming.

Politically, an anarchist from 1912 would be distraught by either 1962 or 2012. At least today authoritarian communism has fallen from the dominance it had in the sixties and anarchism returns to prominence as a revolutionary ideology. There’s not much hope here in the second decade of the twenty-first century, but we can perhaps pull together a bubble big enough to breathe in for a little while longer.

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Comments»

1. Dale Carrico - June 16, 2012

Part of my answer. Of course, drones and iPhones matter, the material furniture of the world always matters, culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture — but it is always wrong to confuse the vicissitudes of fashion for progress or our current fetishes for Heaven-sent burning bushes. Historically, bubbles tend to be euphoria-inducing poison gas.

Summerspeaker - June 16, 2012

My reply to the piece Dale linked, which I recommend:

Though I haven’t read Standage’s book, I’m familiar with telegraph lines and the nineteenth century, including the considerable parallels between then and now. The similarities often strike me as I read through periodicals from the turn of the century. However, I find your (Standage’s?) claim that telegraphy was bigger deal than the internet difficult to swallow. Given sufficient magnitude, quantitative changes become qualitative too. The speed and spread of the network has increased exponentially, and this matters.

As usual, I concur with many of the points you make – the inevitable march to the end of history is nonsense, the internet has a material existence enmeshed in the horrors of industrial capitalism, politics aren’t going to magically disappear, etc – and find this article particularly lucid. (Are Singularitarians reading? I hope so but doubt it.)

We disagree over the assessment of Kurzweil’s two central theses: the law of accelerating returns and transformative power superhuman intelligence. I think there’s something of intellectual merit here despite all the progress triumphalism and reactionary politics; you think it’s purely a mistake and/or scam.


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