Last week I published a column in New Scientist about how the singularity is no longer a helpful model for thinking about the future. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote:
I was watching the new series based on William Gibson’s 2014 sci-fi novel The Peripheral when I had one of those nerdy, late-night realizations: cyberpunk has become the retro-future, a vision of tomorrow that feels like the past. Even Gibson himself, who coined the term “cyberspace”, has stopped writing cyberpunk, a subgenre devoted to corporate dystopias centered on virtual reality and sentient AI …
As the cyberpunk vision explodes, its philosophical underpinnings are also melting down. Silicon Valley’s investment in VR and AI was pushed in part by a belief in the “singularity”. Described by sci-fi author Vernor Vinge in the 1990s, this is a hypothetical event in which technological advancement accelerates so fast that humanity is transformed. As Vinge once told me, experiencing the singularity would be like seeing new mountains rise on the horizon. Self-aware computers would be evolving so fast they could remold the planet in the time it took to eat breakfast …
The Peripheral replaces the singularity with another vision of how technology will transform civilisation. Instead of a high-tech turning point driven by powerful AIs, it imagines the “Jackpot”, a series of horrific, human-caused events that have wrecked the planet. The population has plummeted, while the rich “klept” class of the future uses quantum tunnelling to send data back to the present. There, they set up corporations that can funnel money to various groups. Some do it to change the future, but most are just amusing themselves, treating people like avatars in a game. The scenario is a literalisation of Gibson’s famous comment that “the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed”.
The point is that AI will not usher in a new phase of existence. Instead it will make a small number of pseudo-monarchs very rich, and the rest of us will become their playthings, struggling to survive in a post-Jackpot world where resources are diminishing. Cyberpunk imagined virtual worlds based on 20th-century technocracy. But The Peripheral‘s vision suggests our prospects look quite different. Now, it feels like we are tottering towards a scenario where the most vulnerable will be abused by leaders who believe they are from the future.
One of my favorite authors, Ken MacLeod, tweeted the article, taking issue with how I’d used the word “technocracy” in the last paragraph. We had a brief back and forth, where he pointed out that technocrats were more like the heroes in Golden Age science fiction, the military-industrial complex men whose goals were antithetical to those of cyberpunk’s chaotic antiheroes. He had a good point. I should have used a different word, like maybe “techno-oligarchy” or “anarcho-capitalism.”
I had a bittersweet feeling after the exchange, thinking about how nice it was to have a place where I could talk to someone whose opinion I respect, and have my perspective changed by their comments. For a few minutes, I felt the imminent loss of Twitter keenly.