« Results Redux | Main | Singularity Survey »

Geek Rapture

Glenn Reynolds is all over it on TCS. I don't know whether Ken MacLeod is original in his comparison of the Singularity with the rapture -- that is to say, I've heard it several times before, but I don't know whether it is original to him -- but the correct term is "geek," not "nerd." FastForward Radio listeners know the difference between the two. Short explanation: being a nerd is a social condition, being a geek is a lifestyle choice. There's such a thing as geek chic; no such possibility exists for nerds.

Now that we've got that out of the way, the "rapture" part is a given. As we've noted before, the Singularity serves as a kind of secular eschatology. But there are serious questions as to how satisfying a happily ever after the Singularity can provide in and of itself. Glenn makes an interesting observation at the end of his piece:

In fact, rather than serving as a dismissal of the Singularity, it seems to me that the Singularity-as-religion argument cuts the other way. How do we know that people want the kinds of things that advanced technology is supposed to offer? Because they've been trying to get them through non-technological means for all of recorded history. And as history demonstrates, they've been willing to try awfully hard, and in a wide variety of ingenious ways: Jihadists are strapping on suicide bombs today, in the hope of attaining the kind of environment that virtual reality will deliver in 20 years.

That's true in more ways than one. Assuming full-immersion VR is widely available in 20 years, not only could the jihadist submerge himself in his sought-after paradise, with 72 virgins at the ready to meet his every demand, he could also choose a more earthly paradise -- a planet in which the caliphate is restored, Islam is triumphant, and other cultures and viewpoints simply do not exist. Likewise, VR could be the ultimate solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Why mess with the real thing, when you can occupy a land indistinguishable from it, only with everything set right? (And everybody gets to decide on his or her own terms precisely what it takes to set things right.)

Glenn observes:

But as Isaac Asimov has noted, the religion of science is distinguished by one chief characteristic: "that it works."

Well, yes and no. Science and technology deliver some of the physical goods that people have sought via religion. But if all the goods are delivered, and we find ourselves in some post-Singularity paradise of infinite abundance and indefinite lifespan, we'll still be human. That's the caution that James C. Bennett offers regarding utopias in The Anglosphere Challenege. And it's what Kurzweil is getting at in The Age of Spiritual Machines when a godlike being in a post-Singularity scenario notes that "life is still hard."

When we confront the mystery of our own existence -- or of all existence -- we encounter a singularity of a different sort. I think that it's this mystery that ultimately drives our religious impulse. VR simulations might distract us from that mystery -- just as TV and movies and, well, blogging do now -- but they will never provide an answer to it.

What are we? What are we supposed to be? How do we get to the ultimate, transcendant truth? Religion? Science?

Today, in our pre-Singularity world, those are good and valid questions. Tomorrow, in a post-Singularity world, they will almost certainly continue to be good and valid questions.


"That Hideous Strength" by C.S. Lewis blends the religio-scientific approach to the "macrobes" and the worship thereof. Discussions of the Singularity always bring to mind the vivid, visceral scene in Lewis' book, of the scientists literally severing their own heads to achieve that state. Brrr!

Phil, my take on it.


Matoko's link appears to be dead. Try this.

Macleod had 'rapture of the nerds' in print in 1992 (?) in his 'Star Faction'. Of course in those far off days nerd and geek didn't quite mean what they do now.

Ok, so Glenn Reynold tries to spin Singularity as religion in some sort of good light. Given that the outcome of such an event can be really bad for humanity (even an enhanced version of humanity) and that it'll mostly be a technology event, it strikes me as pointless to compare it to the Rapture or religion in general.

The automobile and atomic bomb have probably influenced religion in odd ways, but this doesn't begin to describe their impact on human civilization. In a similar fashion, I think it's a mistake to view the possibility of the Singularity on religious or spiritual grounds.

Also, this involves a level of trust that I think is utterly inappropriate. If a Singularity occurs, it might prove beneficial to humans or near humans. That's about the best we can say. Nor can Glenn guarantee that the Singularity will deliver these things especially on his schedule.

Finally, I am puzzled by whatever forces have made Mr. Reynold a significant spokesperson for the Singularity. Is it the rosiness of his predictions? Or the convenient timetable? Or just the height of his pedestal? It certainly isn't his background or knowledge. I'm not saying that there's anyone (well, maybe some extra-terrestrial has observed multiple Singularities and would be qualified to comment) who really would understand what's going on, but Mr. Reynold seems to go far beyond whatever areas of expertise he has.

To be honest, I've never been a Glenn Reynold fan. Never liked his glib sometimes contentless style nor his milking of his readers with gratuitous Amazon links.

Maybe the "jihadists" will be comfortably and conveniently sated in their VR environments in a mere 20 years, but that sounds like wishful thinking to me.

In any case, if the Singularity is to be treated as religion, then let's go through that highly productive phase of any religion where we cast out rival sources of orthodoxy. I hearby nominate Glenn Reynold as a false prophet doomed forever to have a low refresh rate and poor customer service in his VR booth.

Sorry about the rant. Glenn Reynolds (sorry, I thought his last name didn't have the "s") rubs me the wrong way and I like to rant, hence, the above post.

No one at all, including Reynolds, ever put Glenn Reynolds in the position of "significant spokesperson of the Singularity." He, like all bloggers, writes about what he pleases, and lately he's taken to talking about it--which is good, since most singulitarians badly want others to talk about this since we need more people discussing it and thinking about it. Especially because there are significant concerns and dangers it points to.

It is true that in many ways the most glamorous and glowing views of the singularity could be construed as very much like heaven. They could also be construed as very much like hell. These discussions need to happen because we are hurtling forward in technology faster than most people think.

Perhaps it's a mistake to refer to the whole thing by a catchy name like "singularity." What we need to be talking about are the technologies we're developing, the protections we need, and the directions we want to encourage. Which is really what the conversation is supposed to be about.

"What are we? What are we supposed to be? How do we get to the ultimate, transcendant truth? Religion? Science?"

There will be huge progress on the above questions and they will likely be answered after the Singularity, if they aren't already. This is because we will have the computing power and intelligence to emulate millions of years of future cultural evolution and philosophical questioning.

Religion deals with transforming human nature. Technologically superimposed wealth, comfort and power don't.The Singularity, if divorced from spiritual advancement, won't be any more like heaven than our civilization is when compared to the subsistence economies that existed for most of the history of the world.

Joan --

I really enjoy those books. I was just saying the other day that I thought the experience one of our readers had with a school system bent on doping his child sounded like something right out of That Hideous Strength.

Karl --

Heck, why even have a comments section if we aren't going to entertain the occasional rant?

In Glenn's defense: he's a very smart guy who's done a good deal of thinking and writing about the future. And he's been a real friend to this blog over the years, passing on many of our weirder ideas to a more mainstream audience. Anyhow, if we start worrying about who's qualified to write about these things...well, the bottom line is that Glenn is far more qualified than I am. And no way will I be hanging it up any time soon!


"This is because we will have the computing power and intelligence to emulate millions of years of future cultural evolution and philosophical questioning."

Probably true. And I don't doubt that all those (emulated) eons of pondering will provide dazzling insights. We will get some answers, but I think we will still feel that we are roughly as far from the ultimate answer as we are now.

Kathy --

"The Singularity, if divorced from spiritual advancement, won't be any more like heaven than our civilization is when compared to the subsistence economies that existed for most of the history of the world."

Right. But if you take somebody from a rain forest who has no conception of the outside world -- or better yet, just take one of our ancestors from a few thousand years ago -- and plop her into the middle of big city, she is going to think she's having a magical, otherworldly experience. It's just too much to take in at once. This is where I think Karl misses the mark in his automobile and atom bomb analogies -- yes, those things altered our world, but they didn't make it almost instantaneously unrecognizable. Both the Singularity (even absent a spiritual component) and religion talk about that level of change.


"The Singularity, if divorced from spiritual advancement"

Up to now technology has been used to change our environment to our liking. Changing our environment has had an effect on us, but nothing like actually increasing our intelligence.

I don't think that it would be possible, even if we wanted to, to divorce spiritual advancement from such a fundamental change.

Post a comment