Singularities Aren’t Just In the Future

In my first post about the Singularity, I rummaged through various possible definitions for “what the hell does ‘Singularity’ even mean, anyway?” On my list of five options, number 2 was:

“A time when when technological progress goes so fast that we people before it can’t predict it (or what comes after it).”

But this means that the Singularity has already happened. In fact, there have been dozens of singularities in humanity’s history — and they point both ways.

Singularities in the Past

I sometimes like to imagine what it might be like to snatch Benjamin Franklin’s mind from 1790, a few weeks before his death, and resurrect him here and now in a cloned, rejuvenated body. What would he think of modern life? How much would he understand of our technology? Of our daily life? Franklin was one hell of a smart guy, a renowned scientist and inventor (in addition to other careers). I think that, given some time, he could understand the advances we’ve made in science and technology at least as well as the average modern person. (Probably better than many, in fact.)

But how long would it take before he could really participate in our society? How would he react to modern clothes? Modern music (be it rock, hip-hop, or even “older” stuff like jazz)? Would he ever be able to really enjoy it? Or would it seem as strange to him as gamelan or koto music or the minimalism of Steve Reich does to most of us?

And then there are social roles. Would Franklin ever adjust to the idea of women wearing miniskirts and being legislators, cabinet secretaries, and CEOs? Even if he took to the idea enthusiastically, would he be able to casually interact with modern women and ethnic minorities without accidentally giving offense?

Okay, suppose you think he’d make a spectacular job of adapting to the modern age. (Personally, I think the social changes would be something he couldn’t really cope with. Adapting to new technology is a simple job for the frontal neocortex, but adapting to new social morés is an affront to the monkey-brain’s early training. It’s much harder to make that shift.) Move back a century. Grab a similarly forward-looking individual from the late 1600s instead of the late 1700s. Do you still think they could cope with the modern world?

How about someone from the 1580s? The 1480s? Even if we could teach Benjamin Franklin the principles of most modern technology, there comes a time when we try someone from the Middle Ages, and they look at a television, or phone, or computer, and just can’t process it as anything other than witchcraft. Sooner or later, there comes a time when our hypothetical subject from the mists of history simply cannot process or understand what life is like for us now.

Reverse Singularities

But there also comes a time when we cannot understand what it was like for them. We have the advantage of clearer hindsight, of course — any of their technology, we can understand. But sometimes, it’s hard for us to really understand what it was like to not have the technology we take for granted.

Just in the past 20 years, cell phones have rendered a huge number of classic movie and novel plots completely obsolete (TV Tropes has some interesting examples; search for “Check Out Life Before Cell Phones”). Basically, if a plot relies on someone not being able to contact someone else, and neither person is out in the wilderness somewhere, a modern viewer under 30 will immediately think, “So just call him, fool!” Sure, then they’ll remember, “Oh, right, no cell phones back then.” (This also means the classic urban legend about “The killer is calling from inside the house!” loses all its oomph.) But that’s just the most recent development…

Much of the song “Pennsylvania 6-5000” is now incomprehensible until the context is explained. Not just the 2L-5D dialing convention, but also the idea of operator-assisted dialing (e.g., in the Andrews Sisters’ version, they start the song off by saying in unison, “Hello, operator, give me Pennsylvania six-five thousand!”) and the idea that long-distance phone calls were expensive (“When I’m away from my honey/Here’s what I do with my money…”). Then there are those telegram jokes that depend on conventions like the word “stop” being used in place of periods.

It’s easy to spot those technological changes. But there have also been some very real social shifts, even if they’ve taken longer.

Fifty years ago, Gone With the Wind was considered one of the finest, most classic movies made. Nowadays, it is still acknowledged as a major picture… but it’s also considered to glorify the Confederacy and slavery, and that change in attitude is only a few decades old.

Many modern readers can’t figure out where Sherlock Holmes was getting his cocaine (which has led some people to assume Watson must be his drug dealer, using his medical license to write Holmes a prescription — despite Watson very clearly and vocally disapproving of Holmes’ cocaine habit, starting just a few paragraphs after it was first introduced in the second story, “The Sign of Four”). No, the answer is much simpler: Holmes could buy his cocaine in any apothecary’s shop on any street-corner, because it was still legal then. A commenter on TV Tropes adds that many of the crimes in the Holmes canon “were committed to cover up scandalous intimate liaisons which, if exposed publicly today, would be greeted with a resounding “So What?” from everyone except the paparazzi or a divorce attorney.”

What happens when we go back further? Imagine what it was like to live in Medieval Europe — not as one of the few landed gentry, or a priest or noble. Imagine being one of the 99% — an unlettered, untutored serf. First of all, you’re illiterate. If you want to go to town and find a tavern — say, the Black Rooster, or the Horse and Plough — you can’t look for a sign with written words on it. They’d mean nothing to you. Letters are mystical sigils that only a few, very special people can read.

And the concept of “mystical sigils” isn’t just a poetic metaphor. You actually believe in real, working magic — as does everyone around you, including the legal system. Because everyone knows that curses and hexes are real, and if your neighbor curses you and makes your crop fail, or your cow’s milk dry up, you need to be able to take him or her to court and seek justice.

Of course, curses aren’t the only thing that could go wrong in your life. If you fall ill, it’s probably because of a miasma — or perhaps an imbalance in your four humors. Naturally, you also believe in the divine right of kings. Your king was literally chosen by God to rule over you, and disobedience to that rule isn’t just anti-authoritarian — it’s sacrilege — opposing an authority who has been, literally, ordained by God. (In fact, many, many people still believed in this one as recently as 1776. That’s part of what made the Declaration of Independence so revolutionary.)

Can you understand what it’s like to live with this worldview?

No! Of course you can’t, not in in your bones and as a real mental habit, the way it really was for the people living then. That’s the point — time has moved on, and our understanding of the world has changed. We no longer believe the things people once did. That’s the point.

We’ve passed through a singularity. We can no longer understand what it was like to live on the other side of it. That’s what a singularity is.

Another point of evidence: A few months back, io9 ran an article on why our modern society would look to a visitor from the past like a horrific dystopia — citing examples such as women’s suffrage, mixed-race marriage, and factory lines. These are things we think of as good things, for the most part. (Okay, factory lines are dehumanizing and boring, but they were also a great step forward for productivity, and it’s not like there are any serious movements afoot to abolish them, just to make the drudgery less drudge-like.)

Not All at Once

The other thing to notice, about all of these various singularities, is that none of them happened all at once. Different people have different thresholds for when they can or can’t relate to a particular thing. Perhaps a Steampunk cosplayer would have a better understanding of some of those Sherlock Holmes stories that hinge on Victorian mores than the average modern person.

And many of us, by the time we get old enough, have actually lived through one or more of these shifts. Again, a technological example and a social one:

Take a computer scientist from, say, 1962. Someone who worked on ENIAC just after World War II, then experienced UNIVAC and the IBM 704 and IBM 1401 — that last one was pretty state-of-the-art in 1962.

Now imagine you told this person that in a mere 50 years, everyone would be carrying around a gizmo that fits in a shirt-pocket, and has storage equal to one million times that found on the most-loaded IBM 1401 systems of the time (16K for the 1401, and a 16G pop-out memory card is a common feature for modern smartphones). And it has a processor with over a billion transistors in it, running at a clock speed of 1.6 gigahertz… our hypothetical Mad Men-era computer engineer would think we’d just learned the word “billion” and were waving it around to be impressive. “It’d be astounding if we can get any computer small enough to fit into a pocket in only 50 years,” he’d say. “The kind of wonder machine you’re describing? That’ll still take a whole room. Maybe a small room… but there’s no way that’ll fit in a pocket, not that soon!”[1]

And yet if that guy lived to last year, he might very well have owned one. And that means that somewhere along the way, the unthinkable became thinkable, and then it became “Hmmm… seems like an aggressive timetable, but could be doable…” And then it became, “Hey, that seems pretty likely!”, and eventually, “Yeah, I figure those’ll hit the market in a few years. Can’t wait to get one!”

Now, for a quicker, social change: Go back to 1959 or so, and ask one of the Little Rock Nine if the United States could ever have a black president, and particularly if it could ever happen in their lifetime. I’m pretty sure that after the National Guard escort, the bullying and assaults, and then the tragedy of the Lost Year, they’d say the US would never, ever accept a black president. But they got to attend Obama’s inauguration.

(Of course, it doesn’t even take 49 years to cross a singularity-like threshold regarding the presidency. People in 1955 would have been astounded at the identity of the president a mere 30 years later, as this video shows.)

Singularities go both ways, and they happen more often than we think.

[1] If you think I’m overestimating this computer engineer’s incredulity, consider a couple of roughly-contemporary predictions about future computer hardware, by a couple of the best predictors in science fiction:

Robert A. Heinlein published his novel Methuselah’s Children in 1958. In it, a character is dealing with a highly advanced, state-of-the-art computer system: “it baffled him; it was a design he was not used to, having no moving parts of any sort, even in the exterior controls.” That was pretty confusing for me when I read it as a child in the late ’70s — I couldn’t see what was so special about it, as it just sounded like it used transistors and a membrane keyboard, like many other devices I was familiar with. That scene is set in the year 2136! (In fact, I didn’t get a real appreciation for why there would be any moving parts in a computer until later, when I learned about electromechanical computers — which might be what Heinlein was more used to.)

Similarly, Star Trek originally ran from 1966 to 1969. Somewhere along the way, Gene Roddenberry produced or at least approved a schematic of the Enterprise showing the main computer core as taking up three decks’ worth of space — in the full-resolution image available from this Memory Alpha page, you can see it taking up the forward half of three decks in the lower half of the saucer section.

The best predictive minds of the era consistently failed to predict how quickly computer power would increase and size would decrease. ↑↑

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *