Archive | February 2013

The Man in the Slumbering City

     The man’s footsteps refused to echo, even in the open heart of the city.
He walked in a straight line, following the curving sidewalk, the shadows thrown upon him by overhanging lights rising before him and toppling behind like clockwork so long as he moved.
     This part of town was filled with shops of the creative kind, self-contained areas of culture and quiet ambitions. They were empty and well lit, their glass facades and windows displaying serene, untouched scenes.
     Empty shops stretched far, far away, broken by older residences carved in granite and sandstone. All of man’s settings were here, arranged as they should be: the cars, the lights, the open store fronts. But there was nobody beside the man as far as the eye could see.
     He walked unhurriedly, in a daze, passing neatly tucked taxi cabs with lit tops, silent engines and unoccupied seats. Overhead the icicles and snow dripped. The weather had turned warm and the snow had changed from hard and firm to heavy and dense, the perfect consistency for snowballs or a winter sculpture. His shoes emitted a wet squish with each step.
     His eyes scanned his surroundings, looking for a sign of someone: the glimpse of a silhouette under a distant streetlamp, or the shifting fabric of a curtain disturbed by a passing form, or a figure seen for an instant between the frames of a high-rise window.
     He stopped dutifully before the ruby lights guarding each desolate intersection and waited for them to turn emerald. The absurdity of this act escaped him, for his faculties had not gleamed the implications of his condition. His subconscious still believed itself in a world of action and movement, and thus populated by others, and all the old reasons, no longer valid in fact, remained dogma at heart: a car could come through, and drivers were crazy in this city; one did not walk when it was red; jaywalking tickets were expensive, and he couldn’t afford one right now. Imperceptibly these beliefs crumbled, were dissolved by the acid of desolation which undermined his foundations of conduct.
      Several blocks down, he ignored the red eye, and paused in his traverse of the road, and stood in the middle and looked in each cardinal direction.
     From on high the roads descended, stretching off in to the distance. Without moving obstructions, he could see very far down the empty road. At some point the laws of perspective crushed detail and smudged it together, but he hoped for movement – any movement. He longed for the sound of rubber on asphalt, or the ephemeral beams of distant headlights cutting through the mist. The boulevards, bordered by houses and sagging trees, stretched on in slumber.
     He made his way past an open space, now snowed in, that served as a park in the summer. In the snow were the sunken footprints of boots, small and child-like, dancing and trampling over one another in playfulness. Where, he asked himself with rising anxiety, were these children now?
     He made his way past the park, uneasy at the traces of a humanity he had yet to find. He came across a stylized apartment building. Through an expansive window he could see a brightly furnished room of red couches and orange curtains arranged around an inviting wooden table atop which lay an open laptop. He couldn’t make out the particular program or webpage, but he knew it was running, that it was on. It showed that somebody had, at some point, turned it on.
     Like individual drops that add to overflow the largest container, each passing moment added to his dread. Walking through the slumbering void that was the city filled him with the disquiet of the solitary man whose distress was destined to remain unregistered, whose cries were endlessly in vain. The droplets of condensation in the swirling fog covered him. They infiltrated his clothing, put in a haste and inadequate; the spaces between his fingers; his eyes and ears and nose. They percolated to his bones, and brought with them a chill wholly separate from the external temperature, a spiritual rather than physical shuddering.
     His eyes locked on a semicircular window at street level, a basement apartment’s access to the outside world. He paused before the kitchen scene. There was a stainless sink of two compartments, and both were filled high with water, though only one held dishes. There were soap bubbles collecting on the sides of the square sink like amphibian eggs in a pond, their outer form hugging the square edges, the inner surface forming a spherical frontier of containment against the water. Occasionally one would dissolve with a mute pop, sending barely perceptible ripples outwards. He strained to see the water, praying for steam, praying for something to tell him how much time had elapsed since the world had been taken away. Nothing disturbed the scene save for occasional pops. The secret remained safe, a laughing whisper mouthed but left unvoiced.
     Barely a week had elapsed since the New Year, when the streets were flooded with revelers, and smokers huddled and hopped for warmth outside bars. Now only the unadorned, stiff forms – slowly browning but still mostly green – of Christmas trees jettisoned on the sidewalks gave hints of past revelry.
     If the neighbourhood had been industrial and fabricated from hulking factories or a metropolis overshadowed by stately offices and skyscrapers, the man could have eked out a defense through the impersonal scene of grandiose, seemingly immortal architecture – so opposite to the small and insignificant individual – that surrounded him. The straight lines and unyielding facades, so unrelatable to the emotional mind, could have served as a temporary antidote to the creeping madness. But the rows of family homes and modest enterprises that stretched out did the exact opposite. These symbols of warmth and company and safety fired the cabin fever within him.
     Take for example the wedding store before him. The great glass window, slightly curving outwardly, held displays at odds with the season: airy silks, breezy wedding dresses, jovial invitation calligraphy on still pieces of paper. A plastic bride reclined in the awkward pose of a mannequin, showing off a frilly gown of white matching the grey pallour of her skin. Her face was locked in an eternally indifferent expression, and it was differentiated from the rest of her body solely by her eyes, painted black, which stare out blindly and would never see. What was a man to do when he saw such a sight, except recede from this remnant of happier times, and look elsewhere for sanity?
     The man continued in the light mist, surrounded by the windless night, weighed down and confused by the picturesque scenes of an abandoned world. The tranquility of it all maddened him. So why didn’t he scream and rail, or take to the windows with fists and bat, and defy the silence? Only the man knew.
     He came across the bicycle without registering it at first – or perhaps the fog had hidden it until the near collision. It was apple red and lithe, a colour and style fit for a young, lighthearted woman, and it sat there unchained, kickstand extended, ostensibly poetic underneath a streetlight’s shining eye.
     It couldn’t have been long, the man thought. It couldn’t have been long. The bike was here, and it was upright. Could someone have been riding it minutes before? Had he missed her by mere minutes? His hand felt the seat, searching for warmth. His eyes darted to the closed door at whose doorstep the bike stood. It was undoubtedly shut, the circular, submarine-style window leaking darkness.
     He had seen empty cars and ornate, deserted apartments. He had seen the steps of people in rapidly melting snow and wondered if they had been happy, or angry, or neutral, before they were no more. He had peered inside homes and family shops and spied upon the amassed remnants of aspirations and dreams.
     But it was this simple bike, arranged so innocently, which tipped his mind. Tears collected on the ledges of his eyes and tumbled to the sound of a quiet sob. Why did he hold back? Who could hear and judge him now?
     Broken, he started for the mountain (in actuality a hill) that lay at the center of the city. He wished for one more confirmation to his suspicions yet simultaneously held out with a last hope. The mountain was wild, or as wild as it could be in the city, surrounded by bushes and bare branches painted snow white. His only companions uphill were the dreaming trees.
     He climbed the wooden path, step by step, flight by flight, that took him to the tip of the geographical top, and when he was there a cold plaza, bounded by walls, waited in the night. He felt the stone walls with his fingers as he lifted himself. A substantial distance separated him from the forested slopes below. A plunge headfirst would almost certainly be lethal.
     Purposefully he rose, in defiance of lethargy, keeping his face towards the lights emanating from the city. The pinpricks of streetlights and homes and factories, all amalgamated in to a melancholic glow, bathed his face in ghostly shades of yellow. They mirrored the distant stars caught above in the spiderweb of night. The city appeared vibrant and alive, each source of light an unfolding story. But it was a lie. All those lights were no different than the superficially lit sewers and deserted subway tunnels that lay underground. They were empty. Were there any people left here – or anywhere?
     He waited on the edge of the precipice for the answer from anyone or anything. How long did he have before the silence dismembered his resolve?

     With each passing second he neared closer to the ultimate act of courage and cowardice.


Why you shouldn’t fear the Singularity (if it ever happens).

Cyber Dante Photo credit: The PIX-JOCKEY (photo manipulation) / / CC BY-NC

The Singularity is near, transhumanists say, and it’s inevitable: that moment in history when we give birth through our creativity and technology to something greater than us. The Singularity heralds an entirely novel plateau in mankind’s evolution. How much time do we have? Some futurists say as little as a generation.

The question then isn’t when or how. The question is: what then? And should we panic?

There are two broad types of Singularity projections. The first is creating a conscious, self-propagating AI orders of magnitude more complex and intelligent that its creators that will evolve and expand in ways wholly unknown. Will the AI be friendly and constrained by fail safes or willingly benevolent, or will it be malevolent, sharing none of our goals and beliefs? I can’t say, and for that reason this road in the fork won’t be explored here.

The second – and the one I’ll take – is the transition of mankind from sausage casings of lipids, carbohydrates, and amino acids to entities existing in virtual environments inside future computers. This is what I mean by a transhumanist Singularity: the joining of man with machine to augment and expand our abilities and experiences. I see it as man’s consciousness being translated to the digital realm.

Despite my misgivings about simulated reality and translating said consciousness from neurons to electrons, I’ll go along for the sake of argument.

So: what then?

If you’re my friend Keith, post-Singularity will be a bad time to remain a fleshy human. From an accessibility viewpoint the Singularity’s benefits will never trickle down. Instead the Singularity will end up monopolized by the ultra-wealthy, that top slice of society with the influence and resources to be the first – and last – to benefit from the momentous occasion. It will be the end of history, but not of the democratic Fukuyamaesque type. Rather, it will be a Marxist’s nightmare, with the chasm of economic inequality ballooning to a cosmic divergence of form and ability. The proletariat will be left far, far behind.

I’ll bite. Modern innovation has almost always come top-to-bottom, even if the lag has been barely perceptible. That’s the way economics works. Things start out out expensive, affordable to few. The higher-ups in the food chain will get first dibs.

But the rules that dictate supply and demand also allow for the solution to the problem of exclusivity. Capitalism aims at getting the maximal utility for its buck, and this means it will be in the company’s interests (I’m assuming it will be corporate sponsored)  to refine, improve, and make it more accessible to a larger purchasing base. Like any technology, it’ll start off expensive and become more affordable. I’m not saying it’ll become corner store cheap, or made from do-it-yourself backyard items. It’ll stay pricey because people will be willing to shell out big bucks to have it.

The bigger question will be what these Singularity personalities will do once they’re ushered past the Perl-y gates. According to said friend Kieth, this new elite (or, rather, the old elite in a new guise) will promptly begin to lord over the rest of us from their binary thrones.

I think where we disagree is in predicting how man will act when the ordinary constraints of man are eliminated. Pessimists think that by wiping death from the list of terminal human conditions, and throwing out all the wants and petty concerns we have to negotiate with in everyday existence, the only human desire worth acting upon shall be one’s will – or, for that upper slice of humanity, the achievable act of dominating and ruling. Humanity will have given birth to Nietzschean ubermen, will to power and all. To free humanity from the constraints of life – the fight for procuring  and keeping shelter and resources and allies and mates – will unleash our worst desires for control, rather than, as I believe, eliminate them outright. We’ll end up as the play things of (hopefully enlightened) cyberdespots.

I consider myself a cynic and a realist. History has shown that the upper crust of society – exceptions excepting – have never cared much for the common man unless something is in it for them. It’s only been the ability of mankind to increase the pie through technological innovation that’s allowed progress to be made; we’re as unwilling to share our own slice now as at any other time. Nor do revolutions work: one elite is replaced by another, a revolving door that maintains the water-and-oil of have and have not’s. So I won’t disagree in the last bit to the supposition that the first to see the benefits of this technology will be those sitting at the pointy tip of the social pyramid. But I, pessimist though I am, have a rather optimistic view of this future.

Firstly, nobody will be stupid enough to let this come about (famous last words?). The networks and systems will be made resistant, though perhaps not invulnerable, to tampering from the inside. Humans won’t just hand over authority, transfer their factories,  and bury their tanks and guns. (On a sidenote, it would be interesting to speculate to what degree persistent lines of sentient computer code could manipulate and hack their environment.)

Secondly, there’ll be the personality safety guard. This refers to the fact that the most powerful people, like the least powerful people, all share the same emotional makeup, the same propensity to goodness. To demonize them in to virtual psychopaths once the switch flips ignores them for the people they are. Though, I will admit it would be hard to predict how their psychological makeups would evolve post-Singularity.

Thirdly, and more importantly, the difference between all earlier stages of history and the Singularity will be one of scope. It won’t be a conventional transition, an exchange of bronze for iron or feudal rights for financial derivatives. Nor will it be like the abandonment of slave power for oil power or the theology of paganism for the theology of monotheism. In all these previous cases something, sometimes better, replaced something, sometimes less better, but things were still operating under the same dynamics. Iron gave you the advantage over bronze, but it did not free you from the tasks of feeding and clothing yourself.

The Singularity will be completely different. I don’t think anybody can appreciate that enough. The pillars that support the gears that run the world – resource scarcity, limitations of space and time, the fragility of the body – will become obsolete. I believe there’ll be no more reasons to fight, to steal, to kill. There will be no opportunity to do so.

Free from all the mundane concerns of existence, humanity will transcend its petty psychoses and turn to other, higher pursuits. Maybe these pursuits will be ones of knowledge, exploration and the creation of art in all its myriad forms. I suspect religion will be the biggest monkey wrench in the machine. Some individuals might sink in to religious apathy or atheism, but others will bring it along, even cling to it all the firmer if they see their transition as a validation of their faith. With religion comes the dogma,  prejudices, and morals for motivation independent of material conditions. They could end up as saints or devils.

So how will things be after the technological singularity? For flesh and blood humans, life will go on. Perhaps Singularity technology will become the virtual equivalent of real-estate, with families making it their main financial investment, a nest-egg for the future and one hell of a retirement package. I think a sizable percentage of mankind will persist in clinging to the flesh, because of economic, religious, or philosophical reasons.

As for Singhumanity ( see what I did there?), I don’t see it as running rampant, but neither do I see it as segregate itself from lowly humanity, either. The technology that maintains their existence will exist in the here and now . It will be vulnerable to acts of nature, man, and time. It will have to be upgraded, repaired, and maintained. Thus, there will always be a need to keep contact with the material world and this unavoidable dependency could conceivably become the last link between a hyper evolved humanity and its predecessors.

All these very important individuals – business magnates, cultural superstars, politicians and religious figures – will have to be integrated in the legal and economic frameworks of society and state. There would be many thorny legal issues to navigate and clarify. What happens to the property of individuals that have made the transition: their houses, cars, bathmats, goods, bank accounts, stock portfolios, multibillion dollar corporations?  It’ll be a field day for the new generation of Singularity lawyers.

Initially there will be a chaotic and less than romantic integration of these new types of citizen in to the social and legal framework of society. Important questions will be asked about their status under the law. For example, how will the laws of citizenship, with its associated responsibilities and privileges, apply to them?

These concerns might not come up. Nobody can say how Singhumantiy will react.  Will they keep their possessions  or renounce them? Will they hold their previous assumptions about the nature of citizenship or, say, privacy laws? Will they think they could do a better job of things and push to have their way? I don’t know. But I do believe an equilibrium will be reached, and apocalypse averted.

What do you think?

(Side note: In the long term, being a part of the Singularity would bring about an existential crisis of ultimate proportions. After all, what’s the point of anything if mortality banished, and there limits extended beyond the horizon? Not to overly philosophize, but is life satisfying if you can get almost anything you want for zero risk? After the novel nature of this new existence wears off – say, in a few centuries of millennia – will you be able to keep existential ennui and boredom at bay?)