In a recent interview with ReasonTV, sci-fi author Vernor Vinge, who wrote Rainbows End and the forthcoming Children of the Sky, cites Wikipedia as one reason why we shouldn’t be too pessimistic about technology’s potential to “break” us. If someone had outlined Wikipedia to him in 1995, Vinge says, he would have said it was crazy, that it would be ruined by saboteurs. “[T]he fact that it has worked so magnificently, in a way it even gives me some hope for the really serious violent breakage that technology will eventually make possible. Watch the interview below:
This interview dovetails neatly with the recent New York Times piece by John Schwartz about how sci-fi writers can forecast the future “with eerie accuracy.” Schwartz cites as prescient such writers as Gary Shteyngart, whose Super Sad True Love Story includes a fiscal crisis set in motion by U.S. debt default, and Jules Verne, who called that we would one day launch space ships from Florida (he predicted that the launch site would be in Tampa, not Cape Canaveral, but Schwartz says we should “forgive that as a rounding error.”
Prediction skeptics like Dan Gardner, author of Future Babble (a book I highly recommend), would argue that we overemphasize how accurate forecasters are by ignoring the parts they get wrong. One way to split the difference between Gardner and Schwartz might be to take the approach that sci-fi writer Robert J. Sawyer advocated in Slate early this year: Speculative fiction’s greatest value may be in the way it prepares people and policymakers to prepare for technological frontiers.
To that end, let's look at what Vinge anticipates for the future. Vinge was an early advocate of the idea of the “Singularity,” having written in 1993, “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” In his ReasonTV interview, Vinge makes a vague but confident prediction about the coming Singularity-tinged technological advancements:
[I]f you could magically talk to somebody from the 1800s, like Mark Twain … you could explain what’s going on in our era probably in as much time as this interview is taking. And he might not believe you, but he would understand what you were saying. That’s what it’s like to talk about technological progress before the singularity. To talk about technological process after the singularity ... for that, the explanation exercise would be like trying to imagine how we could explain our present era to a goldfish or a flatworm. It’s intrinsically inaccessible.