It’s not called the Third Wave for nothing

I missed this back in late November, but apparantly a minor blogstorm erupted when Cosma Shalizi posted his “semi-crank pet notion” that the singularity had already happened

The Singularity has happened; we call it “the industrial revolution” or “the long nineteenth century”. It was over by the close of 1918.

Exponential yet basically unpredictable growth of technology, rendering long-term extrapolation impossible (even when attempted by geniuses)? Check.

Massive, profoundly dis-orienting transformation in the life of humanity, extending to our ecology, mentality and social organization? Check.

Annihilation of the age-old constraints of space and time? Check.

Embrace of the fusion of humanity and machines? Check.

Creation of vast, inhuman distributed systems of information-processing, communication and control, “the coldest of all cold monsters”? Check; we call them “the self-regulating market system” and “modern bureaucracies” (public or private), and they treat men and women, even those whose minds and bodies instantiate them, like straw dogs.

An implacable drive on the part of those networks to expand, to entrain more and more of the world within their own sphere? Check. (“Drive” is the best I can do; words like “agenda” or “purpose” are too anthropomorphic, and fail to acknowledge the radical novely and strangeness of these assemblages, which are not even intelligent, as we experience intelligence, yet ceaselessly calculating.)

And two months later I end up wondering why, because this is hardly controversial or new. If the dirty little secret of science fiction is cribbing from history, than cyberpunk’s dirty little secret is how much it ripped off the ideas of futurologist Alvin Toffler. The Third Wave was cyberpunk’s bible aqnd you can see a direct line from it to Gibson’sNeuromancer or Sterling’s Schismatrix as these authors embraced its vison of a future of relentless change, where the old political and economical schemas were worthless and new economies and ways of living needed to be invented. The world was going to be transformed, but Toffler never pretended this was anything new.

It was after all the Third Wave, not the First Wave. That had been the invention of agriculture and its subsequent spread over the world, not yet completed when the second wave happened, the industrial revolution, also not yet completed now the third wave, the computer and internet and biotech and $insert_favourite_kewl_new_technology revolution is happening. Three singularies, not The singularity. Cosma was pushing on a door not just already open, but never closed in the first place.

But it is good to be reminded sometimes that all this talk about singularies and the uniqueness of the technological revolution we’re now living in, part libertarian technofascism, part nerdgasm, is just another test of Marx’s observation that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as an Ipad presentation.

1 Comment

  • Cosma Shalizi

    January 10, 2011 at 8:37 am

    Toffler is, of course, an ex-Marxist – if memory serves, he was once part of a back-to-the-factories Trotskyist group – and _The Third Wave_ et seq. is warmed-over historical materialism.