Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Wierd Inversions of Singularity Fiction

Alright, first a definition of terms: the Singularity is sort of the Geekpocalypse. Only instead of dying, or going to heaven, we all become super intelligent and transcend into almost unimaginable beings of immense power. Supposedly, this will happen because of a large number of advances in technology - brain uploading, artificial intelligence, nanotech, bioengineering, etc. It will be incomprehensible to us in the same way that the Pythagorean Theorm is incomprehensible to a dog.

Personally, I'm sort of a soft believer in the Singularity. This whole concept of exponential growth is all well and good, but it requires a little too much faith for my tastes. The truth is, there's so much we don't know about consciousness. There are also hard limits on technological progress, which means that what looks like an exponential curve must actually be an S-curve. There's also a question of economics; it might be that AI is possible, but that we'll never reach the point where it's actually pursued. Or AI will take a lot of time to make better AI, so instead of an intelligence spike, it's a gradual upwards slide, and there's no future shock, just slow and steady progress. Or we might blow ourselves up, or get hit by an asteroid, or exterminated by extraterrestrials. All that aside, we do seem on track to be hitting some serious boosts in technology if the next hundred years are anything like the last hundred.

Anyway, I've been reading a lot of science fiction recently, much of it focused on the Singularity. There's a weird theme running through these books; as technology progresses, civilization starts to regress.

For some reason, governments start to melt away or dissolve completely. Instead, you have the ungovs of Marooned in Realtime, the phyles of The Diamond Age, and the synthetic groupings of Accelerando. The reasons for this breakdown varies. Either the government is too big and slow, or the corporations gradually take over, or the system of taxation becomes infeasible. Some authors take it farther than others - sometimes the future is only of companies and their shifting alliances, and sometimes it's nothing more than independent agents, connected to other people only through tenuous agreements. Society becomes tribal once again, only this time humans - and our descendants - don't move through the plains or forests, but through the sea of humanity.

Another throwback is currency. Historically, we moved from barter, to backed currencies, to fiat currencies. In Singularity fiction, this also warrants a regression; typically this comes in the form of reputation markets, where people spend goodwill (basically, their upvotes). That system seems really dumb to me, primarily because it needs the same sort of belief supporting it that fiat currency does. Only instead of being under the control of government, that wonderful institution whose primary occupation is existing, it would have to be under control of a private corporation with a risk of folding. The other two dominant narratives are an information currency (in Accelerando they use computerized people) or a return to barter (on the theory that computerization can eliminate all the costs associated with that). Barter makes a lot of sense if you've already postulated that civilization is doomed - you have to trade in things with actual value, and anything that's useful can't very well be put into wide circulation, and if you're using something without intrinsic value as your currency, then you're basically using a currency founded on belief anyway.

Okay, so why do the writers choose to do it this way? First and foremost, I should point out that a writer can only be so clever. That's why if you read (bad) detective fiction, the detective solves easy problems and everyone pretends that they're hard. Most hard scifi writers aren't geniuses; they read scientific papers, look at trends, and then try to write an interesting story that's within the bounds of reality. So perhaps the reason that systems seem to be regressing is that we don't really know what form civilization might take. A monarchy is at least easy to understand.

I guess the other reason this happens is that it provides a nice sort of mirroring effect; humanity moves from tribes to kingdoms to nation-states, then back downwards until we are tribes once more. It has a certain irony to it.

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