Oct 17 2012

Steal This Singularity: Entry #1

""){ ?> By R.U. Sirius


It was at the end of the first day of the Singularity Summit 2012 when Ben Popper — the dude from The Verge who I’d spoken to by phone — approached.  “What do you think?” he asked.  “It’s been pretty interesting,” I responded earnestly.  The absence of a superlative was perhaps telling, but I was not in the mood to think on it more deeply.  Ben agreed.  And then Eve and I made a wrong turn heading back to the North Bay and we found ourselves moving at a crawl through Chinatown.

Chinatown was throbbing with biological life of the human sort.  Old Chinese women were inspecting vegetables on display outside of stores.  A group of older men stood on a street corner just hanging out and talking.  The streets were packed to overflow with people going about their early Saturday evening activities.  I don’t think I saw anybody smiling, but I had the sense that people were enjoying their familiar activities.

Once home, I decided to finally watch I’m Still Here — the Casey Affleck film documenting Joaquin Phoenix’ supposed attempt to leave behind his acting career to become a rap star.  Fat; with long uncombed hair and scraggly beard, dressed like a particularly disheveled street person — throughout the film, Phoenix, along with some of his “handlers,” displays a full repertoire of coarse, vulgar, moronic human behaviors as he tries to pursue his new career.  He also appears in onstage performances, rapping… badly.  Various media commentators suspect that it’s a hoax, but Phoenix remains in character.  He puts Ben Stiller — trying to get Phoenix to consider a script —  through the ringer.  He acts pathetic and nuts in a famous Letterman appearance.   He’s trying to get Sean Combs to produce a rap album for him.

Watching this film — unsure myself whether the whole thing was a bit of Andy Kaufman-like performance art; a genuine descent into madness; or both (I was leaning towards both) —  and seeing how the various players tried to navigate how to respond given that they were experiencing the same uncertainty that I was — I was struck by the wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels multiple strange loopy character of the thing that I was not only witnessing but participating in by being engaged in confusion.  And I was struck by how many layers of uncertainly could emerge out of very stupid behaviors — behaviors, incidentally, that would likely hold little interest to a proper singularitarian; and all of it done for absolutely no rational purpose other than to fuck with people’s heads.  For what? To improve them? To teach them something?  No.  Just to see what happens.

The apex of this entertaining goof is reached when Phoenix and a Partner-In-Trick get a meeting with Sean “Puffy” Combs at his studio.  As Phoenix plays some terrible homemade rap recordings for him, we get to watch Combs try to navigate his way through the thicket of possibilities:

1: that he’s being fucked with

2:  that Phoenix — acting like a desperately crazed but sincere rap lover — might be earnest and might need help.

3:  that Phoenix might have enough money to pay him well to produce his train wreck of a rap career.

4: that the camera is recording him in a situation in which he has no clue as to how to respond and how to maintain his very non-ironic, one dimensional, cool, public persona.

Combs’ face and body language show his utter bafflement in this situation — his codes have been so scrambled that they could never be decrypted because there’s nothing there.  He’s been blown into empty space, unable to respond to the stimuli at hand; but still he maintains a slightly gruff but agreeable facade.

Finally, we see Phoenix wandering in an apparent daze through some woods and then diving into a lake.  At the end, we see him swimming underwater. In context, after this layer cake of weird loops and inappropriate dumb behaviors, the moment is evocative.  Evocative of what exactly?  Nothing, exactly.   Just evocative.

As I prepared for sleep, I suddenly realized I couldn’t really remember a fucking thing I heard at the Singularity Summit.  Funny thing… I don’t even think the movie is all that good.


I’ve been sort of playing around with the concept — “Steal This Singularity” — for several months now.  Prior to attending Singularity Summit 2012, I was thinking about it in political terms.  Letting “singularity” represent, essentially, a buzz word for a future radically transformed by technology, my “Steal This Singularity” notion was simply that the transhuman future should not be dominated by big capital and/or authoritarian government; and that — contrary to the reassurances of many glib futurists — this requires some intentionality, both in terms of programming and activism.  The technology doesn’t insure this by its very nature.  And the current general trend in this regard is not positive, but extremely ambiguous at best.  But I’ll save that for another essay.

Upon spending an afternoon at Singularity Summit and spending an evening vicariously experiencing Joaquin Phoenix’ trickster walkabout, another feeling emerged and, with it, a different sort of “Steal This Singularity” theme.  To wit: the clever, logical, programming/engineering monkey-mind should not be allowed to instantiate its limited idea of humanity, the universe and everything, on… well… humanity, the universe and everything.   The tricksters, the freaks, the surrealists, the hedonists, the outsiders — and all the uncodable strangeness that emerges from the biological codes’ diversification into cultural complexity and then into something as perverse and rationally pointless as a multilayered prank in a cinematic celebrity culture —  must hijack the engineer’s Singularity and recode it or uncode it so as to allow for liminal spaces outside its totalizing grasp.

We live in a time in which seemingly smart humans love to present us with absolute dualistic options: Republican or Democrat, socialist or free market; believer or atheist; Britney or Christina; Science or Superstition.  These discourses are dominant even among an intellectual class that used to know better; and the notion that there could be terrain outside those frames becomes, well, not exactly unthinkable but somehow too trivial to consider as anything but a sideshow.

I’m aware of the risk here in even implying that the instantiation of the biases of the engineering monkey mind over everything is a conscious or unconscious intention  that undergirds much of the Singularitarian sensibility. Singularitarianism and — more broadly — transhumanism — has produced a veritable glut of abstract theorizing, so whatever novel perceptions or objections or concerns one may think one is bringing to the party, some smarty pants has probably swatted it away or incorporated it into its logical totality.

On the other hand, if there was a role for artists in Singularity Summit 2012, I didn’t notice it.  Sex — a primary desire for most humans — seemed to be almost unmentionable, if not entirely archaic.  Heightened subjective states of consciousness — ecstasy, agape, rapture — seem to be well off the map.

Of course, it’s part of the culture of science that legitimacy requires the maintenance of a bordering-on-Calvinist front, but consider that when I interviewed (with Surfdaddy Orca) Ray Kurzweil for H+ magazine a few years ago, and suggested that the idea of utopia might involve people feeling good and being happy, he immediately leapt to a vision of people hanging around all the time on a morphine-like high.  (I actually think several billion human beings acting out the sort of western ideal of ambitiousness with Singularitarian technology is probably scarier than having most of them in an opiated haze, but I don’t think those are the only options. Anyway, that’s a different rant for a different time.)

This lack — this apparent negligence or denial or trivialization of non-obvious aspects of  subjective human experience and peculiarity — may prove to be of minimal importance if transhuman techno-evolution stops short of the Singularity.   If we don’t design silicon intelligences that will, for all intents and purposes, replace us — or at least dominate our original biological brains if we take them within us — but, if rather, we simply end up with tools that amplify and enhance, then there’s a reasonable hope for a diversity of mindstyles.  Some will gather in Less Wrong communities where they will continuously refine rationality; some will live in an eternal, amplified Burning Man of lived art, presentation and playful deviance; most will dip into both these and other memeplex scenes while engaging in a world rich in opportunity for all possible expressions of humanness or posthumanness.

But supposing that we do create the vastly superior intelligence.  Even if we merge with them, what aspects of humanness that some of us may wish to preserve will be overwhelmed?  Will the imp of the perverse, as displayed in my Joaquin Phoenix example, still stun our predictable mentations into momentary silence?  Can the engineered superior intelligence experience something as evocative, or is that too vague?  Will some of us still be driven into ecstasy dancing to James Brown?  What happens to the human characteristics that have given us characters like Arthur Rimbaud, Salvador Dali, Bob Dylan…  you know, people who don’t make any goddamn sense?  And what the fuck did Nietzsche mean we he wrote, “I tell you. One must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.”?

My next Steal This Singularity entry will take on the more sober political and economic implications of the concept.

  • By glen, October 18, 2012 @ 9:46 am

    “The (definite article) technology doesn’t insure this by its very nature.
    Technology sometimes seems to have a life of its own, perhaps even with its own nature as if it were grown and developed over time, in what appears as an inorganic evolution. Perhaps a more original and spontaneous nature will morph following the initial nature it’s given (input).
    Which isn’t really ‘insured’ either.

  • By Phil Bowermaster, October 18, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

    If we use the “emergence of greater than human intelligence” definition of the singularity as a starting point, then surely the question comes down to what meets the criteria for truly magnified or enlarged intelligence. How could an intelligence be “greater” than human if it’s not more imaginative, more creative, more eccentric, more unpredictable — weirder?

    I’ve been saying for some time that our near-future descendents (or selves) will be, to us, sexy immortal billionaires with superpowers. Lately I’ve added that they will be extraordinarily nice. Now let’s include this extremely important component: they will be absolutely bizarre.

    If they aren’t — what’s the point? It’s not a matter of stealing the singularity; it’s just a matter of making it really deliver on what has been promised!

  • By Axel, October 18, 2012 @ 8:47 pm

    “the clever, logical, programming/engineering monkey-mind should not be allowed to instantiate its limited idea of humanity, the universe and everything, on… well… humanity, the universe and everything.” Hmmm, that pretty much says it all.

    Hitler and a host of other “centralized” power figures historically have gone after “the tricksters, the freaks, the surrealists, the hedonists, the outsiders”. Those periods of history have been defined more by a “going backwards” trend of lack of technology, innovation and progress. A “singularity” that is based on some centralized, lobotomized version of utopia actually is not a singularity at all. It would be more akin of the middle ages, the soviet age, or Maoist age when no progress is made at all, so it could never be an actual singularity. Such a thing would be better described as an “anti-singularity”, and would keep us from reaching the actual singularity.

    The real singularity is defined by the point where humans and technology reach a stage of such rapid development and evolution that it is no longer possible for some moronic, puritanical, and plain old small-minded centralized power to take over and lobotomize our society. Look at what is happening today with the internet. It’s the open, free flow of information that fosters innovation. Any attempt at shutting down the freedom stifles innovation and progress.

    The true singularity can’t exist without there being room for the tricksters, the freaks, the surrealists, the hedonists and the outsiders. The singularity can only occur with an all out expansion of consciousness that is all inclusive. Consciousness here is measured by our ability to be aware of as much as possible, which can only be possible with an unlimited level of connectivity and free flow of information. Anything that falls short of that could never qualify as a “singularity”. And I really doubt that the singularity is all about some small-minded vision for the immortality of a small ego.

    Of course, all of that holds if you believe that there is such a thing as a singularity.

  • By Rachel Haywire, October 21, 2012 @ 4:33 am

    This is one of my favorites pieces of yours on Acceler8or. Can’t wait for the next installation!

  • By Valkyrie, October 22, 2012 @ 9:05 am

    “Letting “singularity” represent, essentially, a buzz word for a future radically transformed by technology, my “Steal This Singularity” notion was simply that the transhuman future should not be dominated by big capital and/or authoritarian government; and that — contrary to the reassurances of many glib futurists — this requires some intentionality, both in terms of programming and activism. The technology doesn’t insure this by its very nature. And the current general trend in this regard is not positive, but extremely ambiguous at best. But I’ll save that for another essay.”

    Hummmmmmm. For the record, let me clarify that I would say that it’s the USES that human nature will inevitably put the technology too that will overcome totalitarian attempts to dominate, and not the technology per se. There has to be an action to have a reaction.

  • By luisbebop, October 23, 2012 @ 9:44 am

    We underestimate our human intelligence.

    We’ve been developing technologies in the last centuries but the result is very far away from what we can achieve as human species. Every time a lot of political interest stop the progress of science.

    A lot of brilliant minds are working on money and war problems to maintain a dying economic organism. It’s time to join minds to resolve the big problems and the big questions of the human race.

    The singularity is already here. We are the singularity, but we have to use our brain to expand our race to the next level.

    Otherwise we would create the same scenario we are now. It’s not a question about technology it’s a question about consciousness.

  • By yea, October 24, 2012 @ 6:47 am

    The singularity will be distributed, non-centralized.

    I hope.

  • By LORD OF THE BITS, October 24, 2012 @ 6:49 am

    Got examples where the tricksters and the freaks have done anything of lasting value? Of course not. Why? Because anything of lasting value requires you to be normal enough that you’re not classified as a freak.

  • By Singularity Utopia, November 4, 2012 @ 12:56 am

    Long term technology circa 45 does by it’s very nature ensure absence of governments or any other control, but in the short to medium term due to scarcity there will be controls by individuals imposed on the masses. Considering our approach to Post-Scarcity, the close proximity, we should try to educate people that the controlling reins, or reigns, should be slackened, but there’s a danger in a scarcity situation regarding rebellion against authority because one set of leaders are easily replaced for another.

    The Singularity is the Singularity, intelligence is intelligence, thus it cannot be changed but some people during our unintelligent current era do have misguided views about what is intelligent.

    Salvador Dali makes a lot of sense because his art in my opinion is all about the senseless irrationality of the modern world as perceived by an intelligent mind such as Dali’s mind. Likewise Dada, from which surrealism grew, is very sensible despite superficially embracing the irrational. Dada was a very sensible reaction to the horrors of the war and the bourgeois class, it was the Country of the Blind notion that our world is back-to-front, the anti-art ideology that culture actually portrays ugliness, and anti-psychiatry viewpoint that the sane are actually insane thus the so-called “logic” and “values” responsible for producing our world are not really logical or valuable, they are not worthy of esteem thus via embracing the irrational the Dadaistic superficial statement of “absurdity” very provocatively rejected the the foundations of civilization.

    One commenter named Alex fears a centralized utopia but centralized utopia is an oxymoron similar to stupid intelligence, or more precisely I will point out how utopia will be the utter antithesis of centralization.

    Intelligence is all about diversity of thoughts, free-thinking, thus what is perceived to be tricksterism will be something very permissible within the Singularity era. Minds in the future will be very playful and fun, everyone will be a “freak” because we will all be very Singular; there will be no money and no work, it will be an endless journey of fun and adventure without any limits. This is inevitable but the interim period could be turbulent and the event horizon could be delayed thus during the interim period we need to educate people about what the Singularity actually is.

    Ray Kuzweil has somewhat misunderstood the nature of intelligence. Ray’s mind is only partially intelligent thus he fails to understand utopia, which is one of the reasons for my name. Soon I will explain how Post-Scarcity is a deeper more intelligent way comprehend the Singularity, it is a more sociological viewpoint of explosive intelligence and intelligent beings are social thus Post-Scarcity is a truer description of explosive intelligence.

  • By Michael Garfield, March 9, 2013 @ 9:33 am

    THANK you, RU. The irony isn’t lost on me: You’re one of the few voices of reason among transhumanists.

    I find there to be a disturbing lack of critical self-evaluation and deconstruction of our progress fetish in this not-exactly-a-community…

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