Academic journal article British and American Studies

"Back to the Future": Technological Singularity in Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy

Academic journal article British and American Studies

"Back to the Future": Technological Singularity in Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

A few months ago, while randomly flipping through TV channels, my attention was caught by flickering trajectories of brain-computer interfacing and pulsing images of neurons firing to computer-generated data. The cyberpunk fan in me cheerfully acknowledged the familiar phantasmagoria of what seemed to be a yet-unseen documentary on 1980's sci-fi avant-garde - only to find out that what I was, in fact, watching, was a film version of Ray Kurzweil's 2005 best-selling The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Technology. The resemblance between Kurzweil's vision of the future and the worlds of literary cyberpunk, epitomized by those in William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy, was astonishing.

The astonishment was primarily owed to the fact that Ray Kurzweil is an award-winning inventor, mathematician, and one of the leading experts in computer and artificial intelligence. He is also a remarkably accurate - and hence influential - futurologist whose predictions have been based on existing trends in the development of technology and science.

William Gibson, on the other hand, is the most influential author of the 1980s cyberpunk movement. His early work provided the blueprint for what were to become the trademarks of cyberpunk writing: computers, computer(ized) environments and artificial intelligence. And yet, even while fuelling digital fantasies of thousands of aspiring computer geeks, Gibson wrote most of his Sprawl trilogy on a typewriter and consciously avoided using the internet well into the 1990s. His hi-tech literary worlds were admittedly inspired by Alfred Bester's 1950s sci-fi serial "Tiger! Tiger!", William Burroughs's concept of the Interzone, and the down-and-out aesthetics of the "Velvet Underground" band (Gibson 1995:318).

In this paper, my intention is first to show to what extent Kurzweil's informed and well-grounded projections coincide with the largely-invented motifs in Gibson's 1980s Sprawl Trilogy. The analysis will be followed by an attempt to explain the correspondence in terms of the metaphysical structuring of the postmodern age.

2. Ray Kurzweil and the concept of singularity

Because singularity is a concept which not only means different things in different disciplines and to different people, but is also rarely encountered in literary criticism, a brief explanation is in order. In mathematics, singularity refers to a value that exceeds any final limitation (Kurzweil 2006:22), while in physics, the concept "marks a point where the curvature of space-time is infinite, or, in other words, it possesses zero volume and infinite density" (Hawking et al. 1997). Kurzweil's use of singularity follows Vemor Vinge's appropriation of the term to "describe the point in history where accelerating technological progress becomes near infinite and thus unknowable" (Vinge qtd. in Bell 2003:6). This definition refers to the explosion of intelligence, implicit in the functioning of KurzweiTs theory of the law of accelerating returns, according to which the rate of evolutionary development is doubly exponential as each subsequent improvement takes less time and less effort.

Kurzweil (2006:14-21) divides the history of evolution in six epochs, which differ according to the complexity of information patterns. We are currently nearing the end of the fourth epoch. The state of singularity corresponds to Epoch Five of evolutionary development, in which the exponential growth will be so great that technology will seem to develop at "infinite speed" (24). This will result in the merging of the data in our brains with the non-biological intelligence of our technology. Epoch Six refers to the aftermath of singularity, in which the computational potential of the matter and energy in the universe will be employed for the spreading of intelligence once the computational potential of the Earth no longer suffices. Epoch Six is the last epoch with existing intelligence that one can imagine. …

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