Singularities and jackpots and fugues

21.00, Wednesday 9 Feb 2022

I’ve been thinking about the stories we tell ourselves about how the world ends. Specifically: plausible and convincing ones.

So here are three examples from sci-fi. SPOILERS ABOUND.

The Singularity

Clearly, technology gets better: AI, biotech, robotics, energy, etc. Better technology makes technology get better quicker, so now we have a runaway feedback loop – progress accelerates and accelerates and accelerates until, boomf, we all become gods.

Sci-if author Vernor Vinge spotted and named this, and here he is in 1993 (the essay was also published in the Whole Earth Review):

When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid. In fact, there seems no reason why progress itself would not involve the creation of still more intelligent entities – on a still-shorter time scale. …

From the human point of view this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control.

People get terribly excited about the singularity + exponential growth today (there’s a university about it, etc).

I think I first heard of the Singularity in maybe 2004/5 and my sense is that it was A Big Deal till maybe 2015 at which point it transitioned into being… accepted.

Inevitability! That is part of it. Vinge again: I have argued above that we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans’ natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology.

The inevitability is convincing. Everywhere you look you spy evidence that we live in the foothills of the Singularity.

BUT what this downplays is that, from the perspective of the people living through it, the Singularity is an extinction.

Vinge named the Singularity in his 1986 novel Marooned in Realtime (Amazon) – which is AMAZING (pick up The Peace War first; the two books read very differently but Marooned is definitely the second in the duo logy).

Marooned in Realtime is told from the perspective of the far future.

Mysteriously all of humanity seems to have vanished sometime in the 2200s. Just… disappeared.

The event is first understood as the Extinction… but then a new theory comes up. Humanity had gone exponential:

Have you see the mines the Korolevs built west of the Inland Sea? They stretch for dozens of kilometers–open pits, autons everywhere. By the late twenty-second century, that’s the scale of resources demanded by a single individual. Science gave each human animal the presumption to act like a little god. … This was an exponential process. Moving into space just postponed the debacle a few decades.

We meet a bunch of fast-forward time travellers in the deep future, and we see them getting more and more high-tech, faster and faster, the closer their period of origin is to the singularity moment itself. The closest is from 2210. After: no-one.

By 2200, we could increase human intelligence itself. And intelligence is the basis of all progress. My guess is that by mid century, any goal–any goal you could state objectively, without internal contradictions–could be achieved. And what would things be like fifty years after that? … It was a Singularity, a place where extrapolation breaks down and new models must be applied. And those models are beyond our intelligence.

So the Singularity is not glorious. It is an ending.

Archaeologically the planet is in ruins. It is abandoned. One of the characters calls it Graduation Day – and they missed the boat.

The post-human era (for us humans) is a desert.

The Jackpot

Here’s another, from The Peripheral (Wikipedia) by William Gibson, 2014.

The end of the world: he’d started to explain what he called the jackpot.

It’s not a single thing. It’s… everything.

And in fact the actual climate, the weather, caused by there being too much carbon, had been the driver for a lot of other things. How that got worse and never better, and was just expected to, ongoing. Because people in the past, clueless as to how that worked, had fucked it all up, then not been able to get it together to do anything about it, even after they knew, and now it was too late. …

No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves. And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there.

I remember needing a long stare out of the window after reading this sequence. Again that sense of inevitability.

It’s realistic in the telling. Technology improves but it’s not enough. Humanity survives but it’s only the rich. My reaction reading about the jackpot was a kind of, oh yeah, that’s it, yup.

Personal anecdote about The Peripheral: there’s a sequence in the post-jackpot future where they’re walking along post-jackpot Oxford Street, east to west, in post-jackpot London, ruined buildings cut and smoothed by nanotech, trees run rampant. They pass Marble Arch.

AND, as I was reading this book about parallel timelines, present and future, I was sitting on the number 94 bus, top front, riding east to west just the same, and I too passed Marble Arch, a wonderful coincidence, and these realities - present, future, fiction - came together in my head, a lamination, and for a few hundred yards (a bus stop or two at least) I was in all three simultaneously.

It is WILD that William Gibson may end up being better known for coining “the jackpot” than “cyberspace.”

A man who is able to retrieve objects from the other side of the bridge.

I can’t tell whether it’s good or bad to have these oh-so-resonant prophecies hanging around?

What they have in common is that, when you hear about the Singularity (titlecased by Vinge) or the jackpot (lowercased by Gibson), you see confirmatory signs everywhere.

SIMILARLY: the consensus cosmogony in 1950s science fiction. When people went into space, and then landed on the Moon, it was easy to see that as confirmation of the first steps of this future history – and therefore a reason to believe in the inevitability of visiting the stars, and a future Galactic Empire (ugh).

So the story starts feeling like destiny. At which point we all start encouraging the bits we want and no longer resisting the bits we don’t?

OR: is it useful to have such stories, provided they have only a limited amount of inevitability?

Consider some real stories of the end of the world.

  • Nuclear apocalypse – when I was 10, it wasn’t just something I imagined. It was clear to me that, by the time I became the age I am now, I would be living in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland.
  • The climate crisis – ongoing.

The optimum amount of belief to have is wide understanding but without acceptance. As a society you need to retain the belief that something can still be done.

Compare Y2K I suppose. The ideal outcome is that everyone looks around after the event and says, huh what a fuss about nothing, without realising that a ton of people worked really really hard.

Does a story such as one of these always become a self-fulfilling prophecy like a civilisation-scale Moore’s Law – a kind of vast Schelling point in the future? For good or ill?

I think what we’re missing rn is a story that gives us a path out of (waves hands) all of this.

Not a utopia so much as something which shows the hand of history leading us toward fairness, abundance, planetary balance, and so on. The journey not the destination.

Oh yeah so I’ve been listening to That Funny Feeling by Bo Burnham a bit too much this week. Here’s Phoebe Bridger’s cover (YouTube).

Female Colonel Sanders, easy answers, civil war
The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door
The live-action Lion King, the Pepsi Halftime Show
Twenty-thousand years of this; seven more to go.


Cultural Fugue

One of my favourite apocalypses is from Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (Wikipedia), Samuel Delany’s space opera/erotic love story/semiotic laboratory experiment/top 10 fave books ever.

For a world to go into Cultural Fugue–for the socioeconomic pressures to reach a point of technological recomplication and perturbation where the population completely destroys all life across the planetary surface–takes a lot of catastrophe. There are more than six thousand worlds in the Federation of Habitable Worlds. And Cultural Fugue is very rare.

It is a mystery. People see signs of it anywhere and everywhere, and are terrified, but the actual mechanism is unknown – it appears to be a runaway social process that results in the self-destruction of an entire planet.

Fire fell from the sky. Deserts melted to slag. Urban complexes, runs through the wild, and tribal federations were scorched away like flavors burned out of over-charred foods. Cultural Fugue, perhaps.

Cultural Fugue seems opaque and its causes absurd and then I look at the way that the UK and the US are both tearing themselves apart, and I think of Easter Island and I think of this.

It doesn’t have as much resolution as the other two so it’s not as actionable in a funny sort of way. You just read the news and shudder.

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