This isn’t the future they sold us. Thoughts on the Singularity

I’m all for the future, you know. I am confident it is vastly better than the past and I believe in the potential of science and technology to solve real problems. It is, therefore, with real anticipation that I prepare to attend the day-long Singularity University session organized by Intesa SanPaolo in Milan on May 3rd (Our future is now: Singularity University – How exponential technologies impact our lives). I like the people who’ll speak there and I love to see so much passion for the potential of technology to change the world. In short, I am a techno-optimist.

But I am also disappointed.

I’m disappointed, because science and technology haven’t kept the promises they made years ago. And I want to see them keep those promises before making new ones.

We still have solar panels so ridiculously inefficient that we need to subsidize them with massive surcharges on other power sources, or taxpayers’ money.

We still have batteries that pack so little power that your iPhone drains them in less than a day.

We still have planes so slow that it takes longer to fly today between New York and London than it took ten years ago, when you could at least book a seat on a Concorde.

We still have cars so dumb that they crash, transport systems so poorly designed that we sit in traffic jams, robots with so little artificial intelligence that a mouse outsmarts them, chemotherapy so brutal that it nearly kills you, sanitation so poor that millions succumb to cholera.

I know each of these problems is on the brink of being solved – isn’t it? But this isn’t the future that science fiction writers sold us.

Social sciences aren’t doing any better: we still have perversely ineffective political systems, massive intransparency, and gigantic corruption. We still have slavery, war rapes, and acid thrown on women’s faces if they don’t behave. Numbers tell us that poverty is declining, but it feels like we’ve just moved to a slightly better off dystopia.

Never before have there been so many minds focused on solving the world’s great problems. (Some of those same minds, I understand, are busy pursuing the transhumanist quest for immortality, a rather more crackpot strain of Singularitarianism that Carole Cadwalladr’s piece in yesterday’s Observer does not challenge enough). And never have there been so many people who can manipulate exponentially accelerating technologies in the attempt to “positively impact the lives of a billion people”. So, I remain an optimist. But I’m cautious about the new promises. Remember, we haven’t kept the old ones yet.

Towards the end of bookstores. That terrible sense of finality

When I was a student, I browsed though bookstores in awe at the world revealing itself to me within those walls. Two days ago, on the escalators at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Union Square, New York, I was hit by the terrible sense of finality that comes with visiting a place for what might very well be the last time. I made it a point to visit all four floors of the bookstore, café and magazine racks included, because I thought: I may never see a four-floor bookstore again. The next time I am in New York, there may very well be a clothing store here. And any other bookstore with four floors I may encounter in my travels is doomed. I am sorry but I want to be factual: the large cathedral of the non-specialized bookstore is over.

The writing has been on the walls, of course, for years. I have browsed through many fewer bookstores since Jeff Bezos started international shipping. I have watched museum bookstores convert into design and gift stores. Even airport bookstores, once the refuge of the bored traveler, have become much less necessary. It obviously isn’t true yet, but the other day at Barnes and Noble’s I felt like I could choose any book on any of the four floors and have it downloaded onto one of the devices in my backpack in less than fifteen seconds. (I also felt tempted to add a Nook to my gadget collection, but didn’t. I left the store without making any purchases.)

It is pointless to bemoan the disappearance of the trusted bookseller, supplanted by the faceless algorithm. It is just a fact. The other day, as I prepared to leave the store, I felt as if I were standing in an emptied house that I knew I was never going to return to. Or kissing a loved one for the last time.

What is the use of Mahler?

This post borrows its title and most of its content from an article in The Face (the British 1980s precursor to both Wired and Wallpaper) by music critic Ian MacDonald. I don’t know exactly what year it was, but I must have been close to the end of high school, because the clipping carries the words “Carnap – Feyerabend – Popper” handwitten in purple marker by my know-it-all adolescent self, as a footnote to a parenthetic remark on the impossibility of proving the non-existence of something in an infinite universe. She also highlighted numerous passages with a pink highlighter, and some with a green one. The article is, in summary, about the loss of the soul. Let me quote from it.

Earlier this year, Channel 4 transmitted a series of discussions under the title Modernity And Its Discontents. What stood out most from these programmes – apart from a general agreement that public life is melting into a “moronic inferno” of meaningless instantaneity – was that the modern self is in a lot of trouble. […] We’ve become “thinned out” – and the world with us. We’ve lost that sense of “depth” in people and things which, whether or not we ever appreciated it, we were at least once trained to respect. In fact, so far has this process of thinning out gone that to say something is “deep” is tantamount to mocking it as meaningless. We no longer believe in deep things. We think thinks are all about equally worthless.

Our great-grandparents would doubtless have found our attitudes appalling, but then they were different from us. They believed they had immortal souls. We don’t.

[…] The “shallowness” we feel in modern life is no more and no less than the loss of the soul. The “depth” we used to sense behind appearances was the depth of the soul. Now that’s gone, we’re paper-thin. No wonder we don’t take each other quite as seriously as we used to. […]

We are becoming a very sick society. It was this that Mahler was upset about. […]

When, aged 34, he wrote Resurrection, he was as secure in his belief in ultimate redemption as anyone could be. By the time he came to write his Ninth Symphony, at the age of 50, he had suffered a catastrophic experience (we don’t know what it was) which completely destroyed that belief, hurling him without ceremony into our modern world. As a man used to thinking out his situation, he saw all the implications at once. “I stand”, he wrote, “face to face with nothingness.” […]

It’s something we decide according to whether we belong to tradition or modernity, whether we think we’re souls or selves. Mahler started as a soul, ended as a self. The use of his music is that it charts that change, at once personal and historic, in such fearlessly graphic detail.

If my carbon dating is right, Ian MacDonald wrote this piece well before the Web was even a spark in CERN’s underground tunnels. Before reality shows, before 9/11, before the Eurozone crisis. Before Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat and before Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Who knows how he would have written this article today.

We will never know. In August 2003, aged 54, Ian MacDonald committed suicide following a lengthy period of clinical depression. He fully belonged to modernity. He too stood face to face with nothingness, until the abyss got the better of him.

Lorenzo Petrantoni. “The Internet? That’s a world I know nothing about”

Today I caught the last day of Timestory, the exhibition of Lorenzo Petrantoni‘s graphic work at the gallery of Credito Valtellinese in Milan.

The artist was present. I complimented him on the exhibition and had a brief chat with him. We talked about his visual sources such as 19th-century books, and I remarked that Max Ernst too made collages out of old old illustration books.

“But you scan everything and then do the work on the computer, right?”

“No, I actually cut up everything with scissors and do the work by hand. I use the computer only at the end, for finishing.”

“Oh, I had no idea. I thought graphic artists were completely digital by now. See how misinformed I am.”

“And what do you do?”

“Well, I do Internet stuff.”

“The Internet? That’s a world I know nothing about”.

“Nothing? That’s too bad. For example, I’m sure you could buy a lot of old illustrated books for cheap on eBay.”

“eBay? Not sure… But there’s one thing I do I do on the Internet: I buy old books on AbeBooks. After all, I couldn’t very well travel each time to buy them.”

“You see? That’s great. And this here on the tripod is your camera?”

“Yes, I am documenting everything. It is the last day of the show. Kind of sorry to dismantle it.”

“Well yeah, that makes sense. How long did it take you to put up the Timestory on the big wall? You must have had assistants helping you out, right?”

“Yes, there were three of us. But still, it’s 22,000 small pieces of paper, so it took us about ten days. And the exhibition is only one month. The PR did not work out too well. Too bad. Just as it was picking up, people were starting to come…”

“Well, that’s right. I only came myself because my friend Serena tweeted about it yesterday.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. Well then. Nice meeting you. Well done, again.”

“Thanks. Nice meeting you, too.”

One wonders, if this charming man had had a thousand Facebook fans, or a hundred Twitter followers, and they had liked and retweeted the news of the exhibition, and their friends and followers had liked it and so on… the exhibition would have been packed on day one (entry was free, too). But he’s just not into it (except for buying the books).

Below: Une Semaine de Bonté, the cover of Max Ernst’s collage book. Two works by Ashley Bickerton. An umbrella by Marcel Wanders.

Obamacare and the Supreme Court

That the health insurance mandate – something that works from Switzerland to Massachusetts – should rely on Constiturional provisions about interstate commerce seems to me as contorted as the fact that abortion – something that happens whether you allow it or not – hinges on a woman’s right to privacy.

Yet, stranger things have happened under the U.S. Constitution. I do hope the health care law is upheld.