Sterling against the Singularity, myths of the near future

The Long Now Foundation is a fascinating project trying, as a counter to the ongoing atrophy of the human attention span, to foster long-term thinking and responsibility. I hugely recommend Stewart Brand’s book The Clock of the Long Now, as a good read in itself as well as an introduction to the Foundation’s ideas.

They’ve been posting audio files of their free public lectures, which look like they’re well worth the download. I’ve only listened to Bruce Sterling’s lecture on ‘The Singularity: Your Future as a Black Hole’ so far, and it was great. It’s hard to described how scathing the guy is about the techno-evangelist proponents of the Singularity. I had to keep reminding myself that I expressed many similar reservations myself six years ago in my piece on Terence McKenna’s Timewave theory, in the last issue of Towards 2012. Having entertained various versions of this concept of exponential cultural acceleration leading to a kind of "phase transition" in the near-future, Sterling’s barrage of blustery pragmatism made me feel pretty foolish at times. His soundbite summation of the Singularity ("Very nineties—not much of a business plan.") laid bare my insecurities about lacking depth and groundedness in my thinking. In the end, though, despite the annoying hint of self-righteousness in his constantly drumming fingers, it’s hard not to smile and laugh at his deft exposure of various woolly philosophies.

I still think something major is going to happen in the very near future. Sterling does concede that there are awesome, frightening potentials, especially in the realm of cognitive enhancements. His hugely important point, though, is to ward off the kind of complacency that concepts like the Singularity can engender. "We’re all heading towards something we can’t conceive… It’s inevitable… It’s beyond us…" …so why bother trying to understand what’s going on now in the world, let alone do anything about it? With our info-obesity, it’s always tempting to forgo exercise and just kick back on the couch, hoping our digestive juices will render all those fragments of information into something we can healthily absorb. But really, we, I, have to pitch in. Know when to diet, and when to work out. And especially when to just get some of the fresh air of concept-free experience.

As Alan Moore said in his recent Salon.com interview (someone’s made it into a nice PDF—thanks Joel!), "having a multitude of information stored somewhere in your memory is not necessarily a great deal of use; you need to be able to connect this information into some sort of usable palette." History was always my worst subject at school (I still averaged 60-70% in exams, but that’s my precociousness, and low modern standards for you). I was always like, "Where does this fit in?" I had no framework, no one had bothered to make any sort of interesting vision of historical processes live in my mind. There were no hooks to hang bits of information on—the classic redundancy of the "kings and dates" approach to learning history. Sadly enough, it wasn’t until I read McKenna’s Food of the Gods that some overarching grasp of our collective story took root in my mind. That story had its flaws, to be sure, but it was a starting point. I could hang things on it, and sense something when things didn’t fit—and revise my vision.

In his introduction to Sterling’s talk, Stewart Brand highlights the crucial relevance of the possibility of a Singularity to The Long Now Foundation, such an event representing a radical discontinuity in history. Where does long-term thinking go then? My sense is that, even as things apparently accelerate beyond our control, even as the politics/media machine reaches new heights of Orwellian revisionism, there is a pressing obligation for us to unearth more and more honest, illuminating models of our history, models that can adapt and weather future cultural upheavals. Artists and creative thinkers need to rescue our historical self-image from the timid platitudes and delusions of journalism and orthodox academia. Synthesise accumulated collective experience into densely packed nuggets of structured, resonant and open-ended knowledge (I guess these could be called "myths") that stand the best chance of slipping through whatever historical bottlenecks may be round the corner.

No, I’ve no business plan yet; just thought I’d run the pitch by you.

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