Super Sad True SXSW Story, Or, Ray Kurzweil is Wrong About Everything

Clarence

I read Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story while I was flying back from South by Southwest. It’s probably the best novel I’ve read recently (although to be fair that just means I liked it better than Freedom). The book is about trying to rediscover love and humanity in a narcissistic, insolvent alter-present/future in which everyone’s mind has been eaten by their äppärät (smartphone) and their GlobalTeens account (Facebook, except it’s the entire Internet).

When I finished it I realized it was no accident that I walked out of Ray Kurweil’s insipid SXSW keynote. In the afterword of the book, Shteyngart says that the social media dystopia he created was based in no small part on the negative image of Kurzweil’s techno-utopian ideas (see “the singularity”).

Kurzweil perfectly exemplifies the naïve techno-libertarian. He’s wrong about pretty much everything, starting with artificial intelligence (hint: no, humans don’t understand language the same way that statistical NLP algorithms do) and culminating in his complete lack of class and political analysis. He’s the type that thinks that a couple of his favorite exponential curves extrapolated to 2050 explain everything we need to know about the future of technology (and civilization). This is braindead. What about all the other curves out there, Ray? Like species extinction, fossil fuel consumption, or population? Or productivity vs. real wages since 1980?

That last one is what really gives the lie to any simple mapping of technological development onto prosperity and well-being. Technology has enabled American corporations to make more money than ever while employing fewer and fewer people per dollar of profit. Productivity has more than doubled since 1980 but wages have stayed flat. Why aren’t we all working 20-hour weeks? Because all of those productivity gains have been appropriated by a very narrow global elite (note: Ray Kurzweil is one of them). Technology can’t solve that problem, only politics can.

If people like Kurzweil continue to dominate the narrative of Internet technology in our culture we really will end up with the Super Sad dystopia of Shteyngart’s novel. The (real!) homeless-person hotspots at SXSW were something Shteyngart probably wishes he had come up with for his novel. Some geeks marketers thought that paying poor people to be free wireless hotspots sounded like a win-win. Their total lack of political and class analysis meant that they didn’t see a problem with demoting a human being to the status of “free public appliance.”

The “singularity” is a black hole. We’ve got to focus on how technology can enable new, more liberatory patterns of relations between people and then actually build those patterns — a political project — rather than wait for liberation as to come an inevitable result of the increasing number of transistors in our processors.

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