The sight of Hell through rose-colored glasses doesn't improve the view for me!
An open rebuttal to Expect exponential progress Rapid gains in technology point to a bright future by Ray Kurzweil; April 18, 2008
Man, am I ever tired of people raving about rapid technological progress! They always do the same two things: one, wax ecstatic over how far we've come over the past 5000 years or so. And two, use that as a springboard to make wild-eyed claims about how soon all sorts of more Gee-whiz stuff is going to happen.
Yes: in only a couple sentences they can go from past examples which required anywhere from many decades to many centuries to come about, to predictions of new whiz-bang stuff happening next week.
Can these people even tell time?
But regardless of their ability to read a clock-face (or calendar), many of their predictions do sound pretty snazzy to folks between the ages of four and twenty-four. But much beyond that you start running into a more skeptical band: folks who've heard it all before, and lived long enough by now that they know ultra-fresh bullshit when they hear it.
Sure, we've come a long ways in 5000 years. Or some 200 generations. At least if you only look at particular niches of humanity-- and squint. But it's much easier to find things on which we've not made much progress in 5000 years, too. Or at least not near as much as might be expected. If you look randomly at lots of neighborhoods or countries, I mean, rather than cherry-picking the 'best', as many tech writers tend to do.
For instance, an awful lot of us still use outhouses or ditches to shit in. Barely changed from the typical arrangement of thousands of years back. Many of us still don't have safe and reliable drinking water-- also like thousands of years past. Or adequate shelter from the elements (some folks today would kill for a good cave-man's home from 10,000 BC).
You say you personally know no one like that? Then count yourself lucky, to be living where you are, rather than one of those much harsher spots! Many human beings didn't get such a fortunate number in the lottery. Dozens of such folks were born just now, as you read this passage.
But even in the so-called 'advanced' countries, progress really seems to have been dragging its feet the last century or so. For why does it cost so much to simply put a roof over your head, or get from point A to point B? It's ridiculous! Here it is well into the 21st century now, and we're still driving cars using the same core technologies as those purchased by our great-great-grandparents! And building homes based on technologies much, much older than that! Sheesh!
But maybe the worst part is that many newer automobiles and homes often seem to be worse in quality and performance than their predecessors-- while costing more. Yikes! How the heck did that happen? Wasn't technology supposed to be improving? And times getting better?
The same phenomenon is also assaulting our very health and vitality: for the nutritive value of our food has plummeted, even as its costs have gone up.
So as a whole, humanity has been sorely disappointed by the pace of progress and advancements way more often than not.
And as individuals, the angst has almost always gone off the scale. As generation after generation we continue to age, sicken, suffer, and die, even as evangelists of one sort or another promise us that paradise and immortality are closer than we think.
Some of these evangelists are of a religious nature, and so their adherents expect the suffering and dying part. But others are evangelists of a different sort, like Ray Kurzweil. Techno-evangelists. Promising that we won't have to sicken and die at all to reach nirvana. That lots sooner than we expect, things will get all hunky-dory, and life will (finally!) be good-- and ever-lasting.
What a steaming pile of crap!
Truth is, many of Kurzweil's own fans from his first days as a celebrity have already sickened and died, waiting for his predictions to even begin to show fruit. And Kurzweil himself isn't looking too spry these days, either.
But still he spouts the same stuff as ever. Because it keeps him in the news, and helps him sell his books, and gives him a better negotiating position for projects of various sorts.
After all, like anyone else, Kurzweil has to make a living. Unlike most of us though, he's been lucky enough to attain famous evangelist rank. Or, a job where spouting nonsense pays the bills. You know: much the same as UFO experts who claim actual aliens are hovering somewhere just over the horizon.
Don't get me wrong: I'm an optimist. So I do believe many (if not all) of Kurzweil's predictions will come true. Some day. Likely long after Kurzweil and I are long dead. Maybe not until we've been dead for centuries, or even millennia.
If, that is, humanity doesn't first kill itself off with nuclear or biological warfare, or something even dumber than those two options.
Kurzweil loves to talk about how fast computers have improved in various capacities over decades. But unfortunately the speedy evolution of computer chips hasn't yet translated to a substantial upgrade to the human condition. Basically all they've done so far is cut the cords between brick and mortar, and communications and entertainment. And even that new wireless gap itself all too often fails to work as it should. Whoop-tee-doo.
Yeah, we've got snazzy looking display screens and realistic special effects in games and movies now. But many of us are still starving, sick, and ill-educated the world over. Still grossly under-employed in many of the instances where we actually have jobs. Still all too often desperate for a better life.
Well over 100 years ago, Henry David Thoreau said "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation..." I look around today, and see just as much truth in that statement now as when Thoreau first voiced it.
Heck: in many ways computer advances appear to actually be making life worse rather than better! For now big corporations can more easily design expiration dates into their products, to force us to buy replacements. In the old days of paper and pencil calculations, engineers had to design in some purposeful over-capacity to make sure things like auto engines would outlast their warranty. But there was sufficient uncertainty involved that sometimes the result was wonderfully long-lived, rugged, and reliable vehicles, for bargain prices.
In other words, there was at least a chance that you'd get more than you expected for your money.
With today's computer power though, corporations can save money (and so increase profits) by designing lots of car parts to fail only days or weeks after their particular warranty expires. Or sooner, if the user does something with it not explicitly permitted by the fine print in the manual. Same goes for airplane parts, medical equipment, and everything else: so are you feeling safer yet?
Worse than that perhaps, is how today's computer chips allow every device around us to consist of ever more 'black boxes' of various sizes and shapes, which cannot be repaired in part by any entity independent of the corporate 'mother-ship', requiring instead-- you guessed it-- an expensive, complete replacement from the factory.
So increasingly, regular folks are ever more helpless in terms of repairing themselves whatever goes wrong with the family car or home or appliances. And more dependent upon expensive proprietary fixes from a giant corporation somewhere.
And yet that giant corporation could-- at any moment-- decide the obligations they incurred in the past are too expensive, and exit that business, rendering everything you ever bought from them inoperable, as soon as they strike their expiration dates, or you operate them in a forbidden or unanticipated manner (note that such forbidden practices may become mandatory for utter survival in the event of an emergency or natural disaster; but sorry: that too is not allowed).
Furthermore, now that everything is beginning to be connected to the internet, companies are gaining the capacity to remotely cripple our devices on a whim-- or bean counter's order. Or if the government wants them to.
For instance, they will soon be able to kill your new car's engine with the flick of a switch a thousand miles away. Pretty much render you incapable of fleeing for your life from a natural disaster or local criminal-- or even dodging that drunk driver at that intersection-- on the order of some single solitary bureaucrat somewhere.
Or even just by accident. Oops!
So basically what meager tech advances we've seen over the last 50 years or so have mainly served to make our lives worse and more fragile. Make us more dependent upon big corporations and big government. Made us into children. Even infants, in some ways.
And all indications are that it's only getting worse. The true measure of our misery and utter, inescapable dependence upon companies and government agencies which couldn't care less about us is steadily rising, in all manner of ways.
So we'd best knock those rose-colored glasses guys like Kurzweil are trying to make us look through as far away as we can. At least until we can turn all this around again. Regain from the government and corporations the rights they have stolen from us. Insist that both cease and desist from their ever broadening surveillance and media manipulation of our lives. Demand that important items like cars and appliances and computer software not be made permanently proprietary in ways which make them quickly useless and irreparable by our own hand-- or too easily fail in an emergency or disaster.
And while we speaking of Kurzweil and his ilk again, let me add this:
Techno-evangelists like Kurzweil frequently point out that advances in solar energy and other alternative power sources could turn our world upside-down to make the basics of modern living cheaper and easier to come by.
Trouble is, they're saying exactly the same things today about items like solar power that they were 30 years ago-- and before.
Decade after decade, the 'incredible advances' they tout fail to occur. Or else are eaten up by rising costs in some other venue, so that the result (when we're lucky) is a wash. But typically we are unlucky, and the cost of living continues to relentlessly go up.
If you don't believe me about all this techno-evangelist crap being endlessly recycled on us, just check out the old archives of science and tech magazines sometime, like Popular Science and similar publications. In them, you'll likely find virtually the same breathless word-for-word predictions of 'great things coming soon' as can be seen in today's articles by the same or similar blow-hards.
I'm not kidding: just try to prove me wrong! The same techno-evangelist crap of 2008 can be seen in articles from 1998....1988....1978....1968...and still deeper into the past.
I know, because I once purchased an archive of such mags going all the way back to World War II-- and there it was.
It literally takes lifetimes for fairly negligible tech advances to come online which might actually change daily life in a meaningful way. And by that I mean become accessible in a practical and economical way for the majority of folks.
To be fair to Kurzweil, his frequent claims that technological progress is 'exponential' could well be true. But he neglects to mention that early in an exponential curve the going is glacier slow: it's only in the final stretch that things really get to moving as fast as the evangelists like to crow about.
And all indications are that humanity is currently stuck much damn closer to the beginning of the curve, than to its possibly glorious end.
And yet, even that very end spike over which evangelists like Kurzweil love to gush, poses some hefty potential Gotchas! of its own. For in the preferred lingo of the evangelists, somewhere near where the spike goes completely vertical lies a technological singularity, such as first proposed by author Vernor Vinge.
Vinge himself tells us that if such a singularity occurs, it could well be catastrophic and horrific from the point of view of individual citizens such as ourselves who witness it first-hand. And the cosmic law of entropy suggests this even more strongly.
So even if techno-evangelists like Kurzweil actually got their beloved vertical spike in tech advances, it could turn out to be the ultimate horror film come to life. Especially for a people stupid enough to elect George Bush President twice, and allow plutocratic fascists like the modern US Republican party to control their mass media and government for not just years, but decades at a time.
To use a metaphor, humanity is currently experiencing its own frog-in-a-warming-pan-of-water moment. The water is getting ever hotter, but slowly enough that we're not yet feeling sufficient urgency about our situation to do much about it.
But our eye lids are getting heavier, and we're about to doze off, all exhausted and stretched out in our roomy pan. And all too soon, it'll be too late. Our ass will be thoroughly cooked, and we'll be done for.
There might even be a timer in an office somewhere to announce the fact to our new rulers. And they'll finally be able to begin their feast in earnest.
So far as SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) and other scientific organizations can tell at the moment, such an end may have struck every single civilization which preceded us in this galaxy. For the sky remains ominously quiet, and seemingly devoid of anyone remotely like the humanity of 2008.
Any time now Earth may go silent again, too.