From Boston Review: Know Thy Futurist. It’s an attempt to classify and analyze various types of futurism, in much the same way that a Jack Chick tract could be described as “an attempt to classify and analyze various types of religion”.
I have more disagreements with it than can fit in a blog post, but let’s stick with the top five.
First, it purports to explain what we should think about the future, but never makes a real argument for it. It starts by suggesting there are two important axes on which futurists can differ: optimism vs. pessimism, and belief in a singularity. So you can end up with utopian singularitarians, dystopian singularitarians, utopian incrementalists, and dystopian incrementalists. We know the first three groups are wrong, because many of their members are “young or middle-age white men” who “have never been oppressed”. On the other hand, the last group contains “majority women, gay men, and people of color”. Therefore, the last group is right, there will be no singularity, and the future will be bad.
You’re going to protest that there has to be something more than that. Read the article. There really isn’t. The author ignores the future almost completely, in favor of having very strong opinions on which futurist movements include the right or wrong sorts of people. AI risk researchers are “majority men, although more women than in the previous group”; techno-utopians are “more women still…but in the end that does not denote progress”. All singularitarians were “sex-starved teenagers” and they all “wax eloquent about meritocracy over expensive wine” in a “super-rich bubble”. The lovingly detailed descriptions everyone’s social class, racial breakdown, gender ratio, what politics the author imagines they have, and what sexual insecurities she thinks produced their opinions. contrasts markedly with a total lack of concern for any of their beliefs or opinions about the future, their justifications for their beliefs, or whether those justifications are true or false. Literally the only future-related thing we know about the article’s third quadrant is that they may be involved in Bitcoin or something.
The author never even begins to give any argument about why the future will be good or bad, or why a singularity might or might not happen. I’m not sure she even realizes this is an option, or the sort of thing some people might think relevant.
Second, the article’s section on singularitarianism never mentions anything about the Singularity and doesn’t really seem to understand what the Singularity is. Its example of Singularity technologies are “augmenting intelligence through robotics”, “better quality of life through medical breakthroughs”, “cryogenics” (I assume it’s confusing this with cryonics), “medical strategies for living forever”, and “possibly even the blood of young people.”
None of these (except maybe the first) relate to the Singularity, which is defined as a point at which the rate of technological advance reaches near-infinity and it’s impossible to predict what happens afterwards. The article seems to use “singularitarianism” to mean “cool near-future technologies”, which is kind of the opposite of its real meaning. This is a fatal error for an article proposing a system classifying all futurists as “singularitarian” vs. “nonsingularitarian”.
It makes sense only in the context of the author having no interest in futurist movements at all, and indeed she later more-or-less admits that by ‘singularitarian optimists’ she means ‘rich white people she doesn’t like’. When discussing Elon Musk, whom some might call a pessimist based on his belief that the Singularity will destroy the world and doom humanity, she says that “being an enormously rich and powerful entrepreneur, he probably belongs in the first [Singularity optimist] group”.
Third, the article wants to classify some technologies as inextricably associated with privilege, but it has a pretty weird conception of which ones they are. It gives five examples of technologies that it’s possible to worry about without being a privileged white man, and every one of them is a different form of algorithmic bias. Really? That’s the only future technology it’s okay to care about? So much so that of five slots for potentially worrying technology, you filled all five with the same one?
Likewise, when the author discusses bad “singularity” technologies that only white men could want, she includes “better quality of life through medical breakthroughs”. I’m sure this just slipped in by accident. I’m sure (pretty sure?) if we pointed her to someone with chronic pain who hasn’t been able to leave the house in years and asked whether it might be good to have technology that could help this person, she would say yes. But it’s a really interesting slip-up to make. I’ve written hundreds of articles during my lifetime and I don’t think I’ve ever mistakenly said that only privileged white men could care about not being sick.
Again, this would make sense if the author doesn’t really believe in futurology except as a way of sending the right class signals. Helping sick people improve their quality of life? Do gross male nerds from the outgroup support that or oppose that? Okay, sold. I’m sure if her mental editor had caught it, she’d have realized that she was supposed to support that kind of thing, but it would be a post-processing addition to her thought stream rather than a natural component of it.
Fourth, the article presupposes a bitter conflict between the four quadrants, whereas actually people tend to be a lot more on the same side than she expects.
Her pessimists are concerned about algorithmic bias making banks less likely to extend credit to poor people. But her optimists just care about flashy new things like cryptocurrency. Okay. But one possible application for cryptocurrency is peer-to-peer microfinance via smart contracts – ie one of the most promising solutions to bias in big financial institutions. You don’t have to agree this is a good solution. But cryptocurrency enthusiasts are working on it, and it seems weird to deny this matters or that the whole reason behind developing some of these flashy new technologies is to solve recognized societal problems.
And her singularitarians are strategizing how to deal with far-future advanced AI algorithms, while her nonsingularitarians are strategizing how to deal with near-future primitive AI algorithms. These seem like…not entirely the opposite of each other? Imagine you were writing an article on the different kind of climatologists studying global warming. There’s the kind who indulge in crazy sci-fi scenarios where entire cities flood and the Earth becomes uninhabitable. And then there’s the kind dealing with important real-world problems like increased frequency of hurricanes and creeping desertification. Is this a reasonable distinction? Which kind should you be?
(Boston Review readers: “How should I know? You didn’t tell me what ethnicity they are!”)
Most people concerned about climate change are concerned about both those things. Maybe there’s a little room for disagreement on the best way to balance long-term versus short-term goals – should we build seawalls to protect our cities today, or start a program of power plan retrofitting which will pay off in twenty years? But to try to turn these two positions into arch-enemies would be ridiculous and destructive. The scientists involved may have different research interests and skillsets, but not necessarily different opinions. Obviously we should have some people working on near-term problems and other people laying the groundwork to work on long-term problems.
In real life, this is what futurists are doing too. The Asilomar Conference on Beneficial AI was organized by people whose main interest was far-future Singularity scenarios, but it included some of the top experts on algorithmic bias, gave the subject a lot of airtime, and ended up with all participants signing onto a set of principles urging more work both on near-term AI problems like algorithmic bias and long-term AI problems like the development of superintelligence. Jed McCaleb, founder of Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, donated $500,000 of his profits to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, which deals with long-term concerns about the Singularity. In the real world, everyone from all four “quadrants” of futurist are either allies, or the same people.
Again, I feel like this is the kind of error you could only make if you totally missed that futurism was a real subject, and you just wanted to make it into a morality play for your particular political opinions.
Fifth, another quote from the article:
In the end my taxonomy (as amusing as I find it) doesn’t really matter to the average person. For the average person there is no difference between the singularity as imagined by futurists in Q1 or Q2 and a world in which they are already consistently and secretly shunted to the “loser” side of each automated decision.
I already posited that the author doesn’t understand “Singularity”, but this is something beyond that. This is horrifying. There will be no difference for the average person between a (positive or negative) post-singularity world and the world now? What?
Listen up, average person. If there’s a negative singularity you will notice. Because you will be very, very dead. So will all the rest of us, rich and poor, old and young, black and white.
And if there’s a positive singularity, you will also notice. I would promise you infinite wealth, but that sort of thing kind of loses its meaning in a post-scarcity society. I would promise you immortality, but who knows if we’ll even have individual consciousnesses at that point? I would promise you bread and roses, but they would be made of hyperintelligent super-wheat and fractal eleven-dimensional time blossoms.
I don’t care if you think this vision is stupid. We’re not arguing about whether this vision is stupid. We’re arguing about whether, if this vision were 100% true, it would make a difference in the life of the average person. The Boston Review is saying it wouldn’t. I’m sitting here with my mouth gaping open so hard I’m worried about permanent jaw damage.
A Singularity that doesn’t make a difference in the life of the average person isn’t a Singularity worth the bits it’s programmed on. And the triumphs of science have always been triumphs for common people, whether it was the Green Revolution saving hundreds of millions of lives in the Third World, or the advent of antiparasitic drugs that are wiping malaria from Africa. When Ray Kurzweil says that the future is exponential, he’s not just talking about the number of transistors per square inch, he’s talking about this (and note the green line representing “percent of people not living in extreme poverty”):
The Singularity is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed across various scales of x-axis
This is what everyone in whatever school or quadrant of futurism you care to name is thinking about. This is the only true thing. Drones, Bitcoin, Uber, superintelligence, whatever, these are part of it, but they’re not the goal in itself. We are going to fight our hardest to end poverty, disease, death, and suffering, and we’re going to do it in spite of petty Boston Review articles telling us we should stop doing it so we can focus on hating each other for stupid reasons.
So here’s my division of futurists into two groups: shining examples, and terrible warnings. And the patron saint of the latter category is Samuel Madden.
Madden was an Anglican clergyman in 18th-century Ireland, and maybe the first futurist. In 1733, he published Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, a novel about people in 1999 sending letters back through time to tell their 18th-century predecessors what the future would hold.
How did the prognosticators of 1733 imagine the future? Was it utopian? Decadent? Miserable? Beautiful? Incomprehensible?
Actually, it was none of those things. It was exactly like 1733 in every way, and the future people were just writing back to remind everyone how much Catholics sucked.
I am serious about this. Book-World-1999 had no technological advances over 1733. The political situation was more or less the same, although the Wikipedia review mentions that “Tatars” had taken Constantinople at some point. The important thing, the thing that they invented time travel to tell the past, was that Catholics were still bad. Really, really bad. The people of 1733 really needed to know just how amazingly bad Catholics were and would continue to be.
The problem here isn’t just that Catholics aren’t really that bad. I feel like even if Catholics were exactly as bad as Samuel Madden thought, there would still be an unforgivable pettiness here. If we could show Samuel Madden the real future of his world, I hope he would be awed and horrified beyond words. The hope and heartbreak of the French Revolution, the lightning-fast transformations of industrialization, the slow march of atheism through previously Christian Europe, the otherworldly horror of the atom bomb, the glory of the moon landing, and then a 1999 poised on the edge between a Fukuyaman end of history and collapse into environmental disaster and dystopia – nobody could write a book as grand as this, but surely one could win eternal renown just by making the feeblest attempt. And instead, we get “EVERYTHING THE SAME; ALSO, HATE CATHOLICS”. The only emotion I can muster is a sort of profound disgust.
And I can’t help but feel the same disgust when I read “Know Thy Futurist”. I don’t know whether the future will be better or worse than the past, but I feel pretty sure it will be grander. Either we will perish in nuclear apocalypse or manage to avert nuclear apocalypse; either one will be history’s greatest story. Either we will discover intelligent alien life or find ourselves alone in the universe; either way would be terrifying. Either we will suppress AI research with a ferocity that puts the Inquisition to shame, or we will turn into gods creating life in our own image; either way the future will be not quite human. And faced with all of the immensity and danger of the coming age, the best the Boston Review can pull off is “HAVE YOU CONSIDERED THAT SOME OF THE PEOPLE SPECULATING ABOUT THIS MIGHT BE IN YOUR (((OUTGROUP)))?”
There’s a Deeply Wise Saying that all science/prediction/philosophy/theology/whatever will inevitably reflect the parochial conditions of the writer’s own time. Maybe so. But I feel like it doesn’t have to be quite as parochial as Samuel Madden. If the people of 1733 had thought about things really hard, tried to transcend the feuds of their local time and place, might they have predicted the Industrial Revolution? Might they have been able to accelerate it, delay it, send it along a different track that ameliorated some of the displacement and poverty it caused in reality? I don’t know. But it would have been a pretty amazing attempt. What would it look like to try to do something like that today? Is “Know Thy Futurist” making it more or less likely that will happen?
In the grand scheme of things, it’s probably dumb for me to be so angry about this one article. I guess what bothers me is that it’s not just one article. Probably a majority of the stuff I see written evaluating the future, or technology, or Silicon Valley these days seems to take basically this perspective. I was really mad at Maciej Ceglowski a few months ago because his anti-singularity screed was about half this kind of thing, but by this point 50%-real-argument is looking pretty good. More and more people are dropping the 50%-real-argument veneer and just admitting that stereotypes and ad hominems are the way they want to conduct everything. Do we really need to turn our hopes and dreams about the world to come into yet another domain where white people accuse other white people of whiteness and are accused of whiteness in turn until everyone hates each other and anything good and real gets buried in an endless heap of bullshit and 140-character brutal owns?
I wish ignoring this kind of thing was an option, but this is how our culture relates to things now. It seems important to mention that, to have it out in the open, so that people who turn out their noses at responding to this kind of thing don’t wake up one morning and find themselves boxed in. And if you’ve got to call out crappy non-reasoning sometime, then meh, this article seems as good an example as any.
If we get very lucky, there will actually be a future. Some of the people in it will probably read the stuff we write. They’ll judge us. I assume most of that judgment will involve laughing hysterically. But we can at least aim for laughter that’s good-natured instead of scornful. Sub specie aeternatis, how much of what we do today is going to look to them the way Samuel Madden does to us?