The IFTF Blog
Grumpy, Happy Collaboration: The Drug of Futurists
On Wednesday, August 3, at 10:28am I got a "mention" ping from Tweetdeck. This is the message I received:
@askpang @futuryst @dunagan23 @thezhanly Gentlemen? "The Singularity is Boring" an Open Collaborative "Mock"-Up bit.ly/qaCm1u
Going to the google doc, I came across the title slide, "Alternatives to the Singularity: A Collaborative Presentation by/for Grumpy Futurists." I guess it was a rush of dopamine or some other pleasure neurotransmitters, because i immediately felt the delicious exuberance of recognizing a shared sensibility, as well as the anticipation of passionate catharsis with colleagues. The door was open, this was going to be fun.
And reading through the first few slides, my initial reactions were confirmed. Noah Raford, a researcher in collaborative engagement, especially collaborative foresight, sent me that tweet, and several of the first slides were his creations, along with others in a digital chattering pack of futures-oriented folk, including Justin Pickard, Scott Smith, and Wendy Schultz. Now, I've met and know Wendy very well, but I've only corresponded with Noah, Justin, and Scott via twitter. And yet, this felt like I just walked in to my favorite bar, and all these friends shouted my name.
The instructions were simple (paraphrasing): this is an open document to "take the piss" out of the concept of the singularity. The "singularity," as described on the second slide (The Singularity is Boring), is "The hypothetical future emergence of greater-than human intelligence through technological means." Following this description was the commentary, "Blah, Blah, Blah...What else is there?" Oh boy, I thought to myself, here we go.
The Singularity is a popular, if not to say infamous, concept around Silicon Valley. Most notably, it is associated with Vernor Vinge, Ray Kurzweil, and since 2009, the Singularity University, a short-course initiated by Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis and supported by Google and NASA-Ames, amongst others. It was designed to train executives, students, and technologists in the ways of preparing for, bringing about, and profiting from the "emergence of greater than human intelligence." It may not be a mainstream term across the world, but in Silicon Valley, where I live and work, it is a continually hot and debatable topic.
I won't go into the details of the arguments for or against it here. But what I would like to call out are the cultural, philosophical, but most importantly, aesthetic dimensions of the Singularity community. Forgive me for painting with broad strokes (this whole story is wading in glib waters), but the general characteristics of Singularity advocates tend toward messianic zeal, intolerance of critiques (especially if those critiques smack of ethical, political, or social constraints), impatience with techno-skepticism, and a pervading self-righteous earnestness. Singulatarians seem to take themselves very seriously. Their proclaimations make for great newspaper quotes and soundbite fodder as well.
If you are around the futures game long enough, you will be provoked, informed, and annoyed by various shades of techno-utopianism. Sometimes shallowness comes alongside fervor. For academic and professional futurists, what gets called futures and foresight in the popular media bears no resemblance to the kind of thinking and work we do. "Here comes yet another story that gets it wrong." So, there are many pent-up professional as well as aesthetic frustrations, and the Singularity is a surrogate for a large chunk of them. Raford offered an avenue for futurists to express those frustrations together, in a light-hearted, snarky, silly way. Besides being humorously polemic, it offered the chance to "geek out" on futures inside-jokes, while exposing the tropes and cliches that permeate our world. It was, as Wendy Schultz put it, "futurist crack."
The first slides were weird, and esoteric, cynical, and wonderful. I was laughing out loud. Trolololitarity posited a world of 70s communist humor. "In Russia, the Internet surfs you." My favorite of the early slides, Zizekularity, told of a world in which Slovenian political philosopher Slavoj Zizek is right about everything. Crapularity, Grouponularity, Abu Dhabularity, Singaporularity.
Much of the joy came from the fact that it was an open document, and you didn't know who or what was coming next. The next wave saw other futurists jumping in: me, Stuart Candy, Jamais Cascio, Zhan Li, Chris Arkenberg, and a few others. Seeing the "crack-like" addictive effect of the experience, I posited the Collabularity, wherein by 2012, every single person on Earth is contributing to the document, venting their own emotional gas about THE FUTURE we are being sold. Futurists like to go "meta."
As the stock-market crumbled on Thursday, "The Singularity is Boring" rocketed into the twitter-verse statosphere (well, at least higher than the regular worm's eye view level). Eventually being picked up by widely followed tweeters (and writers!) Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic, and BrainPicking's Maria Popova. The number of slides approched 50, the googledoc server began to shimmy and shake, and the buzz was deafening. The crowded space now filled with actual singulatarians, folks who didn't get the joke, and other random curiosity seekers.
Eventually, this morning, Raford archived the original "The Singularity is Boring" to preserve that moment in time. However, an open, living document is still thriving here. Have a look at both to see the joyously grumpy side of the futurist mind, and what a well-timed, well-played collaborative experience looks like. There are now almost 70 slides on the open "Singularity is Boring" document. What cliché about THE FUTURE bothers you? Get in there and tell the world, and feel free to be grumpy about it.