Monday, February 15, 2010

Singularity: An Introduction

My original proposal for Surface Magazine

Five years ago I was approached by a design magazine, and asked to "curate a spread." I didn't know what that meant, but I really liked the idea, so I laid out the a mashup of quotes and images as a four or five page spread and presented it at a meeting. The subject of my mashup was the Singularity, a concept that is more widely talked about now. Unfortunately it turned out that the editors of the design magazine didn't know what they had meant by "curate a spread" either. My proposal drew some seriously blank stares when I explained it at the time. I think I scared the magazine people a little, but to their credit they didn't run away, and ended up publishing a very nice piece about my sculpture. Hopefully this post won't scare anyone else away, but an explanation of what I am up too might might help. Even for those familiar with the singularity, what follows is an unconventional essay; one in wich I have written nothing myself, only quoted others. It is more of a mash-up than an essay.

I have broken that that original "spread" I curated into a series of 9 posts:

Ugly Jedi; Tom Friedman

Each post contains three block quotes, and is footnoted with even more quotes. Each post is accompanied by images from architecture, film, comic books and in one case a painting by Maria Park that was showing at Margaret Thatcher Gallery at the time. 

The first block quote in each post is taken from the artist Tom Friedman's artist statement that he provided for his show at Feature gallery in 2000. I generally hate artist statements (but feel compelled to read them), and try to avoid writing them for my own shows. At best the ones I come across are usually a few paragraphs of boilerplate art-speak (and that is pretty awful). As you will see Friedman's had nothing to do with the artwork in his show, or even art generally. Instead it was a bullet point list that outlined a history of the future. My step-mother once told me: "I've liked Mohammed Ali ever since he said he was like a butterfly." I've loved Tom Friedman ever since I picked up that artist statement ten years ago.

"Well, if droids could think, there'd be none of us here, would there?"; Ray Kurzweil

The second block of text (and some of the footnotes) comes from Ray Kurzweil's nonfiction book, The Singularity is Near. I remember liking The Age of Spiritual Machines, but was unprepared for his follow up. It blew me away, but my response was very mixed - Kurzweil's book is a full-on futurist manifesto in the best and worst sense - it excited me and scared me in equal measure. What scared me was not that his ideas might come true (that's what scared Bill Joy), but that in a crucial sense it already had.

What Kurzweil's Singularity is Near made clear to me was that the singularity was something that a growing group of really smart (and in some cases wealthy and influential) people truly believed will happen, and that plans were being made based on the premise that we would become like gods. What scares me is the presumption that we will be able to fix all the things we are destroying (like the oceans). I don't believe we will ever recover the things we have lost.

Ken MacLeod; Uncle Owen

The third set of block quotes comes from Ken MacLeod's book Newton's Wake. MacLeod is my first love when it comes to post-singularity Scottish free-market socialist scifi writers. And while Friedman is ironic and Kurzweil's enthusiasm is unshadowed by doubt (kind of like Freeman Dyson's enthusiasm for biotech neo-pastoralism which unambiguously creeps me out), MacLeod's writings seem to reflect my own ambivalence. He cautions that the singularity, or "the Rapture for nerds" will most likely be sparked by the super rich and the super geek - that we should expect "wankers" not gods.
Superstudio, Continuous Monument: New York Extrusion Project (1969)

It was the descriptions of post-singularity artifacts in Newton's Wake that inspired me to curate this spread (still not sure what they meant). MacLeod's frost-like mountains of diamond dendrites are to the singularians (singulariots?), what JG Ballard's descriptions were to the artist Robert Smithson, and the visionary architecture of Superstudio and Archigram.

Full Disclosure: Turns out I unknowingly/unintentionally plagiarized this site's motto from one of Ken's books. For years that sentence - "The natural environment of man has yet to be built." - has kicked around my head, and I over the years I have consistently misattributed it to Trotsky, but could not figure out where I had heard it. Mystery solved: I stole it from Ken. He was very gentle with me, and more then a little generous: "The slogan is a more elegant formulation of something one of my characters in The Star Fraction (Jon Wilde I think) says, based on a quote from Engels."
Stephan Martiniere, Newton's Wake (2004)

The original Engels' quote is from Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Notes and Fragments - and is a total ball buster:
"The normal existence of animals is given by the contemporary conditions in which they live and to which they adapt themselves — those of man, as soon as he differentiates himself from the animal in the narrower sense, have as yet never been present, and are only to be elaborated by the ensuing historical development. Man is the sole animal capable of working his way out of the merely animal state — his normal state is one appropriate to his consciousness, one that has to be created by himself."
I never would have ripped off the original Engels, it was Ken's far more elegant reformulation that stuck in my head:
"Moh Kohn says 'Like Engels said, man's natural environment doesn't exist yet: he has to create it for himself.' And Wilde says, after some chit-chat: 'Man's natural environment is artificial - yeah, I like it.'"
Ken is by far the better writer (if we are ever in a sinking boat I promise to give him the last remaining life jacket) but somewhere in the "half remembered" file of my brain I came up with something that I'm attached to, and am ready to stick with, if not stuck with. My reformulation of his reformulation of Engels is at the core of what is at this point a monsterously large project that this blog is just the tip of. What follows meanwhile is the product of my high regard for these all three of these very different thinkers and the cloud of images and writings I ended up associating them with.
John Powers, Anarcha (2008)

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