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.
And then I remembered all the other times I’d talked to people about my work on Twitter. The days when self-important strangers roared into my mentions to tell me I was stupid, evil, and crazy. The weeks when mobs of randos seized upon something I’d written at the New York Times and screamed that I was a “pervert Jew” or an “ugly bitch” or a disgrace to the world of science and/or science fiction and/or whatever other thing I was writing about.
I thought how I had come to Twitter to talk to people like Ken, or to read commentary from Black Twitter and Science Twitter, but often found myself in the middle of an abusive shitstorm. I would leave the platform shaken, disturbed, and angry, with that crawling sense of having been publicly humiliated, especially as I watched the hearts piling up on nasty tweets about me and things I loved. “Oh yeah,” I said to myself, “that’s why I hate Twitter.” For every wonderful opportunity to talk to a cool person, there are ten more opportunities for strangers to hurt and shame you.
Like the singularity, Twitter has also become retro-futurist, an idea whose shiny promise has been undermined by business realities and political catastrophes. We need to come up with a better vision of where we’re headed and what kind of vehicle we’ll ride to get there.
To start, I opened a Mastodon account. Will Mastodon be the new Twitter? I doubt it. A lot of us Twitter refugees are finding each other there, but I think it’s more like a rebound relationship in the wake of people’s long romance with the bird app. We are clinging to Mastodon like a life raft, trying to stay together, but waiting to see which public square will welcome us next.
As Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (thread) and others have already pointed out, many of the problems of Twitter – the Nazis, the propaganda, the lack of moderation tools – are compounded on Mastodon. Plus, Mastodon doesn’t have over 7000 employees and 5000 more contractors to keep the big elephant tooting. Don’t get me wrong – I’m enjoying Mastodon a lot right now, and it’s a balm after the loss of Twitter. But unless it becomes a much bigger organization, I think eventually something else is going to come along. Will it be Discord, TikTok, Instagram, or Tumblr? I’m fucking around with all of them right now, waiting to find out.
Honestly, I’m still holding out hope for a social network that’s run more like NPR, CBC, or PBS – these are organizations run on a public broadcasting model, partly funded by donations and partly by governments. Or perhaps Twitter could be run by a nonprofit like Wikimedia. The point is, a public square should not be a for-profit enterprise. I mean, the word “public” is right there in the name. Let’s build some social media platforms for public benefit, not to line the pockets of billionaires.
Other futures and their discontents
I talked about the metaverse on Science Friday this week, pondering the possibilities for a virtual or augmented reality world – and the dark places where it might be going, if Meta/Facebook is allowed to lead the charge.
And on Our Opinions Are Correct, my co-host Charlie Jane Anders and I discussed the toxic myth of progress in science fiction and science – plus special guest Brad DeLong joined us to talk about economic progress and his new book (highly recommended!) called Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century.
Hey, it’s awards season!
If you are in or around the science fiction book world, you already know it’s award nomination season! This year I wrote a couple of short stories that I’m very proud of. “A Hole in the Light,” a tale of grief, science, and amoebas in the early universe, came out in The Sunday Morning Transport. (I wrote about the physics behind the story in a previous newsletter). And “The Almond Pirates,” a tale of crime and a lost cat in a carbon-neutral city, came out in Anthropocene Magazine. Check them out, enjoy, and remember to nominate all your favorite authors and works for next year’s awards!
My next novel, The Terraformers, comes out January 31, 2023. So it’s not eligible for awards this year, but you can pre-order it from your local bookstore! If you want a personalized copy, order it from Folio books and I will sign it and/or scribble some silly things in it if you want.