This ain’t the singularity


I’m surrounded by people who think the world is changing because Amazon released an e-book reader called the Kindle and because Apple released a new, cheaper iPhone that supposedly will run faster. Really, just search for “3G iPhone” and you’ll see, like, thousands of articles raving about the Second Coming of iPhone. Are these technologies transforming our lives forever, or has the whole idea of world-changing technology finally become nothing more than an advertising jingle?

photo / John Pastor Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-No Derivatives 2.0 Kindle 

You can get the answer, in part, from a normally staid engineering journal called IEEE Spectrum. This month Spectrum did a special issue on “the singularity,” a term from science fiction that refers to the moment when the technology and culture of the present evolve to the point that they would be incomprehensible to people from the past. Airplanes, for example, would be a singularity technology for people from the 1700s. None of the brainiacs and visionaries writing for Spectrum have much to say about e-book readers or mobile phones that play music.

That’s because the Kindle and the iPhone actually represent the death throes of 20th-century technology. They are not changing the world; they are putting a new interface on yesterday’s innovations. When you want to evaluate whether a piece of tech really is “revolutionary,” just put it to the simple singularity acid test. Ask yourself if you could explain it in a few sentences to people living 100 years ago. So let’s sit down with your typical resident of San Francisco in 1908, and explain Kindle and iPhone to her.

First the Kindle: “This mechanical instrument allows you to read every book in your library by pressing these levers.” Our 1908 San Franciscan may be startled that she can read so many books with one instrument, but does she intuitively get the idea? Yes. Now let’s give her an iPhone. “This artful device is a combination phonograph and telephone that you can slip into the sleeves of your jacket for safekeeping.” Again, she’s going to be startled by the size and shape of this artful device, but she’s seen phonographs and she’s used telephones before. Will she go into a state of catatonic future shock? No. She’ll slide that baby up her lacy sleeve and call her friend while shopping for records and mass-produced books on Market Street.

The Kindle and iPhone are the end-state and convergence of technologies developed, for the most part, in the 19th century. The only element inherent in both devices that I think might throw our 1908 woman for a loop is the Internet. One could certainly explain that it is like a giant repository of newspapers, but of course that isn’t quite right. Nor is it shops, or notes and scribbles on walls, or storytelling, or pictures or phone calls. It isn’t even really a convergence of all of those things: It is something genuinely new, socially and technologically.

Columnist Annalee Newitz 

But adding our era’s one singularity-level technology to 100-year-old technologies does not make more singularity technology. It’s like electrifying a device that was once driven by steam. Upgrades are not the same thing as paradigm shifts.

If you want to know what kinds of technologies really will transform our lives, you need to think about things we take for granted that would be hard to explain to our 1908 person – or indeed, to a 1978 person: Internet technologies. Global positioning system technologies. Space-going technologies. (Though pretty much anybody in 1908 would get the idea of robots on Mars – “mechanical creatures on Mars” sounds like a 19th-century sci-fi novel.) Most of all, look to technologies that are changing social relationships the way the Internet has. Sites like Facebook are literally changing the way we understand friendship. Our culture would be incomprehensible to the people of 1908 just due to the rate at which we exchange knowledge online – passing around the “dramatic lemur” video to millions of people in a day, for example.

Oh, now you want to see it? Search for “dramatic lemur.” Try explaining that to our 1908 friend.

About the author Annalee Newitz (annalee at techsploitation dot com) is a surly media nerd who has no interest whatsoever in the iPhone because she’s waiting for her augmented reality lenses with the blink interface.


Late Night Austin Real Estate Blog's picture

When I was a kid I thought we would have done more interesting stuff by now. I had grand visions of AI and trips to the moon, and everyone running around in hovercrafts. Instead we have iphones and mp3s. Maybe I just watched too much sci fi. But I feel the future is here and its kind of boring.