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Why I’m Optimistic Because Everything Will Be Terrible — An Interview with John Shirley

Well known cyberpunk author John Shirley recently gave a talk at TEDx Brussels in which he discusses two ideas of The Singularity, one true and one false, as well as a dark vision of the near future. As a cyberpunk writer, this is an appropriately dystopic vision of our near term future with effects of global warming driving large scale human disasters and an increasingly divided world with the richest humans benefiting first and most from rapidly advancing technologies.

John is best perhaps best known for his more recent horror work, but the Song Called Youth trilogy was how I heard about John’s writing. He also wrote several other novels City Come A-Walkin’ and Black Glass as well as the initial script for the goth cult classic The Crow.

City Come A-Walkin and Eclipse, the first book of the trilogy, were must reads for any self respecting cyberpunk Cold Warrior in the later 1980s, and I personally gave Eclipse to a number of high ranking people in the Air Force and other groups.

The entire trilogy is recently available as an eBook as well as dead trees version and is highly recommended.  The new edition also includes a new introduction from Richard Kadrey and biographical note by Bruce Sterling. John’s writing is raw rock and roll, and these are stories that you won’t be able to put down once you get started reading them. SCY are some of my favorite stories from the entire cyberpunk genre.

The complete text of John’s speech at TEDx in Brussels (November 2011) is here . The speech he actually gave used high points from this “off-the-cuff” essay, but was only about half as long. He  states on his web site that he prefers this longer version.The presentation he actually gave is below.
John’s talk at TED Brussels includes a few controversial points about The Singularity and I recently got together with him via email to ask him about them.
H+: In your TED talk, THE NEXT FIFTY YEARS: Why I’m Optimistic Because Everything Will Be Terrible… you mention two versions of The Singularity. The real Singularity and also a fake one. Could you say a bit more about these two versions of the singularity and describe what you mean exactly by the “fake” singularity?

John Shirley: The fake one is the superstitious one–I think it’s superstitious thinking, magical thinking, to believe that a peaking confluence of technological and computer driven innovation will lead to, for example, immortality–that’s not the only thing predicted for the singularity, but it’s the keystone of the prediction, it seems to me. Kurzweil and friends seem to think that technology will lead to immortality because you’ll be able to upload your “self” to some alternate self, and so on forever, never having to die. A copy of someone’s personality characteristics, the facts embodied in their memories, is not a self. A self is a whole that is more than the sum of the parts, a holistic, three dimensional, quite possibly four dimensional entity. It’s not something that can be uploaded into a machine. Even if you could reconstruct it, in a machine, that wouldn’t be you, that’d be a copy of you. Is a clone of you, you? This is not a biological clone, I know, but it’s a kind of technological clone concept–and there’s an infinite gap between the original and the copy. A reproduction is not the original painting. But they cling to it because like superstitious people everywhere, they fear death and look for a magical way out. They don’t know how this technology will work, really, they just assume the magical glory of technology will create it. This is as convincing as claiming that Jesus is coming back in the clouds of Revelation–that is, not at all. Technology is something few end users barely understand, and they fall back on primitive, instinctive, fearful interpretations of it, that will only get more primitive, hence the worship of “Gridfriend” by the illiterate technicki in my A SONG CALLED YOUTH cyberpunk trilogy.

The real singularity is just a kind of explosive growth in technological applications that will bring lots of new inventions and lots of new problems. Some of it will be good, some will be bad.

H+: What sort of things are going to be terrible?

John Shirley: Over reliance on technology can create a psychotic state. As Newsweek’s article “Is the Internet Making us Crazy?” noted, “The first good, peer-reviewed research is emerging, and the picture is much gloomier than the trumpet blasts of Web utopians have allowed. The current incarnation of the Internet—portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive—may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic. Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts, and normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.” Studies support this. Now when you talk to tech aficionados about this they treat you like a crazy old man waving his cane and they call you a Luddite. But calling for the intelligent and balanced use of technology is not calling for a Luddite eradication of it. It’s just saying learn how to use it right–and that means imposing limits. There’s something else I mentioned in another piece–I’m going modestly quote myself, here: “Think back to when technologies were imposed on us that passed labor along to the consumer — when we all began doing unpaid work for corporations. Customer service personnel were replaced by programs that required us to press 1 if we wanted this, 2 if we wanted that, 7 if we wanted to scream. We now do the work of gas station employees, conducting the money transaction ourselves, filling our own tanks. Supermarkets started self-service lines where you and a laser scanner do the checkout person’s job, and airlines now make us check ourselves onto flights at a touch-screen station. It can seem like we’re serving the machines at least as much as they’re serving us. But it’s the corporations we’re serving. All that technology is, itself, metaphor for our submissive relationship to the multinationals. Recently a news story from Tokyo flickered through internet news pages: A 43-year-old Japanese piano teacher’s sudden divorce from her online husband in a virtual game world made her so angry that she logged on and killed his digital persona, police said Thursday. The woman has been jailed on suspicion of illegally accessing a computer…” The woman in that story really lost touch with the difference between the person projected onto media, and the person.

Of course, over the next fifty years, as in the Ted X talk, the great dangers are Climate Change and the odd combination of flooding and drought, extremes of heat and cold, that will cause displacement of large part of Earth’s population of 7,8, perhaps 9 billion people. Resources will already be strained. The seas are becoming acidified because of this imbalance and we’ve overfished them so that half of all large fish stocks are completely gone. They make up a huge part of the world’s protein. The likelihood is that 1) people will hoard resources, and some militarily and financially empowered minority will have most of the resources in a way that’s far in excess of the inequity we already see and 2) people with these greater resources will be technological addicts, many of them sunk into an alternate virtual world. As I said in my talk, people who are quadriplegic have stated that they feel less emotion than they did, when they could still feel their entire bodies. The projection of the self into electronics reduces our relationship to the body, the seat of our emotions, and for several reasons that might lead to an increase in psychopathology.

And empathy may be a precious commodity in the future. Most people unconsciously cut off their empathy when they’re feeling endangered–when the population increases to 8 and 9 and 10 billion, we may instinctively become, as a race, proportionately less empathetic…which will have deadly consequences. People without empathy are people who will enslave, brutalize, exterminate, other people.

H+: So how can you also be optimistic? How can being optimistic work in a “terrible” world?

John Shirley: Because people are heterogeneous — there will always be rebels, even in the techno 1%, there will be people of conscience,there will be smart people “outside the dome” who will find their way in; there will be revolution and there will be rethinking. The damage we’re doing with a mindless use of technology…and remember it’s not the use of technology–that’s not what’s damaging…it’s the MINDLESS use of it…that damage to social structure and empathy, and the damage we’re doing to the environment, are going to be hugely instructive. Killer smogs led to changes in industry; numerous outbreaks of cholera led to cleaner water. People will learn. But first–society as a whole will go through hell.

H+: What new developments promise to make the world more terrible and can we do anything about this?

John Shirley: Here’s an example from my TED X talk: researchers in Seoul, Korea and in Bristol, England have developed plans for something they’re calling an “ecobot”–using the venus flytrap as a model. The ecobot is a robot that eats. It will be able to ingest flesh and turn it into fuel. Combine the ecobot with the evolving inorganic self-replicating entities planned by the scientists at the University of Glasgow…and ask yourself, Hey, how could THAT go wrong? All technology has a dark side and till we recognize this, we are blindsided when the dark side comes to fruition. So we change our attitude to it, and we subject it to tests. Here’s one that we should have instituted a hundred years ago: Does the new machine pollute? Then it’s still only HALF invented. Remember the dust bowl in the 20th century? That environmental disaster of desertification was caused by simple cultivation of land that wasn’t much suited for the kind of cultivation used–but at the time it seemed harmless. We figured it out after countless people died or were displaced. Technology can be used intelligently–or we can find ourselves in some technological “dust bowl.” Perhaps it might be like the fabled nanotech “gray goo”!

H+: The Song Called Youth trilogy was just reissued as an eBook I understand. These books were quite influential to me in my younger days. Cyberpunk now is a “classic” fiction form written in the last century and before many of these ideas were part of our everyday reality. How do you feel cyberpunk as a genre and SCY hold up? Is cyberpunk still a valid posture for a person living in the early 21st century?

John Shirley: The general idea of it holds up–it’s about the street’s uses for technology, it’s about the possible guerrilla uses of technology, it’s about, well, what happened in Egypt recently partly as a result of internet tech. The general outline of Bruce Sterling’s Shaper/Mech vision still seems valid. Bioengineering is going into overdrive. So is computer technology, cyborgianism and so on. There are upsides and downsides. My trilogy A SONG CALLED YOUTH seemed “too political” to some people when it first came out as it warned of the danger of a resurgence of racism mixed into neofascism and the dissolution of the separation of church and state…along with making numerous cybernetic predictions, predicting the current use of drones and the corporatocracy and so on…Now we’re in danger of the kind of social chaos that threatens to make the social dystopian aspect of the novels come true.

I never thought cyberpunk was a “valid posture” for anything–I just think it was a recognition that the near future would be jarring and dangerous and over run by corporate scumbags. That it would have a certain tone. And we’re getting there. Additionally a lot of science fiction is just metaphor for the present–and cyberpunk was that too. Still is.

H+: It is the end of the year and time for everyone to indulge in predictions for 2013. What do you think will be the most surprising area of technological advance in 2013?

John Shirley: Most people seem to think 3D printing is the next big thing, but I think they under estimate the cost of it, the raw materials usage of it, the rules that will be needed –eg, it will be illegal to print a gun and that rule can be to some extent successfully imposed…I don’t think it’s going to change things quite as fast as people suppose. When it does imagine what it’ll do to the private sector, to manufacturing, to the fortunes made from sweatshops in China and so on, now…or will the sweatshops be simply making 3D printers?

If quantum computing becomes really practical, that may create the possibility of real AIs, in the next few years…and that’s both a risk and a marvel. They could be of real help to us. If Hal doesn’t get too neurotic…

H+: Anything else I should have asked about or you would like my readers to know?

If readers want to know what’s coming from me, the lady who does the authorized John Shirley website usually has it covered. The site includes links to info on my recent novels like Everything is Broken. That’s - in early 2013, Black October Records will be bringing out a compilation of my recordings–Broken Mirror Glass. (Editor’s note: John also wrote lyrics for one of my favorite bands from the 70s, Blue Oyster Cult)