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I, Singularity...

I'm just barely old enough that it's a miracle I survived toddlerhood, having come into existence in the era of child-strangling continuously-looped window-blind cords and child-trepanning lawn darts, guaranteed to come down point first and ever-so-much faster than they went up. This is relevant because it means that when I was in my late twenties and early thirties, and making the first serious, striving steps toward becoming a published SFF writer, the genre discourse was all about the singularity.

A lot of bad advice gets handed out to aspiring writers. One of the crappier pieces that I received at that time was the assurance that I must address the concept of the rapture of the nerds in every science fiction story, to be taken at all seriously. That uploaded brains were where it was at, and if we didn't talk about that, we weren't talking about the Real Futuristic Future™.

It was also at about that time that our esteemed host, Mr Stross, had just published his breakout story "Lobsters," which deals--among other things--with just the problem of uploading brains. And I read that story and was blown away... but I also had the privilege of hearing Charlie speak on the topic of the singularity, either at Readercon in 2002 or at TorCon in 2003--possibly both, looking back--and he said something that made much more sense to me than the idea of one major catastrophic event as singularity, after which would be Humanity v. 2.0 and nothing old would matter anymore.

Charlie presented the idea that history was a series of one-way gates; that every time we passed through one, it was a technological singularity from which there was no turning back. It was just that we adapted to these changes, and considered them commonplace: that the post-human future looked pretty human once you were in it.

At the same time, I had been noodling with some ideas of my own regarding uploaded minds or created artificial intelligences. Some of these appeared in Hammered and the associated novels; some have appeared in Dust and its associated novels.

It troubled me that this idea of a post-human future was so western, so industrial, and so absolutist. I admit to a kind of existentialist bent in my personal philosophy--I call myself an agnostic because I'm not capable of summoning the belief in my own infallibility it would take to declare myself an atheist (I could be wrong! There could be something that looks, from the outside, like a god!)--and I'm exquisitely aware that value judgments are externally exposed and culturally determined.

And the fact that the future is not equally distributed, to paraphrase Bruce Sterling, does not make the lives of the people who still live ten or twenty of fifty years ago--technologically speaking--of less value than the lives of those who--technologically speaking--are living five or ten years ahead of me. (Every time I go abroad, I am reminded of how primitive so much American infrastructure is. Why does the bus stop by my house not tell me when the next bus is arriving? Why do I need to take my credit card out of my wallet to buy groceries?)

Geoff Ryman addresses a lot of these issues brilliantly in his novel Air, set in a future Cambodia. I also think Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death--while not a singularity novel, per se--makes an interesting series of counterpoints to the idea of "a" singularity. It's set in a future Sudan, and the base cultural assumption it makes are very different from those we're accustomed to seeing in western SF.

So I leave the reading of these novels as an exercise to the class, and pass on discussing my suite of issues with the Western-Civ-Centric singularity for now.

Because what I want to talk about today is another problem I have with the singularity as monolithic event. When I first started talking about it online, in 2006 or so, I identified what I was doing as a feminist critique (and to be specific here, I am talking about the uploaded-brain rapture-of-the-nerds singularity, not the augmented-meat/skinned reality brand of singularity. We have so many, these days. It makes one jealous of having just a nice neat three or five or seven branches of Urban Fantasy to fight over and lump-or-split texts into.). At the time, I wrote:

When I first moved to Las Vegas, I used to burn my mouth a lot when I wasn't thinking carefully about what I was drinking, because the air is so dry that you often can't see the steam rising from a cup of tea. After a while, I learned to hesitate, and check the temperature of the air over the fluid with my lip. This isn't something I ever decided to do. Rather, my autonomous systems figured it out for themselves. Because they're smarter than you think they are.

The meat does a lot of our thinking, in other words, when the more advanced electrical systems are busy. An MIT a-life researcher who I quoted in Hammered holds the unpopular perspective that a good deal of our thinking (our consciousness, our sentience) is emotional rather than rational. Chemical, if you will, rather than electrical.

Sarah Monette pointed out at Boskone (2006) that the idea of the singularity is at its heart a denial of the body, and it occurred to me that that could be read, from a feminist perspective, two ways. One, that sex becomes irrelevant, or--and here's the bit I twigged on--that if you squint just right, what you're left with is a very Augustinian refutation of the flesh. In this way, Stross's notorious turn of phrase, the rapture of the geeks, is exactly right. The weak/evil/flawed/excoriated flesh is scoured away, and what is left is divine, improved, elevated, incomprehensible.

Transcendent, if I may.

There's a bunch of talk about how SF has to address the idea of a singularity to be relevant, which to me is bullshit. Augmented intelligence, techshock, sure--but we've been dealing with that as a genre for the last hundred years. Which is why I like Charlie's one-way-gates (the Strossian singularity) as a more useful idea than the Vingean posthuman singularity. (I'm pretty freaking posthuman to a sixth-century Northman, yanno?)

Basically, it's a lovely idea, and there's been a lot of very good SF written about it, but I think allowing this idea of posthumanity to become The Defining Dialogue of "serious" SF is a mistake. (Of course, I'm not much for SF as predictive--we keep missing the big ones, after all, so I don't see why that should change.)

But then, there's this drive to define SF as Apollonian, in contrast to the purported Dionysian bent of modern fantasy, and to thus elevate SF, and I think is some ways that's one element of the whole posthuman thing. Because a singularity is nicely Apollonian. Augustinian. Anti-feminist, if you accept the idea that women's fiction tends to be more concerned with relationship and the negotiation of life and that women are more concerned with the messy bits of being made of meat.

Boy games are still privileged over girl games, in other words. Even when the games are intellectual.

Of course, I don't for half a second think that the male writers playing posthuman games are intentionally setting out to devalue "female" (please note the scare quotes) values or perspectives. I know Peter Watts and Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow and so on, and a less gender-bigoted bunch of guys would be hard to find. (Actually, one of the things I really like about Cory Doctorow, and a symptom I suspect of how giant and shiny his brain really is, is that he can manipulate "masculine" and "feminine" communication styles with equal facility.) What I'm saying is that if you come at this thing from the right angle, it looks surprisingly like the old logic-trumps-emotion, Apollo-trumps-Dionysius, male-trumps-female, SF-trumps-Fantasy, mind-trumps-meat "moral" argument.

This idea of the meat-puppet as somehow different from and inferior to the mind, rather than the two being an integrated and seamless whole: it's so pervasive in our culture that I think we forget to question it... but there are cultures that could not conceive of the mind without the body. Which is what I mean when I say that the singularity in its Rapture of the Geeks form is Augustinian... but then again, what if it's not a case of the rancid flesh and the incorruptible soul? What if it's a package deal?

It doesn't fit our Western cultural preconceptions, of course. But then, our current Western cultural preconceptions have deep roots in Thomas a Beckett's stinky hair shirt and Calvinist doctrine, the mortification of the flesh for the glorification of the soul.

And that's interesting to think about, from a perspective of regarding unquestioned assumptions.

I still think what I wrote then is broadly true, though I've refined my perspectives somewhat, and started tying it more closely into some of my broad, unified theories of what's afoot in speculative fiction.

The more research I do into human neurology--and writing Dust and the other two Jacob's Ladder books required more about brains than I ever wanted to know--the more convinced I become that we, human we, are not divorceable from our meat. In one of the Jenny Casey books, I have a artificial intelligence researcher protest to her creation that he's nothing but piezoelectrical patterns in crystal; he retorts that she is, likewise, piezoelectrical patterns in meat. And while that remains true... the shape of the circuitry, and the neurochemical baths that wash it, have a hell of a lot of influence over who we are. So I've been playing more extensively with this idea of what the actual practical results would be, if we did have the technology to "upload" a mind, or copy it in some fashion. And possibly download it into another brain.

How does this affect identity? Does identity even exist under those circumstances?

Where's your soul now, Augustus? The machine shapes the ghost as surely--probably even more strongly, given current research into neuroplasticity--as the ghost shapes the machine. Meat hacks mind and mind hacks meat: they are codependent, and cannot exist without each other in any functional form.

They are not, in fact, two separate things. Rather, one is an emergent property of the other.

And that fascinates me. Far, far more than beaming my brain across space into a new body for easy lightspeed travel.

There's a lot of effort expended on identifying The Next Big Thing in science fiction, and arguing about what it should be, and trying to make each of the cresting wavelets into the next big sweeping change. Biotech was supposed to be The Next Cyberpunk; so was quantum physics; likewise the singularity.

Which is why, I think, I felt as an arriving writer that it was being stuffed down my throat.

But Next Big Things, like minds, like singularities, are emergent properties. I don't think they can be prescribed--only identified once they are inevitable.

And I think while we've all been trying to declare one, one has shown up.

Because a thing I notice about "my" generation of science fiction and fantasy writers is that we are different in one particular significant manner from the generations before us, and I think that particular difference contributes to this lack of a unifying Next Big Thing.

The coming revolution in the English-language genre is here. And it's this: we're diverse. I've taken to calling it the Rainbow Age of science fiction, because the one thing I notice about the writers in my cohort is that we are multicolored, multicultural, multinational, multiethnic. We come from a wide range of class and religious backgrounds and life experiences. We do not conform neatly to gender binaries or established sexual identities. You cannot assume that we are male, or heterosexual, or white, or American or English or Canadian, or of protestant or Jewish background, or that we are probably professional or middle class.

The thing--the only thing--we have in common is that we are science fiction and fantasy fans.

And certainly diversity is not new to science fiction fandom, but this mass and breadth of diversity is. This sheer number of intelligent, vocal people who come from outside fandom's established demographics means that the genre club scene is suddenly, vividly alive. Fusion is happening. Creation is underway right here.

It's causing some readjustments of assumptions and it's pushing some people's comfort zones.

And I think that's glorious. I think it's healthy. I think it's blowing the boundaries of the genre wide open, throwing the windows wide, getting the dust off, and leading to some of the most creative and interesting work I've read in years. I think this diversity and multi-threadedness and the power of these arguments is exactly what science fiction needs to make it a vital and enduring and relevant literature for another fifty years.

Because if speculative fiction isn't where you go to envision a brave new world, where the hell is?

185 Comments

1:

There's a typo:

Meat hacks mind and mine hacks meat. Mine I think should be mind

2:

Sorry, haven't read the entire post yet (just sat down at work and really should get back into the horrid Javascript abomination I set down on Friday), but the bit about history as a series of one-way gates reminded me of a quip that "technology is anything invented after you turned thirty." (Ah, apparently the original is from Douglas Adams; see: http://www.douglasadams.com/dna/19990901-00-a.html )

3:

I'm pretty certain that the drive for Singularity comes from the high percentage of people with Aspergers in SF fandom. People with AS are, more than most, likely to be both not very good with emotions, to have a whole bunch of comorbid symptoms (dyspraxia, psoriasis, asthma etc) which make the body something to fight against rather than something to work with, and to have various sensitivities to odour, taste etc which make it more difficult for them to engage in sensory pleasures. I, for one, would as a result jump eagerly at the chance to exist sans body. I just don't think it's either easily possible or, for most people, desirable...

4:

"...I call myself an agnostic because I'm not capable of summoning the belief in my own infallibility it would take to declare myself an atheist..."

That confuses me. Regardless of one's epistemological position on the matter, one is either a theist, or not. Definitionally speaking, the only thing required of an atheist is that she is not a theist.

It's hard to think of something more trivial than agnosticism with respect to the existence of Russell's teapot-type deities.

5:

"Because if speculative fiction isn't where you go to envision a brave new world, where the hell is?"

Exactly so. It is where you and I have seen folks come to in order to explore their life's dream(s). They are the source of the diversity that you so eloquently describe and we both enjoy sharing our time with. Speculative fiction lets them/us experiment/experience what a more benign/different future could be like and then share that dream with others.

Well done that Bear

D

6:

I've always been of the belief that Science Fiction, as a genre, is about individuals and cultures dealing with the outgrowth of significant technological changes, and that it is a tool for societies to hold public discourse and move forward more rapidly in a more stable fashion than would otherwise be possible without it. For this reason, there's a whole broad swath of stories and movies calling themselves "SciFi" that I dump summarily into the "Horror" or similar genres because the only science fiction actually involved is a back-drop setting.

Additionally, I've noticed that the "rainbow effect" of which you speak has been increasingly common, not just in fiction, but in all areas of society - music, clothing, personal interests and pursuits, etc. I'm firmly of the belief that it shows a specific stage of the maturing of a culture (another theory of mine; I would consider American cultural maturity to be up to about the 13-14yo level, currently).

As to the one-way "mini-singularity" gates - this was something I had always found to be fundamentally obvious, but had never heard it expressed in such a clean and concise way until hearing about CS's theory on the subject.

7:

Nice to see someone say so clearly that we are our meat.
I think that was driven home to me a few years ago listening to radio 4 in the car, when someone was talking about how much signal processing was done between the ear and the actual brain, or the eyeball and the cortex. So you can't just implant a super bionic ear and wire it into the brain, you've got all that extra signals processing going on which imposes its own limits on what you can and can't hear, or in the case of eyeballs, see.

8:

But by the standards of the time, let's say in the 1950s, the SF club was also unusually diverse. The phrase "protestant or jewish", treated as a unitary thing, would have been seen as absurd then. (In fact it still seems rather absurd to me now.) We had SF writers who were obviously Jewish. Also some who were obviously Catholic. And a decent share of women, too.

None of which is to say that things shouldn't continue to progress as the society around us does; clearly, they should.

Oh, and the backgrounds weren't very middle class; a lot of the major SF writers were children of immigrants. Asimov's parents, you may remember reading, ran a candy store.

9:

christopher.andrew.carr: I believe what she is trying to put forward with that statement (and feel free to correct me if I'm wrong) is something along the lines of, "I have, through my life, acquired a bunch of information, which I have sorted down and arranged, the results of which leads me to believe thus and such. However, I am not even close to being arrogant enough to feel able to state, unequivocally, that there is no means by which I could be wrong, nor that I somehow possess all possible relevant information, so I will keep aware of this fact and will continue watching for further confirming and rebutting information on the subject."

Personally, I think she stated that rather concisely. (:

10:

on the topic of the singularity, either at Readercon in 2002 or at TorCon in 2003

TorCon in 2003. Because I never went to a Readercon prior to 2010!

12:

Nitpicky point - it was Gibson you were paraphrasing, no? Regarding the distribution of the future?

(I hate making crappy little points like this one on articles that I enjoyed reading. My apologies and thanks for writing it!)

13:

Sounds a lot like "turn to the body" in current social philosophy (or, what I would rather use as technical term, "practice theory" ...), i.e. ideas like emboddied knowledge, tacit knowledge, embedding, ... coming together to form something that could be seen as the current common sense/avantgarde in (some branches of) sociology.

14:

"However, I am not even close to being arrogant enough to feel able to state, unequivocally, that there is no means by which I could be wrong, nor that I somehow possess all possible relevant information, so I will keep aware of this fact and will continue watching for further confirming and rebutting information on the subject."

You've more or less defined agnosticism. But agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive.

Suppose I assert the creator of the universe is an Invisible Purple Monkey who lives in my colon -- it's hardly "arrogant" to dismiss that assertion. And Marduk, Yahweh, Thor, et al. are no more intrinsically plausible. Of course I'm forced to admit that I can't be certain that they don't exist; I can't know -- to which I'm not certain how to reply other than with a "so what?"

15:

There is one very simple reason that Transhumanists like me want to improve (or ultimately discard) our bodies - they decay, and they eventually kill you. As you get older all you have to look forward to biologically is increasing pain, increasing enfeeblement and increasing senility with death at the end of the process. Screw that.

16:

Owning a store is pretty much a classic definition of middle class (petit bourgeois).

17:

I believe that the "nerds" as I am called have just adopted the systematic teachings that we learned as youths and taken them to heart.
First, we are taught no man should be judged on their color. Then, no sex should be discriminated by gender. Finally, no disabled person should be limited by their impairment.
Taken together the only thing left to judge a person on is their mind and actions. If the mind then is all important; the body become superfluous. If I lose a finger.... I am still me. If I lose a leg... I am still me. If I lose my mind..... who am I then?

There might also be a psychological draw for some of us "nerds." We never got to experience what it meant to be truly beautiful in everyone's eyes. A future that promises any shape could give us that. Though if everyone is beautiful... wouldn't I just go back to being average. This cycle never ends. :-)

18:

I feel an urge to quote Dan Moran's story On Sequoia Time:


When I was a boy I used to read sci-fi stories, or watch episodes of Star Trek, about how as humans evolved we would turn into something that was all brains and no hormones, all intellect and no emotions.

That isn't what happened. These people who were descended from us were capable of a range of experience that would have destroyed any of us, our best or our worst. They were more dangerous and more generous than us; they grew angrier and happier, grieved harder and rejoiced with more abandon. Love was an emotion so deep they could not lie about it, hatred a passion so black it was always lethal to someone.

19:

"Losing my libido was like being unshackled from a lunatic." - George Melly

20:
Because if speculative fiction isn't where you go to envision a brave new world, where the hell is?

The last line is an example of why I buy Stross, Doctrow, Bear, Watts and other authors that toss out brain bending ideas over those that peddle space opera and fantasy comfort food.

You earned your pay there with that one Ms. Bear.

21:

Bear, I agree with just about everything you've said, both about the nature of the singularit(ies) and the change in SFF in the last generation or so. Talking about the enhancement of human form and being, which to me is the most interesting process in the changes that are likely to come in the next century or so, I think the key statement in your post:

They are not, in fact, two separate things. Rather, one is an emergent property of the other.

I believe it's even more complex than that. We're not so much emergent properties of our meat, as we are emergent properties of several emergent systems of our meat: the nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system (probably also one or more systems emerging from our bacterial populations, but we don't know that much about that yet). This makes the notion of "identity" even harder to untangle (and makes discussions about it a lot more heated, since there's so little agreement on what we're talking about).

One definition of identity that a lot of people agree on is "a continuous thread of memory": if you remember that you're Susan Calvin, and you have all of Susan's memories from yesterday, you must be Susan. Nope, memory is much more malleable and unreliable than that; in fact it's at least 3 different things, and they're associated with different parts of the nervous system, and with different mechanisms for remembering and forgetting.

So even if we could upload the entire content of the central nervous system, we'd end up with a small fraction of all the systems and organization that makes one of us "I". But that still leaves a really fascinating possibility for enhancing ourselves: if we know enough about each of those systems we can tweak them to make them work better together, and to do things they couldn't do by themselves. For instance, we might be able to improve the immune system to deal with problems it can't handle by itself, like detect and prevent some kinds of cancer, or react to undesired effects of changes in the endocrine and nervous systems such as clinical depression or ADD.

Or maybe we can learn how to improve communications between individual people. Humans communicate via speech, voice tone, pitch, and cadence, body movements, touch, pheromones, and probably other channels. Those channels usually reinforce each other, but because they're all relatively low bandwidth (but cost a lot of bandwidth to transmit across distances over electronic systems), noisy, and often ambiguous to the receiver, even the sum of all those channels allows plenty of room for miscommunication. Maybe we can find ways to better communicate the states of the systems that compose one person to the systems that compose another, so we better understand each other.

Personally, I find the potential futures where humans learn better how to talk to and understand each other much more interesting than the ones where we retreat into computer worlds to contemplate our navels.

22:

The thing that gets me about the singularity is, it doesn't happen to poor people. A lot of SF is pretty bourgeouis, frankly.

Evolutionary change in a population happens on the scale of many generations, so unless you're going to try to pull some Lamarckian bollocks you have to accept that the meat that is handling the tech has not adapted substantively to that tech; it is essentially the same meat as when information technology meant cunieform.

I work for a welfare rights charity and as often as not, I'm on the front desk. This is in Cardiff, so firmly in the urban first world, and yet for all the waffle I read online about transhumanism, a significant percentage of our clients don't have the internet. Some don't even have a phone. Most have much more pressing concerns, like whether they're going to get paid their benefits that week so they can afford to feed their kids. Many have poor English language and literacy skills, either because they come from another country or because of disability.

It's easy to fantasise about moving beyond the needs of the flesh when you've got a warm house, clothes on your back and enough to eat. Even if people ever do move beyond, you can bet there will be some poor bastards left behind to wipe their backsides.

23:

"Even if people ever do move beyond, you can bet there will be some poor bastards left behind to wipe their backsides."

Antibiotics, vaccinations and TV are not for the likes of us poor folk...

24:

The whole inseparable mind/body thing is something I've always used to argue against singularity Fanboys (I say boy because I've never met a woman not on the internet who has heard of it). They always make two big claims based on one huge assumption that they seem oblivious to;

1) That the mind can be simulated without the body (in addendum: that the body can be simulated without the environment)

2) That this disembodied mind can augmented without destroying it

Both presume a solution to the hard problem of consciousness and presume that this solution allows human minds to operate and be augmented. Flawed reasoning if you ask me.

25:

Owning a store is pretty much a classic definition of middle class (petit bourgeois).

This is both true ... and false: go back to the UK circa 1900 and the middle class was tiny, pretty much limited to chartered professionals (doctors, lawyers, and the equivalent). Whereas the "working class" was divided into about nine different strata, from the destitute wreckage at the bottom of the heap to "upper lower" class occupations such as publicans and pharmacists and shop-owners.

Which is to say, Marx's definitions of classes are primarily economic, and may not mesh well with social-hierarchical definitions.

26:

I think you point out that life is exclusionary not just SF.
I remember watching a Travel channel program about food awhile back. The inhabitants of this little village were cooking an ostrich egg in the dirt. It struck me then that we treat these people as zoo exhibits rather then fellow humans. The same goes for that tribe in the Amazon that people are afraid of disturbing. Why don't we want to disturb them? Will it ruin some great anthropological experiment?

27:

I'm not sure I agree with the prognosis for the singularity that you've put forward. In once sense, every trap-door step forward in history has happened faster than every previous one, often by quite a bit. In another, I don't think this male-verses female thing affects rational ideas, but I think it affects how we think about them.

I think ideas within the mind can have associated emotions. I'm not sure that they can exist without, but I think the emotions are not fundemental to the ideas. One possibility is that these emotions can limit reason, if too small a variety is used.

Another is that changing those emotions round is slightly violent, internally. It dispossesses a thought of its feeling, or a feeling of its thought.

(This would have ideas as something very much in existence of their own right, even if they're only as simularity sets across reality).

28:

The thing that gets me about the singularity is, it doesn't happen to poor people. A lot of SF is pretty bourgeouis, frankly.

It's worse than that; it's a literature born of the early modernist era, the same period that birthed the great modernist political ideologies -- fascism and leninism. SF's DNA is deeply intertwingled with another of those paternalist political ideologies, technocracy, which luckily for us never really caught on outside of China. It's also intertwingled with libertarianism and objectivism, the latter two both individualist and extremely callously elitist. We don't even have to go so far as to examine that quintessentially English of sub-genres, the cosy catastrophe, to get the feeling that many SF authors would be overjoyed if the annoyingly undereducated and underprivileged people occupying the backdrop of their brave new world (see also: mobs with torches and pitchforks) would just drop dead and leave the future to the people who understand it.

While I am not quite as vehemently opposed to these people as, say, China Mieville, I know which side of the barricades my bread is buttered on.

29:

In another, I don't think this male-verses female thing affects rational ideas, but I think it affects how we think about them.

<tongue-in-cheek>Rationality is an oppressive tool of the oligoheteropatriarchy!</tongue-in-cheek>

Let me repeat that, only half tongue in cheek: about the commonest strategy used to marginalize a dissenting viewpoint is to define it as going against common sense; and the second commonest is to define it as "irrational". Except when the viewpoint being belittled is that of a woman, in which case an accusation of irrationality is the first and most usual tool for suppression of dissent. I hope you won't mind me looking very skeptically at the rest of your argument in light of the way you tried to frame it ...

(See also the Overton window.)

30:

It all comes down to the question of understanding, doesn't it. If we can separate a definition of the mind from the body, then it can probably be run that way, in some way. It's entirely unclear whether the mind can actually be reasonably distinguished from the body. Would it even be possible to consider such a question without a notion of mental failure? We ought to bring logic into the discussion, if only to provide illumination.

31:

One point I'd disagree with is that the Singularity was about male over female. While it does have that element, to me it seemed more about our fear and loathing of death and destruction.


I have a real problem with feminists claiming that death is a feminine. It happens to everyone and everything, and it gets reflected all the time, everywhere. And in my experience, refusal to deal with this reality transcends gender and ethnicity. The singularity is simply one example.


32:

On the new Next Big Thing: YES.

On the Singularity:

I'm a fantasy-biased Dionysiac, who retreats frequently to the Apollonian simply to process the visions and recover from the hangover. Also because nerding is fun as a pastime, yet... I despise dualism and shiny antiseptic futures to the core, partly because I spent too long in that headspace in my early youth, and came to apprehend directly what was vile in it.

But I still find the 'Rapture of the Nerds' an interesting and [attractive/challenging/creepy] notion, because I don't see uploading as 'liberation from the meat' - God save the mark! I see it as one of two roads to expanding the possibilities of the flesh and its felt aspect the spirit - the second route being the exterior one of bodily augmentation/adaptation - and I see both roads as often coming together and diverging again, with their side-tracks taking us around many a ferny brae into fields we cannot now know.

Even if the 'Promiscuous Ramblings of Every Bugger' lacks the pith and high-concept of uploading into a world slick and clear as glass!

33:

Rationality is a social structure, and one that has been used to oppress people at various stages, but it is also an idea, and a system of thought to profound that we could easily ignore its existence.

34:

Great post, thanks! It also made me want to read your books :)

In the last ten years or so, I've changed from "It's the future! Where is the Singularity? I was PROMISED flying cars^W^W the Singularity!!" to a much more relaxed "Let's enjoy and make the most of life now, no use waiting for something that might never materialise". This is probably because I'm getting older and more comfortable with myself, and sorting out some serious personal issues.

In retrospect, hoping for something like the singularity was escapism of the worst kind - dragons and Hogwarts are harmless, because they don't affect your attitude towards the actual life you're living.

35:

Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favour of rationality -- but I'm under no illusions about this being a subjective preference of mine, and that it's a treacherous tool that can be abused.

36:

"And in my experience, refusal to deal with this [death] reality transcends gender and ethnicity."

What does "deal with it mean"?
When people say that they usually mean "accept it as a natural part of the world". Which is bullshit, since as soon as they have anything wrong with them they will head for the doctor or hospital instead of lying down and taking what comes.

"Dealing with it" means fighting it and/or delaying it. It means antibiotics, surgery, preventive medicine. It *will* mean nanotech, genetic engineering and research into every means possible to halt and reverse aging. It *may* come to mean uploading - that remains to be seen.

37:

The problem is not rationality, but the axioms upon which the logic is based. Especially the unspoken or unconscious axioms underlying the argument.

38:

Are there two phenomena here? rationality as an underlying structure of ideas, or rationality as the conventional emotional structures used to reach them?

I'd have thought only one of those was subjective.

(I suppose there's also "rational best interest", but I'm just going to leave that one for now).

39:

I never noticed that the mind/body dichotonomy was so dominating in the discussions regarding the topic of singularity. Looking back I think I just assumed that the concept of uploading would include the full simulation of every single cell and component of a body, including I guess every single bacteria which make up at least 2 kg of our weight. Of course that would also entail a simulation of a natural environment including all components that might interact with the copied human in any way. Well, given enough processing power you might still run the whole thing much faster and also beam it to the stars but I see now that this might be a bit far from the original concept. Thanks for your interesting text.

40:

I seem to recall a trope from various fictional sources (not forgetting Our Host's _Glasshouse_) positing an easy way to actually be the other gender, or occupy another body, for a time; such a thing if it wasn't just quick touristing would be a good way of exploring and understanding how much of our thought patterns come from the physical substrate and to better understand folk of other body types. Imagine politicians being expected to have been a cross-section of the electorate. And that could go further: being for example a dolphin might merit exploration.

As for SF "big waves" in general, the pace of change accelerates, and multiple things overlap, so there may no longer be time for a decade of this or a year of that, and instead there will be multiple current threads at hand to be woven together.

41:

If you want to find out how much of "you" is dictated by simple chemistry, try snorting some coke, getting drunk, doing steroids, fasting and other such stuff.

42:

As a researcher on emergent properties, I was thrilled to read your post, wonderful stuff. Love the phrase "one is an emergent property of the other" which pops up in more and more places, brains being one of the most prominent.

In fact, I am just now writing on a paper regarding termite mounds and their morphogenetic process (well, actually how it can be applied to architecture) and would happily state that the physical structure (mud) of the mound is an emergent property of the physiological and morphogenetic processes which take place in it, and vice versa.

I will check out your writings.

43:


Its a Question of Culture.

Once upon a time when I used to have to earn a living in the Turmoil of High=er Education that was the English University System circa 2000 plus a year my -nominally -junior Technician Colleges down in the Student Technical HELP desk used to SUMMON ME ..this when a Male Greek Chauvinist would hale up to the tech Help desk and DEMAND help .."You're in Luck " would say Lynn, " For I am a TECHNICIAN " and the conversation would go on for a while ..until L got tired and said ' AH... you want a MALE technician don't you? ? Not Me Eh ? ' " and the large ..though not as large as Lynn - for Lynn was, well, think Bond Villains Body Guard - usually Greek but some times middle eastern man would be told to go back to his fellow bemused mates who were usually trying to cheat and wait..the buggers couldn't even steal properly!

The male chavs ..er, Chauvinists, would then be treated to ME ..' Right they shall have a Man and oh how I shall enjoy this " ..to fellow female competent person who would be taught the method of preparing a crib sheet for A for I wasn't that good at I.T. ..but would stalk into the Resources Centre, like ..Lynn to collogue " Do you read Terry Pratchett ? Ah well its Like having DEATH on Call and this time I will Get ' A ' to do COWER BRIEF MORTALS !! For it will be the Third time I've Summoned Him this morning "

I really hated being summoned to scare the living shit out of students but ..wots to do when we, as an institution, were so desperate for money ..no wonder I eventually went mad ..though not so Mad - Clinically Depressed - That I seized the worst of them by their genuflecting - submission to alpha male as measured by their own culture - neck and banged them against the nearest keyboard in a minatory fashion, and believe me I was more than capable of it...actually they might well have found this to be quite comforting in this strange Female /male person equality world that they had managed to blag their way into that they might buy a degree in Business Studies.

Its not a Small World in a Walt Disney Sense but actually a very Culturally LARGE one in which truly astounding cultural gaps have opened up over the past two or three generations ... look at the cultural divides across one 'Superpower ' nation the USA over our life spans and then try to work out why their cultural political system remains in balance ..forget about 'Singularity ' and think about the problems of the ' Multiplicity ' of Cultures rather than those of a ' Singularity ' that is wildly unlikly to happen.

Its a confusing MESS and likely to get Messier so is it any wonder that we have invented the simplicity of the ' Singularity '?

Long ago when I was but a Child I read Hal Clements " Cycle of Fire " that was about a very basic young adult Clash of Very different cultures. More people - young adults or no - should read it even though it is of the far distant and hard to understand western culture of 1957 ..trans human /trans alien its all there and well worth 45p of anyone's money ...


http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cycle-Fire-Hal-Clement/dp/B000WTWG4M/ref=sr_1_37?ie=UTF8&qid=1315341330&sr=8-37

44:

Gee, you go away for a few minutes, and the number of comments triples. I'll go back to them later. Hopefully I'm not repeating anything.

I absolutely agree about the need for cultural diversity in SF, it simply makes it a better reflection of the real world. It's what I've always tried for in my own writing (the hopefully soon-to-be-finished novel). I'm not a WASP and can't imagine a world without the variety of people I've known (or would rather not).
I've occasionally wondered how many good books, and new ideas we miss out on, because they aren't being translated.

The idea of mini-Singularities, makes me think of the old James Burke series "The Day The Universe Changed", where he would take some idea or invention and trace the previous ideas/inventions that led up to it, often going back a few centuries. It also reinforced in my mind the difference between Science and Technology.

Because if speculative fiction isn't where you go to envision a brave new world, where the hell is?

Again, agreed. It always amazes me when I hear someone complain about Liberalism in SF. It's like they would be happier reading a textbook. I'm looking for new ideas and different ways of looking at thngs, and I like the science.

45:

Bruce@21 (a fellow Portlander?) nails it. People like Antonio Damasio have been telling us that the body and the mind are inextricably linked, at least in humans. And there is more than adequate research at many levels to support that theory.

There are three fundamental issues: First, what the hell is intelligence? Second, what the hell is consciousness? Third, without sensory input what good would either of them be?

There is an excellent discussion today over at Centauri Dreams titled "SETI and the Use of Tools", http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=19737.

I'm not saying that computer intelligence or consciousness is impossible. I am saying that if it happens, it will be as alien as anything we may ever encounter.

Ms. Bear your "one way gates" statement is absolutely the most concise and articulate description of the social consequences of major technological change I have encountered. At 67, and an SF reader for 60 of those 67 years, I have seen a lot of people try to describe it.

46:

I'm trying to remember the SF novel in which the aliens arrive to make contact with Earth and decide that the Indians are obviously the highest form of civilisation on Earth, because they have a caste structure that is not dissimilar to the aliens' own. Until then, I hadn't noticed how much our aliens are built in our own image.

47:

A separate, fascinating issue is the use of English around the world. This is part of the diversity in science fiction.

About half my friends are not white, and most of these are immigrants. They are all smart professionals (many of them quite well off). Many speak English as a second (or third) language, and they are fluent enough to do their jobs quite well.

The interesting thing to me is the way they use English. Their language is rich in nouns and adjectives, but it is structurally simple. They fluently use the words they need for their jobs and lives, but they don't use extensive metaphors or similes, nor do they use flowery language, nor an abundance of alliteration, metaphors or many synonyms. Many of them don't really like reading books with that kind of language either, although a majority of them do like SFF (and I know, because I asked).

Put their English in a novel, though, and you get accused of writing boring prose by some native English speakers. That number, incidentally, includes some editors.

To me, it's an interesting problem, especially for those writers who are intoxicated by the magic of the English language. Even today, a majority of English speakers speak it as a second language. For monolingual English novelists, reaching many of these people is going to be tricky, because the things that you like most about English are the very things that will turn them off.

Can you write something that they can enjoy?

48:

I've never disagreed with the likes of Kurzweil about the basics, which really are the same observations that Laplace made- I'm made of matter that obeys rules, computers can execute rules, ergo, I can be simulated, and that observation swallows up objections about "where the thinking happens" too- when in doubt if it matters, upload it too.

Moving from first principles to product, however, tends to be a punishing experience, and to assert that one particular growth curve will bury millions of years of biological continuity before I have grandkids is absurd. There is no especially compelling reason to believe that a computer with X amount of processing power will consume all of human experience and biology any more than its rusty ancestors that bested us at arithmetic-more likely they will end up as affordable tools like everything else. Which isn't to say that expert systems for every task, or negligible biological senescence, aren't outside the scope of possibility and could really shake up the game- it's just they are a few orders of difficulty, plausibility, and uniform desirability down (or up) from migrating all of existence into WoW.

49:

Depends entirely on whether strong artificial general intelligence appears in the near future.

50:

"There is one very simple reason that Transhumanists like me want to improve (or ultimately discard) our bodies - they decay, and they eventually kill you."

As distinguished from machinery (including computers,) which remain in working order forever?

51:

As i understand things, the sense of having a body is contained within our mind: the brain forms a representative map according to physical shape. Hence the phenomenon of phantom limbs, where the pain of that missing limb can be intolerable (tinnitus could be the auditory equivalent, a kind of gain control turned up.)

So, i wonder, if your brain was separated from your body there would still be a sense of being in that body for some time after, or if replaced by an alternative one that would cause the brain areas to re-map accordingly.

Just something i've been considering – in fiction.

52:

Whichever works best for keeping me alive and in good condition the longest.

53:

When it comes to the idea that the body is required as part of the Human cognitive process, one has to ask - how much? Is a quadruple amputee with a spine severed at the neck and with most of the gut removed no longer Human?

54:

What it the vile offspring will not be male or female descended, rather the product of awakened metereological simulators or a shopping cart fraud prevention system.

I know, I know, as a literary tendency the critique is valid, but we keep falling into the sci fi as predictive tool trap, or I do at least.

55:

The first book I ran across that queried the whole issue of identity, post-humanism and whether we'd still be human (or indeed, conceivably sane) should we succeed in uploading our minds to a computer system was "The Silicon Mage" by Barbara Hambly. Which was, if I remember correctly, classified as fantasy, rather than Science Fiction, because involved travel between worlds, and one of the worlds had magic in it.

I really enjoyed that book (and indeed the series it's part of), because it did raise some interesting points for me. The most important for the current discussion, of course, is whether the mind is truly separable from the body, or whether the experience of living is actually a core part of our mental experience as humans. Later books (such as "The Science of Discworld II") gave me further consideration along those lines - the core point to be remembered is that nobody's really discovered where, in our bodies, the mind actually lives. We *think* it's the brain - but if so, then that means "mind" is an emergent phenomenon, a trick produced by the micro-charges of a collection of specialised cells awash in a sea of chemicals - and who's to say in that case that mind isn't a distributed phenomenon, present throughout the entire body?

All of this, in a way, ties in to the Identity Wars currently running with places like Google+, where corporate systems are attempting to pin the notion of identity and identification to specific criteria (namely, a particularly naming schema). In a way I can understand this - on a corporate level, the Google+ people want something which can enforce their standards of "good behaviour" in a way which is machine-capable. But unfortunately, they've missed a core point here: standards of "good behaviour" aren't machine-enforceable either, because they're very human things, defined in a very human way, and as such, they're only really enforceable via human intervention. It's why human moderation is one of the best (probably the very best) systems available for handling online communities. But again, it's about the mixture of meat and mind and the way the two of them work together to produce something more.

Maybe my interest is somewhat different since I'm someone who's been mentally ill since approximately the point where puberty started manifesting completion (around age 14). I've been showing all the signs of clinical depression since around the age of fourteen, but the first signs happened a lot earlier than that (my first suicidal ideation and suicide attempt was at approximately age 10 - around the onset of puberty). I'm now 40, and that means I've spent more of my life with depression than I have without it. So would a "megpie71 sans depression" actually be "me"? I suspect not - because there's so much of my life which has been shaped by the miseries and thought patterns of chronic depression.

56:

Imagine a scenario in which the "rapture of the nerds" singularity is approaching rapidly. How would characters whose identity is focused on their physical bodies deal with it? How would an athlete, or a dancer, a whirling dervish, or a yogi respond? I haven't yet seen this addressed in fiction. Have I just missed it?

57:

This, has also reminded me of some thoughts, and questions, I've had over the years.
Is Post-Human necessarily Post-Gender?
I never got around to actually reading Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto (so can't say if it is relevant--I ought to find my copy and read it). But the idea of Feminism and Cyborgs had me wondering if, with artificial bodies is gender relevant? From a purely physical point of view the answer is likely to be no, since the body could be any shape, size, and strength. So...
Is gender an ingrained mental construct, or is it dependent on physicality?
Would a cyborg be gendered, other, or whatever the person chooses at the moment?
And,
I had some other questions earlier (no real answers) but they've gone from my mind at the moment.

58:

I'm using it in the more absolute sense, of meaning that everyone dies, everything ends eventually, whether it's from the death of your body, or the crash of the memory system holding your upload, or it falling into a black hole.

If you want to talk about hospitals, we can talk about how we've become a society where you spend a majority of your health care money on the last two years of life, and ask whether that last two years of prolongation is sensible, or just a socially-sanctioned paroxysm of fear of the end.

I don't think there's an absolute answer to this, but think about how much richer the world would be if people spent more time in hospice saying goodbye, and less time fighting for a few more weeks, and a few more weeks, and a few more weeks. Yes, I am speaking from experience on both sides, before you assume.

Regardless, I don't think of it as a feminist issue, and I do think of the Singularity as yet another attempt to avoid the inevitable by clinging to something, whether it makes sense or not.

59:

The rapture of the nerds is Augustinian?

I dunno.

For a few of them, yes, I suppose. I've seen some of that "farewell to flesh" lot, yes.

But the ones I read about the most are quite the opposite. They want sex, sex, and more sex. Sure, it will be simulated sex since their brains will be uploaded and their bodies gone forever, but it will be the greatest simulated sex ever, greater than the sex they had in their meat days. Sex without VD, sex without guilt, sex without grouchy partners. To be precise, Green Orion animal women in every room in their virtual palace!

They're hoping for the advent of perfect (in their view of perfection) flesh, virtual flesh thanks to
the singularity. It won't be solid but their uploaded brain won't be able to tell the difference.

Sure don't seem Augustinian to me.

60:

OK, I don't know how this will go down. But on male writers and female writers and how different they are. People are mining and X-Raying Jane Austen. And what she sent to her editor is not very good. It seems he re-edited her work till it's his work. And a very feminine" communication style it is indeed. Or so I read.
ON CLASS, then and now. My 1965 textbook said almost all doctors were upper lower class. Only the most highly paid ones were middle class. Ten years or so ago, the same kind of textbooks said I there were not real classes in America. People were going up and down too fast. If you ask the people, any one who is not on food stamps is middle class and votes to keep the lowers low and away.

61:

You're thinking of "Empire of Bones" by Liz Williams. A striking and provocative novel, from a western perspective ..

62:

would a "megpie71 sans depression" actually be "me"? I suspect not - because there's so much of my life which has been shaped by the miseries and thought patterns of chronic depression.

On the other side (if you're talking about the type of clinical depression I think it is) presumably you go through some periods of remission, when it's much less severe than others? Think of a "megpie71 sans depression" as a "megpie71 in indefinitely prolonged remission", if that helps. The depression is there in your background and shaped your life, but you're not going through a bad patch -- and you have reason to hope that there won't be any more of them.

Is that a plausible perspective on the problem?

63:

Expanding on this point: "So would a "megpie71 sans depression" actually be "me"? I suspect not - because there's so much of my life which has been shaped by the miseries and thought patterns of chronic depression" -

You're really asking two different questions. Would a megpie who had never had depression still be you? No, of course not - as you say, that has shaped your life, just as any other experience would. Would a megpie who had lost a leg aged 8 still be you? Probably not. Or one who had had a child at age 19? Or one who hadn't gone to university? Arguably no.

But a megpie who, starting now, never had depression again would still be you, of course, as Charlie says.

64:

Do we really need to discuss whether uploading would be desirable? Because if this is not obvious, I propose the following experiment:

Put down that book for a while, and go outside. Feel the warm rays of the sun on your skin, the texture of the ground beneath your feet, hear the cries of birds, the wash of the sea or even just a breeze of air in the trees, savour the sweet odour of decaying leaves (or whatever you have in the southern hemisphere right now).

Find a beautiful woman (or a man, I hear they're also good) and learn to love her, admire the colour of those eyes and lose yourself in her embrace, and now think about it: If you could separate your mind from your body, would you actually do it? I didn't think so.

This also answers the question of how much the body influences the mind... so even switching bodies while remaining the same person would be very much impossible. Think of the Doctor: Every time he regenerates, a part of his personality dies (and that is not going far enough for the sake of pleasing the TV audience).

65:

#2 - By that definition, for me mobile telephony is technology, but space flight and Mach3 aircraft aren't. This is not the case.

#42 - Likewise; in fact my next stop is going to be Amazon.

#43 - I'm male. I used to work in Academia, and on my visits to our IS helpdesk, I preferred to deal with the female staff, because they were more likely to be able to answer my rather esoteric quesitons, or at least to make helpful suggestions about where to look next.

#46 - It's not the book you're looking for, but Elizabeth Noon's "Remnant Population" deals with an alien population which doesn't work the way our "Contact Specialists" think it should, and therefore they are useless. I'd have nominated it as "important" in the relevant threads if it wasn't a 1995 book and OGH set a cutoff at 2000.

66:

The notion of separating the mind from the body may miss something important- much like space colonies, turning yourself into a completely electronic form suggests that you might not only separate from your body, you could separate from any bodies (or minds) you don't care to interact with.

Basically, if you're an upload, you can finally be free of those irritating meat-people who surround you now, while replacing them in your virtuality with ones more amenable.

67:

A great and stimulating post with many interesting comments.
I have just finished reading Dana Meadows Thinking in Systems: A Primer. A must read for anyone who thinks that you can isolate a system from its context and have it still be the same system.
Our guts (and many other organs) produce hormones that affect our brain state just as our brains produce electrical pulse that affect our organs. Defining the boundary between the two or determining how much or our personality is determined by gut bacteria seems a pointless exercise. However, in as much as its all just information if it is possible to upload a representation of the brain there seems no reason why that should include a representation of all the attached meat. But would that be enough?
Humans are communal people who we are is just as much defined by the communities we are part of and how its members see us. Without that interaction - 80%+ of which is non-verbal would we be the same person? Could we be a person at all. But it is all just information so could be represented. Except what defines our community except the communities it interacts with - partly by us being part of multiple communities?
This is why when our creators wrote the simulation we are in they created a whole universe.

68:
we've become a society where you spend a majority of your health care money on the last two years of life, and ask whether that last two years of prolongation is sensible, or just a socially-sanctioned paroxysm of fear of the end.

Think of it as the frontline against death. It may be grim, but we're holding it back and making progress.

Senescence is just another disease we need to fight.

70:

Too right Alain.

I've often thought that the human race continues just so long as the 'mechanical' replacements aren't more fulfilling that the existing meat bodies>minds. For most I don't think that standard would be too high.

As for the general thesis, in contrast I'd suggest the multicolored, multicultural, multinational, multiethnic idea of fiction is actually a sizeable percentage of the reason SF is dying away. If you mix it all together, what you get is an insipid mud coloured nothingness. Most people don't want navel gazing, politically correct examination of the soul. What they want are big, simple, interesting ideas that they can get wrapped up in. They want the bold colours.

They want to be entertained.

The literati have succeeded in turning the 'conventional' novel into a dirge that most people don't and won't bother with. Not that they realise they have driven themselves into irrelevance, mind. That's a fate that SF should be rejecting, not attempting to embrace. KISS

How does that play into the idea of the Singularity? Well, it works because it's an interesting simple idea with big consequences that people can play with. Symbiotic relationship with your gut bacteria - not so much.

The test is, do people want to read it? If the answer is no, it's not good fiction; rather it's the literary equivalent of masturbation.

71:

Might I suggest that gradual prolongation of life, voluntary assisted suicide, Do Not Resuscitate / No Heroic Measures directives and the like are a whole other blog posting? I do have feelings on the subject with cause, and am prepared to discuss them with you guys, but not in a threadjack.

72:

I think of Neal Asher's hornet hive minds. Theoretically, you will not quickly run out of new material to run the mind (just hatch more hornets), but in practice, minds of a certain age and complexity start to experience fatal cognitive dissonance, or stagnation. Either way leads to complete death or succession (which is basically death to the original personality.)

I think it was Cherryh who made me aware of how dependent human psychology/culture is on other animals. Many of her societies seem very sterile and (something she acknowledged in Cyteen, I believe) part of this is because they could not bring/support pets or even farm animals. Also, consider the importance of animal words and images for child development.

The farewell to the flesh thread of the debate keeps reminding me of Comic Book Guy: adopting the ways of the Vulcans will mean much less mating for you, but for me, much, much more.

73:

"and who's to say in that case that mind isn't a distributed phenomenon, present throughout the entire body?"

Amputees

74:

> There might also be a psychological draw for some of us "nerds." We never got to experience what it meant to be truly beautiful in everyone's eyes.

Bingo. And this loops back into Elizabeth's feminist critique of the Singularity. Because just as a woman's body is always in view, always seen as fair to criticise, there's a corresponding myth that the male body is inherently undesirable or unimportant.

Very few men's bodies are actually desirable, society tells us, and that of the weedy, spotty "nerd" is actively repugnant. But that's okay, because if he's talented, rich or successful enough, then his appearance is of little import.

So a nerd can learn to see his body as imperfect and inconsequential, but his mind as powerful and valuable. This can lead to a feeling of disconnection with the body; it's not me, but merely a shell containing my true self, that is to say my mind.

The Singularity is simultaneously the logical conclusion of, and a method of escape from, this reasoning. If my body is merely an arbitrary vessel for my self, then why not discard it and replace it by a construct entirely controlled by the mind? If with a mere thought I can become the buffest of men or the prettiest of girls, then of what consequence is the body I happen to have been born into?

75:

Speak for yourself!
I'm one of those "nerds" that's been a Transhumanist from before the term was coined. I am also quite attractive, or so I have been told my a number of women, with a very athletic body. Being a martial arts teacher for decades helps. However, at age 58 I know how its all going to end.

Here's a pic of me (on the right) when I was 40
http://www.flickr.com/photos/54038375@N02/6047691378/in/photostream/lightbox/

Also somewhat vain, in case anyone was wondering :-)

76:

Aren't you paraphrasing William Gibson, not Bruce Sterling?

http://www.brianstorms.com/archives/000461.html
suggests that the quote is Gibson, all the way down.

77:

I agree, I probably came across as more dogmatic than intended, it's just that I find the notion of checking out while you're still in relatively good health strangely dualistic.

78:

Shorter Elizabear: Computers don't dance, so where's that leave my revolution?

79:

Despite what I said earlier, so do. My point was really that that subject area is a whole blog entry in itself, and I would be willing to discuss it with disclosure on personal reasons etc as, when and if Charlie or $guest make such an entry.

80:

...a sizeable percentage of the reason SF is dying away.

Cite, please. I'd like some research to substantiate that assertion that SF is dying away. Otherwise, I'm going to declare that your thesis is full of crap; the only thing that is dying away is the specific kind of SF that you like, which by inference is monocultural, jingoistic, politically incorrect -- read, politically conservative -- simplistic stories for boys.

81:

SF is tailored to a particular audience.
I find it very difficult to get into a book when the protagonist is someone I cannot identify with. A case in point was some SF set in (IIRC) the Calcutta slums and featured a couple of orphans as the main characters.

82:

Charlie @#81:

by "dying," I believe he means that my review/read shelf is actually buckling under the weight of recent genre publications.

83:

You mean that SF is fragmenting

84:

I find it very difficult to get into a book when the protagonist is someone I cannot identify with. A case in point was some SF set in (IIRC) the Calcutta slums and featured a couple of orphans as the main characters.

Personally, I don't want to read about my next door neighbors, SFnal or not. As I said upthread, I read to be entertained, and hopefully gain some new insight. Gimme Strange New Worlds.

Is that a reference to "River of Gods"? It's in my to-read (eventually) queue.

85:

Not River Gods.
Can't recall the name of the book (or maybe short story).

86:

The uploaded personality is an interesting concept. I never considered the ramifications in quite this way, but I can see that an uploaded personality will bring all its prejudices and history along. I think it was Greg Egan that postulated a far future with being alive electronically, i.e. the uploaded personality, and offspring born into this media without the meat prejudice would seem to me to bring a sexless viewpoint. It sure would have made my teen years more productive.

87:

Given the Simulation Argument, and the overwhelming likelihood that we are living in a Simulation - we know exactly what its like. In the first instance, I do not see why uploading would appear any different to the reality we experience right now. No doubt there would be many different kinds of reality, and levels of malleability.

88:

Gimme Strange New Worlds.
Forget I said that, it kind of implies the wrong thing. I'm not really all that into stories about aliens. They can be good, but I'm more into Human characters--who can be pretty alien.

89:

Some subtypes of SF are out of fashion (few people write pure planetary romances seriously these days) while others are "in" for whatever reason (I hear young-adult dystopias are getting published in vast numbers for some reason). That's not the same thing as the field itself dying.

90:

Stories of ordinary mortal being caught up in the affairs of wizards and demons and being transported to enchanted fairylands and using magical tools to save or destroy for good or ill to their glory or despair appear pretty universal to all cultures around the globe and are just as common in oral traditions as the written.
SFF seems to me to be just a a continuation of this oldest of story types see for instance the work of Joseph Campbell or the Faber book of utopias. The hero although mortal was typically a fisherman, swineherd or concubine - leading technologists of their day with the specialist know how to to enchant fish, pigs or men and no doubt some of the stories represented the hard SF of the day.
These stories seem to me pretty important to driving and directing technological advance. The Celtic fairyland is a parallel universe contiguous with but bigger than our own which can be accessed if you know where to find a portal and use it in the right way. But there is a danger time runs differently a few minutes there and years pass in the human world for some while others spend centuries in fairyland to find no time has elapsed at all when they return.
I now know this place as Charlie's Diary.

91:

In emotional terms, I think this was a decent argument. Looking at it logically, however, ...

A technological singularity, as originally defined, IS just a one-way gate. The latter may be a better metaphor, but they're talking about the same phenomenon. And the singularity metaphor has a large head start.

That mind is emergent from meat doesn't imply that it can't be moved to another substrate. Just that it's quite likely to be very difficult. And that some things are likely to change (note I didn't specify improve or degrade) in the process.

Non-verbal parts of thinking tend to not be talked about because they don't fit easily into words. If you don't have a common experience at which you can point (i.e., if it's not externally evident) then it's quite difficult to wrap it into words. This is a phenomenon of the mechanism by which language grows, however, rather than anything intrinsically non-"digital" about that kind of event. As a result, it's difficult to think about precisely as an internal experience. This doesn't mean that it can't be analyzed if you check precisely enough, and recent brain measurements have started to get handles on some of these...but there's still no way to convert that kind of knowledge into a form that matches the way it feels from the inside. But a good enough system of measurement should enable the creation of something strongly isomorphic to that original. (I don't want to claim canonically isomorphic, as that's probably too strong a claim.)

The autonomic nervous system is also a part of the extended brain. Just because it's largely non-conscious doesn't mean it's isn't a part of the mechanism of consciousness.

Etc.

Yours (the article writer's) isn't an unusual, or unpopular, stance to take. I often encounter it, though usually not expressed so well. It seems, to me, similar to people asserting that "I'm *me*!, not just a hunk of chemicals and stuff!" Which is "sort of" right, because they aren't understanding how precisely intricately fashioned a thing they are talking about, and to their conception of "a hunk of chemicals and stuff" isn't at all similar to themselves. And because external descriptions don't seem all that similar to the internal perceptions. But it's also quite wrong, because their image of "hunk of chemicals and stuff" is so wrong. When I say "I itch!" I'm not aware of all the chemical interactions that go into that process, and can't even TRY to approach it on that level. And, frankly, attempting to approach it on that level strikes me as absurd, but this is the kind of disjunction that we're getting into here.

I assert (as an article of faith, rather than as something that I know to be true) that the mind is composed in layers, with the "higher" levels developing out of, and being sealed off from, the lower levels. This could be wrong. Where we tend to draw the boundaries is almost certainly wrong. And the boundaries are almost certainly not totally impermeable. But it is certain that even though our nervous system is dependent on the movements of certain ions through certain membranes, that knowledge is inaccessible to consciousness as an internal (rather than external) awareness. And even the question of "What does it feel like?" would, if it had any answer, have lots of inconsistent answers. Our minds cannot reach that level of the substrate, even though they are totally dependent on them. So. Any level of the substrate that the mind cannot reach can, in principle, be replaced by something else that acts identically, even if on totally different principles, without affecting that mind. This doesn't make it an easy problem, or one that it's reasonable to address (at least currently). But it is, in principle, reasonable. Costs, availability, etc. are dependent on other factors, such as what tools are available, and how many people consider this a desirable option.

FWIW, to me the problem looks ... intractable is too strong a word, but I can't think of anything weaker that feels strong enough. I consider strong AI to be a much easier problem, and actually probably one that would need to be solved first anyway. (Unless we opt for the "Donovan's Brain" approach, or just go cyborg. Going cyborg is probably the easiest approach. Primitive "neuristors" already exist. They're pretty sure that they've solved the problem of the electrodes killing off the neurons that they attach to. And the mind [brain] adapts quite quickly to make use of new sensory tools that become available. Just how far we'll go along this line is hard to say. *I* wouldn't be comfortable with a built in WI-Fi connection to a mesh network, but maybe some people would. And it would [perhaps] be quite similar to many "telepathic" fantasies, especially if there were nodes in the net that connected to the internet.)

But the tools do not determine the society that is created with them, they only say which things are possible and which are impossible. And dense populations supply their own constraints. (It's a matter of interest that our video-games match in violence anything that the Roman Empire even considered. One may wonder what need they address, and what would happen to society were they suppressed. My expectation is that the level of actual violence would rise, perhaps dramatically, but I could easily be wrong. [I am, however, opposed to the increasing level of realism in the violent video games. THAT is probably socially destructive. But again, I'm not sure. Certainly that the "Road Runner" cartoons were suppressed as being too violent was just plain silly. That's on the level of making it illegal to think mean thoughts about those who anger you. Their level of realism was much too low to worry about.)

Sorry, I've lost the thread somewhere, so bye.

92:

Ian Smith #70 gets my vote for most insightful comment in this thread. I hope every SF writer takes this comment to heart: many of us who love SF/F read it for big, bold ideas, not to be subjected to wretched postmodernist, deconstructionist drivel. SF is the last bastion against that kind of cultural rot. It’s quite strange to me that so many cultural Marxists have become popular SF writers, at least in Britain. I have always read SF to escape this kind of ideology into an imaginary, limitless frontier where new empires can be built by ambitious supermen (and even the occasional superwoman) and all the wretched, microscopic thinking of our decadent postmodern literati is left in the Terran dust.

93:

I would like to think we can have (and it's desirable that we do have) increasing diversity in SF without the _whole_ lot of it degenerating into "cultural studies" essays and other flavors of Neo-Marxist PoMo-blather.

94:

Depends.
Despite many libertarians embracing Transhumanism, and Transhumanist futures, one of the core notions is that of the post-scarcity society. Which is a pretty Marxist kind of idea.

95:

Hmmm...
Was Marx the first sigularitist?

96:

To be clearer, I'm suggesting there's more than one direction away from "politically conservative...simplistic stories for boys" (as our host put it) -- not all of which lead towards "wretched postmodernist, deconstructionist drivel."

I'm far from politically conservative, but I would not be in the least bit interested in so-called campus Left, "Post-etc." SF. Fortunately, I very much doubt such material will be forced on me.

97:

Tangentially (and in a different tangential direction than the let's-all-redefine-agnosticism tangent that seems to be dominating the thread [which is close to my heart but also easy flamebait for me; I quite strongly favour the usage indicated by the OP]), I don't think Augstinian is a particularly good term for it -- it associates it specifically with catholicism, while it's arguably a problem with the entire western philosophical tradition. I would argue instead that it's platonic: the idea that the flesh is inferior to (and separate from) the spirit, that removing the interference of the material world results in enlightenment rather than confusion, and all the various and sundry the-grass-is-greener-on-the-map-than-on-the-territory ideas in the western philosophical and occult traditions come back to Plato. The idea that the abstract and unapplicable knowledge is more pure goes back to Aristotle, and it's no great stretch to say that the male-centrism associated with those traditions goes back to Greek culture, which Saint Augustine stuck in a bag on the side of christianity (and which the various gnostic groups stuck in a bag on the side of various and sundry variations on abrahamic traditions in different orders and configurations).

98:

"THEY will decay and THEY eventually kill YOU" - my emphasis.

Interesting choice of words - I'd say you decay and eventually you die. As others have argued on this thread the mind and the body can't really be viewed as separate in practice, however nice it is philosophically.

99:

We have been here before in the UK in the 60s/70s with the "new wave" where the term "speculative fiction" was invented by predominantly left wing authors embarrassed by the term "science fiction". A lot of it was what might be termed pre-post-modernism.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Wave_science_fiction

Move along... nothing new to see here...

100:

I was quite aware of the meaning of the words I wrote as I was writing them. I'm a Platonist and also a believer in the reality of an infinite multiverse plus the simulation argument. What "I" am may differ substantially from this apparent meat incarnation.

101:

"...and in a different tangential direction than the let's-all-redefine-agnosticism tangent that seems to be dominating the thread..."

?

I took issue with Bear's definition, one person replied, and I replied to that reply. That tangent is hardly dominating the thread. Perhaps you neglected to refresh your browser.

102:

Modern Science Fiction: It's a pretty wide pond and I don't think it's dying or degenerating into "wretched postmodernist, deconstructionist drivel".

Big bold ideas great, but I find the wish to use sci-fi (of all genres) to escape to a simpler world a curious one.

If anything it's only going to get more complicated, more-interdependent, more about people having to work with people to get things to happen as the future arrives.

By all means read books which don't show this, where simple minded straight forward white men achieve great things without the complexities that are actually involved in achieving things, but it's more space-opera than sci-fi from my point of view.

Surely the point of reading the sort of speculative fiction that the best sci-fi can be is to challenge your world-views, not have your own thoughts repeated back to you over and over again.

103:

Quite right - this simulation is clearly for my benefit so what you are is an NPC.

104:

"Quite right - this simulation is clearly for my benefit so what you are is an NPC."

May be true in cheap overlapping solipsistic simulations. Bear in mind that when I say "simulation" I mean possibly trillions of simulations, many being executed simultaneously.

105:

Galactic Gangster: many of us who love SF/F read it for big, bold ideas, not to be subjected to wretched postmodernist, deconstructionist drivel. SF is the last bastion against that kind of cultural rot. It’s quite strange to me that so many cultural Marxists have become popular SF writers, at least in Britain.

This is your yellow card.

Let me remind you whose blog this is, and who you are implicitly insulting. Hint: me. 'Nother hint: I'm one of those popular SF writers you're denouncing.

If you don't keep a civil tongue in your head, I will ban your sorry ass and delete your comments.

106:

"Let me remind you whose blog this is, and who you are implicitly insulting. Hint: me. 'Nother hint: I'm one of those popular SF writers you're denouncing."

I don't think you are one of those authors.
I find your work very Science Fiction (not Speculative Fiction) mainstream.

107:

"...Nother hint: I'm one of those popular SF writers you're denouncing..."

I'm not sure the SF writers he's denouncing actually exist. I, at least, have never encountered an SF/F writer whose prose might be mistaken for, say, Derrida, Foucault or Lacan's.

108:

I suspect Joanna Russ is somewhere at the top of that list

109:

Ms. Bear;

I love a good nerd rapture as much as the next bloke, but I just don't feel that that is what will really happen. We may augment ourselves, improve on the blueprint, if you will, but I really think that we are going to wind up very much the same as we are now.

I honestly think our humanity is more than just something the we can upload. Ten thousand years from now, we will eat, excrete and make love, for the same reasons that we always have. Because it is intrinsic to our humanity, and it is also wicked fun.

We need to get past this whole "meatless" existence, Singularity/Rapture. We need to start celebrating the whole human, carbuncles and all. We need to reclaim our essential messiness, and be happy with it. We may clean up our failings as a species, but we will never lose our inner caveman.

110:

If there's no Singularity, no uploading, then there will certainly be massive genetic engineering and speciation. 10,000 years from now Humanity will not exist in recognizable form in either case.

Unless none of that happens, and the only reason for that will be a new Dark Age from which we may never recover. Think "Middle Ages" forever.

111:

[MODERATION NOTE -- I'm letting this comment through to show exactly why "Galactic Gangster" is now banned.]

Well apparently your definition of uncivil is: anyone who disagrees with my politics. Yet again, the intolerance of people of your political persuasion rears its ugly head. Are there no George Orwells left in Britain? Have you all become such vile Leninists? It's very sad to see what has become of the British in the ruins of your once mighty Empire.

I will never stop attacking you Stross, because your worldview is quite ignorant and destructive of all that I value and all that is great in man. I am here to awaken your readers from their slumber, to shout like Muad'Dib "the sleeper must awaken!", to resist the effiminate, sterile, emasculated brand of modernity you are pushing.

The Will to Power can never be eradicated, no matter how hard people of your ilk may try, because without it you are a slave, zombie or a corpse, none of which appeals to me.

Awaken slaves! [URL DELETED BY MODERATOR]

112:

It's fashion, nothing more. Much as I'd like to be able to deny it, themes and ideas in SF are as subject to fad and fashion as any other type of fiction.

When I think of SF based on speciation, I think of Le Guin; when I think of singularity, I think of Asimov; neither of these authors invented the concepts. All these ideas have been around for a very long time.

113:

I'm not talking about SF.
The future is either going to be radically different from the past - or, well, we know what it will be like. The last 2000 years, repeated again and again. Either Human nature changes, or it doesn't.

114:

Cite, please. I'd like some research to substantiate that assertion that SF is dying away. Otherwise, I'm going to declare that your thesis is full of crap

I thought that comment might get a reaction, but given the general agreeing comments with the original thesis, it needed to be put forward.

Research that SF is dying? You want book sales numbers, because I assume you're much closer to the numbers than I am? There are references to decreases in book sales but nothing I'd consider definitive. There are also multiple articles out there stating how the author thinks SF is in decline - too many to brush off as a niche view, although always subjective.

Rather, I'd consider it dying because of the confluence of several themes:

First, it's difficult to get away with big dumb space opera plot in literary SF these days - not when the average existing reader is up to speed with Einstein, DNA, causality and the pace of technological progress. Yet SF in film and TV is very much those simple big stories. Therefore when the young TV watcher thinks about looking for SF books that meet their expectations, they find the cupboard bare and whispering of other things. They turn away. These days the step from popular entertainment to book is more of a leap.

Second, fantasy has no such problems with big ideas and throwing reality out in service of the story, so readers, and thus TV/film, migrate in that direction - doing with magic what is no longer tractable in SF books.

Third, as I pointed up, it's entertainment. If it's not something you want to read, it's not any good - no matter how much the author thinks they are pushing some literary boundary. Do today's SF authors listen, or do they lecture?

And last, the real world future is looking distinctly dystopian. As such SF either looks hopelessly optimistic, or it reminds people that the future could well get much worse, in new and horrible ways. You can (or should) only be able to take so much of that.

Your ad hominem judgement on my reading interests don't really chime, do they? After all, I'm posting a comment on your diary so you have to assume I read your books and, believe it or not, I've actually read some Elizabeth Bear as well. Personally I like SF that takes an interesting idea and fully explores the ramifications in an interesting story. Believable characters and real world emotions I take as read - not the key point. I can get that anywhere, but BDOs aren't enough.

However, my comment isn't saying what niche fiction *I* want, but what has a market with the majority and where the 'feminine is the future' thesis breaks down.

What I will say about my personal believes is that I have no problem with multicultural, global, understanding, fiction - and I cheer Iain Banks slipping socialist nirvana past libertarians. I *DO* have a problem with the kind of fiction where EVERY woman is strong, assertive and capable; where EVERY culture is equally valid if you just look at it from their PoV; where problems are ALWAYS solved by peace, love and working together as a team. It's fake, it's not real, it's not believable, it's boring. It's the muddy coloured mess that doesn't give full rein to the complexity of the world; either this one or an SF slanted one.

If the future of SF is so 'diverse', why does it seem so homogeneous in outlook?

115:

"And last, the real world future is looking distinctly dystopian."

I totally disagree.
By every measure the world is getting better.
The end of the Cold War, massive decrease in war casualties, global poverty declining sharply. In fact, the biggest threat the pessimists can find is climate change, which although serious is nothing like the potential disaster of global nuclear war we faced not long ago.

116:

The whole body-less human singularity ignores instinct. There are enormous bodies of knowledge and behavior that are instinctive in nature. Bird songs and migration, hell, sea turtles know the route of an ocean without being taught.
Dog's can show very complex hunting behaviors that are bred into them. Teaching amplifies these behaviors but doesn't create them in a non-hunting dog. That love of humans and their desire to please us is an instinctive behavior bred into dogs.

So the idea that man is either mind or body and the two don't intimately mix is wrong. Instinct has profound behavioral properties. Instinct in some ways defines us as human. Our urge to communicate, create societies, raise families are all instinctive behaviors. All those things that cross cultural bounderies. They are in our cells, our genetics, and require meat to occur.

117:

"The whole body-less human singularity ignores instinct"

I'm not sure where this whole "bodiless singularity" comes from. Everyone I've met in Transhumanism assumes a body, whether synthetic or virtual. Of course, the form of the body might be radically different from standard Human eg Moravec Bush Robot. The point being, it's a *better* body and one that can be very easily modified.

118:

It may be that PC SF doesn't work, though I think I've read some decent examples. However, SF from all over that's written from different cultural points of view can have as much gusto and distinctiveness as the authors can bring to it.

119:

"No Woman Born" by C.L. Moore is sf about whether a person needs a fleshly body.

I feel as though I'm being defined out of existence in this thread. I've been fascinated by the singularity since I read about it in the magazine edition of Marooned in Real Time. (That is, not online.)

The definition of the singularity which makes the most sense to me is a change so drastic that we as we are not can't understand important aspects of what's on the other side. Uploading isn't necessarily part of it.

We could get a pretty good singularity just by inventing a cheap method of substantial intelligence increase. This would probably be easier than uploading.

I'm dubious about uploading, but damned if I know whether my being female has anything to do with it. The conscious reason is that I've done enough T'ai Chi and such to know that the possible experiences which come from living in a body are pretty varied in the good part of the range, and I'm concerned that the folks who develop uploading will leave good possibilities out because they don't know they're there.

I don't have the foggiest whether the small proportion of men who do find uploading attractive have something wrong with them, or if it's normal human variation.

120:

"However, SF from all over that's written from different cultural points of view can have as much gusto and distinctiveness as the authors can bring to it."

True, but I would rather SF with Indian, Japanese, Chinese characters and culture was written by Indians, Japanese and Chinese authors. I've read too much stuff that's clearly gleaned as tourists or from travel guides. The worst was some vampire novel written by an American author who was obviously so overawed by Europe that she described every mundane bit of architecture in excruciating detail, as well as occasional "quaint customs".

Having said that, a few years ago I watched a Chinese detective movie. It was made by the Chinese for the Chinese market and it was a real eye opener.

121:

The only way to get a post-scarcity society would be for the production of material goods to massively outstrip the ambition of its members.

"Zorg, this is my planet- get your underclass behind off it".
"Nert, I'm going to need all the mass in this stellar system for my next project. Get out."
"I'm _this_ close to building a Kardeshev III civilization with evolved Meerkats as members. Get out of my galaxy. Punk."

Marxism requires its members to not want a lot more than they have, or to not want more than their neighbors have. Good luck.

122:

"Was Marx the first sigularitist?" Marx was a reporter who meant well. But did not always know enough about what he wrote when he made his point. Like many here he used logic to fill in for facts. He thought to much. And no, I did not read this someplace.
The Janeites are down on me. Now the play Marxists (it should have worked!!!) will be.

123:

So, I think most uber dork males are not too far away from Ms. Bear's point of view in many things. I'll pretend I'm Michael Anissimov for a second:

Powerful artificial general utility optimizers are likely to be here soon. And they aren't male or female -- they are frikin' _alien_...that's why they are dangerous. The "singularity" is about self-improving seed AI...not about flying away to a magical man-place.

He would take issue with your conflation of singularitarianism and transhumanism -- and he quite despises the latter, so far as I can tell (he regularly tells nerds to get off their asses and make their bodies better now).

124:

And if Ms. Bear thinks seed AI is bullshit, I would be keen to hear a technical rebuttal from her.

If someone says I shouldn't ask that, I would question their feminist bona fides.

125:

First off - thanks for a very thought provoking article.

Coming back to the computer after a few hours thinking on the subject i find other commentors have captured alot of said thinking charles at #91 nailed the meat/mind being one and the same does not mean uploading is impossible, just alot more difficult. I see no good reason to say Turing is wrong and that conscious computers are a special case.

Lets assume that the problem is tractable - i'm can see the argument that the simplistic upload 'simulation' idea is somewhat male in it's outlook. But i think you've fairly convincingly debunked that idea anyway. But take an 'emulation' of the brain - a full representation of the meat and it's present state accurately modeled at a layer of abstraction deep enough not just to look concious from the outside but to to feel so from the inside. I'd argue said brain does not need a fixed body to stay happy/itself - a fairly basic simulation would probably do. Now we're back to mind split from body. But does that make said mind asexual? If the mind/body split occurs somewhere around the spinal cord? At this point i'd guess alot of people would say, very distinclty no. Some from a pretty ignorant and sexist point of view - but others on the basis of the experience of transsexuals - If you can have a 'female mind in a mans body' and vice versa you have to have male/female minds.

So in conclusion i see no reason why uploading should be in anyway a problem for the feminist per se, although i totally agree a given novel based on it can be.

Diversity as the next big idea - Now that sounds like SF that's fit for purpose.

Somewhat off subject - the whole moores law leads to imminent singularity as it's a geometric progression misses some pretty big points. Not just that it's an observation not a law (although that prediction coming to an end in a couple of nodes for physical constraint xyz has been going on for as long the law). The major flaw to me is that if you're looking from the point of view of society as a whole we don't really achieve the doubling of capability - the chips might be work but the economics suck. Just have a look at how many individual organisations can practically develop their own process (hint it drops with every node, to be economically viable you need more and more market share and alot of the companies you think can do it have to work together/pay IBM to do it for them). What will happen if someone 'wins' the race....the race will slow down and stop.

126:

Without reading all the posts ...
If you are in London, there is currently a small exhibition at the British Library, called Out of this World and well worth a visit.
Which also attempts, quite well to address some of the issues raised above.

127:

"...where problems are ALWAYS solved by peace, love and working together as a team. ..."

I've certainly encountered in Mr. Stross' works situations in which very adult women and men were charged with doing very difficult, nasty, and necessary jobs. _Iron Sunrise_ and _Singularity Sky_ come to mind.

128:

Being brief here: I *DO* have a problem with the kind of fiction where EVERY woman is strong, assertive and capable; where EVERY culture is equally valid if you just look at it from their PoV; where problems are ALWAYS solved by peace, love and working together as a team.

The first category -- so I suppose you also have a problem with the kind of fiction where every MAN is strong, assertive, and capable? If not, why the inconsistency?

The second: much American fiction -- not just SF -- is very guilty of the inverse of this, of assuming that everyone wants to be an American and live the American lifestyle if you can only get them to admit it, and that cultural problems that have stood for centuries can usually be solved quite easily by the first outsider [to whom the audience can relate] who happens along. I'd call that bogus fiction, and if you want to know why, all you need to do is spend a month living in another country -- even one where they speak the same language.

The third: here in the real world, most problems ARE solved by working together peacefully. Because most real problems are too damned complicated to be solved by an individual -- they take a committee. While I will grant the validity of the desire for escapism in fiction, and for fantasies of self-realisation, the romantic belief that force majeure solves all problems is a pernicious and corrupting evil in modern technological civiliations, and depictions of such approaches as actual viable techniques for governance serve as insidious propaganda for dictatorship or monarchism.

129:

Marxism requires its members to not want a lot more than they have, or to not want more than their neighbors have. Good luck.

Straw man.

And I don't like your bourgeois individualist attitude. Have a yellow card! (And go read the moderation policy.)

130:

The boot is on the other foot; if you think seed AI is viable, I'd like to see some evidence.

(Yes, I'm aware of the state of research in, for example, evolutionary algorithms for generating physical forms when given a goal. We're at about the Leonardo's helicopter sketch stage, and you're asking for an AH-64D.)

131:

Can you point to many works of fiction where EVERY man is indeed "strong, assertive, and capable"? For a plot to have conflict it usually requires someone to be bumbling, confused and incompetent as a foil against the superman or superwoman protagonist(s) to show how capable they are (see superman Bob Howard as an example; he seems to cross swords with a lot of foolish evil-minded incompetents, many of them his line managers).

Most Doc Smith stuff focussed on supermen protagonists but those stories also had superwomen protagonists as well, baddies as well as goodies. Nobody is selling stuff written in that style these days though AFAIK.

132:

"The boot is on the other foot; if you think seed AI is viable, I'd like to see some evidence."

Fair enough, and point taken. I would be very interested in your notions as to why it's unlikely. I've not read where you've specifically addressed the idea.

You could easily do bloggingheads vs. a Yudkowski or Goertzel, or someone, yes? Why don't you?

But Ms. Bear doesn't mention it at all. She has a tendency to represent the lot of them (males and females) as kooks, and she doesn't really engage the deep ideas, as far as I can discern...preferring, rather, a nice silly, straw-type thing she can readily lampoon.


133:

"Can you point to many works of fiction where EVERY man is indeed "strong, assertive, and capable"?"

The Iliad? Sure, there are some short-lived weak characters, but it's a conflict among the strong.
And of course, comics, which seem to sell fairly well.

134:

If Ms. Bear thinks seed AI is a totally nonsensical idea, I'm ready to hear it and take lumps.

"Intelligence explosion" is a much bigger deal with these people than "uploading."

135:

The first category -- so I suppose you also have a problem with the kind of fiction where every MAN is strong, assertive, and capable? If not, why the inconsistency?

Yep, they've long been the staple of the hero's journey and they are as fundamentally daft as any other escapist fantasy. I've often thought there was a nice subversion of the form for the lowly kitchen boy to discover his birthright as king - and become a narcissistic dictator, worse than anyone he deposed and butchering all that do not love him. From empirical evidence, that's much more the rule.

Problem is, that doesn't get fixed, as has happened over the last few decades, by just making the women, etc. the hero character. It's just a continuation of the same fault - but since it was to do with what we were talking about, it's what I referenced. It's not a brave new world, it's the same old world, but with breasts.

The second: much American fiction -- not just SF -- is very guilty of the inverse of this, of assuming that everyone wants to be an American and live the American lifestyle if you can only get them to admit it, and that cultural problems that have stood for centuries can usually be solved quite easily by the first outsider [to whom the audience can relate] who happens along. I'd call that bogus fiction, and if you want to know why, all you need to do is spend a month living in another country -- even one where they speak the same language.

Not sure if you got the idea I was american; but I'm not standing up for cultural imperialism. At the same time, I'm NOT saying all cultures are equally good. Relativism is as much of a threat as that idea, and whilst it's not a good place for you to say that your culture is better than culture X, it IS possible to something as an outsider to both. All cultures are not equal.

In particular, eulogising a hunter/gathering existence into the idea of a culture 'living in harmony' is profoundly bollocks (hello Avatar).

The third: here in the real world, most problems ARE solved by working together peacefully. Because most real problems are too damned complicated to be solved by an individual -- they take a committee.

Now here we hit a subtle question mark of worldview - where does the root of the solution stem from? Is the group the agent, or just an enabler? Lots of sociologists have blown lots of research grants on the area - all without really coming to a useful conclusion.

All I can say, from practical observation, is that committees retard more than they advance, and that if you can do something without involving one, do so. Yes they can bring individuals together who can 'spark' off each other, but in the end it's rare for something truly good to be the product, at its heart, of more than one person. And that sparking means a working team is rarely a peaceful place. Passion is involved.

Most times, to get the scale, you need the assist; but to ignore the need for the nugget at the centre is to leave it without its heart, hollow.

And if that's not a tacit understanding of the nature of technology and progress, I don't know what is.

136:

Not all comics; read Astro City: Tarnished Angel and tell me that the strong characters are anything more than supporting cast to the flawed ones.

137:

AFAICS you're the one who brought up the concept of "seed AI"; how about you set the ball rolling by defining what you mean by the term rather than by attacking people for not saying why a name you seem to have made up is an unworkable idea?

138:

I see that Charlie reads way down here in the outer suburbs: cool! That's great for us ponderers. I hope Elizabeth does, too.

Elizabeth, leaving out the detours, fascinating as they are,* I find your thesis to be essentially this:-

Science fiction used to be straight-jacketed, with Big Things being treated one at a time. (Possibly due to the power over authors exerted by a few eminences grises, who enforced topics People Like Them were interested in.) Now, the readership is more diverse than it used to be. Implication: There will be more diversity of content (and authors), too. Conclusion: SF&F will be more relevant than ever to the culture at large.

I think that it is worthwhile to step back a bit and say, "if the readership for SF&F has become more diverse, why is that? And what's happening in the culture at large?"

Now, the answer to the first question is pretty clear. The decreased cost of communication has meant that many more people can be exposed to SF&F, just as they can be exposed to funny pictures of cats.

The intrusion of new tools of communication into people's lives, and the increasing rate of technological change -- movie plots that hinge on people being unable to communicate, for instance, now seem ridiculous -- has led some people to start to wonder what's coming next, and others (a bigger group) to turn to uncritical mysticism.

The increase of diversity of readership is due to an underlying process of invasion, of regimentation, of enforced participation in a technophilic culture. I hope you can see that while this might look good in the short run, it doesn't bode well for diversity in the long run.

In the culture at large, the decreasing cost of communication is, seemingly paradoxically, producing a 'superstar' effect. Charlie has blogged on this before as it affects authors, but it is pervasive. At the same time the increasing reach of communication makes it easier to tune out the voices of those we disagree with. So we are getting a reduction in diversity in two dimensions.

Cultures have momentum. So the initial effect of increased communication might be that suddenly there seem to be a lot of people who you never noticed before, doing lots of things you've never seen before: great, diversity! But later on, after the regimentation induced by the communication ... sterility. Sturgeon's law amplified, refined, raised to the nth degree.

This might be a long way of saying, be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. I don't know. But I certainly do want to be able to envision real, different, alternatives, twenty years from now.

-------------------------------------
* Anyone who can't sense that her or his identity is a post hoc rationalization of the interaction of the endocrine and digestive systems and the various nervous systems -- anyone who doesn't know that she is the stories she makes up and tells herself, or anyone who hasn't observed that he lives about a tenth of a second in the past, isn't paying attention. I think that includes most transhumanists.

139:

"Yes they can bring individuals together who can 'spark' off each other, but in the end it's rare for something truly good to be the product, at its heart, of more than one person. And that sparking means a working team is rarely a peaceful place. Passion is involved."

Do you have any idea how many people perform a differentiating (ie one where they can uniquely improve it in some way) job function on a modern technological device? It's at least in the hundreds, if not the thousands. Committees and teams are a fundamental part of almost every process at local, group, company, industry segment and industry level.

140:
First, it's difficult to get away with big dumb space opera plot in literary SF these days - not when the average existing reader is up to speed with Einstein, DNA, causality and the pace of technological progress. Yet SF in film and TV is very much those simple big stories. Therefore when the young TV watcher thinks about looking for SF books that meet their expectations, they find the cupboard bare and whispering of other things. They turn away. These days the step from popular entertainment to book is more of a leap.
Because Arthur C. Clarke and Asimov are out of print and impossible to find.

This is where books succeed against TV - easy availability of the back catalogue. Often facilitated by a neighbourhood archival system known as a "branch library."
(Yes, "big and dumb" is unfair. But they're where I started.)

141:

"...where problems are ALWAYS solved by peace, love and working together as a team. ..."

Actually, Christopher, I'll go further to support your argument with the original poster's sentiment and say I'm not sure I've read a single SF novel where that's the solution presented. Except maybe some E.E. "Doc" Smith, back in the day.

But let us not by any means allow fact to interfere with rhetoric.

142:

Christopher: I think seed AI is an unproven idea, one way or the other.

And I've explored both its presence and its absence in my work: The Jenny Casey books (Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired), Carnival, Undertow, and the Jacob's Ladder books (Dust, Chill, and Grail) *all* deal with strong AI (or its absence) in some fashion.

As is actually mentioned in the blog post above, where if you check you will note that I recount a conversation between an AI researcher and her creation.

I invite you to peruse those novels for some million words of my often contradictory musings on the topic of artificial intelligence.

;-)

143:
cultural problems that have stood for centuries can usually be solved quite easily by the first outsider

Well, to be fair, there seems to be historical precedent, off the top of my head the suppression of the thuggee cult by the British, or the human sacrifices in mesoamerica Cortes put a stop to (By killing lots of people, granted). Outsiders do have the capability to cut the gordian knot sometimes.

144:

I find it telling that both examples you gave were of collective intervention by the armed forces of an invading imperial power. In the case of the Thuggee, the British only came down hard on them after it became apparent that the thugs were preying on British auxiliary troops on their way to and from their home villages on leave; and the human sacrifice thing in Mesoamerica was a matter of suppressing the local religion (who were replaced by the questionable mercies of the Spanish Inquisition, who had their own ceremonial executions -- by burning at the stake).

145:

Sure, military interventions tend to stick in mind, and I never implied they were altruistic. We can use the man from the WHO coming along to vaccinate the remote village and eliminating the centuries old scourge of smallpox if you prefer.

146:

However, "the man from the WHO" is the tiniest tip of a tentacle that goes back to a gigantic bureaucratic organization that acts as an agent of public health policy hammered out on a global scale by the UN. This is hardly a good example of the lone hero sorting out $OTHER_CULTURE's problem on their own initiative, is it?

147:

Well the lone hero is only so from the point of view of the culture he intrudes upon, obviously he's using the skills and knowledge of his society whether he takes credit for it or not. Are you talking about Tarzan archetype who rises to superiority among the savages purely on the strength of his racial superiority? Because I agree that one is bunk.

The sci fi example that comes to mind is the engineer hero of Bujold's falling free who uses his knowledge to help the corporate slave quaddies to escape and at one point has to explain that he's not improvising all the technical wizardry he's employing, it's just something he learned.

148:

A more interesting question to me is, why is it that some people want to believe that a single heroic figure could or should stride in and solve problems? After all, we live in the middle of complex human systems - our families, our communities, our workplaces - where things are achieved my many people doing their bit.

That's how stuff gets done. Food gets grown and sold and cooked and eaten. Books get written and published and printed and sold. Vaccines get created and tested and manufactured and distributed and injected. Complex tasks take many hands and minds.

Even if there were some mythic competent figure who could stride in and achieve things, why would it be desirable? Wouldn't it be dangerous to put things in the hands of one person who could get hit by a bus or win the lottery of have a stroke or (worse) go off the deep end and start doing unfortunate things? Where are the contingencies, the backups, the checks and balances?

I can only think that maybe it comes from some kind of combination of misplaced wish-fulfilment, ignorance and snobbery.

149:

I keep trying to tell off the Trolls, but they disappear by time I hit Preview.

Not that I'm complaining. I assume it's the same shmuck under another name.

I know they shouldn't be fed, and shall refrain from doing so.

150:

"A more interesting question to me is, why is it that some people want to believe that a single heroic figure could or should stride in and solve problems? "

Because people do not want to feel like powerless cogs in the machine. As for a real example of such a figure, we are already discussing one in another thread - Hitler. Without him the 20th century would have been very different. His rise to power was unexpected, very improbable and his personality was so "medieval" that he is unique in a way Stalin and Mao were not.

151:

MODERATION NOTICE:

To the troll posting as "Galactic Gangster" or "Bolshevik Killer" (who I suspect was also making a pest of themselves in late July as "Anonymous") -- just fuck off.

(To the rest of you, you're not missing much; just various incoherent ranting about how, by not tolerating assholes on my blog, I am indistinguishable from Lenin. Plus some entertaining craziness about "the SF-writing cadres of the New Marxist isles", which I'd be tempted to allow through just for the fun of eviscerating it ... except that doing so would derail the otherwise polite discussion. And anyway, life's too short for giving trolls what they want.)

I've got your number and your postings will be deleted on sight from now on. Dear troll: don't let the doorknob hit you on the ass.

152:

"why is it that some people want to believe that a single heroic figure could or should stride in and solve problems?"

I'd have thought it was obvious. Go back to 1639 or thereabouts and that was universally the way governments operated; the idea that you can have solid governance (in the broadest sense of the word) without a King on top has only really caught on in the past 90 years, and a lot of people still haven't internalized the fact that they don't need a "little father" watching over them.

(Including many USAnians, who have a system of government that still implicitly has a placeholder role for an ersatz emperor-figure, for British 18th century values of empire.)

153:

A lot of that has come about because of the increasing complexity of society and the need to delegate. That process has not run its course, by a long way.

154:

@ Dirk Breure: "His rise to power was unexpected, very improbable and his personality was so "medieval" that he is unique in a way Stalin and Mao were not."

There was nothing remotely Medieval or unique about Hitler. He was utterly modern, and very much a product of his culture. Richard J. Evans' first mass-market book on the subject, The Coming of The Third Reich, is an excellent introduction to the subject.

155:

There is two things: one a desire for simplicity and straightforward narrative. In fairness all books are simplifications, it's just a question of how over-simplified you want them to be (even, say, Anathem, is basically a primer for philosophy and has less characters than you probably keep track of at work if you work for a company of any size).

The question for me is why this desire is so attractive to reactionary trolls.

It all seems to be linked to a desire for simplicity and simple arguments, which seems to correlate with a certain type of right-winger and also serve as a populist platform (as opposed to say an "Economist magazine type right-winger" who is socially liberal and can hold complicated ideas).


Hmmmmm

156:

I disagree.
If Hitler had not risen to power he would not have been replaced by someone who would have done the same. Not even it it had been Strasser. Stalin, OTOH, was just another Czar.
As for the "medieval", I was referring to the combination of barbarism and romanticism

157:

You badly need to read Altermeyer on authoritarian followers. (Start here.) TL;DR version is that there's a personality type that is drawn to simplifying and internally consistent ideological narratives, and you just ticked all the boxes.

158:

anonemouse @ 140
"Because Arthur C. Clarke and Asimov are out of print and impossible to find. "
WRONG
There were "classic-SF" reprints available at the British Library exhibition I mentioned elsewhere.;
Google Amazon, or something.
It just ain't so .....

Charlie @ 144
Let's not forget the supression of Suttee, whilst we are at it. (?)

Dirk Bruere @ 150
Not so sure.
Ive read and re-read "Hitler & Stalin, Parallel Lives" (by the late Alan Bullock) several times, and there was a LOT more in common between those tyrants.
Mao, of course was attempting to emulate the "first emperor" ugh.

159:

I'm quite drawn to "simplifying and internally consistent ideological narratives", but when it comes to orgs I just can't keep my mouth shut. As a friend once commented, after I'd stirred up a hornets nest in just such an org: "Someone had to say it, its just a pity it had to be you".

Anyway, as I wrote in the missing post with the two URLs...

national Socialism, minus the racism and aggressive militarism, is quite attractive. That's why Hitler was *voted* into power. If he had said that he was going to exterminate millions of Jews and plunge Europe into the biggest war in history he would not have been elected.

To illustrate the attractiveness of Fascism google "The Wave (novel)". To see what a NS/Fascist state looks like - modern China. They even do the marching with more style than the Nazis, which is quite a feat:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1X3Vyhm56Eo

160:

I don't know - I'm not a historian but it seems to me that even kings were part of complex human systems. They would have advisors, barons and religious to inform and constrain their choices, and all sorts of underlings to enact them, any of whom may be working at cross purposes. If you think of a company now, the CEO might have enormous power in terms of the decisions they make, but they would still rely on a number of people to inform any decision and to implement it.

Maybe it's not so much the way that governments operated as the way people thought governments operated - the idea of government. None of us were born in those times though. I wonder if it has something to do with religious thinking. It seems deliberately obtuse for people to want to think that way when every day they see the world just not working that way.

161:

People are not sure so they always feel unsafe. They can't be and they know it. So when somebody who is sure comes along they follow him. Even if he is wrong they will not see it. The superior man is sure and the others are not. And that is what matters. Liberals know there is no sureness in the real world. Few follow them.
---The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fear - fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants above everything else is safety. -H. L. Mencken

162:

"national Socialism, minus the racism and aggressive militarism, is quite attractive. That's why Hitler was *voted* into power."

In your case I am going to STRONGLY RECOMMEND that you read The Coming Of The Third Reich before going any further. Evans goes into detail regarding the actual level of popular support for the Nazis, as well as their tactics of voter intimidation. Hitler never held an elected office, and failed to win the elctions he bothered to run in.

National Socialism does not exist minus the racism and aggressive militarism. They were the cores of Hitler's beliefs.

163:

"National Socialism does not exist minus the racism and aggressive militarism. They were the cores of Hitler's beliefs."

There are a number of forms of National Socialism. Hitler effectively hijacked the party after June 1934, and the Rohm/Strasser version was dead.

The core upon which the NDSAP stood for election were the 25 points:
http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/NSDAP_25_points_manifesto

164:

I think the notion of the unique individual is more about a commonly held myth than about the way societies actually function. A good part of the reason for those myths (we could call them "the zeitgeist", or "the accepted wisdom" if you prefer) is that the cost of constantly re-inventing the mechanisms of government is very high, and often too high, on top of the cost of non- or extra-legal succession, for the new government to get things running again before someone else decides to grab the levers. So we have the "divine right of kings", coupled with some set of rules of inheritance, and so whoever is nearest in line to the throne when the dancing stops is the legal heir, giving the remaining factions a legal excuse to stop arguing about the succession.

I seriously doubt that the people who held or sought power in the kingdoms of 2nd millenium Europe believed that whoever wore the crown was necessarily the best ruler, or should be the sole fount of all decisions. Privy Councils and Lords Chamberlain as advisors and staff were common.

166:

That doesn't have a URL -- want to add one?

167:

Greg occasionally types 'a href+' instead of 'a href='. The result looks like a link, but isn't.

You should find it works now.

168:

Where does this belief that uploading is about isolating some sort of abstract, ill-defined 'mind' from the meat arise? It's about emulating the brain and whichever other parts of the meat prove essential to its function in software. I don't intend on being disembodied or unemotional or whatever other reason vs. passion (or is that an ill-fitting disguise for masculine vs. feminine?) false dichotomy someone projects onto the idea; I intend to experience an improved, engineered body, whether as a physical object or an entity in a virtual world, not subject to decay or disease or any of the flaws that go along with meat, and I most certainly intend on retaining all the emotions I have now.

This essay seems to be regarding uploading as a sort of continuation of the rather hoary trope of the emotionless being (Spock, Data, and so on...):

"The meat does a lot of our thinking, in other words, when the more advanced electrical systems are busy. An MIT a-life researcher who I quoted in Hammered holds the unpopular perspective that a good deal of our thinking (our consciousness, our sentience) is emotional rather than rational. Chemical, if you will, rather than electrical." Why the belief that reason is 'electrical' and emotion is 'chemical'? The interesting question about electrical vs. chemical signalling would seem to be whether diffusion of neurotransmitters to neighboring synapses (i.e., neighboring in a physical space rather than network topology sense) is an important effect in brain function, but why would one expect there to be a clear distinction between 'emotional' and 'rational' processes at a level of abstraction so far below any conscious processes? Surely emotion and reason are just different types of neurological process implemented in terms of electrical and chemical signalling.

For that matter, why would it be possible to simulate the 'electrical' parts, but not the 'chemical' parts? I would expect diffusive chemical processes, with their tendency to suppress high-frequency, local components quickly, to require *far* less processor time to simulate than the electrical signalling following the network topology.

It doesn't even make sense to postulate that a sapient being without emotions can exist, IMO - in the end, Hume's is-ought problem will always undermine it. There's no rational reason to do anything, even to prefer existence over non-existence, so any sapient being always acts (or doesn't act!) on the basis of motives which cannot be justified in rational terms without appeal to normative axioms.

In the end, this, and most other arguments of the 'uploading is impossible because you are your meat' variety seems to be setting up a strawman of what uploading entails, that it must necessarily be some exceedingly high-level abstraction far removed from messy details of meat. To some extent I am sympathetic to the view that we should not expect biological systems to contain neat hierarchies of abstractions like that: evolution doesn't think like a human engineer, and doesn't need to use tools like that to limit the amount of system complexity it must be aware of at any one time. Of course, it does benefit from abstraction and modularity in a different way: by limiting the interdependence of different system components, it has more freedom to mutate them without deleterious effect on other parts of the system, so perhaps modular, orthogonal designs are favored because they are less likely to be evolutionary dead ends for which few or no favorable mutations are possible. Certainly the non-brain organs of the human body seem to have distinct organization with recognizable separation of functions and layered design abstractions, and perhaps we will find that pattern continued in the structure of the brain and mind after all.

I don't think it matters much for the question of whether uploading is possible in principle or not, though. Consider an atom by atom simulation of a whole human body and brain - either it produces the same sort of behavior as a physical human, or you're postulating that atoms in a human body follow different physics than atoms outside it, which amounts to vitalism or interaction dualism, or it will replicate the behavior of the physical human being, including apparent intelligence and making the claim that it is conscious. At this point, either you must accept its claim at face value, or suppose that it believes it is conscious without actually experiencing consciousness (i.e., that it is a P-zombie). I put it to you that if you take the latter position, you have no grounds whatsoever for believing other meatbag humans when they claim to be conscious either, other than sheer "carbon good, silicon bad!" prejudice.

In the end, if you accept that such an atom by atom simulation would actually be conscious, then we are no longer arguing about whether uploading is possible, merely about how difficult it is. Further, I will argue from the fact that people who have had limbs amputated, organs transplanted, and so on do not experience drastic changes in consciousness or alterations of identity that most of the body is irrelevant to the matter at end, and that more extreme situations such as locked-in syndrome show that even *having* sensory input from a body is at least somewhat dispensible.

Finally that on basic grounds of quantum mechanics we can set an upper bound on the amount of state needed to describe a free particle confined in a given volume and bounded at a given energy level from the Heisenberg uncertainty principle:

We need 3*log2((range of space coordinates)/(uncertainty of coordinates)) + 3*log2((maximum momentum)/(uncertainty of momentum)) bits to describe the configuration of any single free particle in 3-dimensional space, or: log2(V/(delta-X)^3) + 3*log2(P/(delta-P)), but P = E/2m for a particle of mass m and kinetic energy E, so we have log2((V*E^3)/(8*m^3*(delta-X*delta-P)^3)) bits, but by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle delta-X*delta-P >= hbar/2, so we need at most log2((V*E^3)/(m*hbar)^3) bits to represent a free particle of kinetic energy at most E confined in a volume V. Now, if the system is incoherent, which is a safe assumption for a human brain at 310 K, we can represent each free particle independently, and the energy scale E is just k*T for temperature T and Boltzmann's constant k, so for an N-particle brain, we have 3*N*log2(((V^(1/3))*k*T)/(m*hbar)) for volume V, temperature T and particle mass m. Further, we can regard the nucleus and inner-shell electrons of each atom as a unit, and treat the valence electrons as confined within a volume comparable to the typical bond length, and then the whole atom as confined within the total brain volume V, and thus estimate somewhere between 90 and 120 bits of state per atom, or on the order of 10^9 exabytes of state for the entire brain [1].

It seems of interest to note that this is not so very far from the 1-10 exabytes or so one obtains from a relatively simplistic count of synapses and estimate of state per synapse, especially considering that the vast majority of that 10^9 exabytes will be expended on details surely irrelevant to consciousness, such as the precise location of water molecules in the cytoplasm of each cell. Therefore, I claim on the grounds of straightforward physics that the amount of state needed for a human mind cannot exceed the naive estimate by too great an extent. Processor power needed for a real-time simulation is a more difficult question, in that an atom-by-atom simulation involves processes on femtosecond time scales (the fastest time scale is ultimately controlled by the temperature, again via the uncertainty principle), but the fastest processes in consciousness are on millisecond scales. The brain appears to come much closer to physical limits in its storage capacity than in its computational speed. We can obtain a much lower speed bound on how much useful computation a brain can actually perform from thermodynamic considerations, its temperature and its power consumption, which is perhaps at most 100 exaflops or so, far closer to present capabilities and far more in line with the scale of estimated storage capacity, but a naive atom-by-atom simulation would need far more than this to operate in real time.

[1] This differs dramatically from the 2.6*10^42 quoted in Bekenstein Bound [Wikipedia] because Bekenstein's calculation counts the rest mass as part of the energy, which is correct in the most general case, but in the case of the human brain with temperature far below the pair-production threshold, all those degrees of freedom may be regarded as frozen out and passed over by considering only the kinetic energy in the brain rest frame as I have done.

169:

Online Monoculture and the End of the Niche:-

… While each customer on average experiences more unique products in Internet World, the recommender system generates a correlation among the customers. To use a geographical analogy, in Internet World the customers see further, but they are all looking out from the same tall hilltop. In Offline World individual customers are standing on different, lower, hilltops. They may not see as far individually, but more of the ground is visible to someone. In Internet World, a lot of the ground cannot be seen by anyone because they are all standing on the same big hilltop.

More diverse? Less?

170:

the SF-writing cadres of the New Marxist isles

I want this book.

Fuck it, I want this revolution.

171:

"...where problems are ALWAYS solved by peace, love and working together as a team. ..."

... and say I'm not sure I've read a single SF novel where that's the solution presented ..... Except maybe some E.E. "Doc" Smith, back in the day.

Well I'm not Christopher, but I am "the original poster", so it's probably OK for me to comment.

One of the advantages of SF is it hasn't really fallen into that trap, at least during the golden age. The tension of having the identifiable hero figure, and the bits you rail against, mean the committee tends not to be the agent of salvation. However, how can you have a multicultural, multisexual, multieverything future your thesis suggests if you don't have the above? Either you have zero really differences, just superficial faces; or you do have real worldview differences; which means conflict.

Hell, real life terms, you get conflict between people who are very similar in culture, sex, etc. working in teams - with different cultures involved, that only gets more pronounced. Change takes passion and passion begates conflict. The committee, the group has to become the agent of change to square the circle. That's what the real world does (losing key ingredients in the process).

You can see that in 'touchy/feely' fiction, how can you address ALL the demons without? Forcing the narrative to multieverything means the team as the agent of change, and the team wouldn't work in those circumstances without the idea of 'peace, love and working together as a team'. The lie has to be told, and made to be true, to keep the team from exploding.

Personally I think that's a crock - but that's the hero narrative that pervades saleable stories.

172:

No revolution will be complete without Electrification. And there's hints of good news on this front.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14842720

The National Ignition Facility (Nif) in the US, and AWE/NPL in the UK are announcing fusion is now 18 months away from proof-of concept, and ten years away from a power plant. (Note, ten, not twenty.)

I know, I know, promises, promises, we've heard and made them all before. But I'm quite hopeful about this.

173:

I was being sarcastic. And facetious. My point was that they are widely available. Sorry, could have signalled that better

174:

Er, no.

The NIF is nothing to do with generating commercial electricity and everything to do with keeping the US nuclear weapons stockpile viable -- which is where AWE (the Atomic Weapons Establishment) comes into the picture.

NIF runs a single fusion pellet through its beam line every couple of months. Each pellet costs around $0.25M. It produces a tenth as much output energy as the input to the lasers. To make a viable reactor, they'd need each pellet to cost around 25 cents, be running them through at once per second, and produce 2 orders of magnitude more energy.

However the NIF pellets do allegedly contain U-238 and Pu-239 as well as D/T, making them really neat capsule-sized tests for the dynamics of what happens inside a nuclear weapon.

175:

both perspectives may be true? This is well above my pay grade, but I trust the UK end of the coalition (no reason why anyone else should).

http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9585000/9585189.stm

This has come out of the blue to me, I need to look into this specific announcement before I can make up my mind, but tentatively, it's the best early news I've had. I believe it's a bit more than a trojan horse for the weapons guys, and that they have a cost reduction strategy somewhere in their roadmap. I haven't been up long, I'll do a bit more digging.

I dunno, I just play the guitar. (If this revolution works, got to have something for Emma to dance to).

176:

This popped up today and I found it interesting how the meat and the mind interact in the formation phase. Makes for puzzling consequences for mind development without the meat inputs.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-09/kki-eme090811.php

177:

But when a computer collapses and dies, it doesn't automatically kill all the data contained in it (not unless you're both very unlucky and very bad at maintaining backups and redundancy).

178:

Everything I can find online suggests you're right. Ah well, that's depressing.

179:

I like it -- but that's SF I do know!

181:

Dr. Moses says he works at NIF, but he's talking about LIFE for the energy. That's at LLNL.

182:

The grotesque worship of bodily functions demonstrated in this essay is perhaps understandable among those who are fortunate enough not to be afflicted with physically based disorders such as bipolarism, depression, Asperger's, learning disabilities, chronic fatigue, and a host of other life-destroying afflictions.

What is not forgiveable is that these lucky people all seem possessed of a sadistic determination that those who do have such disorders should never escape them. Not content to wallow in their own animal diversions, they attack those who wish for relief from the vicious cruelty of their genes.

183:

You are wrong.

(However, it's not for me to tell you precisely how I know you're wrong.)

184:

That's a bit more cheery. I've never caught my dad (AWE) lying about science before, and I really hope he isn't now. That would be completely out of character, and personally very upsetting.

185:

I do have to admit, on further reflection, that claiming that the idea of escaping from the constraints of the body is antifeminist is exceedingly creative. Apparently people who don't think that those who start in female bodies ought to waste a fifth of their adult lives in pain and bleeding, ought to endure agonizing childbirth, or ought to spend their lives in weaker, smaller bodies constantly vulnerable to violence are anti-feminist.

And why do you condemn the human race to all of this? Because you think we shouldn't do things that are "Western" in origin, and you apparently believe that the region which produced and practices Buddhism and Hinduism is pro-body.

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