A beating of wings

Friends today have been linking to a spare & elegant post by Carnegie Mellon statistician Cosma Shalizi (on a blog hosted by University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Complex Systems) arguing that the Singularity—that technological apotheosis towards which many futurists like to think our tools are pointing us—already took place.

In 1918.

Shalizi enumerates some of the major symptoms of the Singularity, locating them in the early twentieth century:

An implacable drive on the part of those networks to expand, to entrain more and more of the world within their own sphere? Check. (“Drive” is the best I can do; words like “agenda” or “purpose” are too anthropomorphic, and fail to acknowledge the radical novely and strangeness of these assemblages, which are not even intelligent, as we experience intelligence, yet ceaselessly calculating.)

The post ends with a flourish: a flutter of owl’s wings, an evocation of Hegel, to the effect that we’re always transposing history’s discordant notes into the key of the future. It reminded me of the scene from F. W. Murnau’s 1926 Faust (above), which contains one of the most stunning and remarkable visual effects in the history of film. (I don’t think that either progress or the past are Murnau’s pestilential demon—except whenever we make them so.)

Shalizi’s post also reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Concept of History,” which ends by noting that past and future share certain qualities:

Surely the time of the soothsayers, who divined what lay hidden in the lap of the future, was experienced neither as homogenous nor as empty. Whoever keeps this in mind will perhaps have an idea of how past time was experienced as remembrance: namely, just the same way.

The past and the future share this: ultimately, each one is the sum of unintended consequences.

[Faust via Robin Sloan]

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One comment

  1. Everything is cyclical. Our existence, in all it’s observable forms, points to this. Past and future are, in effect the same place, we’re just looking at them from a different perspective.

    I read once of someone asking what would be the temperature of absolute hot. We have an absolute measurable zero, what then is the hottest something can be? In the end the conclusion was that they are the same. At the hottest of temps all atoms and their component parts fall so far apart they cease to move. That then would cease all heat and we are back to zero.

    Nothing is a straight line in this place.

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