Among a host of modern buzzwords that evoke puzzled frowns and unsettling questions, “singularity” is one that invites close scrutiny from a spiritual perspective.
Depending on who you read, “singularity” is defined in many ways, but generally refers to a future phenomenon, a technological“moment” where laws that have governed “reality” break down. In other words: the ultimate uncertainty.
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John von Neumann, the genius mathematician credited with developing basic computer design, is quoted as saying that "the ever accelerating progress of technology ... gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue." 1
I’m quoting from a website called the Singularity Symposium which goes on to provide his definition of the Singularity as the moment beyond which "technological progress will become incomprehensively rapid and complicated." This site then references science fiction author Vernon Vinge (Marooned in Realtime), who speaks about “a weirder future than we can imagine: ‘Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended. [...] I think it's fair to call this event a singularity. It is a point where our models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer and closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown."
Author Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity is Near) predicts: "... a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed. Although neither utopian nor dystopian, this epoch will transform the concepts that we rely on to give meaning to our lives, from our business models to the cycle of human life, including death itself."
“Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”
This all calls to mind John Lennon’s famous quote: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” In this case, clearly, whatever the singularity turns out to be in the fullness of its emergence, it doesn’t seem to be something we can logically plan for.
I particularly noted Kurzweil’s comment that “this epoch will transform the concepts that we rely on to give meaning to our lives.” I would venture that this epoch is already upon us. Isn’t it true for many of us now, that familiar concepts we once relied on to give us meaning are obsolete? What’s more, the status quo itself is increasingly challenged. For instance, job security is basically gone (who has just one career anymore?), economic progress in the US has reversed (for the first time in history children are less well off than their parents); and previously vanquished diseases like measles are making a comeback (sparking controversy over vaccines with determined propaganda advancing a fearful embrace of this always questionable therapy), etc. What in the world is the world coming to?
I wrote at length about the Singularity in my recent book, Awakening From the American Dream, our technology chapter: The Future of Now. We interviewed a tech guru for that chapter and here’s what he said: “Singularity” is a word that seeks to describe something we don’t really understand. One definition is that point in the future where our existing understanding breaks down. Our known laws just … break down. I’m talking about encountering the unexpected...”
Sounds like we should be expecting the unexpected! If that seems contradictory, let’s back up a moment for a perspective view. We may assume we control our lives, that there is order to our days. Is that really true? We have our routines, our habits, but at any moment it can all be disrupted. Life… it happens! Just when we had everything all planned out. Each of us has many stories to prove this.
When the unexpected does happen, we tend to automatically try to “right the ship,” that is, re-establish a known equilibrium. From what we read on the singularity, it seems that this traditional strategy may - at some point in the near future - fail to succeed. Instead, we may need to get accustomed to constant change… the virtual end of any enduring status quo.
This might very well seem threatening, and it is – to that part of us that is addicted to comfort based in secure repetition. Of course, too much of that and we get bored! So far, an enjoyable, fulfilling life seems to have involved finding the sweet spot between secure dependability and exciting novelty (much of which is outsourced now to entertainment that produces vicarious peak experiences for spectators). But what we are being told is that this equation is increasingly obsolete. It may soon become extinct. What then?
Smart entrepreneurs wonder what the world might be like ten years or more into the future and then develop products and services for that market. When we look ahead and “expect the unexpected,” whether we’ll end up calling it the singularity or not, it seems wise to adopt a new life equation right now, welcoming the unknown and evolving our experience beyond the “two steps forward, one and seven eighths steps backwards” tradition that well describes our halting, glacial forward movement in consciousness for oh so long.
While we may feel fear about what we can’t predict, we can simultaneously feel excited about what we can’t predict. In fact, our real choice now seems to be how we view the inevitable. As Buckminster Fuller said, “Man is going to be displaced altogether as a specialist by the computer. Man himself is being forced to reestablish, employ, and enjoy his innate "comprehensivity." Coping with the totality of Spaceship Earth and universe is ahead for all of us.”
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