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May 2, 2009

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The Perpetual History of Covert Wonder

I had occasion this morning to read “The Singularity Is Always Near,” a 2006 essay by Kevin Kelly; if you haven’t given it a look, you should check it out. It’s partly a debunking of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, but more precisely, it’s a periodic glimpse into the perpetual history of covert wonder:

I think that technological transitions represented by the singularity are completely imperceptible from WITHIN the transition that is represented (inaccurately) by a singularity. A phase shift from one level to the next level is only visible from the perch of the new level — after arrival there. Compared to a neuron the mind is a singularity — it is invisible and unimaginable to the lower parts. But from the viewpoint of a neuron the movement from a few neurons to many neurons to alert mind will appear to be a slow continuous smooth journey of gathering neurons. There is no sense of disruption, of Rapture. The discontinuity can only be seen in retrospect.

Language is a singularity of sorts, as was writing. But the path to both of these was continuous and imperceptible to the acquirers. I am reminded of a great story a friend tells of some cavemen sitting around the campfire 100,000 years ago, chewing on the last bits of meat, chatting in guttural sounds. One of them says,

“Hey, you guys, we are TALKING!
“What do you mean TALKING? Are you finished that bone?
“I mean we are SPEAKING to each other! Using WORDS. Don’t you get it?
“You’ve been drinking that grape stuff again, haven’t you.”
“See we are doing it right now!”

As the next level of organization kicks in, the current level is incapable of perceiving the new level, because that perception must take place at the new level. From within our emerging global cultural, the coming phase shift to another level is real, but it will be imperceptible to us during the transition. Sure, things will speed up, but that will only hide the real change, which is a change in the rules of the game. Therefore we can expect in the next hundred years that life will appear to be ordinary and not discontinuous, certainly not cataclysmic, all the while something new gathers, until slowly we recognize that we have acquired the tools to perceive that new tools are present - and have been for a while.

For a different illustration of Kelly’s idea, see Louie C.K.’s now-legendary “Everything Is Amazing, And Nobody’s Happy”:

I also really like Kelly’s observation that “if Benjamin Franklin (an early Kurzweil type) had mapped out the same graph [of technological evolution] in 1800, his graph too would have suggested that the singularity would be happening then, RIGHT NOW! The same would have happened at the invention of radio, or the appearance of cities, or at any point in history since – as the straight line indicates – the ‘curve’ or rate is the same anywhere along the line.” So true!

Posted May 2, 2009 at 10:25 | Comments (5) | Permasnark
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"Covert wonder." What a great phrase. If I start an ad agency, I'm calling it "Covert Wonder." (P.S. I am not starting an ad agency.)

I've always assumed that the "now is the turning point" mentality was a kind of chronological imperialism. Every body during the "dark Ages" (other than the Elites -who write the histories) was materially better off than when they were paying their taxes to Rome. Nobody was walking around saying "I'll be so glad when the dark ages are over" they were getting on with their lives- which pretty much were marginally better than their parents lives.

Posted by: Bill Jones on May 2, 2009 at 03:59 PM

Absolutely 100% agree. (Especially b/c this book I finished recently, "Barbarians and Angels," makes precisely that point very persuasively.)

I actually tend to be pretty sympathetic to the Kurzweilian "things are getting uniquely crazy" argument, but I find that sympathy fading lately. Maybe part of it is hanging out here & having these conversations about history & media. It seems credible to me now that, sure, biotech is a big deal -- technology to literally tinker with our human-ness. But writing was (maybe?) just as big a deal, and it too tinkered with our human-ness. And so on.

Hubris is a funny thing. Great points made here. Thanks for this.

Earlier today, Robin twittered: "You know what I love? Video iChat. I realize that no longer counts as high-tech. Feels like the future sorta snuck up on us." And I replied, "totally. It's like computers beating us at chess. Once it happened, it lost its threshold power. Next: flying cars."

This, I think, is KK's primary insight into the singularity (or whatever) -- not that these changes aren't big deals, because they are. It's that we can only tell THAT they are big deals from a distance, either in the future or the past. When we're in them, they're both too big and too gradual -- and we are too busy, myopic, or obnoxious -- for it to actually appear to us.

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