Relax… it’s just the Singularity

12 02 2011

The full-page photo in this week’s issue (Feb. 21) of TIME magazine of Ray Kurzweil’s pseudo-diffident expression, along with the blasé tone of Lev Grossman’s cover article, conspire together to make you feel like an idiot if you don’t buy into the nihilistic utopia of Kurzweil’s vision of the future. (Mr. Kurzweil, by the way, is one of the most recognized and celebrated inventors in the world.)

I was first introduced to Mr. Kurzweil’s notion of what he calls the “Singularity” in 2005 with the publication of his book, The Singularity is Near. Kurzweil predicts that life as we know it will effectively end in about 20-30 years when, for the first time ever, computers will surpass us in general intelligence, whereupon we will joyfully and fearfully hitch ourselves as a species upon the backs of our computer brethren and go for a magic bus ride of evolutionary proportions. Man and machine will merge, humans will live forever, and robots will take over the role of decision-maker on the planet; in relatively short order, we (and by “we” I mean some computer hybrid version of ourselves) will inhabit and saturate every molecule of substance and data in the universe.

Which is all to say, existence itself will be reinvented. Meet the Singularity.

Since 2005 I’ve spent a week of each semester of my Christian Life, Faith, and Ministry course lecturing on the implications of nanotechnology, trans-humanism, Ray Kurzweil, cognitive implants, and immortal software-based humans, to name a few of the related topics associated with singularity studies (yes, there’s such a thing now, and there’s even a university dedicated to its study and promotion). Not surprisingly, those week’s lectures and discussions always garner the most interest. Students who may typically drift off into dreams end up being riveted by the sheer audacity of the topic, which naturally leads to discussions regarding the nature of humanity, the veracity of their religious beliefs, and the existence of God.

But back to Kurzweil’s “yeah, whatever” expression and this week’s TIME cover article. If I could distill the thesis, it would be this: the Singularity is coming whether you like it or not (note: only one detractor is quoted and only a few objections are put forth), so you’d better get used to it. This is precisely why Kurzweil’s diffident expression and Grossman’s casual tone are so off-putting. They give the whole enterprise a vibe of inevitability, and inevitable = invincible. It’s as if none of us peons (read “normal humans”) have a say. And apparently, most of us won’t. And why should we, right? Oughtn’t we leave the entire future of human civilization in the hands of the folks who grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons and tinkering with the circuit boards of their father’s transistor radios ~ or their modern counterpart, the computer geeks who traded in the awkward reality of adolescence by hiding behind their keyboards to play Warcraft and Halo, and whose faces now permanently radiate that incandescent blue glow of a computer monitor; you know, those perfectly well-adjusted human beings who’ve spent most of their lives in make-believe?

But maybe these cyber-geeks have it all wrong. Maybe, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. I thought the atomic bombs on Japan taught us that. Some technology shouldn’t be unleashed, or even invented. There is such a thing as Pandora’s box, in other words, and opening it simply because we can doesn’t mean we should. Isn’t that one of the basic building blocks of any civilization? It’s called restraint, not exactly a well-worn virtue these days. Just because the bully can beat the scrawny kid up, or we can cheat on our tax returns, or a dictator can exact terror on a country for a generation ~ just because these things can be done doesn’t mean they should be, right? These freakish Singularitarians (yes, that’s what they call themselves, minus the “freakish” part) are gunning for the end of civilization as we know it and are positively giddy about it. Must we demure?

If you’ve had occasion to read the TIME article and found yourself a bit concerned by all of it, don’t be hoodwinked into feeling ashamed or ~ God forbid ~ out of date. It would be utterly naive and the most extreme form of hubris not to be concerned. Of course you should be concerned. The essential dignity of humanity is on the chopping block; the power of the poet, the vision of the artist, the profundity of the philosopher, the transcendent vision of the common believer ~ basically, the human spirit in all of its manifestations ~ are being reduced to nothing more than synaptic connections. We, the Singularitarians tell us, are nothing but the sum of our parts. We are machines. Get used to it.

So, will we proceed with no restraint into this brave new world of a nihilism that is disguised for popular consumption as nothing more than benign technological advance? Apparently so. To wit: 600 million and counting Facebook accounts; everyone with either a Blackberry or iPhone; the infernal and ubiquitous blog. The other day I was out to breakfast with my daughter, and across the way was a family of four: a husband, wife, and their two sons. And like a scene straight out of some disturbing Orwellian futurama, all four of them were staring blankly at their hand-held devices… a family completely wired in and, thus, completely checked out. At one point one of the sons looked up at his family with — I swear — a look of despondency, as in, Will someone please say something? Probably the most disturbing thing about this post-modern family out to dinner scene was that the parents were the ones most lost in their little virtual realities. The father honestly looked like he was white knuckling his device. Goodbye Norman Rockwell, hello George Orwell.

We’re rushing pell-mell into oblivion by distraction. And it becomes a cyclical phenomenon. The more we distract ourselves, the less we commune with each other; the less we commune with each other, the more we need to distract ourselves. And on and on it goes. Isn’t there something to be said for a counter-revolution to all this gadgetry and techno-worship? A few months ago I deleted my Facebook account. I didn’t just deactivate it, I deleted it. Do you know just how difficult it is to do that? I had to literally explain myself before I could be allowed to do so. Talk about Big Brother Watching. But what about it? What about a whole cadre of sober-minded human beings who just decide to say “No” to the latest Apple product? Saying no to the next iPad, or iPod, or iPhone before we call become little iPersons? What about this thing called restraint?

The article in TIME mentioned the annual Singularity Summit and listed the different groups of people who attended last year’s conference: computer scientists, psychologists, neuroscientists, nanotechnologists, molecular biologists, and the professional magician James “the Amazing” Randi. Conspicuously missing from that list: ethicists, philosophers, artists, and of course, priests or theologians. This is not a broad cross-section of humanity, in other words. These are the very folks whose lives have been committed to the idea that human beings are nothing but the sum of their parts ~ as biological machines to unpack, deconstruct, and lay bare for manipulation. Is it any wonder that they have no problems whatsoever with the merging of man and machine? They already think we are machines.

Among the more disingenuous parts of the TIME article was the Garden of Eden redux photo of Singularitarian Aubrey de Grey looking very Jesus-like sitting serene and barefooted next to a small pond (the primal soup?). He looked like an idiot and the picture was primal kitsch, but I guess that was the point ~ I hope he got a good laugh. This is the guy, by the way, who thinks death is a disease that should be cured like the measles. Aging as insult. Only in California. Grossman writes:

There’s an intellectual gag reflex that kicks in anytime you try to swallow an idea that involves superintelligent immortal cyborgs, but suppress it if you can, because while the Singularity appears to be, on the face of it, preposterous, it’s an idea that rewards sober, careful evaluation.

On the face of it? Ya think? Trouble is, what’s far more sinister is what lies beneath the face of the Singularity. Think about it: the people who champion this idea are the very folks who gleefully talk about the end “of the human era.” Do you feel rewarded? Enlightened? Satisfied? This is nihilism wrapped in technological advance. Turns out, our first sin may be our last. The unbridled pursuit of knowledge — of wanting to become gods — was our first Fall from grace in the primal garden. Are we about to come full circle?

Apparently those of us with spiritual sensibilities (i.e. 95% of the rest of humanity) need to take part in this conversation and get wise to how a small minority of existential malcontents are trying to shape our future. Up to now, none of my colleagues at APU or Fuller has taken this Singularity movement terribly seriously. It seemed so far-fetched. And it is. But 10 years ago the idea that folks would be walking around with Blackberries and iPods was preposterous, too. The future is here, people, so we’d better get used to it. And we’d best be prepared to exercise restraint in the meantime when it comes to our uncritical embrace of all things new. Technology is not a neutral category. Too much of it can lead precisely to the place the Singularitarians would like to take us: their disturbing and mind-bending, spiritually bereft dystopia. I’m not buying, and I hope you aren’t either.

Let’s be frank: We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us.

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