Who Needs a Singularity?

“AI is going to take over the world, we shouldn’t trust it!”

“My detective partner is an android, he’s so damn annoying to work with, always stating the obvious using superior vocabulary!”

“Where in Deus Ex Machina’s name is the line between man and machine?!”

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I think most of us who are involved in some way with technology or with creative fields that involve technology, or speculative futurism in some aspect, have heard of the “impending” phenomenon of the Singularity. It’s such a trope it’s trite, and it seems that when it’s looked at lately by anyone concerned with the future of humanity, it’s pretty much assumed to be true; for what reason I have no idea. It does have a certain amount of archetypal weight to it, the idea of a point of no escape from technological development and the eventual rise of sentient machines. It’s got enough weight to offer so many story ideas, but if we examine it a little more closely, it’s pretty apparent that the constant use of the Singularity in cyberpunk offers us nothing more than an intellectual cul-de-sac.

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Ever get the feeling that time has been speeding up? According to Terence McKenna, we are not mistaken when we have a sudden realization that the pull of time is accelerating. McKenna’s “great attractor” or “transcendental object at the end of time” is at somewhere in the future, and he uses it to account for this feeling that humans into the past have had about time. But we should realize that this is only one man’s idea (and perhaps a handful of writers and futurists), and I think he would have wanted me to make that distinction. The future is not decided upon yet, and there is no reason to assume only one outcome of the past is possible. IMHO, this directly acts to blindside the technology and research industries into one mode of thinking, one that they all compete over. It directly acts to bind the creative efforts of many into one idea of the future, which equals less originality and a more familiar, cliche set of options that are powerful enough to stop a genre like cyberpunk in its tracks. (How many times can we retread AI vs Humanity?)

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The obvious alternative to the singularity, then, would have to be NO singularity, right? I would say most definitely not. Instead, I think what is called for is, first, an evolution of the collective future into a mode capable of encompassing multiple singularities. Overall, it’s a contradiction in terms, but through the relativity filter its a view of the future that accepts that there is no future yet, and in fact there are no boundaries in cyberpunk as long as the vision is cyberpunk in spirit. In this way you might realize that it is far more worth it than we might initially think to take a risk and create pasts and futures that are beyond anything anyone has imagined. For a vision that has been shared by so many, cyberpunk falls under the framework of a speculative vision that has suffered from a lack of novelty and surprises.

A few pieces of food for thought for you guys (and cybergirls):

What if a similar dystopia were occurring on an alien planet? What would it look like? What would the government structure be like and in what ways have their alien bodies begun to merge with their alien technology?

And is it still cyberpunk?

What would a cyberpunk story be like in a future where five singularities were prophesized? What would these folks idea of the future look like?

Does time travel have a place in cyberpunk? What about ghosts or vampires? What about brain-controlling parasites? What about magic? Demons? Portals to alternate realities? Program sorcerers? (Talking animals? Jesus no.)

What kinds of social structures might exist if several dystopian cities were at war with each other, each having very distinctive characteristics and beliefs? Are each of these modes accepted as cyberpunk?

What if all programmers are killed in a story (maybe by a rogue assassin from an alternate timeline)? What happens to a “Singularity” once the possibility of it happening is eliminated?

What if technology evolved to replace of religion? How would we talk if we regarded mainframes as demigods?

Can stories set in an inner-city or super-city dystopia filled with anti-establishment miscreants incorporate any of these radical detours and still be considered cyberpunk?

My point is, the “singularity” scenario can begin to seem limiting if we take a minute to analyze it. It stands for one vision of the techno-dystopia that is in serious risk of monopolizing what could otherwise be a very rich and diverse, and yet still very centered, genre. And I don’t argue with McKenna’s or anyone’s view or fascination with this idea of a singularity, but I don’t think that it’s the end-all-be-all of interesting fictional futures inside the scope of cyberpunk.

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I propose we start thinking outside the grey box and see what else we can come up with to ponder about our familiar dystopia. Please feel free to run with the ideas I’ve presented or offer your own, but please, for the sake of us all, don’t tread ground that is already well-worn. If cyberpunk is going to experience a renaissance, it’s going to be from a flood of new ideas, not grand ways to re-envision the old ones. After all, what we’re after in any sort of speculative field is that tingling of the brain we get when we’re exploring new ground, so let’s find some new ground. Step away from the Singularity, my friend!


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