Back to: Swirling/writing (2): shugyo | Forward to: Swirling/writing (3): When I Was Stephen King

I am the Very Model of a Singularitarian

I suggested in an earlier post that foresight is not so much about prediction as it's about designing against surprise. Key to this is the exploration of multiple futures, which is why scenario-based foresight is so commonly practiced. Scenarios are rarely developed in isolation, but are usually created in decks(generally of four, when one uses the common 2X2 matrix method of generating them). These are then intended as snapshots taken in different points of a complex space of possibilities.

The opposite of scenarios is the default future, which is what everybody assumes is going to happen. If life is what happens to you while you're making other plans, the real future is what happens to you after you've planned for the default future. A classic example of what you get when you plan for the default future is the Maginot Line.

In a 1998 article in the journal Futures, "Futures Beyond Dystopia," Richard Slaughter critiques science fiction's default futures. He accuses SF of oscillating between naive techno-optimism and equally naive apocalypticism. Late 20th century SF lacks the necessary spectrum of intermediate scenarios, according to Slaughter, which may explain its decreasing hold on the public imagination. What we are left with is two default futures, and no societal capacity to plan for a third. This is an idea worth serious contemplation by those of us who write the stuff.

Sometimes, too, our scenarios grow so elaborate that they become more than scenarios--they're complete paradigms. They become default modes of thinking, and come with associated cultures, champions and institutions. At this point, presenting alternatives becomes increasingly difficult; one must present, not just new scenarios, but an entirely new paradigm to complement the reigning one.

May people, particularly in the foresight community, believe that a shift from scenario to paradigm is what's happened to the idea of the Technological Singularity. It's become the new default future--no longer the shocking, thought-provoking alternative to an orthodoxy, but the very orthodoxy itself. Against this, it's no longer sufficient to simply present different scenarios. We need an alternative paradigm (or two, or six).

I've been working on some.

If the Singularity is our new Maginot Line, what's the future equivalent of a line of panzers running right over it? Since scenarios are often productively built around oppositions, I'll suggest an opposite worldview to the Singularity--one that makes opposite assumptions.

The Singularity emerges from the idea that a steady and geometric increase in computing power will result in superhuman intelligence emerging rapidly and drawing with it a geometric increase in industrial and technological progress and scientific understanding; and that this sudden explosion of change is by definition unimaginable to beings of lesser intelligence, such as humans. Hence, the singularity, that place that we mere mortals cannot go. We await the Kwisatz Haderach of AI to lead us through it.

The Singularity is actually an intermeshing set of beliefs about technology, intelligence, and about what drives technological, economic and social change. It's a self-supporting system of ideas, which is what makes it a paradigm and not merely a scenario. And, as I said, paradigms are not to be simply denied or affirmed. (Even the primary champions of the Singularity are not true believers: if you'd like to see Vernor Vinge, Charlie, Aleister Reynolds and me dismantle its mythological structure, watch this video.) However since it's just one vision of the future, it is wise to have others. One that I have been working on is something I call the Rewilding.

The Rewilding isn't so much a scenario as it's an alternative package of assumptions. For instance, the name: the original meaning of the word 'wild' was 'self-willed.' So, this is a set of ideas about a world that is self-willed, rather than willed by agencies (i.e. intelligences whether mortal, artificial, or divine). I gave a little introductory talk about it at OSCON a couple of years ago, and you can find that here. The deep logic of the Singularity is that intelligence (or, for many people, consciousness) has a magical transformative power; the even deeper mythos under that notion is the idea of agency--that the dew on the morning grass must be painted there by fairies; that the regular orbits of the planets must be ordained by God; or that the design we see in Nature is the result of a Designer. In its most refined, philosophical form, the Singularity imagines the creation by Man of a semi-divine Designer that renders a transcendent and unknowable future.

The Rewilding is a vision of radical removal of agency from the world: the flowers bedew themselves, nobody ordered the motion of the planets, not even the mysterious agency known as Scientific Law; evolution is design without a designer, computing is thought without a thinker, and there is no mathematical reality separate from the physical world. In the Rewilding, civilization advances by systematically blurring or even erasing the border between the artificial and the natural; the more efficient an artificial system is, the more it resembles (or even is) a natural one. That is, our surroundings becomes increasingly wild (self-willed) rather than having to be willed by us. Agency, so long marching forward, begins to retreat.

The deep logic of this radically Copernican view is that intelligence (agency) is not a magically transformative power that stands outside nature and ordains how it should move; as I've suggested since my 2002 novel Permanence, intelligence is no more than what we mean when we say, 'look, that thing is acting intelligently.' The more you try to pin down what intelligence is, the more elusive it becomes, and this is because, as Brian Cantwell Smith has argued in great detail, there is no actual difference between computing and other forms of activity. To put it another way, agency is an illusion. Mind is always embodied, and everything that we think is transcendent, is actually part of some embodied and evolved strategy. Most importantly, the Rewilding is a critique of the notion that intelligence and computation are equivalent.

These ideas are intended to mesh together and reinforce one another in the same way that the notions of geometric growth, the evidence of Moore's Law, and computing theory reinforce one another in the paradigm of the Singularity. For instance, to get to the Rewilding, a good SF writer (or futurist) need only posit that the following are true:

  • Radical embodied cognitive science, and the Extended Mind theories of Clarke et al.;
  • Science itself is an instance of distributed cognition in which physical measuring instruments participate in the actual activity of thinking about the natural world;
  • The account of mathematics that precludes the possibility of a separate mathematical reality, as described in Where Mathematics Comes From;
  • Ecological design (i.e. methods such as biomimicry and systems-thinking solutions such as ecosystem services) becomes the preferred development paradigm for our civilization;
  • Brian Cantwell Smith's vast theoretical argument that computing is not an activity distinct enough to warrant its own theory;
  • My revision of Clarke's Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Nature;
  • Universal Selection Theory's implication that all problem-solving strategies ultimately reduce to variations on natural selection.

What all of these lines of thought add up to is the assertion that no amount of intelligence can act as the primary driver of change in our world. As I've proposed in my forthcoming novel Ashes of Candesce, consciousness is the passenger, and values are the driver; and values are ultimately determined by our physical form.

Of course, all of these ideas could be wrong; it's not my job to determine that. The point of this exercise is to bring together a coherent set of theories and perspectives that together constitute a broad-enough worldview to make a good second paradigm for the future--one worthy of being placed next to the Singularity in our planning toolkit. This second perspective allows us to avoid the complacency of the 'default future' and start triangulating on the future.

There's no reason to stop here. Ideally, I'd like to see a whole spectrum of paradigmatic scenarios of the future. The more we have, the better our advance planning for what will inevitably turn out to be a new world of surprises.



very interesting indeed. My understanding of the singularity concept has always been at odds with my understanding of entropy and how it relates to the development of life (i.e. lifeforms are the structures which emerge in order to facilitate the efficient dissipation of energy gradients). The singularity would seem to be at odds with this, when framed as top-down collective agency. A fruitful network of independent information processors, which directly benefits and informs its participants, seems more likely than the development of some centralized understanding.


Nitpicky detail: wasn't the Maginot Line invalidated by Panzers running around it, rather than just through or over it?

IIRC, the Maginot Line was constructed along a border with a potential belligerent(Germany), and stopped where that border met a border with a supposed neutral/ally (Belgium). The German army, when it made a decisive move against France, decided to run around the Line, through Belgium.

Which makes your argument stronger.

What if our default paradigm for dealing with the future has an unexamined hole in it?


Here's 12 principles that might work as well or better:

1. Observe and interact - By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

2. Catch and store energy - By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.

3. Obtain a yield - Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.

4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback - We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.

5. Use and value renewable resources and services - Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources.

6. Produce no waste - By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

7. Design from patterns to details - By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

8 Integrate rather than segregate - By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

9 Use small and slow solutions - Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.

10. Use and value diversity - Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.

11. Use edges and value the marginal - The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

12. Creatively use and respond to change - We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.


If I understand your ideas correctly, they do not clash with my idea of the technological singularity.

Please note that in most scenarios intelligence in and of itself isn't sufficient, there is also the requirement for effectors. (The exceptions to this are basically "We all go live inside computers and the real world becomes unimportant". "The Eden Cycle" by Raymond Z. Gallun is perhaps the best statement of this, but "The machine stops" by E. M. Forster was an excellent precursor.

Note that in "Singularity Sky" the scene has as a precursor the manipulation of Earth & Humanity, etc. by an entity that never appears on the screen. And this entity remains in the background, with only one agent+"telephone supervisor" available during the book. The rest of it is a variation of interactions between high tech and low tech civilizations as seen by individuals.

"Lobsters" is much more the onset of the singularity. It didn't happen that way. (The penalty of near-future science fiction.) And what did happen looks must more like the precursor to "the New Republic" of "Singularity Sky".

But we are currently past the event horizon of the technological singularity. This isn't literally true, but any way back would probably involve killing off over half of humanity, and probably more. And what we got back to would be a planet stripped of accessible energy sources. So we wouldn't be getting back to anything even similar to what we departed from. It's only going to get worse. Fewer and fewer people, e.g., know how to farm. Wild game is getting scarcer. Soils are getting depleted, as are water tables. It's getting so that only a high tech civilization can survive. Or a Kalahari Bushman, and we don't have their lifetime of skill building.

So I guess I'm a "true believer" in the "Technological Singularity", I just don't think it will look the way you think it will look. It *could* be a very nice future, but it doesn't currently look as if it is going to be one. Much closer to those proposed in the "Singularity Sky" series, with both unexpected benefits and unexpected costs. (And yes, "unexpected" is the correct term. Unexpectable isn't quite right, as if we could see through the complexity then they would be expected. And in this sense you are totally right. Everything follows logically. But foresight is defeated by chaotic complexity. You can probe the future with scenarios, but ANYTHING believable that you come up with will be wrong. Chaos, however, has attractors. And so does the future. When something comes up that provides an advantage to those who control the current sources of power, it will be grabbed and used, as soon as they understand it. That time lag is the main hope for a future with any liberty in it at all. So each time something new shows up, lots of people will try to use it to empower themselves. Sometimes they won't be stopped.

Note that I don't believe the specific threats and benefits from "Singularity Sky". E.g., I find it dubious that average people will be able to get their hand on fissile materials. Biological weapons, however, will probably be much easier. And nano-tech based devices. This means that there won't be as many loud explosions, but they aren't likely to be otherwise less destructive. (N.B.: If nano-tech never arrives, we can be certain that MMS [micrometer scale] devices will, as they're already starting to appear.) Saying that I don't expect assemblers doesn't say that flexible small 3-d printers will be scarce. There are lots of options. I may not be convinced by "whisp robots" that disassemble the materials you shoot at them, but they are an excellent stand-in for unforseen devices, which *WILL* show up...unless we kill ourselves off.

ANY extensive view of the future is going to be full of magic dust. It has to be because one inherently can't see in detail what's going to happen. The ONLY alternative is to project something that either "just like now" or otherwise clearly wrong. The problem is that "magic dust" is highly addictive. Look how long "hyperspace drives" hung around in science fiction.

FWIW, my feeling as to why science fiction can't attract a larger audience is that the potential audience is getting older, and older people tend to be more conservative. It's also true, however, that utopias get old fast, and dystopias get old even faster.

Another problem is competition. One of the primary markets for traditional science fiction is teen-age and young adult males. This group is also a primary target of gaming. (And it's not, by and large, given to lots of deep thought.) Then there's the web, email, texting, ... (Starting to notice a bit of "Future Shock"?)


That's a pretty Zen eschatology in itself, isn't it? A world without will...a world with a single will...a world where will does not impose its agency on any other...a self-determined world (what a great paradox!) there any difference?

I think this is exactly why if singularities are what they say they are, then they are by definition impossible to imagine.

I'm a little confused on why your view is at odds with "mainstream" (orthodox?) singularitarians, there some flavor you perceive in it of the supremity of intelligence as an abstract? In Accelerando, isn't part of the point the struggle to maintain identity against precisely these kinds of mergers?

We'll all return to dust eventually, I guess. Consciousness is ultimately nothing special (maybe). Still, I like it. :-)


Fortunately for us, those holes have always been there in the past!


Yes, we need alternatives to Singulatarianism indeed. Even though Charlie is the one who made us comfortable with it!

The "Rewilding" paradigm sounds a bit like what I depicted in my novels POSTSINGULAR and HYLOZOIC. Natural computation. You can download a CC copy of POSTSINGULAR here:

Brian Cantwell's book costs $80 from MIT! But I found a free PDF paper by him that seems to summarize his ideas. Will print out and read.

I do need new paradigms just now, trying to dream up my next novel.


All good thoughts, Charlie, and no, we're not engaged in a war between paradigms here. Contrast and compare is the order of the day, and sometimes you get ideas from one stream of thoughts appearing in the other. The Singularity remains a highly fruitful future to explore, in other words. The point is to have that mechanism of contrasting and comparing and suitable meat in the elements that you're comparing to make the operations worthwhile.

The key question with the Singularity is, to my mind, 'what drives change?' Is a geometric increase in computing power more of an effect, or more of a cause, when we go to look at social and economic evolution? I don't think these questions have been answered adequately yet; in foresight we call these sorts of things "critical uncertainties." Scenarios are built around different answers to sets of critical uncertainties, and my overall premise here is simply that maximizing the diversity of our imagined futures should include questioning those things that we think "obviously will happen" because we believe in X, Y, or Z.


Hmmm... This reminds me my own vision of Singularity which fits somewhere between Rewilding and the orthodoxal version. Or may be it can be considered the third apex of the triangle on the possible Singularities space. It is based on combination of ideas of geometric growth with the evolutionary approach:

* The history of the life on the Earth is essentially the history of the evolution of replicators. Those were genes initially then after Homo Sapiens emerged the control was taken over by memes

* 'Meme' here is any knowledge that can be copied from human to human (or other carrier)

* Most interesting are memes which being executed make changes in the world outside of the human brain (such as the instructions sequence 'take the stick, throw it at the banana on the tree, take the banana from the ground')

* Some of changes (such as literacy, printing, radio, computers etc) creates new meme carriers.

* Here the moment when the geometric growth come in to the model: more new carriers (and more new kinds of carriers) means faster meme carriers creation means even more new carriers...

* At some moment of time humans (at least biologically authentic genuine humans) no more majority amongst meme carriers. And at some next moment they are, say, 10% of meme carriers. Then 1%... then 0,00001%... And somewhere between 50% and 1% we have the Singularity.


I'm noticing a lot of people turning on the singularity lately, but isn't the point of the concept to say "We don't know what happens beyond this point" so if you stand up and say "That's wrong!" you pretty much need to establish a definite prediction to oppose the uncertainty of the singularitarians. Which seems like a losing bet.

An accelerated technological ecosystem that acts intelligently through natural selection doesn't sound like something antithetical to the singularity idea, per se. There's plenty of flavours to go around.


P.S. Charlie, really wish your comments had an email or RSS subscription ability.


Lovely set of ideas Karl. Thanks for sharing them.

Three things:

  • I assume that you're familiar with Jim Dator’s archetypes of the future? He uses a handful of very solid images of the future that offer a far more nuanced approach than the typical techno-utopia / social dystopia defaults which you outline above. I have used them successfully with my colleague Wendy Schultz in a prototypical online collective intelligence system for futures research. Jamais Cascio also his a nice little riff on them in his great speech on evolution, .

  • Have you checked out Fred Polak’s classic work, “Image of the Future”? Elise Boulding has an excellent summary and translation, full text, linked above. It’s basically the socio-historical foundation upon which Dator and others’ work is based. He argues it is also the core philosophical underpinning of all human civilizations’ approach to understanding the future through-out history, as well. Very deep, but worthwhile reading if you have the time. HT to Wendy for turning me onto this one as well.

  • Finally, I’d say that any two of the seven bullet points you list above would be sufficient to produce a sufficiently alien version of the future that is different than the Singularity or Apocalypse. Most futures work would benefit tremendously from even the most facile understanding of these possibilities.

  • Thanks again, and thanks also for the tweet exchange that sparked the tremendously funny (and sarcastic) Alternatives to the Singularity collaborative presentation. Would love to see more of your work.



    WRT Foresight & SF, I'm reminded of a Ray Bradbury quote:
    "I don't try to predict the future, I try to prevent it."
    I assume he meant the negative possibilities.

    I like your take on Clarke's 3rd, have had similar thought myself.


    RSS? Its there (at least, Opera sees it.)


    Rudy @7; 'Rewilding' made me think of your books, and I was going to ask if Karl had read them, but your here now, so no need.

    Now I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I haven't read them yet, they're on the shelf waiting, and I promise to get to them soon. Unfortunately, I'm a rather slow reader, and am in the middle of "Rule 34" now, and was going to follow it with "Jim and the Flims". And Karl's "Sun of Suns" is there too, waiting.

    Okay, enough rambling/gushing.


    Hmmm . . . here's a nerdy pseudo-mathematical-that-isn't-really-mathematical-at-all question: What does the hypersurface dividing nonsingularity and minimum possible singularity futures look like?

    Fortunately for the science fiction I like, I suspect that it is entirely possible to manufacture a gentleman's robot: a humanoid machine that can press your suits, mix you a guaranteed hang-over pick-me-up, go shopping, manage your accounts, and give you sage romantic advice . . . without the slightest speck of consciousness or true AI ;-)

    Would such a manservant fall on the non-singularity side of the divide, or the singularity side?

    How about advanced medicine that can keep anyone indefinitely alive, but only at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, then millions, tens of millions on up to billions of dollars a year for someone who has reached the venerable age of 500? You got magical tech, you got people using it on an everyday basis, you got it's potential to profoundly reshape society even though very, very few people can make full use of the panoply of techniques . . . but is such medical technology really at the singularity level?[1]

    Hmmmm . . . if Ray Kurzweil was alive when these medical procedures became generally available but he was personally unable to afford the 10 million dollar plus annual fee to keep himself in good health, would he think this was singularity level tech ;-)

    More generally, in keeping with Gibson's unequally distributed future remark, would anyone think the singularity had come if the only people able to afford it were at the Bill Gates level of wealth? Or even if you "only" had to be at mere $1 billion worth of personal assets level of wealth? Or is one of the unstated assumptions of this singularity the fact that you've got to be a member of middle class in good standing making at least $80 K a year to be able to access it?

    Or does the singularity only arrive when most people, people making only perhaps $10,000/year (if not much less) are able to afford the most obvious bling? Stuff like regrowing a new arm or heart, or having a robot companion capable of holding an intelligent conversation about the latest issue of People magazine?



    Check #3: Those are the twelve principles of permaculture.

    Permaculture has some interesting avenues for SF writers. For one thing, permaculturists have generally focused on agriculture, not on high tech. An internet based on permaculture principles would be quite workable, and also fairly different from what we have.

    There are also some really good questions about how one implements these principles while doing things like preparing for war, keeping quants from hacking your financial system, and dealing with over-simplifying ideologies.

    Finally, because it works from pattern to detail (#7), permaculture lends itself to hard SF. The focus on edges and margins as productive (#11) also fits well into novels, since interesting characters are often at the margins in various ways.

    I used permaculture quite a bit in my first novel (Scion of the Zodiac, sorry for the advert). Not that it's anything other than a first novel, but it's a proof of concept.

    Just a thought.


    Is the title an allusion to some song or poem?

    I remember in Mass Effect 2, one of the chareacters sings "I am the very model of a scientist Salarian" didn't think much of it at the time, but now...


    In my more cynical moments, I figure the Singularity came some time around 2007. The superhuman intelligences were put to work creating ever more exotic financial instruments to make their masters rich (in the tradition of nerds and artisans for millennia), and they probably won't get around to reproducing before they're scrapped. Or they're dealing with issues such as insuring that movies stream properly.

    The point is that, unless we get a hard singularity, we'll only recognize we've passed it when either we hit a point of diminishing returns, or we depend on a system that suddenly starts behaving in a non-sensical way, as with the current US financial sector (although to be fair, it's behaving like a hacked system than as a set of emergent intelligences waking up).

    That's another example of the future being unequally distributed, I think.


    "In a 1998 article in the journal Futures, "Futures Beyond Dystopia," Richard Slaughter critiques science fiction's default futures. He accuses SF of oscillating between naive techno-optimism and equally naive apocalypticism."

    There are some really entertaining exceptions, however, they don't persist due to the short-sighted vision (or something worse) of the television networks. I would offer up Total Recall 2070 as an example. A strange and very entertaining cross between the movies BladeRunner and Total Recall. In regards to Bladerunner, less the plot but more the congested and hyper-nested depressing city architecture and dour official agencies. There was a lot of bad but it wasn't all bad a la Mad Max, but it certainly wasn't all good either, and it did a good job of exploring several of the convoluted issues of having real androids in society. But I'll admit, one of the few exceptions. The fun ones are always the conflicted shows that ask the really big questions, without giving pat or patronizing answers to the audience.


    Karl: some very good points about the underlying nature of the singularity as paradigm (and it's antitheses). And thanks for bringing up the Brian Cantwell Smith book; it's been sitting on my toread stack for quite a long time; I read the preface and decided I really wanted to have a clear window to read and think about it, and then haven't had any such thing. I think maybe I'll just read it interspersed with all the other things going on and see how much I can get out of it.

    My own recent thinking about the Singularity revolves around what seems to me a bad assumption that the rise of super-intelligence will be so rapid, and the spread of its effects so uniform that the whole world will pass behind the veil near simultaneously. I think there are two things wrong with that assumption:

  • Granted that the effect of exponential change is to make the future at some point incomprehensible to a sufficiently distant past, that doesn't mean that this change must be so rapid that the incomprehensibility exists between one day and the next or even one year and the next. This can be explained in part by noting that shape of the exponential curve does not change with changes of scale.

  • I don't see any reason why exponential change prevents Gibson's comment about the non-uniform distribution of the future from remaining true. So unless there's a large step-function simultaneously in almost every aspect of technology and civilization, something I don't think very likely, the non-uniform distribution of change over geography and culture will probably mean that no one agency will suddenly become so superior to all others in all respects that it will control all subsequent change. In fact, it seems likely to me that the competition between agencies will look very much like that in the past, albeit at a faster rate and with a more rapidly changing cast of characters.

  • 23:

    There was never any line, blurred or otherwise, between the artificial and natural, those have always been and will always be false human constructs. There is no artificial, there is no natural, there is no agency, and there have been, this is all just stuff we create in our head because our monkey brains don't work all that well.

    The key phrase is this:

    "The Singularity emerges from the idea that a steady and geometric increase in computing power will result in superhuman intelligence emerging rapidly and drawing with it a geometric increase in industrial and technological progress and scientific understanding"

    The defining characteristic of a singularity is exponential growth in intelligence how that out-competes a biologically inherited linear time.

    A post-singularity life form is living in exponentially expanding timeframe. A second today is twice what a second yesterday was. There is nothing semi divine about a post-singularity intelligence it just inhabits a different 4th dimension then we do, a better one evolutionarily speaking. It's like learning to fly without the overhead that came with wings.


    This seems to be more or less in line with the Yudkowsky school of the singularity, although, as you've mentioned the mythology doesn't look much like the visions of any of its chief proponents (with the possible exception of Kurzweil).

    Eliezer has been going on (and on, and on, indeed it is hardly possible to get him to stop!) about the fact that a powerfully optimising agent doesnt need to be conscious, or emotional or anything. It can be nothing more than a set of values bolted on to a system that can intelligently optimise stuff in accordance with said values. Evolution could be defined as a very slow, very weak version of this.

    If we're going to think of futures outside the singularity-or-apocalypse narrative, we're going to have to strive extremely hard, as once we posit self improving technological devices, they become very powerful attractors.


    My paradigm makes a grinding noise when it shifts.
    The thing to remember is that "IF THIS GOES ON" hardly ever does. Thanks to people saying IF THIS GOES ON?


    Actually the Maginot Line worked precisely as designed; the Germans never even attempted to pierce it.

    Furthermore, it wasn't intended to be a substitute for a mobile field army; it was intended to -economize force- on the German frontier, so that the French field army could act as a mobile 'sword' using the Maginot Line as a 'shield'.

    That's the part where things fell down, for a whole bunch of reasons.

    But not because the Maginot Line didn't work; it did. It was a well-thought-out solution to an anticipated problem which functioned just as intended.

    Personally, I've never found the Singularity concept credible/interesting enough to spend much time or mental effort on. Not in itself.

    It's transparently based on an inaccurate view of how technological change happens; beyond that, it's powered by thinly disguised religious yearnings for transcendence, dressed up in a lab coat.

    As a meme, and to an SF author, the Singularity is mildly interesting and has real-world effects, just as religion is important though its premises are false, but it's almost certainly never going to happen. I no more worry about it than I do about the original-model Christian Rapture. Or Ragnarok.


    The Maginot Line worked precisely as designed but the Germans took it from the back. Even where they did not, they cracked like a nut with new tech.
    There has been talk that a very high ranking English Nazi lover gave the Germans the plans for the whole front so they knew the way to attack.


    We welcome our new Latourian overlords. All hail the non-human actants! (SCNR)

    Seriously, sounds like an interesting scenario to me - not just for SF (to take just the last example that somehow fits, McDonalds "Dervish house"), but also as a political option for a perspective on technology and infrastructure in general. Which brings me to a point that somehow fits this discourse, and which is nagging at me for some time - the general blindness for infrastructurial needs of emergent and distributed systems. The smart mobile phone/cell phone could be seen as a prime example for a shift from centralised information and communication infrastructure (the switchboards of the wired phone network) to autonomous nodes. As long as there is GSM or UMTS or EDGE or LTE or wifi available, the smart phone/pad/... whatever generates the illusion of autonomy, maybe more so with a move towards direct information exchanged between phones; mashed decentral networks. But even then, there is a need for centrally planed, build and maintained infrastructure, from standards to cloud computing servers to mobile phone towers, that has started to vanish from our vernicular view on the use of the phone.

    To come back to the point: What are the sociotechnical needs in terms of standards, infrastructure, planning, maintenance and management behind a future where things have become self-willed again?


    Noah, your intriguing hyperlinks do not appear to have hrefs (URLS) so they don't go anywhere. I found some of them by googling anyway, but not all.


    "The Maginot Line worked precisely as designed but the Germans took it from the back. Even where they did not, they cracked like a nut with new tech.
    There has been talk that a very high ranking English Nazi lover gave the Germans the plans for the whole front so they knew the way to attack. "

    IIRC, they could not take it even from the back, because the designers *assumed penetrations*. They designed the pieces to have 360 degree defence to make sure that it'd be hard to enlarge a breach.

    From casual reading, what happened is that the French high command almost deliberately misused the Maginot Line. It should have allowed forces to be positioned to protect against an attack through Belgium, relying on the Line to protect the border with Germany (at least long enough to force German commitment of main forces, to make sure that the offensive's center was known to the French.

    Instead, large numbers of French units were positioned behind the Maginot Line, and were never in position to fight the critical battles in May 1940 (which was a hard-fought set of battles).


    "Even where they did not, they cracked like a nut with new tech. "

    Again, incorrect.


    Failure to use the preview option may cause failure to notice that links don't work. In this case, the commenter wasn't quoting the addresses in the urls.


    For an example of bogus scenario thinking, skim this discussion of a NE Asian mini-Singularity. Kaplan is not without historical nous, but here he's so eager to make his Geostrategic Deepthink points (laced with ideology) that he pursues his sequences far beyond the point where, in the real world, happenstance or coincidence or stupidity would surely take events into an utterly unforeseen branch.

    For me, the archetype of this has long been Brigadier Ernest Pudding (ret.) in Gravity's Rainbow. Shattered in WWI, he spends the 1930s alone amid portraits of dead comnrades:

    It occurred to him to focus his hobby on the European balance of power, because of whose long pathology he had once labored, deeply, all hope of waking lost, in the nightmare of Flanders. He started in on a mammoth work entitled Things That Can Happen in European Politics. Begin, of course, with England. “First,” he wrote, “Bereshith, as it were: Ramsay MacDonald can die.” By the time he went through resulting party alignments and possible permutations of cabinet posts, Ramsay MacDonald had died. “Never make it,” he found himself muttering at the beginning of each day’s work — ”it’s changing out from under me. Oh, dodgy — very dodgy.”


    This reminds me of the backstory of BLAME!, and its worldbuilding... The general idea was that semi-autonomous systems built out a very large human-habitable space (actually it was a series of dyson spheres going from right near the sun to just past jupiter, but that's beside the point -- the point was that it's huge, took forever to build, and is still going) and while this was being built, the ability to stop these things was lost, and they essentially turned into The Paperclip Machine. People had evolved over this time into enough extremely separate lines (arguably different species) and had had their culture change so much to accomodate this new structure (there was a lot of retribalization, strange isolated cultures living in hidden nooks of the building, etc.) that hardly anybody even knew that the structure was artificial.


    Actually, the Germans did make attacks against the Maginot line. Whether they expected to penetrate, I wouldn't know, but they had a very close look at the Czech border fortifications, which were heavily based on the Maginot line.

    Interesting side-thought: one of the things which encouraged the idea was the demographic timebomb the French faced. They lost 4.29% or their pre-war population, and by 1930 they could make a pretty good guess what manpower would be available to the Army in 1940. It didn't look good.

    (Hand-waving a little, call it 8% of men of marriageable age. And single mothers were rather more frowned-on back then.)

    Go on another 20 years, and you're in the Algerian conflict. Did they get a dip then as well?

    Anyway, what sort of casualty level would you need before a default male-dominated society would shatter and reform into something different. And would it be something like Edmund Cooper's Five to Twelve? (The title still sticks, the content far less so.)


    Anyway, what sort of casualty level would you need before a default male-dominated society would shatter and reform into something different

    The best exploration of that so far may be Paraguay's fate in the War of the Triple Alliance. Estimated casualty levels range from 50% upwards, with the large majority of those being adult males.


    Noah, could you repost your links without any attempts to neaten them up? I can't seem to reach them even to click on them though everyone else's is coming through loud and clear.


    Monte, you made my day with that quote. Thanks!


    The Maginot fortifications were effectively meant to fight a high-tech version of siege warfare, a prepositioned system designed to exchange fire with an enemy's static offensive weapons (heavy howitzers etc.) They had an effective range to the horizon, about 20 to 30 kilometres. The idea that an invading army could cover that sort of distance in less than a day (blitzkrieg) either didn't occur to the builders and designers of the system or it was ignored as jobs and promotions were at stake.

    The Line was no secret; if nothing else aerial observation would have put paid to any real attempts at concealment of its construction and capabilities.


    The Maginot line was not secret. Where the armies were and were not was. The Germans forced their way around where the armies were weak. The forts were thinner at the back and had doors for supplies, the TV said a short time ago. Solders under it's field of fire used hand carried new shaped charges to crack the parts holding out. The show said.
    Maybe it was great. So what, it did not work.
    Any Singularity is so far from the state of the art it will not help any of us.


    Oops, thanks to Bob and Trey, it looks like my links from my post above (#12) don't seem to be working.

    Those links are:

    Jim Dator's Archetypes of the Future:

    Results from one of my case studies using Dator's approach in an online, participatory futures system:

    Link to Jamais Cascio's great speech on evolution (using Dator's ideas, too):

    Fred Polak's "Image of the Future" (complete book):

    "Alternatives to the Singularity" Collaborative Presentation:

    Thanks to all and sorry these links didn't work. Not sure what happened, but thanks to everyone for your feedback!



    From A Soldier's Memoir by Louis Wims, though i also remember a very similar account in Churchill's own memoirs

    ..He (Churchill) flew to France before the Dunkirk evacuation to talk to Paul Renault or the civilian commander in chief/prime minister. And he told him of the disposition of the French troops along the Maginot Line. Churchill said "Where are your reserve divisions? Where is your mass for maneuver?" The reply, "There aren't any."..

    If there had been, and/or there'd been similar lines in Belgium etc then the German response may have been the use chlorine trifluoride - they'd practiced it - but even by 1944 the Germans had "only" produced about 30-50 tons of the vile stuff. Of course, if they'd needed more perhaps they'd have made it - CIF3 or "N-stoff" wasn't used in the war as far as I know.


    bellinghman @ 36
    A German village I know well ahd (approx) 1000 total population in 1938.
    Their War Memorial shows 160+killed in WWII - now, remove women: 500, remove males under 12 in 1940 + over 50 in the same year, and what's your percentage causalty-rate?

    Now to the Singularity, as mentioned in the header-discussion... erm.
    Mathenatics is a CONSTRUCT.
    Laundry notwithstanding, it is not "real" of itself.
    It's a MODEL.


    "Mathematics... is not "real" of itself.
    It's a MODEL."

    ... or maybe not:


    Is math real? Depends. Some things can be quantized, some things, can't be. Since much of the universe contains fractal properties, the numbers you get depend on the scale and method of measurement.

    Or sometimes you can't really count or measure something at all. Here's a good example I know painfully well. A good chunk of my PhD work was on an obscure group of soil fungi currently known as Phylum Glomeromycota. It says something about the revolution in biology in the late 90s that they were considered Order Glomales when I started. But that's beside the point.

    These little fungi have an interesting structure: their mycelial bodies aren't subdivided into cells per se. It's more like a soup of nuclei inside the mycelium (technically, they are coenocytic). More interestingly, scientists routinely pull multiple ribosomal DNA sequences out of this nucleus soup, which seemed to say (at the time) that the nuclei were genetically distinct from each other. Their spores are produced asexually and contain thousands of nuclei. They were also thought to be asexual at that time, and had been for their 400 million years of existence on earth.

    Incidentally, the nice thing about a mycelium is that when you cut it in half, you get two individuals.

    Oh, and they are obligate biotrophs that require plant roots to survive, and they generally live in soil.

    So, what constitutes an individual fungus in this case? It's not the mycelium, because that can be fragmented or fused. It's not the genetic individual, because they seemed to have diversity within their cells. Counting individual fungi in this group is somewhere between arbitrary and impossible, depending on what you think you're counting. These little buggers are impossible to quantize for many purposes,

    Now, this may seem unimportant, but glomalean fungi are among the most widespread fungi on the planet, they've been around for over 400 million years, and the arbuscular mycorrhizal relationship they form pre-dates plant roots. In other words, these little buggers invented plants, and they are directly responsible (through the creation of forests) for our presence on this planet.

    Unfortunately, it's really, really hard to do math with these little buggers. What do you count?

    That's the point about math. Yes, it's eerie sometimes to show how much math corresponds with reality. It's also easy to find examples where math really doesn't work well at all. Some of those counter-examples are important, too.


    I thought that Gödel proved that Maths was a construct?

    A very effective one, but that the "Platonic Ideal" of maths as a "reality" on/of its own was not the case?

    More information, please?


    I'm not clear why it is the math that is the problem in the fungal counting case, or the mapping of what to count.
    It is not so different from asking do I count the possible water droplets in a glass of water, or just the glass. Perhaps counting "individuals" was the wrong approach to answering your research question?

    We've seen similar problems with how to count the number of genes in a genome. It is nowhere near as clear as we once thought it should be.


    Actually, I didn't count the fungi. I counted diversity through counting live spores, which was doable.

    The basic point is that math works when things can be quantized, and that's difficult for many important phenomena. Your example of the number of drops in a glass is another good example. An even better example would be calculating the surface area of the sea (or a stream or a large lake). Since the water surface is constantly moving in a complex way, this becomes effectively impossible, and that doesn't even count dealing with things like foam.

    Getting back to the fungi, there are whole fields (such as population genetics) that are close to impossible to do with fungi, simply because those fields depend on a type of counting that doesn't work with that phylum.


    But you are talking about integers and the maths of sets. That is only a part of maths. It may be that a different mapping makes more sense.

    Biology (and medicine) still primarily works with math I was using when I did my degree in the early 1970's. Integers and real numbers, analyzed with statistics. One has to wonder if there are not better ways to look at biology, especially from a systems view, using a different mathematical approach.


    "calculating the surface area of the sea" - isn't that a bit like "How Long Is the Coast of Britain?", i.e. not directly quantifiable, but amenable to maths.


    previous comment was actually a reply to #48 by heteromeles. Sorry.


    Phil, in theory yes it's quantifiable. The issues are that the surface is a complex fractal (especially when foam is included) and changes quite quickly, so it requires monstrously large computer power to calculate an answer, especially at finer scales. As with many wicked problems, the size of the computer required balloons at some sort of exponential or factorial rate, rapidly overtaking the number of atoms involved in the surface. This calculation problem also bedevils predictions.

    Also, since the result of such calculations depends on the choices of the observer (e.g., the length of the British coast depends on the units used), we can't properly claim it's objective. There's a large element of subjectivity in these results, out of necessity.

    Thus, claiming the universe is mathematical is an unprovable statement of faith. Even if we could turn every atom in the universe into a computer, that machine would be far too small to prove that the universe operates strictly according to mathematics.


    values are ultimately determined by our physical form

    If the term values refers to what I do think it refers to, then I would humbly propose that they are determined by entropy and nothing else.
    In the case of purely physical objects that's exactly the same thing, but I don't see why all "self-willed" entities should have a clear-cut, discernible physical form. (Although such an entity would still need a "topological domain of its realization", to quote Maturana. Which amounts to saying it needs to be "embodied", i.e. connected to and dependent on the physical universe and subject to the laws of thermodynamics.)

    Besides, using old names for old concepts has the unique advantage to show paths of inquiry already trodden before.

    consciousness is the passenger

    Short and concise, I might wish to borrow that phrase once in a while.

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Nature.

    What a beauty of a sentence.

    the idea of agency

    Misquoting Wittgenstein, I propose "Superstition is the belief in agency." (In the original, it's "the causal nexus", which is not too far anyway.)

    to act intelligently

    That's a little beauty of an expression.
    Moving the focus from "being intelligent" to "acting intelligently" only needs to be coupled with the concept of "no agency" to be truly groundbreaking.

    What does an autopoietic system do? Autopoiesis and nothing else. It can only possibly exist as a system that's linked back towards itself. If it's not self-preserving, it dies.
    But self-preservation (or more generally autopoiesis) necessarily is an open-ended recursive process, never stopping, never pausing, driven by its eigenbehaviour. And thus the object of this process is perpetually transformed.
    We cannot "exist", we can only evolve and continue to evolve, that is to say, we can only "come into existence".

    And basically, we cannot ever do this unintelligently. Our act of "coming into existence" involves discerning (intellegere) one specific state of existence and discarding all possible others.

    Even a eukaryotic cell, by initiating or not initiating Mitosis, acts intelligently in principle.

    There can only be a difference in degree or in the presence or absence of additional properties, especially generalised sentience (the ability to suffer), modeling, self-modeling or systematic prediction.

    Needless to say that I view your idea of "self-willed" and Maturana's idea of "autopoietic" as basically two different ways to talk about the same thing. Well, if your aim is to embrace the most basic theorical position in line with known empirical evidence, you're quite likely to converge on similar concepts.

    Where I absolutely lose you is in the last paragraph.

    I mean, if people spend money on homeopathy, they might as well spend money on hypothetical advance planning. You can't really stop them can you? But why would any sane person take part in that, other than in an ostentatious show of mockery?


    "Designing against suprise"
    Like Michelle Bachmann becoming POTUS next year (or, more likely, in 2016) ??

    I know: "Couldn't buld a fully-functioning dystopia", but that's what was said (GODWIN warning) about Adolf, who was thought to be a useful tool by the "commercial/corporate" right-wing then.


    #2, 26 and 39 ref the Maginot Line. Exactly; the line itself was flanked through Belgium, so the French armies were largely in the wrong place, and the German rate of advance was frankly inconceivable when the ML was built. Even then, large parts of its "reverse fortifications" were never completed before it was over/round run.

    #19 - I've been humming Gilbert and Sullivan arias since I started reading this entry too!


    Michelle Bachmann will never be POTUS. Even Bush did not really win.


    Michelle Bachmann will never be POTUS
    Not that I disagree, but...
    Even Bush did not really win.
    ...this does not support your claim. "Not winning" did not stop Bush from becoming POTUS.

    Not to mention he really did win second time around.


    OK, OK. So there was hope in my post. But Bush hid how far out he was. And he did get a lot of votes. But independent recounts show he did not win.
    Bachmann is running as a nut to nuts. There is lots of nuts here, but not that many. If only the media will cover what she has really said! They are paid off and part of the problem, but I just can't see really big money backing her.
    Any body here remember Heinlein's IF THIS GOES ON? It's about after the take over of the US by a TV preacher.


    @ 58
    "If this goes on" was precisely the model that scares me.
    I think 2016 is a more likely crunch-date than next year.
    Even so .......


    Yes. The guy won in 2012, and there was no election 2016 and on. That is why I am watching the coming election with vast interest. HA!


    Actually, I rather hope Mitt Romney becomes president in 2012. That would defuse the REAL nuts in 2016, and if Romney does bow to Tea Partiers in Congress, the results will be disastrous enough for Democrats to take the House in 2016. And if he does not bow to them -- I won't complain.


    I think Bachmann saying to reporters that she believes that submission to her husband, as the King James bible says, is actually respect, and continually saying that's right, is losing possibilities gradually. Even most Christians either go with the submission or say that's not what the bible really says, rather than re-defining them.


    Suppose there was a singularity and nobody came?

    It seems pretty clear that most people who think about singularities (or alternative scenarios like Rewilding) envision humans being part of it.

    Self aware entities (or even hyper efficient entities which are not self aware, think of an ant or bee colony) might not have very much interest in us, and after we see the effects of the "rapture" (perhaps computers flicker and reboot, power grids suddenly spike or brown out, CNC machines dump their programs unexpectedly) we are suddenly in a world where human input is generally ignored, clocks blink 12:00 all the time and we become gradually aware the new entities are crowding out the existing biosphere in an effort to claim the 195 Petawatts of energy the Earth intercepts from the Sun each year....



    About this Entry

    This page contains a single entry by Karl Schroeder published on August 12, 2011 2:56 PM.

    Swirling/writing (2): shugyo was the previous entry in this blog.

    Swirling/writing (3): When I Was Stephen King is the next entry in this blog.

    Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

    Search this blog