Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Computer, the Anthropocene, and the End of the World

Near the end of the previous millennium Francis Fukuyama declared history to be at an end. He did not of course mean that time has stopped or even that there would be no more change. He was speaking of history as conceptualized within a certain intellectual tradition. With the worldwide spread of liberal democracies driving large-scale social change had come to equilibrium. History is no more.

More recently, within this the present millennium Timothy Morton has declared an end, not merely to history, but to the world. He means this in a special sense, of course. As the blub to his book, Hyperobjects (which I’ve not read), has it:
The world as we know it has already come to an end.

Having set global warming in irreversible motion, we are facing the possibility of ecological catastrophe. But the environmental emergency is also a crisis for our philosophical habits of thought, confronting us as it does with a problem that seems to defy not only our control but also our understanding.
By way of clarification there is this statement, with which Morton ends an anti-Lovelock blog post: “The end of the world qua neutral backdrop to human whatever has already occurred. This is the afterlife. I am already dead.”

The Anthropocene began in the coal-fired, iron-mongering, carbon-belching industrial age and has become known to us in the silicon-cradled, bit-crunching, internet-clothed information age. It’s not merely that computer technology is with us even as we know of global warming, but that we couldn’t know of global warming without that technology. For that computer tech runs the climate simulations that tell us, yes, our energy-hungry activities have changed the climate so much that, for example, the sea is beginning to consume Bangladesh:
Though Bangladesh has contributed little to industrial air pollution, other kinds of environmental degradation have left it especially vulnerable.

Bangladesh relies almost entirely on groundwater for drinking supplies because the rivers are so polluted. The resultant pumping causes the land to settle. So as sea levels are rising, Bangladesh’s cities are sinking, increasing the risks of flooding. Poorly constructed seawalls compound the problem.

The country’s climate scientists and politicians have come to agree that by 2050, rising sea levels will inundate some 17 percent of the land and displace about 18 million people, Dr. Rahman said.

* * * * *

What then, of the computer? In 1968 Stanley Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the film’s central characters was a computer, the HAL 9000, that piloted a spacecraft and conversed with the crew. The year 2001 has come and gone and we do not yet have a computer with the capabilities of the HAL 9000. Nor, for that matter, has manned flight from the earth to near earth orbit become routine.

Nonetheless, in the spirit of Morton’s declaration of the end of the world, I am toying with the idea that we are living in the world of THAT computer technology. That future is now. We don’t have HAL, but we have Siri, Watson, and the web. Robust driverless cars exist in prototype and will come into widespread use within decades.

As for an artificially intelligent computer that will rival us, or even eclipse us, in all respects. Forget about it. It’s not going to happen. The technological singularity is an apocalyptic vision birthed in a previous era, the era before the end of the world.

It’s not that I think computing technology is at a dead end, or is bottoming out. Not at all. There is more to come, even fundamentally new tech. Quantum computing, neuromorphic hardware, hybrid tech in which organic tissues are wedded to silicon, something’s going to come out of that.

But not the singularity. There’s too much we don’t know, about the mind, the brain, computing, and silicon.

That not withstanding we are now living in that New World, the one made possible by marvelous computer technology. We’re only just barely into that world, but we ARE in it. Let’s start acting like it instead of imagining that some wonderful FuTureTech is going to solve everything. It won’t.

It’s up to us.

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