This is kind of a strange blog post in it's scope, but it talks about what we expect the future to be like both in modern SF and real life, and the problems/solutions to us thinking in limited ways. Some of his concepts like "ReWilding" he mentions and explains a bit here, but a trip to his website (or his novels) is really necessary to grasp some of what he's talking about. He talking in particular about the Singularity here, and how we need to come up with alternate paradigms to prepare ourselves for alternate futures.
I also just wanted to post it because it's got an awesome Dune reference!
Aug 22, 2011
I am the very model of a Singularitarian
Filed Under: Guest blogging
The Stross Entries #9 (originally posted on Charlie Stross's weblog on August 12, 2011)
I suggested in an earlier post that foresight is not so much about prediction as it's about designing against surprise. Key to this is the exploration of multiple futures, which is why scenario-based foresight is so commonly practiced. Scenarios are rarely developed in isolation, but are usually created in decks(generally of four, when one uses the common 2X2 matrix method of generating them). These are then intended as snapshots taken in different points of a complex space of possibilities.
The opposite of scenarios is the default future, which is what everybody assumes is going to happen. If life is what happens to you while you're making other plans, the real future is what happens to you after you've planned for the default future. A classic example of what you get when you plan for the default future is the Maginot Line.
In a 1998 article in the journal Futures, "Futures Beyond Dystopia," Richard Slaughter critiques science fiction's default futures. He accuses SF of oscillating between naive techno-optimism and equally naive apocalypticism. Late 20th century SF lacks the necessary spectrum of intermediate scenarios, according to Slaughter, which may explain its decreasing hold on the public imagination. What we are left with is two default futures, and no societal capacity to plan for a third. This is an idea worth serious contemplation by those of us who write the stuff.
Sometimes, too, our scenarios grow so elaborate that they become more than scenarios--they're complete paradigms. They become default modes of thinking, and come with associated cultures, champions and institutions. At this point, presenting alternatives becomes increasingly difficult; one must present, not just new scenarios, but an entirely new paradigm to complement the reigning one.
May people, particularly in the foresight community, believe that a shift from scenario to paradigm is what's happened to the idea of the Technological Singularity. It's become the new default future--no longer the shocking, thought-provoking alternative to an orthodoxy, but the very orthodoxy itself. Against this, it's no longer sufficient to simply present different scenarios. We need an alternative paradigm (or two, or six).
I've been working on some.
If the Singularity is our new Maginot Line, what's the future equivalent of a line of panzers running right over it? Since scenarios are often productively built around oppositions, I'll suggest an opposite worldview to the Singularity--one that makes opposite assumptions.
The Singularity emerges from the idea that a steady and geometric increase in computing power will result in superhuman intelligence emerging rapidly and drawing with it a geometric increase in industrial and technological progress and scientific understanding; and that this sudden explosion of change is by definition unimaginable to beings of lesser intelligence, such as humans. Hence, the singularity, that place that we mere mortals cannot go. We await the Kwisatz Haderach of AI to lead us through it.
The Singularity is actually an intermeshing set of beliefs about technology, intelligence, and about what drives technological, economic and social change. It's a self-supporting system of ideas, which is what makes it a paradigm and not merely a scenario. And, as I said, paradigms are not to be simply denied or affirmed. (Even the primary champions of the Singularity are not true believers: if you'd like to see Vernor Vinge, Charlie, Aleister Reynolds and me dismantle its mythological structure, watch this video.) However since it's just one vision of the future, it is wise to have others. One that I have been working on is something I call the Rewilding.
The Rewilding isn't so much a scenario as it's an alternative package of assumptions. For instance, the name: the original meaning of the word 'wild' was 'self-willed.' So, this is a set of ideas about a world that is self-willed, rather than willed by agencies (i.e. intelligences whether mortal, artificial, or divine). I gave a little introductory talk about it at OSCON a couple of years ago, and you can find that here. The deep logic of the Singularity is that intelligence (or, for many people, consciousness) has a magical transformative power; the even deeper mythos under that notion is the idea of agency--that the dew on the morning grass must be painted there by fairies; that the regular orbits of the planets must be ordained by God; or that the design we see in Nature is the result of a Designer. In its most refined, philosophical form, the Singularity imagines the creation by Man of a semi-divine Designer that renders a transcendent and unknowable future.
The Rewilding is a vision of radical removal of agency from the world: the flowers bedew themselves, nobody ordered the motion of the planets, not even the mysterious agency known as Scientific Law; evolution is design without a designer, computing is thought without a thinker, and there is no mathematical reality separate from the physical world. In the Rewilding, civilization advances by systematically blurring or even erasing the border between the artificial and the natural; the more efficient an artificial system is, the more it resembles (or even is) a natural one. That is, our surroundings becomes increasingly wild (self-willed) rather than having to be willed by us. Agency, so long marching forward, begins to retreat.
The deep logic of this radically Copernican view is that intelligence (agency) is not a magically transformative power that stands outside nature and ordains how it should move; as I've suggested since my 2002 novel Permanence, intelligence is no more than what we mean when we say, 'look, that thing is acting intelligently.' The more you try to pin down what intelligence is, the more elusive it becomes, and this is because, as Brian Cantwell Smith has argued in great detail, there is no actual difference between computing and other forms of activity. To put it another way, agency is an illusion. Mind is always embodied, and everything that we think is transcendent, is actually part of some embodied and evolved strategy. Most importantly, the Rewilding is a critique of the notion that intelligence and computation are equivalent.
These ideas are intended to mesh together and reinforce one another in the same way that the notions of geometric growth, the evidence of Moore's Law, and computing theory reinforce one another in the paradigm of the Singularity. For instance, to get to the Rewilding, a good SF writer (or futurist) need only posit that the following are true:
Radical embodied cognitive science, and the Extended Mind theories of Clarke et al.;
Science itself is an instance of distributed cognition in which physical measuring instruments participate in the actual activity of thinking about the natural world;
The account of mathematics that precludes the possibility of a separate mathematical reality, as described in Where Mathematics Comes From;
Ecological design (i.e. methods such as biomimicry and systems-thinking solutions such as ecosystem services) becomes the preferred development paradigm for our civilization;
Brian Cantwell Smith's vast theoretical argument that computing is not an activity distinct enough to warrant its own theory;
My revision of Clarke's Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Nature;
Universal Selection Theory's implication that all problem-solving strategies ultimately reduce to variations on natural selection.
What all of these lines of thought add up to is the assertion that no amount of intelligence can act as the primary driver of change in our world. As I've proposed in my forthcoming novel Ashes of Candesce, consciousness is the passenger, and values are the driver; and values are ultimately determined by our physical form.
Of course, all of these ideas could be wrong; it's not my job to determine that. The point of this exercise is to bring together a coherent set of theories and perspectives that together constitute a broad-enough worldview to make a good second paradigm for the future--one worthy of being placed next to the Singularity in our planning toolkit. This second perspective allows us to avoid the complacency of the 'default future' and start triangulating on the future.
There's no reason to stop here. Ideally, I'd like to see a whole spectrum of paradigmatic scenarios of the future. The more we have, the better our advance planning for what will inevitably turn out to be a new world of surprises.