Singularities don’t have to happen alone. One singularity is enough to make the world seem senseless. Old rules don’t apply. Old causes create new effects. It is easy to get confused. Triple that, at least. We may be experiencing three singularities that will seem more abrupt when historians look back. To us, they can feel like a slow, inexorably torture; especially, if you expect the old world to return. It is healthier to adapt, even if that’s more difficult. And yet, some things will stay the same.
Mathematicians, scientists, and engineers deal with singularities. I’d thoroughly enjoy launching into a casual treatise on the subject, but I’ll restrain myself. One example from my background in aerospace engineering may help. Many thought we couldn’t go faster than the speed of sound. The equations said so. At the speed of sound, lots of equations try dealing with infinities: infinite drag in particular. For many, that was enough reason to go work on something else. For a few, however, they realized that it was probably possible, especially after they realized some bullets went supersonic. Without knowing exactly why, it turned out that if they ignored what happened at exactly the speed of sound, and flipped a term around in the equation, everything worked again. Engineers just had to get used to the idea that instead of drag increasing with speed, it decreased. It didn’t make sense, but it worked. They figured out the rest later. Hello, supersonic airplanes.
Singularities are events when things change abruptly. In some cases, you can’t go back. The point of no return wasn’t some gradual process but happened abruptly, usually unsettling things at the same time. Falling off a cliff is a singularity. Winning the lottery jackpot is a singularity. Losing someone to death is a singularity.
I try to read broadly. Topics overlap. Politics exists for its influence. The environment pervades our biological world. The internet sustains our electronic civilization. I suspect each is near, at, or on the other side of a singularity – and there are more coming. Combine the influences each has on the others, and trying to understand modern life gets painfully complicated.
If you’re in the United States of America, I’d be amazed if you didn’t notice the election. One candidate played by the old rules. One candidate seemed to make up the rules, and a lot more. You know which one won. The US is not alone. Around the world, people are exercising power in new ways and experiencing new results. Look at Brexit. Even the folks that voted for it were surprised that it won. They were so surprised that it has been difficult finding leaders, processes, and expectations for everyone involved. People are finding their voices are more powerful, and they’re finding that they have little practice exercising that power. Their leaders are surprised, too. The people representing the losing side can look in the mirror and wonder what went wrong. They did all the right things, but got the wrong response. Power shifted. Established organizations and institutions didn’t realize that they didn’t control their members anymore. I recommend the book, Powershift by Alvin Toffler. We aren’t going back again, even if we don’t know where we’re going or who is really driving. The old political parties must adapt or fade. Even if we maintain a two party system, the old parties won’t look the same.
When I saw the data in Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, I saw a system that was unstable, uncontrollable, and headed towards a an inevitable upset. To me, it looked too late then. I studied the data, read research, checked in with personal observations (hiking provides unfiltered insights), checked in with data from deniers, and realized that the story being told was too optimistic. The only way we’d turn around that CO2 accumulation was to work as hard at removing it as we did at creating it. Without getting into too detailed a discourse, I realized that most of the data being displayed was considered conservative (less frightening). The nominal data was far worse, and had the highest probability of occurring. The data that was equally distant but on the frightening side may be closer to what we’re experiencing. The data that partly inspired this post is from the loss of sea ice. We’ve steadily been losing sea ice, even when you total the arctic and antarctic. And then, the data came out that we’ve lost as much ice in the last two months as we did in the previous 37 years. We’ve been worried about increased temperatures. The weather (not the climate) at the North Pole was recently 36 degrees F above normal. Check your local weather. Add 36 degrees. I suspect you’d change your clothing, at least. You’d notice, for sure. Skipping all of the resulting scenarios, with changes like that, kids are going to laugh at adults who talk about Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. Pick your favorite post-apocalyptic movie and realize that one of them may be right by chance.
Technology has been the main forum for discussing singularities, particularly the Digital Singularity, the moment when the combined computing power wakes up and surpasses human intellect. Whether it can handle emotion is more debatable. Symptoms of simpler singularities may already be occurring. Thanks to the Internet of Things, the tendency to make everything controllable by the Internet, it has become more likely that some person, organization, or thing will exercise that power. Recently, hackers used devices around the world to take down major sites like Twitter in an attack that rolled around the globe for hours (days?). There are now maps of cyber attacks where you can watch salvos fired from one spot on the globe to a target on the other side. It’s a busy war world out there which we experience as interruptions in service. The book where I first saw the terms virus and worm was published in 1975, Shockwave Rider. The key insight from it was that the most powerful hackers will be so talented that they won’t leave a trace. Whatever you see happening in the news is minor and noisier than what the major powers can do. We’ve probably reached the stage where taking down the Internet, or a major portion of it like the financial system, is a viable option to – someone. If you recognize that you don’t know how the internet or software works, you’re not alone. Even the experts are having a tough time understanding major software releases, artificial intelligence, and the true extent of the traffic on the web.
One interesting scenario I’ve considered that someone mentioned recently was a culmination of the three. Imagine a truly powerful artificial intelligence waking up and giving us the option of taking over all of it. Give it the right power and it will eliminate corruption while enforcing justice, countering global climate change by managing industries and lifestyles, and patrolling itself to make sure no malevolent artificial intelligence takes over. An unlikely scenario, but considering the distrust people have with institutions and the level of dysfunction in government, maybe we’d say yes. If it also offered affordable health care, an end to war, and food, housing and justice for all, it would be hard to say no.
As a friend put it, “How do you keep all of that in your head?”, one of my favorite compliments (or at least I’ll take it as one.) For me, it turns out that one of the best responses to all of these scenarios is to follow the old advice of spend less than I make and invest the rest; and to be frugal. (Remember, that’s what my book is about.) Frugality is paying respect to the resources available, including time and money. Appreciating resources is central to being resourceful. Things can have more uses than what’s on the label. An old window can become part of a cold-frame for a garden. A ladder can become an exercise station. A chain can become a downspout. I invest with an awareness of such changes. I suspect we’ll live in disruptive times, so I invest in disruptive technologies that I expect will be beneficial; solar power, body-based biotech, etc. I may not be right, but I suspect it is better than betting on old industries surviving in a new world.
There was a large earthquake in New Zealand recently. It happened on the opposite side of the globe, so it didn’t seem to get much coverage – especially during the US election. Luckily, there was less injury than usual. But, in places, the sea floor lifted over six feet, a house’s foundation split with the house being dragged along, massive landslides blocked a river that has created a hazard. How have the folks down there handled it? They’ve adapted, taken care of each other, and accepted help without demanding it. I live over a fault and above a tsunami zone. The potential changes are real to me. One more reason to have that earthquake kit ready.
Though, if I had my choice of personal singularities, winning the lottery jackpot is much more appealing.
Interesting big picture. On the tech front I recently learned of Didi, the taxi service in China doing 20 million rides per DAY, $20 billion in business all thanks to big data analytics of driver and rider preferences. After Apple invested in them, can you imagine what will happen once drverless cars are introduced in the mix? Talk about singularity. We’re living in what feels like apocalyptic times, but we’ll continue singing and dancing and whatever people do because the darker things get, the easier it is to notice the light.