The "Singularity" or "Spike" That Won’t Be

Over the past decade, if not longer, there have been more than a few futurists who have predicted that in a decade or so from now, modern technology will change human society on a scale never before seen or imagined, from implementing the linked society envisioned in Gibson’s Neuromancer to wide-scale nanotech and practical AIs.

It won’t happen. Not even close. Why not? First, because such visions are based on technology, not on humanity. Second, they’re based on a western European/North American cultural chauvinism.

One of the simplest rules involved in implementing technology is that the speed and breadth of such implementation is inversely proportional to the cost and capital required to implement that technology. That’s why we don’t have personal helicopters, technically feasible as they are. It’s also why, like it or not, there’s no supersonic aircraft follow-on to the Concorde. It’s also why iPods and cellphones are ubiquitous, as well as why there are many places in the third world where cellphones are usable, but where landlines are limited or non-existent.

A second rule is that while new technology may well be more energy efficient than older technology, its greater capabilities result in greater overall energy usage, and greater energy usage is getting ever more expensive. A related human problem is that all the “new” technology tends to shift time and effort from existing corporate and governmental structures back onto the individual, sometimes back on higher-paid professionals. For example, the computer has largely replaced secretaries and typists, and this means that executives and attorneys spend more time on clerical types of work. Interestingly enough, both the hours worked/billed and the rates of pay for junior attorneys are way up. Another example is how financial institutions at all levels are pushing for their customers to “go paperless.” I don’t know about everyone else, but I need hard copy of a number of those documents. So if I “go paperless,” all it means is that I spend time, energy, and paper to print them out.

In short, technology is expensive, and someone has to pay for it, and it’s doubtful that we as a world have the resources to pay for all that would be required to create the world of the spike or singularity.

Another factor involved in tying all one’s bills and payments to automated systems is that one loses control — as my wife and I discovered in trying to unscramble all the automated payments her father had set up. After his death, in some cases, it was impossible to even discover where the payments were going. A number of companies kept charging for services he obviously didn’t need and siphoning money from his bank account, despite the fact that he was dead. It took the threat of legal action and the actual closure of some accounts to get the banks to stop honoring such automatic withdrawals.

Technology has also enabled a greater range of theft and misrepresentation than was ever possible before the internet and computers.

The other factor is cultural. The idea of a spike or a singularity assumes that everyone on the planet wants to be plugged in, all the time, and on call continuously, while working harder and harder for the same real wages in employment positions that seem increasingly divorced from what one might call the real physical world. While those in the upper echelons of the professions and management may find this useful, even necessary, exactly how are the vast numbers of service workers employed at Wal-Mart, MacDonalds, Home Depot, etc., even going to afford such services when they’re far more worried about basic health care?

Am I saying the world won’t change? Heavens, no. It will change. More people will in fact have cellphones, and, like it or not, it’s possible that they’ll replace location-fixed telephones for the majority of the population. Portable devices such as the iPhone will change entertainment, and fewer books will be printed and read, and more of what will be read, either in print or on screen, will be “genre” fiction, how-to, or religion. Published poetry and “mainstream literature” will decline further. More and more “minor” lawbreaking will be detected by technology in industrialized societies. “Major” lawbreaking may even be treated and handled by some form of cranial implant and locator devices. Various forms of environmentally less damaging power generation will doubtless be adopted.

But for even a significant minority of the world’s population, or even that of the USA, to engage in a “post-singularity” world will require more and more other people take care of support services, such as real-world, real-time small child-care, medical services, the physical production, transportation, and distribution of food. And don’t tell me that we’ll have duplicators for food. That’s most unlikely because to make such devices nutritionally practical would require analytical and formulation technology that we won’t have, not to mention the requirement for a large “stockpile” of the proper sub-ingredients. And, of course, a great deal more energy at a time when energy is becoming ever more expensive.

That doesn’t even take into account the cost and technological requirements for medical services and maintenance… and that’s a whole other story.