Joe Transhumanist

Accelerating technological change is affecting every aspect of your life. You're going to live longer. You're going to see amazing technologies. Things you took for granted for decades are shifting under your feet. It's impossible to chart these changes out past a couple years. Eventually, it'll be down to months. So how does a regular joe, a non-scientist, embrace this while living a so-called "normal" life? Is it even possible? Herein is my approach.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Obsolescence of SF

Don't get me wrong - I grew up on the classics.  I was especially fond of the "hard" Science Fiction guys.  I devoured novels like Clarke's "Rendezvous with Rama" and Niven's "Ringworld".  I was drawn to their vision of a future where Mankind had spread across the galaxy and uncovered the mysteries of the cosmos not through magic transporter beams and warp drives, but using their wits and the laws of science.  The idea that we were just a small part of this interstellar community thrilled me.  Later, authors like Greg Bear, David Brin, Gregory Benford, and Walter Jon Williams drew me in with their more hardcore, sleek, techno-futures.  A bit darker, sure, but no less wondrous.  For a geeky teenager who hadn't really grown into himself yet, these were the greatest of escapes.

Then something started to happen.  It became harder and harder to crystallize that sense of wonder, harder to find believable futures, harder to take these tales of galactic civilizations seriously. The problem was easy to identify:  The present was gaining on the future, and the future it was gaining on was not one filled with interstellar warfare, interplanetary colonies, aliens, and ancient relics of long lost civilizations.  It was a future of data transmission and biological augmentation, of infinite information and mind-numbing computing power.  In the early 80s not everyone could see this yet, but certain writers did. One in particular, a mathematician named Vernor Vinge, coined a term that we Transhumanists and former sci-fi fans have admittedly overused:  The Singularity.  Vinge, like his contemporaries, kept writing books and coming up against a problem:  Technology was moving so fast that he could not create realistic far-future scenarios.  Long before humans could venture to the stars and engage in building ringworlds and exploring cylindrical alien space arks, their technology was going to make such things unimportant.  Man was becoming more and more attuned to his machines, augmenting his intelligence with ever more complex computer systems and software routines.  Eventually - and not too far in the future if one really looked at the trends - the pace of technology was going to outpace the very pace of technology itself. Beyond this point, nobody could predict what would happen.  Like the enigma existing behind the event horizon of a black hole, Mankind would reach a technological singularity.

Not a very sexy idea to a guy who loved chasing Niven and Clarke across the solar system.

Some authors just said "screw it" and wrote (mostly bad) space opera anyway, stories about 20th century men and women that happened to be set in spaceships.  I called it the Star Trek scenario, with a fair amount of derision.  I was never a big Trek fan.  But there were those who took on this challenge and tried to create futures where a Singularity either didn't exist, or could somehow be avoided or limited in its effect.  And some of these attempts were fantastic.  Dan Simmons created incredibly engaging scenarios in his Hyperion and Illium series of novels.  A new wave of younger authors - Alastair Reynolds and Charles Stross spring to mind - did equally mind-blowing work finding a way to get a fictional Humanity out there among the stars.  But Vinge was the godfather of the "Singularity" authors.  Everything he wrote dealt with it.  And his magnum opus, my vote for the finest pure science fiction novel ever written, was "A Fire Upon the Deep", a galaxy-spanning space opera in the grandest sense, where space and the laws of physics themselves dictate the extent to which a species can "get around" the Singularity.

Can we "get around" a technological singularity?  I personally doubt it.  The minute man creates an intelligence greater than his own - or augments his own intelligence to the point where the unaugmented cannot compete - then the entire game changes.  History has not been kind to those who try to avoid what I will simply call, without any positive or negative connotation, "progress".  I hope that our future will be inclusive, that a rising technological tide will raise all boats.  I have more hope for that each day as humanity becomes more networked and the importance of and reliance on old-style tribalism begins to fade.  Whatever happens, though, the next three decades or so are going to be interesting.

In the meantime, I am still drawn to the Science Fiction section of every bookstore.  I still peruse the new arrivals, hoping for some great and original upstart writers to ping that sense of wonder that has become so rare these days.  And I still have copies of the books that set me on this path so many years ago.  Ringworld and Rama and 2001 and dozens of others are no less important for being technically obsolete.  Because the memories of these books and the stories they told still resonate, still take me back to a time when excitement was made of alien worlds and interstellar exploration, not cloud servers and stem cells and virtual reality.

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