A Skeptical View of Singularity U.

Charles Rubin is dubious about all the enthusiasm that comes with thinking “exponentially.”  Today’s suggestion is that the coming Singularity will remove the limits placed on individual lives by biology, by bodies.  Being an older guy, Rubin is able to chasten us with his memory of the exponential thinking characteristic of the 1970s:


Actually, we did a fair amount of exponential thinking in my (relative) youth; the seventies were lousy with the stuff. Except back then it was not good news. The likes of the Club of Rome and Paul Ehrlich wanted us to learn exponential thinking in order to understand why modern civilization was going to destroy itself. You heard then the same arguments you hear today about the special effort we evolutionarily disadvantaged mere human beings need to make to think exponentially.Back then, the claim was that our very survival depended on learning how to do it. Now we are promised it is the route to flourishing.

When I started writing about environmentalism in the eighties, the more I looked into such claims the more they seemed to be a product of questionable data, questionable methods, outright hype if not hysteria, and a very problematic political agenda. So far as I can tell, not much has changed in this respect. Back then, experts lectured about how cutting-edge technologies were destroying us. Now, they lecture about how they will save us.

Or not us, exactly. We are, after all, taking about Singularity University. The transhumanists of the early twenty-first century are preaching the imminent destruction of mankind as fervently as the environmentalists of the late twentieth. The difference is that the transhumanists are rooting for it..

The big change is the mood.  The 1970s were marked by paranoia about technological messing with nature that had placed us on the eve of destruction.  It wasn't about the destruction of particular individuals that’s caused by death.  Humanity itself—the species itself—was about to be extinct.  We were destroying nature and so ourselves.

Now, the enthusiastic thought is that technology will save us from nature.  Nobody’s worried about the future of the species.  The focus in on personal extinction.  The enemy is the nature that’s out to kill ME.  As long as I’m a merely natural being, I’m a replaceable part or species fodder.  So it’s up to ME to evolve beyond being a natural being.  That’s why I’m working and rooting for “the imminent destruction of mankind” as a species.   The hope is for a transhumanism where I exist for myself—having brought under my conscious control my former enemy nature.

Paul Ehrlich and the other 1970s pessimists turned out to be full of exaggerations not backed up by sound science.  Those guys worried about overpopulation.  Now those in the know worry about the “birth dearth.”  But maybe not having enough replacements won’t be a problem if we all able to just stay around, to not be replaced.

Someone might say that it can’t be good to thwart the natural, evolutionary intention that each of us be replaced.  But what do I—the particular, self-conscious being—care about nature?  Nature doesn’t care about ME.  There is some evidence, after all, that evolution really has morphed from being focused on the species or even on the group or tribe to being focused on the significance on particular persons.  For the transhumanist, it seems, being itself is identified with ME.  And the point of technology is to secure ME in a progressively more hospitable environment.

But it should trouble the enthusiasts more than it does that mainstream scientists still regard hopes for the Singularity to be amazingly far-fetched (at least as far-fetched as the fears of the Club of Rome).  Certainly the neo-Darwinians think that nature will defeat the pretensions of particular persons in the end.  Those Darwinians add, of course, that our best chance for happiness is to focus on those desires, given to us by evolution as ultrasocial animals, that lead to us to find love and significance as parts of particular groups and tribes—beginning, of course, with the family.

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