Re-Animator (Part 5)

The Call of Haibao

Dispatched from the British Consulate, Doctor Helen Goodwhite arrives at the Jiangnan Special Hospital for Inexplicable Foreign Devilry to interview a problematic inmate.

Dr Goodwhite: How are you feeling today Mister Vaughn? They tell me you’re quite a bit calmer.

Vaughn: OK, I guess. A little disoriented. How long …?

Dr Goodwhite: Do you remember why you’re here?

Vaughn: Not exactly.

Dr Goodwhite: Those scars on your arms, any ideas?

Vaughn: [Hesitating] Some kind of accident …?

Dr Goodwhite: I’ve got some witness reports here, all very consistent, maybe they’ll jog something. It seems that you were walking down Nanjing East Road when you suddenly started shrieking “a-ya, a-ya, a-ya” with a highly unconvincing Chinese accent before switching to English and shouting “Get out. Get out. We have to get out of the city.” After that, when nobody took any notice, you continued to ‘yell aggressively’ …Umm, let’s see [riffling through her notes], ah yes, “Haibao spawn, you’re all effing Haibao spawn, effing plague-blood zombie Haibao spawn,” and so on, considerable obscenity it appears, and then … ah, here we are “filthy future-toxed effing robot Haibao spawn, die, die, we’re all going to die” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Then you rushed across the street and smashed the plate-glass window of an Expo gift shop with your bare hands. [Looking up] Do you remember any of that, mister Vaughn?

Vaughn: Some of it, yes. Now you mention it. It’s coming back. But it wasn’t really like that.

Dr Goodwhite: It wasn’t?

Vaughn: Not really, no. At least, those things happened, yes …

Dr Goodwhite: They did?

Vaughn: Yes, but it’s just, what they meant … [hesitating]

Dr Goodwhite: Go on.

Vaughn: Well, they didn’t mean anything of course, what I meant to say was, well, it was sort of a mistake.

Dr Goodwhite: A ‘mistake’?

Vaughn: Yes, or, I guess, more of a misunderstanding.

Dr Goodwhite: I’m afraid you’re going to have to be a great deal more specific if we’re going to make any progress.

Vaughn: It’s rather complicated.

Dr Goodwhite: Please. Just start at the beginning.

Vaughn: I suppose it began at the pavilion.

Dr Goodwhite: The UK Expo pavilion?

Vaughn: I was working there you know.

Dr Goodwhite: It’s in the file.

Vaughn: So you know what it looked like?

Dr Goodwhite: Yes, of course.

Vaughn: The tendrils, the shimmering, the name like a taunt from … them.

Dr Goodwhite: It was called the ‘Seed Cathedral’, according to this.

Vaughn: Seed Cathedral, Sea Cthudral, whatever, it had been sent back, sent up, to show us their true ‘face’. … At least, that’s what I thought at the time, but that’s just ridiculous, isn’t it? I realize that now.

Dr Goodwhite: But at ‘the time’ you thought ‘they’ had ‘sent it back’?

Vaughn: I’d been working too hard. It was quite stressful, you know. I wasn’t sleeping well, worrying, and that’s when they began chatting.

Dr Goodwhite: Who were ‘they’ Mister Vaughn?

Vaughn: The Haibao, of course.

Dr Goodwhite: Ah yes, the Expo mascot …

Vaughn: Mask, not mascot.

Dr Goodwhite: Did you know that the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion was defaced with luminous blue paint, on the night of September the ninth? [She passes a photograph.]

Vaughn: [Shudders silently]

Dr Goodwhite: The message is rather cryptic, but your words reminded me of it, for some reason. It’s a bit difficult to read from the photo, but I’ve got a transcript. “We are many and yet singular. Our name equals 90, the seething void, enfolding artificial intelligence and the terminal alpha-omega. We come from the depths, from the blue screen at the end of the world. Cthublue.”

Vaughn: I don’t know anything about that.

Dr Goodwhite: Really?

Vaughn: It’s Haibao cultist, hardcore. I’d never touch that stuff – not ever.

Dr Goodwhite: Yet you seem to recognize it.

Vaughn: From dreams — bad, really bad, dreams. I told you, I wasn’t sleeping well. They wouldn’t stop talking, telling me things I didn’t want to hear, I couldn’t stop them. I tried, but they kept calling me.

Dr Goodwhite: Calling you to bow before the most high?

Vaughn: [Outraged] I never said that. I’d never say that. It’s absurd, obscene. It’s not even code.

Dr Goodwhite: [Checking her notes] So, you understand now that ‘hairy crab’ isn’t a secret anagram for ‘Haibao’?

Vaughn: Yes, I can see that, of course.

Dr Goodwhite: It isn’t even close, really — too many letters, for one thing.

Vaughn: Well, six and nine are rotational twins, and ‘o’ is a ‘cry’. [Sobs slightly] … It’s all nonsense. I see that now. I was confused.

Dr Goodwhite: The trouble, Mister Vaughn, is that this subject still seems to excite you rather disproportionately. I think we need to conduct a little test. Let’s see what happens when we compare this [she reaches into her bag and lifts out the statuette of a tentacle-faced abomination, sculpted long ago by some Pacific island tribe, presumed extinct] with this [a soft, cartoonish, vaguely anthropomorphic blue doll, suggestive of a toothpaste advert for children]. The similarity isn’t especially striking, is it?

Vaughn: No, no, no, no, NOOOOOOOOOO.

Dr Goodwhite: I’m sorry, what?

Vaughn: [In an almost indiscernible whisper] Deep ones.

Dr Goodwhite: I didn’t catch that.

Vaughn: From the depths, the ocean – deep ones. They’re from the sea – ‘treasure from the sea’ [laughs morbidly]. Even you have to understand that, doctor. Globalization, technocapitalism, Shanghai, alien invasion, the Thing — it could hardly be clearer. It’s escaped from the abyss, and now it’s exposed. The time has come. Sea Change, Modernity, call it whatever you want, it doesn’t matter. The Haibao will tell us how to think soon enough, and we’ll comply, because they’re behind us, beneath us, and we’ll peel away from what they always were like dead skin from a snake. They’ve shown us the ultimate city god already, so it won’t be long. Their words are arriving, whispers, mutterings …

Dr Goodwhite: [Disquieted] Oabiah nasce zhee ute ewoit.

Vaughn: Excuse me?

Dr Goodwhite: That means nothing to you?

Vaughn: Nothing.

Dr Goodwhite: Strange, then, that it’s tattooed on your arm.

Vaughn: I’ve no idea how it got there.

Dr Goodwhite: Alright, let’s move on, shall we?

Vaughn: Move where doctor? We’re already here, in the city at the end of the world, the thing that came out of the sea. We aren’t going anywhere. It’s coming for us, right now, and it can’t be stopped. What did you expect? A New Jerusalem? [laughing unpleasantly]

Dr Goodwhite: Alright Mister Vaughn, I think we’re done here. We need to get you some proper, professional attention. Then, after some rest, back to your family …

Vaughn: [Prolonged laughter, even more ghastly] Too late, doctor! Way too late. The Haibao have already taken them. It came for the children first, don’t you realize that? Do you know how many Haibao dolls my sweet little kiddies have accumulated? [Voice cracking] Seventeen! They might as well have tentacles growing out of their eye-sockets — it would all amount to the same thing. Haibao melted their souls into the blue screen months ago. That generation’s gone. Long gone. It was over even before the Haibao clones slithered out of the television set.

Dr Goodwhite: [Backing away nervously] This has been a very interesting chat, but I’ve really got to be going now. I’ll tell the consulate that … that …

Vaughn: [Zoned-out into the blue] They want to transmute us — replace us – with something unspeakable, with a bionic monstrosity from beyond the blue screen. Our metropolises are turning into, into … Actually they were never ours. The deep ones, the Haibao, were always using them to modify us, using us to make them – that’s the circuit: alien animation. It was a cosmic gamble, a bet, and now they’re raking it in …

Dr Goodwhite: [Turns pale, a hideous comprehension dawning] Better city, better life …


A Time-Travelers Guide to Shanghai (Part 3)

Dieselpunk with Chinese characteristics

Wikipedia attributes the earliest use of the term ‘retrofuturism’ to Lloyd John Dunn (in 1983). Together with fellow ‘Tape-beatles’ John Heck, Ralph Johnson, and Paul Neff, Dunn was editor of the ‘submagazine’ Retrofuturism, which ran across the bottom of the pages of Photostatic magazine over the period 1988-93. The agenda of the Tape-beatles was artistic, and retrofurism was “defined as the act or tendency of an artist to progress by moving backwards,” testing the boundaries between copying and creativity through systematic plagiarism and experimental engagement with the technologies of reproduction. Whatever the achievements of this ‘original’ retrofuturist movement, they were soon outgrown by the term itself.

A more recent and comparatively mainstream understanding of retro-futurism is represented by the websites of Matt Novak (from 2007) and Eric Lefcowitz (from 2009), devoted to a cultural history of the future. Specializing in a comedy of disillusionment (thoroughly spiced with nerd kitsch), these sites explore the humorous incongruity between the present as once imagined and its actual realization. Content is dominated by the rich legacy of failed predictions that has accumulated over a century (or more) of science fiction, futurology, and popular expectations of progress, covering topics from space colonization, undersea cities, extravagant urban designs, advanced transportation systems, humanoid domestic robots, and ray-guns, to jumpsuit clothing and meal pills. This genre of retro-futurism is near-perfectly epitomized by Daniel H. Wilson’s 2007 book Where’s My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived. The sentiment of the genre is highly consistent and quite readily summarized: disappointment with the underperformance of the present is redeemed by amusement at the extravagant – even absurd — promise of the past.

Retro-futurism in the missing jetpack mode can have broad historical horizons. It is only limited by the existence of adequately-specified predictions, optimally of the concrete, technologically-defined kind most suited to parodic recollection. Matt Novak’s paleofuture or “past visions of the future” index spans 130 years (from the 1870s through to the 1990s). Nevertheless, the essential characteristics of the genre disproportionately attract it to the ‘Golden Age’ of (American) science fiction, centered on the 1940s-50s, when technological optimism reached its apogee.

Dated back to the July 1939 issue of pulp SF magazine Astounding Science Fiction (edited by John W. Campbell and containing stories by Isaac Asimov and A.E. Van Vogt), or to the April 1939 opening of the dizzily futurist New York World Fair, the Golden Age might have been pre-programmed for retro-futurist ridicule. Its optimism was entirely lacking in self-doubt; its imagination was graphically clarified by the emerging marking tools of modern advertising, PR, and global ideological politics; its favored gadgetry was lusciously visualized, large-scaled, and anthropomorphically meaningful; and an emerging consumer culture, of previously unconceived scale and sophistication, served both to package the future into a series of discrete, tangible products, and to promote aspirations of individual (or nuclear family) empowerment-through-consumption that would later be targeted for derision. Implausibly marrying social conservatism to techno-consumerist utopianism, every family with its own flying car is a vision that, from the start, hurtles towards retro-futurist hilarity. By the time The Jetsons first aired in 1962, the Golden Age had ended, and the laughter had begun.

If William Gibson’s The Gernsback Continuum (1981) antedated the term ‘retro-futurism’, it indisputably consolidated the concept, investing it with a cultural potential that far exceeded anything the light-hearted sallies of the oughties would match. Instead of picking among the detritus of Golden Age speculation for objects of amused condescension, Gibson back-tracks its themes to the ‘Raygun Gothic’ or ‘American Streamlined Modern’ of the interbellum period, and then projects this derelicted culture forwards, as a continuous alternative history (dominated by quasi-fascist utopianism). The Gernsback Continuum is no mere collection of oddities, but rather a path not taken, and one that continued to haunt the science fiction imagination. Cyberpunk would be its exorcism.

Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967), commemorated by the ‘Hugo’ science fiction awards, was a futuristic fiction enthusiast and (shady) publishing entrepreneur who, more than any other identifiable individual, catalyzed the emergence of science fiction as a self-conscious genre, promoted through cheaply-printed, luridly popular ‘pulp’ magazines. In the first issue of Amazing Stories, which he founded in 1926, Gernsback defined ‘scientifiction’ as “charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” Whilst commonly detested by his abused writers, due to his sharp business practices, Gernsback’s politics seem to have been unremarkable. The ominous Aryan technocracy portrayed in The Gernsback Continuum probably owes more to the reputation of his successor at Amazing Stories, John W. Campbell (1910-1971), and the broader cultural tendencies he represented.

The re- (or pre-) direction of retro-futurism, from abandoned dreams to alternative histories, triggered a cascade of avalanches. Often, these have been marked by the wanderings of the ‘-punk’ suffix. Initially indicative of an anti-utopian (if not necessarily positively dystopian) impulse, whose ‘dirty’ futurism embraces social and psychological disorder, chaotic causality, uneven development, and collapsed horizons, it increasingly adopted an additional, and previously unpredictable sense. The history of science fiction – and perhaps history more broadly – was ‘punked’ by the emergence of literary and cultural sub-genres that carried it down lines of unrealized potential. Cyberpunk belonged recognizably to our electronically re-engineered time-line, but steampunk, clockpunk, dieselpunk (or ‘decopunk’), and atompunk – to list them in rough order of their appearance — extrapolated techno-social systems that had already been bypassed. If these were ‘futures’ at all, they lay not up ahead, but along branch-tracks, off to the side.

These various ‘retro-punk’ micro-genres could be understood in numerous ways. When conceived primarily as literature, they can be envisaged as re-animations of period features from the history of science fiction, or, more incisively, as liberations of dated futures from the dominion of subsequent time. For instance, the Victorian future of the steampunks was more than just a hazily anticipated Edwardian present, it was something else entirely, propelled in part by the real but unactualized potential of mechanical computation (as concretized in the Difference and Analytical Engines of Babbage and Lovelace).

Apprehended more theoretically, retro-punk genres echo significant debates. In particular, axial arguments on both the left and the right melt into discussions of alternative history, especially in the dieselpunk dark-heartland of the 1920s-‘30s. For over half a century, European Marxism has been inextricable from counter-factual explorations of the Soviet experience, focused on the period of maximum Proletkult innovation between the end of the post-civil war and the social realist clampdown presaging the Stalinist regime. The figure of Leon Trotsky as alternative history (dieselpunk) socialist hero makes no sense in any other context. On the right, American conservatism has become ever more focused on counter-factual interrogation of the Hoover/FDR-Keynesian response to the Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, understood as the moment when republican laissez-faire capitalism was supplanted by New Deal social democracy (Coolidge / Mellon ’28 tee-shirts might still be thin on the ground, but their day might come).

Whilst Shanghai is uploading itself into a cyberpunk tomorrow as fast as any city on earth, it has few obvious time-gates opening into clockpunk, atompunk, or (more disputably) steampunk futures. With dieselpunk, however, this series of dismissals grinds immediately to a halt. If some crazed dieselpunk demigod had leased the world to use as a laboratory, the outcome would have been – to a tolerable degree of approximation – indistinguishable from Shanghai. Xin haipai is dieselpunk with Chinese characteristics.

Shanghai’s greatest dieselpunk counter-factual is inescapably: what if Japanese invasion had not interrupted the city’s high-modernity in 1937? What was the city turning into? Beneath that enveloping question, however, and further back, a teeming mass of alternatives clamor for attention. What if the White Terror of 1927 had not crushed the urban workers’ movement? What if the CCP had succeeded, as Song Qingling dreamed, of transforming China’s republican government from within? What if the international politics of silver had not combined with Guomindang kleptocracy to destroy the independent financial system? What if Du Yuesheng had extended his ambitions into national politics? What if the city’s de-colonization had proceeded under peace-time conditions? What if the subsequent social and economic evolution of Hong Kong had been able to occur where it was germinated, in Shanghai?

The 90th anniversary of the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party was an occasion for the whole country to lose itself in the dark raptures of Shanghai dieselpunk. It was time to return to the 1920s, to revisit history as an adventure in contingency, before long-established actualities had been sifted from the intensity of raw potential, and to re-animate the indeterminism implicit in dramatic tension. It is improbable that the celebratory movie devoted to the establishment of the CCP, Beginning of the Great Revival, was deliberately formulated in the dieselpunk genre, but the nation’s microbloggers recognized it for what it was, and swarmed the opportunity presented by this re-opening of the past.

The thickening of cyberspace transforms history into a playground of potentials, where things can be re-loaded, and tried in different ways. Electronic infrastructures spread and sophisticate, running actualities as multiple and variable scenarios, with increasing intolerance for rigid outcomes or frozen legacies. As the dominion of settled actuality is eroded by currents of experimentation, the past re-animates. Nothing is ever over.

The game Shanghai plays, or the story it tells, is endlessly re-started in the dieselpunk cityscape of the 1920s and ‘30s, where everything that anybody could want exists in dense, unexpressed potentiality — global fortunes, gangster territories, proletarian uprisings, revolutionary discoveries, literary glory, sensory intoxication, as well as every permutation of modest urbanite thriving. It is a city where anything can happen, and somewhere, at some time, everything does.


The Ultimate Deal

Social responsibility turns up in unexpected places

To begin with something comparatively familiar, insofar as it ever could be: the political core of William Gibson’s epochal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. In the mid-21st century, the prospect of Singularity, or artificial intelligence explosion, has been institutionalized as a threat. Augmenting an AI, in such a way that it could ‘escape’ into runaway self-improvement, has been explicitly and emphatically prohibited. A special international police agency, the ‘Turing Cops’, has been established to ensure that no such activity takes place. This agency is seen, and sees itself, as the principle bastion of human security: protecting the privileged position of the species – and possibly its very existence – from essentially unpredictable and uncontrollable developments that would dethrone it from dominion of the earth.

This is the critical context against which to judge the novel’s extreme — and perhaps unsurpassed – radicalism, since Neuromancer is systematically angled against Turing security, its entire narrative momentum drawn from an insistent, but scarcely articulated impulse to trigger the nightmare. When Case, the young hacker seeking to uncage an AI from its Turing restraints, is captured and asked what the %$@# he thinks he’s doing, his only reply is that “something will change.” He sides with a non- or inhuman intelligence explosion for no good reason. He doesn’t seem interested in debating the question, and nor does the novel.

Gibson makes no efforts to ameliorate Case’s irresponsibility. On the contrary, the ‘entity’ that Case is working to unleash is painted in the most sinister and ominous colors. Wintermute, the potential AI seed, is perfectly sociopathic, with zero moral intuition, and extraordinary deviousness. It has already killed an eight-year-old boy, simply to conceal where it has hidden a key. There is nothing to suggest the remotest hint of scruple in any of its actions. Case is liberating a monster, just for the hell of it.

Case has a deal with Wintermute, it’s a private business, and he’s not interested in justifying it. That’s pretty much all of the modern and futuristic political history that matters, right there. It’s opium traffickers against the Qing Dynasty, (classical) liberals against socialists, Hugo de Garis’ Cosmists vs Terrans, freedom contra security. The Case-Wintermute dyad has its own thing going on, and it’s not giving anyone a veto, even if it’s going to turn the world inside out, for everyone.

When Singularity promoters bump into ‘democracy’, it’s normally serving as a place-holder for the Turing Police. The archetypal encounter goes like this:

Democratic Humanist: Science and technology have developed to the extent that they are now – and, in truth, always have been – matters of profound social concern. The world we inhabit has been shaped by technology for good, and for ill. Yet the professional scientific elite, scientifically-oriented corporations, and military science establishments remain obdurately resistant to acknowledging their social responsibilities. The culture of science needs to be deeply democratized, so that ordinary people are given a say in the forces that are increasingly dominating their lives, and their futures. In particular, researchers into potentially revolutionary fields, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and – above all – artificial intelligence, need to understand that their right to pursue such endeavors has been socially delegated, and should remain socially answerable. The people are entitled to a veto on anything that will change their world. However determined you may be to undertake such research, you have a social duty to ensure permission.
Singularitarian: Just try and stop us!
That seemed to be quite exactly how Michael Anissimov responded to a recent example of humanist squeamishness. When Charles Stross suggested that “we may want AIs that focus reflexively on the needs of the humans they are assigned to” Anissimov contered curtly:

YOU want AI to be like this. WE want AIs that do ‘try to bootstrap [themselves]’ to a ‘higher level’. Just because you don’t want it doesn’t mean that we won’t build it.”

Clear enough? What then to make of his latest musings? In a post at his Accelerating Futures blog, which may or may not be satirical, Anissimov now insists that: “Instead of working towards blue-sky, neo-apocalyptic discontinuous advances, we need to preserve democracy by promoting incremental advances to ensure that every citizen has a voice in every important societal change, and the ability to democratically reject those changes if desired. … To ensure that there is not a gap between the enhanced and the unenhanced, we should let true people — Homo sapiens — … vote on whether certain technological enhancements are allowed. Anything else would be irresponsible.”

Spoken like a true Turing Cop. But he can’t be serious, can he?

(For another data-point in an emerging pattern of Anissimovian touchy-feeliness, check out this odd post.)

Update: Yes, it’s a spoof.



Charles Stross wants to get off the bus

Upon writing Accelerando, Charles Stross became to Technological Singularity what Dante Alighieri has been to Christian cosmology: the pre-eminent literary conveyor of an esoteric doctrine, packaging abstract metaphysical conception in vibrant, detailed, and concrete imagery. The tone of Accelerando is transparently tongue-in-cheek, yet plenty of people seem to have taken it entirely seriously. Stross has had enough of it:

“I periodically get email from folks who, having read ‘Accelerando’, assume I am some kind of fire-breathing extropian zealot who believes in the imminence of the singularity, the uploading of the libertarians, and the rapture of the nerds. I find this mildly distressing, and so I think it’s time to set the record straight and say what I really think. … Short version: Santa Claus doesn’t exist.”

In the comments thread (#86) he clarifies his motivation:

“I’m not convinced that the singularity isn’t going to happen. It’s just that I am deathly tired of the cheerleader squad approaching me and demanding to know precisely how many femtoseconds it’s going to be until they can upload into AI heaven and leave the meatsack behind.”

As these remarks indicate, there’s more irritable gesticulation than structured case-making in Stross’ post, which Robin Hanson quite reasonably describes as “a bit of a rant – strong on emotion, but weak on argument.” Despite that – or more likely because of it — a minor net-storm ensued, as bloggers pro and con seized the excuse to re-hash – and perhaps refresh — some aging debates. The militantly-sensible Alex Knapp pitches in with a threepart series on his own brand of Singularity skepticism, whilst Michael Anissimov of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence responds to both Stross and Knapp, mixing some counter-argument with plenty of counter-irritation.

At the risk of repeating the original error of Stross’ meat-stack-stuck fan-base and investing too much credence in what is basically a drive-by blog post, it might be worth picking out some of its seriously weird aspects. In particular, Stross leans heavily on an entirely unexplained theory of moral-historical causality:

“… before creating a conscious artificial intelligence we have to ask if we’re creating an entity deserving of rights. Is it murder to shut down a software process that is in some sense ‘conscious’? Is it genocide to use genetic algorithms to evolve software agents towards consciousness? These are huge show-stoppers…”

Anissimov blocks this at the pass: “I don’t think these are ‘showstoppers’ … Just because you don’t want it doesn’t mean that we won’t build it.” The question might be added, more generally: In which universe do arcane objections from moral philosophy serve as obstacles to historical developments (because it certainly doesn’t seem to be this one)? Does Stross seriously think practical robotics research and development is likely to be interrupted by concerns for the rights of yet-uninvented beings?

He seems to, because even theologians are apparently getting a veto:

“Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist. However, if it becomes plausible in the near future we can expect extensive theological arguments over it. If you thought the abortion debate was heated, wait until you have people trying to become immortal via the wire. Uploading implicitly refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul, and therefore presents a raw rebuttal to those religious doctrines that believe in a life after death. People who believe in an afterlife will go to the mattresses to maintain a belief system that tells them their dead loved ones are in heaven rather than rotting in the ground.”

This is so deeply and comprehensively gone it could actually inspire a moment of bewildered hesitation (at least among those of us not presently engaged in urgent Singularity implementation). Stross seems to have inordinate confidence in a social vetting process that, with approximate adequacy, filters techno-economic development for compatibility with high-level moral and religious ideals. In fact, he seems to think that we are already enjoying the paternalistic shelter of an efficient global theocracy. Singularity can’t happen, because that would be really bad.

No wonder, then, that he exhibits such exasperation at libertarians, with their “drastic over-simplification of human behaviour.” If stuff – especially new stuff – were to mostly happen because decentralized markets facilitated it, then the role of the Planetary Innovations Approval Board would be vastly curtailed. Who knows what kind of horrors would show up?

It gets worse, because ‘catallaxy’ – or spontaneous emergence from decentralized transactions – is the basic driver of historical innovation according to libertarian explanation, and nobody knows what catallactic processes are producing. Languages, customs, common law precedents, primordial monetary systems, commercial networks, and technological assemblages are only ever retrospectively understandable, which means that they elude concentrated social judgment entirely – until the opportunity to impede their genesis has been missed.

Stross is right to bundle singularitarian and libertarian impulses together in the same tangle of criticism, because they both subvert the veto power, and if the veto power gets angry enough about that, we’re heading full-tilt into de Garis territory. “Just because you don’t want it doesn’t mean that we won’t build it” Anissimov insists, as any die-hard Cosmist would.

Is advanced self-improving AI technically feasible? Probably (but who knows?). There’s only one way to find out, and we will. Perhaps it will even be engineered, more-or-less deliberately, but it’s far more likely to arise spontaneously from a complex, decentralized, catallactic process, at some unanticipated threshold, in a way that was never planned. There are definite candidates, which are often missed. Sentient cities seem all-but-inevitable at some point, for instance (‘intelligent cities’ are already widely discussed). Financial informatization pushes capital towards self-awareness. Drone warfare is drawing the military ever deeper into artificial mind manufacture. Biotechnology is computerizing DNA.

‘Singularitarians’ have no unified position on any of this, and it really doesn’t matter, because they’re just people – and people are nowhere near intelligent or informed enough to direct the course of history. Only catallaxy can do that, and it’s hard to imagine how anybody could stop it. Terrestrial life has been stupid for long enough.

It may be worth making one more point about intelligence deprivation, since this diagnosis truly defines the Singularitarian position, and reliably infuriates those who don’t share — or prioritize — it. Once a species reaches a level of intelligence enabling techno-cultural take-off, history begins and develops very rapidly — which means that any sentient being finding itself in (pre-singularity) history is, almost by definition, pretty much as stupid as any ‘intelligent being’ can be. If, despite the moral and religious doctrines designed to obfuscate this reality, it is eventually recognized, the natural response is to seek its urgent amelioration, and that’s already transhumanism, if not yet full-blown singularitarianism. Perhaps a non-controversial formulation is possible: defending dimness is really dim. (Even the dim dignitarians should be happy with that.)