Thursday, September 5, 2013

Did The Last Singularity Confuse Us Completely About American History?

Are you ready for the coming Singularity?
Defined by Vernor Vinge in 1993, the next Singularity will be the “moment” when technology will become capable of creating machines with intelligence greater than human beings.  The result will likely be superhuman intelligence, either in human-computer interfaces, or perhaps in superhuman networks—a massive evolutionary leap forward.  Ray Kurzweil, the most visible exponent of the Singularity, predicts it for around 2045 and believes it will allow humans to control their fates and become immortal.
It’s pretty heady stuff and has its share of fans and critics.  There is now even a Singularity University in Silicon Valley, underwritten in part by Google.
One thing most proponents agree on is that the coming Singularity will be “capable of rupturing the fabric of human history” and, therefore, so profound that human beings standing on either side will barely recognize one another.
Like all forecasts, History informs the timing and shape of the coming Singularity.  Advocates predict its arrival by pointing to at least three Singularities thus far on earth: when human brains evolved, when farming communities appeared, and the Industrial Revolution.   (Some lists include fire, language, reading, and mathematics.  Some might include the Big Bang.  Taken together—and you need your logarithmic graph paper for this--the consensus forecast for the next Singularity is 2075.) 
The rise of farming communities and the Industrial Revolution are especially interesting because they are recent, and subject to some degree of measurement.  In two million years, for example, the human population grew glacially from about 10,000 proto-humans to four million modern humans.  When some of these humans decided to live as farmers about 10,000 years ago—a consensus Singularity—the world’s population began to double at the spectacular rate of every 900 years or so.
Likewise, before 1750 (the start of the “first” Industrial Revolution of steam and telegraph), it took 350 years for a family in England to double its standard of living.  By the 1950s (after the second Industrial Revolution of electricity and the internal combustion engine), an American family could expect to double its standard of living in a single generation
All of which leads—if you buy the logic--to the fascinating observation that the entire history of the United States has been lockstep with one of the great, singular events in human history.  
Never has the accumulation of wealth been so easy, or growth in the standard of living so steep, as during the great "American experiment.”  For the first time in the history of humankind, economic conditions supported and even accelerated the sort of culture that, according to Hezekiah Niles’ famous observation, featured “the almost universal ambition to get forward.” 

Enter now Northwestern economist Robert Gordon with bad news.  What we all believed in 1975 was stagflation caused by bad leisure suits and a momentary blip in oil supply turned out to be, in Gordon’s view, nothing less than the end of the biggest blip of all--the effects of Industrial Revolutions.  We are now in a period, exacerbated by a number of other economic hurdles like climate change and debt, when “the rate of improvement in the standard of living—year over year, and generation over generation—will be no faster that it was during the dark ages.”
The “Information Revolution,” Gordon says, is mere noise in its economic impact compared to the two Industrial Revolutions.  Already, he points out, twenty-something Americans will be the first generation ever not to be significantly better educated than their parents.  In 2007 Mexicans stopped emigrating to the US because it was easier to improve their quality of life in Mexico than the U.S.; “we are a nation of immigrants to the extent we can make immigrants rich.” 
Worse still, Gordon says the forces of the two Industrial Revolutions will never be repeated again—it was a back-to-back miracle, a singular Singularity, so to speak.  Then he asks, “How do you like your new smartphone now?”
Could it be, all this time, that our understanding of American history has been backward?  For instance, it wasn’t a people striving for the American Dream that created national wealth, but the unprecedented (but momentary) ability to create wealth that produced the illusion of the American Dream?  Or, that the belief in American exceptionalism is the product of an historical hiccup, now over and never to be repeated?  Or, that it’s not democracy and capitalism that drive wealth, but a brief economic anomaly that gives democracy and capitalism a fleeting existence?
In other words, if all of American history has occurred within the greatest expansion of opportunity in the history of human civilization, and that’s come to an end, what next?  Less opportunity?  Less diversity?  Political gridlock?  The end of exceptionalism?  Fragmentation and, someday, civil war?
Those who believe the next Singularity is within sight have an answer to these cheery issues, even if they can’t pretend to recognize what that might be.
One possible legacy of the Baby Boomers, then, is not that they did or did not behave well; it’s that they were the first humans ever forced to adjust to the end of the greatest economic transformation in human history.  We’re like a hapless band of prehistoric hunters trying desperately to beat our swords into plowshares. 

Or is it vice versa?


Sources (and good reading)

This post draws heavily upon Benjamin Wallace-Wells' excellent "The Blip," in the July 21, 2013 New York Magazine.  It also references the following sources:

Chevalier, Michel, Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States [1839], John William Ward, ed., Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1961.
Hanson, Robin, “Economics of the Singularity,IEEE Spectrum, June 1, 2008.
Magee, C.L. and T.C. Devezas, “How Many Singularities Are Near and How Will They Disrupt Human History,” Technological Forecasting & Social Change, 2011.
Olson, Nikki and Singularity Utopia, "Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weeny-Singularities," HPlus Magazine, November 17, 2011.