The Rapture for Nerds

Been thinking about the Singularity recently. If you aren't familiar with the concept, the idea revolves around a technological advance so profound that it transforms society into something that we, here on this side of the Singularity, would see as completely alien. Politics change. Personal relationships change. Relations between countries change. Our notion of humanity changes. Think of the changes wrought by the rise of farming, language, money etc, and you get an idea of the kind of technology-driven cultural shift we're talking about.

So what kind of changes could bring about the Singularity? There are a few common scenarios.

The AI Scenario - In short, this is Terminator/Matrix land. We create machines that are self-aware and smarter than we are and then they in turn create even smarter machines and even more advanced technologies. In both of the movie scenarios the result is catastrophic, but there's no need to assume that. Even if the machines were benign imagine how much society would change, how much we would change, if we were were no longer the smartest beings on the planet.

The IA Scenario
- Short for Intelligence Amplification. We enhance human intelligence to super human levels through direct brain/computer interfaces, turning us all into human/computer hybrids. Ever read MT Anderson's Feed? (If you haven't, then get on it. It's awesome.) This is similar to what he's getting at. All of the stored knowledge and analytical and computational power of the internet hardwired right into everyone's brain. If this happens are we even human anymore?

The Bio Medical Scenario
- What if we took a pill that made us immortal? Or removed our need to eat or drink or breathe? Or one that made us superhumanly intelligent without the need for computers?  What then?

In a way, the Singularity is alot like the apocalypse we talk about here so often, just without the negative connotation. It's not the literal end of the world but it's definitely the end of the world as we know it and can understand it. Maybe it's good. Maybe it's bad. Maybe it's neither. We don't know.

So how is this idea interesting to us as writers? If we can't conceive of or understand life after the singularity is it possible to depict a post-singularity world? Depict it realistically? Maybe not. After all, if you could realistically depict a world formed by a superhuman intelligence you would need to be super-humanly intelligent yourself, in which case you'd probably have better things to do than write YA novels.

Whether we can write realistic post-Singularity novels or not, I think the idea makes two interesting and useful demands of writers of speculative fiction:

First, it makes us take the consequences of the technological advancements used in Sci-Fi seriously. Think about Star Trek. Now don't get me wrong, I love me some Star Trek, but it doesn't really take its tech very seriously, does it? Here's a culture that has faster than light travel, teleportation, self aware super smart robots, holodecks and, occasionally, time travel, and yet somehow this is still a culture more or less like our own. Wouldn't Star Trek's idea of perfectly realistic physical holograms in the holodeck radically change how people live their lives and interact with others? Wouldn't the way teleportation erases the concept of distance change how we see ourselves and our relation to others in a similar way to how moving from horse-powered transport to jet planes did?  Wouldn't engaging these ideas make for a show that is more complex and more interesting?

If we want to create a post-Singularity novel we also have to consider what is irreducible in human nature. After this tidal wave of change what, if anything, will stay the same? I think the Singularity can lead us into thinking and writing about our essential nature and that's something great literature has always done and should do. Ultimately, thinking about the "post human" world may lead us to write work that is more human, more grounded in characters and relationships and how we interact with each other and our society.

I'd love to hear what you guys think of all of this. Is it something you'd like to write about? Could it work for teens?  Is the Singularity the next Vampires? Are there other developments that might bring about the Singularity?

Also, I know writers like Cory Doctorow, Vernor Vinge and Neal Stephenson sometimes work in this area but I'm no expert on the current literature of the Singularity so if you guys have book picks I'd love to hear them!

15 comments:

Palindrome said...

I love the Singularity and am waiting to come up with a really good plot so I can write one.

I, too, love me some Star Trek but no, not serious science. Would we love it as much if it were more serious, though?

Jeff Hirsch said...

Yeah, you're probably right, P. If Star Trek took itself too seriously it would lose alot of the charm it has. If we want serious sci-fi we've always got BSG. (until the last couple seasons anyway) Given the whole super intelligent robot thing, I guess you could say it's actually a pretty good Post-Singularity vision.

Bittersweet Fountain said...

Good old, Star Trek. I'm not sure that exploring the ideas of how those technologies have affected society as a whole would have made the show better. It might have made the characters harder to relate too and Star Trek's society as a whole can't really be judged off of the occupants of the Enterprise. If we wanted to make the show more realistic, half of the Enterprise should have been about as nerdy as the Big Bang Theory and the other half should have been as full of themselves as Maverick in Top Gun. After all, the people of the Federation are the smartest of the smart, the cream of the crop, but also those with an exploratory mindset. Judging their entire society off of them would be like judging our society as a whole off of our astronauts.

I think Peter F. Hamilton did a pretty good job of capturing an immortal society in his Commonwealth Saga. The people of his society, live out their lives and age until they're "old" and then they get "rejuvenated" and become young (late teens/early twenties again). No one has to die unless they want to, and it certainly shapes his future humans.

juliakarr said...

My mind is spinning with the possibilities! Great post, Jeff!

Angie said...

Great post, Jeff. A singularity could certainly create a dystopia, at least from our perspective today. A lot of non-YA science fiction writers have been tossing around singularities for years. Vernor Vinge, Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling, Charles Stross and so on. I liked Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. The trans-human element is sharp, though the world (to me at least) is more space opera-ish.

If your interested in the science of a singularity (not the black hole type), check out Singularity University: http://singularityu.org/ . Futurist Ray Kurzweil is the chair of one of the departments.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Writing a YA Singularity novel sounds uber-cool to me. Here's the problem: writing a post-human-as-we-know-it novel would run smack into the authentic-teen-voice mantra. I think you would have to navigate that line very carefully. Not because I think teens wouldn't love it - I think they would. After all, they read all kinds of adult SF, and have at least since I was a kid during the Jurassic. But I wonder if it was too alien, if it would be publishable?

Jeff Hirsch said...

Hi Susan! Yeah that's the big question, isn't it? Can you take a premise that's so alien and yet treat it in a way that's accessible? No idea, but if you could find a way to do it I'm sure it would be intriguing.

I guess I'm really intrigued by how well the Singularity could work as a metaphor for moving from childhood into adult hood. You're looking at this line in the sand when you know everything's going to change, that you're going to change, but in ways that you can't really even conceive of yet. If you could capture that, a YA Singularity novel could be quite interesting. Course, that might make it more of a pre-singularity novel....

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Oh! I like that idea of pre-singularity/post-singularity metaphor for adolescence. I think a lot of YA books use that angle (my paranormal YA WiP being no exception), where adolescence marks a turn to the strange. Hooking that into turning the world strange could be very, very cool.

Maybe handle it in a dual-POV with two characters pre- and post- Singularity, connecting through some time-dilation effect ala The Lake House.

Maybe they're even the same person!
OK, I'm stopping now. Because I'll get too excited about this idea, and I've got another story (or two) to finish first! :)

Kristi Helvig said...

This is actually one of the more thought-provoking blog posts I've read in awhile. I think that the Matrix movies offer more than the AI element--in fact, I find them brilliant. Yet even with alternate realities and Singularity, things like relationships and love don't change all that much. You gave me an interesting idea...:)

dawn-metcalf said...

Oddly enough, it was Norton's THE INTEGRAL TREES & Joan D. Vinge's PSION/CAT/DREAMFALL as well as her WINTER QUEEN and SUMMER QUEEN books that popped to mind -- all of which are phenomenal reads (if you ignore Norton's complete lack of character in the face of the science).

Two other great "alternate worlds" that touch on the idea of a singularity creating the entire culture -- one being the desert conditions and the other being the religion around an active deity -- are the GANDALARA series (Randall Garrett) and the SEVENTH SWORD series (Dave Duncan).

Love me these books! Great post!

Jeff Hirsch said...

Hi Kristi and Dawn, glad you guys enjoyed the post. I'll check out those books, Dawn!

There was a big article just today in the NY Times on this. Give it a look!

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/13/business/13sing.html?emc=eta1

Brewski Newman said...

Psion/Cat/Dreamfall and the two queen books are among my alltime favorites!

The Singularity is something I love to hear about; the Long Now Foundation has some amazing podcasts of top experts discussing singularity implications in a very thorough, reasoned manner: here's the link: www.longnow.org It's a great starting point for trying to grok where the singularity could lead. Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a great utopian read.

Getting a YA post-singularity story just right would definitely require some serious black-belt level kung fu, but it would be so incredible to create something that challenging.

Brewski Newman said...

I somehow messed up the hyperlink to the Long Now website: the URL is correct though: just paste http://www.longnow.org/ into your browser!

Marylee said...

[what was seen on the web]

PRETRIB RAPTURE POLITICS

Many are still unaware of the eccentric, 180-year-old British theory underlying the politics of American evangelicals and Christian Zionists.
Journalist and historian Dave MacPherson has spent more than 40 years focusing on the origin and spread of what is known as the apocalyptic "pretribulation rapture" - the inspiration behind Hal Lindsey's bestsellers of the 1970s and Tim LaHaye's today.
Although promoters of this endtime evacuation from earth constantly repeat their slogan that "it's imminent and always has been" (which critics view more as a sales pitch than a scriptural statement), it was unknown in all official theology and organized religion before 1830.
And MacPherson's research also reveals how hostile the pretrib rapture view has been to other faiths:
It is anti-Islam. TV preacher John Hagee has been advocating "a pre-emptive military strike against Iran." (Google "Roots of Warlike Christian Zionism.")
It is anti-Jewish. MacPherson's book "The Rapture Plot" (see Armageddon Books etc.) exposes hypocritical anti-Jewishness in even the theory's foundation.
It is anti-Catholic. Lindsey and C. I. Scofield are two of many leaders who claim that the final Antichrist will be a Roman Catholic. (Google "Pretrib Hypocrisy.")
It is anti-Protestant. For this reason no major Protestant denomination has ever adopted this escapist view.
It even has some anti-evangelical aspects. The first publication promoting this novel endtime view spoke degradingly of "the name by which the mixed multitude of modern Moabites love to be distinguished, - the Evangelical World." (MacPherson's "Plot," p. 85)
Despite the above, MacPherson proves that the "glue" that holds constantly in-fighting evangelicals together long enough to be victorious voting blocs in elections is the same "fly away" view. He notes that Jerry Falwell, when giving political speeches just before an election, would unfailingly state: "We believe in the pretribulational rapture!"
In addition to "The Rapture Plot," MacPherson's many internet articles include "Famous Rapture Watchers," "Pretrib Rapture Diehards," "Edward Irving is Unnerving," "America's Pretrib Rapture Traffickers," "Thomas Ice (Bloopers)," "Pretrib Rapture Secrecy" and "Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty" (massive plagiarism, phony doctorates, changing of early "rapture" documents in order to falsely credit John Darby with this view, etc.!).
Because of his devastating discoveries, MacPherson is now No. 1 on the "hate" list of pretrib rapture leaders who love to ban or muddy up his uber-accurate findings in sources like Wikipedia - which they've almost turned into Wicked-pedia!
There's no question that the leading promoters of this bizarre 19th century end-of-the-world doctrine are solidly pro-Israel and necessarily anti-Palestinian. In light of recently uncovered facts about this fringe-British-invented belief which has always been riddled with dishonesty, many are wondering why it should ever have any influence on Middle East affairs.
This Johnny-come-lately view raises millions of dollars for political agendas. Only when scholars of all faiths begin to look deeply at it and widely air its "dirty linen" will it cease to be a power. It is the one theological view no one needs!
With apologies to Winston Churchill - never has so much deception been foisted on so many by so few!

[I agree with the above. And pretribulation raptiles hate MacPherson's "The Rapture Plot" - which I bought at Armageddon Books online - more than any other book! Into 2012ism? Google "The Newest Pretrib Calendar."]

doctorcrankenstein said...

"The Bio Medical Scenario - What if we took a pill that made us immortal?"

Longevity is something I find incredibly interesting, but not because of its positives, because of its negatives! I wrote a blog post about it just a few days ago (I wish I had found this place earlier :D)

http://doctorcrankenstein.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/aging-gene/

The AI Scenario - I can't believe you mentioned AI and robots without mentioning Isaac Asimov! The laws of robotics and all the moral and ethical dilemmas in his stories! FANTASTIC! If YA's are reading philosophical dystopia stories I think they would love to sink their teeth into some laws of robotics stuff. It REALLY makes you think!

"If we want to create a post-Singularity novel we also have to consider what is irreducible in human nature."

I think this would lead to questions like what exactly is it to be human? What exactly constitutes a human and humanity? Why am I considered human but robbie the robot who is smarter and stronger than me is not? The same sort of questions that are probed in bicentennial man I guess...

One area that this all impacts upon very interestingly is sport. Who is going to want to go watch the 'all natural' athletes play soccer when the local cyborg teenagers can play a much more impressive game? Faster, more technical, more agressive, better teamwork... I think that is one area that would be extreemly interesting to explore...