Apocalypse Now

We’re a bit busy with a slow motion move, so my postings may be less frequent than usual.

It’s fairly common for people to say that the future world will be a terrible place for one reason or another. I wonder to what extent that has already happened. The world today is radically and completely different from the world of 150 years ago. Nobody back then would have predicted suburban sprawl or the extent to which we’ve paved the earth. We live a lot longer, but our food has become homogenized and much of it would have been unrecognizable back then. Are we already living in the future apocalypse?

Perhaps a better way to get at this is the notion popular with some SF writers of the singularity. As I’ve written before I don’t find the idea to be very likely. But perhaps one way to describe the singularity is the point in time beyond which life becomes unpredictable and perhaps incomprehensible. By that definition, I think the singularity happened early in the 20th century. Don’t expect some remarkable singularity to happen in the future–it already happened in the past.


  1. ncm said,

    March 31, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

    Historically, singularities are common, but they are generally called “collapses”, and local. (Cf. Jared Diamond, “Collapse”.) The coming coll^Wsingularity differs in being global, therefore total. Probably some people will survive it.

    Diamond notes a few societies that pulled back from the brink of collapse, notably the New Guinea Highlands 8 centuries ago, and Shogun-era Japan 4 centuries years ago. We might also. He lists twelve global crises each sufficient, if not solved, to trigger our own collapse. The other difference from previous collapses is that we are fully equipped to predict ours, in detail, and to know how, in principle, to prevent it. What we may lack is the ability to organize well enough and fast enough to apply our knowledge.

  2. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    April 1, 2008 @ 6:38 am

    I don’t regard collapse as equivalent to singularity. If singularity is to have any useful meaning at all, it has to mean some sort of non-linear change that is not a collapse. It’s reasonable to argue that the same trends suggesting that a singularity will happen actually suggest that a collapse will happen, but that doesn’t mean that a collapse is a singularity.

    At least these days I don’t think our society is going to collapse. I think the biggest advantage we have is that we expect things to change. Many societies in the past did not expect change, and thus found it very hard to deal with the issues around depleting essential resources. I don’t think we know how to avoid depleting those resources, but I think we are very capable at predicting what will happen when we do and dealing with the changes that will result.

  3. fche said,

    April 1, 2008 @ 7:41 am

    I see no reason why people couldn’t experience multiple “singularities” in the sense of drastically different/unpredictable lifestyles. There is also little reason to assume that a “singularity” must be the same thing as societal collapse or death & destruction, or whatever ncm is predicting.

  4. ncm said,

    April 1, 2008 @ 11:56 am

    My point is that we have huge volumes of historical information about exponential change affecting whole societies, and the overwhelmingly most common result is collapse. There’s no denying that life after a collapse defies linear predictions that might have been made before it.

    I’m not saying that collapse is the only kind of singularity, just the most likely, based both on logic and history. What we can say with certainty is that the (presumed) “good kind” of singularity cannot happen if we suffer a collapse first, as a consequence of climate change, terrestrial ecosystem demolition, marine ecosystem demolition, oil shock, global thermonuclear war, or what-have-you.

    So, what are our chances of forestalling all of those long enough to come up with something to make them all irrelevant? Judging by current behavior, not great; thus far the most characteristic behavior pattern observed (with the creditable exception of freon vs. ozone) has been systematic denial.

  5. etbe said,

    April 2, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

    One thing that is worth noting is that the majority of the value in our civilisation is in knowledge. With computers knowledge is easy to copy and to share.

    In the past when libraries were burned significant amounts of knowledge were lost forever.

    Wikipedia is easy to copy and many people have copies of it. For a new society to develop our technological developments based on a copy of the English language Wikipedia would be significantly easier than doing it from scratch.

    Modern switch-mode PSUs used for laptops are listed as taking voltages from 100V to 240V, given the irregularities in power supply they would have to be designed to accept anything from 90V to 300V. As long as people can start to recover from a collapse within 10 years there should be a good supply of data around to help the recovery.

    Maybe we should start a project to prepare for a collapse and a recovery just in case.

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