by Sebastian Olma
If you talk to someone who has been alive and conscious during the eighties and tell them about the recent popularity of Raymond Kurzweil’s idea of “technological singularity,” the response you get is usually: “You must be kidding, the guy’s a total nutcase!” And they have got good reason to be surprised as the man is exactly what they make him out to be. What the idea of technological singularity comes down to is that due to the acceleration of technological progress, we are approaching a point of cybernetic fusion, a point where artificial intelligence becomes so superior to its human version that it simply takes over. After that it is not only smooth but also transcendental sailing – with VALIS being your friendly new cybernetic steersman. Despite the fact that conceptually, singularity describes a point of total kairos, i.e., a point of “pure future,” when all bets are off and we’re delivered to an absolutely open future, Kurzweil and his followers somehow ‘know’ that after this point cybernetic benevolence will rule and we’ll have things like immortality.
Kurzweil, of course, is not the first nutcase who’s been lifted into the hall of ideological fame. Ayn Rand and Milton Freedman are two important predecessors whose ideas have helped to wreak the political and economic havoc we’re dealing with at the moment under the label of “financial crisis.” Formally, Kurzweil’s comeback today has to do with a careless extrapolation of something called Moore’s law, which, in actuality, is not a law but the observation made in 1965 by Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel, that the number of components in an integrated circuit is doubling roughly every two years (1.8 is the number usually quoted). As the exponential rhythm of development seems to still hold today (or does it?), applying to the capabilities of quite a few digital electronic devices, techno-euphorists are holding their breath for the technological singularity to be reached soon. They don’t seemed to be terribly concerned about the fact that their devotion is based on a really silly conflation of computing power and intelligence.
Again, cyclical popularity of people with crazy ideas might not be such an issue. However, what worries me is the toll this kind of techno-esoteric thinking is taking on policy debates on innovation and creative industries particularly in the Netherlands. Go onto the website of the Dutch Creative Council, the creative industries think tank of the Dutch government and you’ll be greeted by a column written by a designer who tells you that “nothing makes me as happy as the thought of the coming singularity.” In fact, he tells us, it’s good news twice over: while “technological development” is going to save us (water, energy, food, etc. – no problem any more) there will still be an important role for creative producers: making nice interfaces. Thank God for that!
Ok fine, this is just some guy, a random entrepreneur who’s creative “thinking” got the better of his “social analysis.” Yet, unfortunately, this is not true. In fact, this kind of techno-esoteric reductionism rules supreme among the creativity bureaucrats. There is so much digital hyperbole there that it sometimes seems as though creative industries policies have become a field of digital dreams. “It’s important,” one of the members of the Dutch ‘top team’ creative industries recently opined, “that the creative sector and the government realize that digital is growing rapidly and is expected to generate 80 percent of the jobs in the creative industries within five years” (Creatie, Dutch Digital Design, p. 11). Really? Is this our problem? We are not digital enough?! In the Dutch polytechnics there are about ten thousand front-end developers waiting for their release onto the market. Do you think that will do?
I am not saying, of course, that there is no growth in the markets for digital products and services. Of course there is. However, our problem in the Netherlands is not that we are “not digital enough.” The challenge from a policy perspective consists much less in pumping millions into gaming, digital design or what have you, and then hoping for some singularity to bestow a Silicon Valley situation on the Netherlands. What policy should be concerned with is the integration of digital technology as well as all sorts of other “creative” contributions into the existing economic infrastructure. And this, by the way, also goes for the “big social questions.” Barbara Wolfensberger, new head of the Dutch top team creative industries, in her first public address stressed the importance of the creative industries for solving “societal problems.” I wholeheartedly agree. Yet, in order to engage with those societal problems, the sector needs to look a bit more seriously at society and also at itself to define the problems that it might want to solve. Questions such as “What design can do” should be asked in a context that is more than a therapeutic “Everyone-is-happy-and we-all-love-each-other” format like the one where Mrs. Wolfensberger delivered her speech. As long as this is not happening, the “creative class” won’t be able to make valuable “societal contributions.”
Creative industries policy should and could live up to its rhetoric of “social change” but it would have to let go of its digital superstition. The Dutch economy will be saved by “digital” no more than humanity will be by singularity. A serious policy effort with regard to the creative industries would realize the potential of design and other creative disciplines to actually lead the invention of new modes of engagement with technological possibilities rather than simply chasing the logic of smart tech, IoT and big data as defined by some mystical “digital evolution.” How can we reap the benefits of digital technology while simultaneously breaking through the logic of surveillance and control that is way to quickly becoming the new normal? Now this, to me, sounds like a challenge worthy of those who call themselves creative. And it’s more than that: it’s a necessity! So let’s forget singularity as quickly as possible and let’s start to facilitate creative industries that deserve their name!