Singularity blues, or how science fiction and humanity will survive the not so looming technological crunch

As usual, there's tons of discussion bouncing around the web about the supposedly looming singularity. Jay Garmond at Geekend agrees with Charles Stross--one of the foremost proponents of the singularity movement--that the shrinking times for technologies to achieve cultural saturation demonstrate both the coming singularity and why the science fiction genre will soon go extinct. Basically Stross and others say that rapid technological change makes predicting the future impossible. Since in their view the purpose of SF is to predict the future, the genre can't possibly survive (along with human society as we know it).

For me, though, these beliefs about the looming singularity don't hold much water. First off, science fiction has a lousy record of accurately predicting the future. If one looks at the classic novels and stories of the genre, they aren't considered classics because they accurately predicted the future. Instead, those SF stories which have achieved canonized status--2001: A Space Odyssey, Brave New World, Stranger in a Strange Land, Fahrenheit 451, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Stars My Destination--examine themes such as how humanity survives amidst the vastness of space and time; how we as a people adapt to technological change; how technology changes us; how we might be doomed by technology; how biological and other scientific processes make us who we are. But accurately predicting the future? No. Science fiction which focuses exclusively on predicting the future simply doesn't hold up over time. So forgive me if I question the predictive powers of singularity fiction and don't agree that SF is doomed just because it fails at predicting the future.

Another problem with the singularity movement is that the evidence for it is cherry picked (as Capt. Zerox mentions in so many words). All this talk about technological change moving faster and faster doesn't factor in those examples of technologies which have been extremely slow to change, such as space flight, artificial intelligence, and solar photovoltaic panels. But I guess singularity supporters don't want to consider examples of slow technological change because that would mess up all those pretty graphs predicting the looming singularity.

In addition, I am not convinced that technological change in the coming years will occur at the pace of the last few decades. For example Moore's Law, from which people extrapolated the groundwork for the singularity belief, is not a true natural law such as gravity or the speed of light. Instead, Moore's Law is a simple prediction based on past experience. There are already real-world constraints on Moore's Law which scientists believe will slow down the growth of computer processors. It's highly likely this slowdown will spill over into other aspects of technological change. And when one looks at the entirety of human history, you also find a fascinating pattern of relatively rapid technological or societal change followed by longer periods of stability. If I was a betting man, I'd place my money on current times being part of a rapid burst of change to be followed by a longer period of stability.

Finally, one major issue which singularity boosters overlook is human culture, which doesn't only refer to "patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance" (per Wikipedia). Human culture also has a protective function, which is to make sure that the human propensity for change doesn't endanger a culture's existence. Fiction often mocks this cultural role, such as when the big city rocker of the movie Footloose arrives in small town America and outrages the prudish moral sensibilities of just about everyone. But this defensive mechanism is still a part of our culture. If the singularity actually began to occur, does anyone really believe that humans wouldn't react violently against it? One of the few authors to address this issue is David Marusek, who in his novella "The Wedding Album" showed humans destroying certain aspects of their technology instead of allowing a singularity-like event to happen.

So I don't waste much time worrying about the looming singularity. As Paul Kincaid states in an excellent new essay, "Science fiction is a genre that lives and dies by novelty." The result of this is that SF continually supports one literary movement after another. But when SF becomes too wedded to a particular movement, the entire genre risks stagnation. The singularity movement has brought fascinating ideas and perspectives to the genre. But the movement is now becoming stale and, in a few years, will be seen as one more wrong prediction of the future. Until that happens, SF writers would do well to avoid becoming so engrossed with this movement that they forget the other ideas, explorations, and themes which make SF unique. Because if that were to happen, then the genre truly would be in trouble.