Ray of Fright: Techno-Dazzled Times Airs Futurist Fluff

Some of these ideas are as follows: resurrecting the dead; allowing people to live forever-or at least to “achieve mental immortality by… backing up their brains”; being able to “steer hurricanes away from populated areas”; and tweaking “the genetic makeup of plants so they resemble things like chairs and tables, allowing us to grow fields of everyday objects for home and work.”

Now you would think that with the weight and authority of a 5,000-plus-word article on the front page of The Times‘ business section, the paper of record would want to counterbalance the legitimacy such length and placement confers on a subject with the weight and authority of an opposing view. Think again. In the skeptics’ camp, Mr. Vance presents Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber; environmentalists; religious groups; and technologists “who fear a runaway artificial intelligence that subjugates humans.” Oh, and there’s also the “popular network television show, Fringe, [that] playfully explores some of these concerns by featuring a mad scientist.” But with the exception of two obscure figures-Jonathan Huebner, a weapons designer who works for the Navy, and William S. Bainbridge, who evaluates grant proposals for the National Science Foundation-Mr. Vance quotes only people who fear-”fear” is the operative word here-the Singularity’s advent. In other words, he quotes only critics of Singularity who believe all of Singularity’s ridiculous claims. He does not quote a single distinguished person doubting that the Singularity will in fact ever come to pass.

If an economist working for Rand Paul started promising voters that a ballot cast for him meant a magical fix to the deficit, you can bet your gigabytes that The Times would hang him out to dry. They would trot out half a dozen distinguished economists to rebut him-as well they should if he was trying to put one over on us. But when a futurist starts promising a technological solution to the eternal problems of sickness and death, The Times has to lend its ear and bend its knee. Be careful. It’s the future!

You would never know that one year ago, Daniel Lyons wrote an article for Newsweek noting that many of the predictions Mr. Kurzweil had been making for years were “not just a little bit wrong, but wildly, laughably wrong,” including: Mr. Kurzweil’s prediction, in 1998, that the economy would keep booming on to 2019; his certainty that at least one U.S. company, in Mr. Lyons’ words, would soon “have a market capitalization of more than $1 trillion”; his prediction “that by now our cars would be able to drive themselves by communicating with intelligent sensors embedded in highways.”

It’s standard practice for reporters, when writing about a particular topic, to interview the author of a recent book on the subject. It just so happens that Jaron Lanier, who just published a skeptical book about digital technology’s futurist boasts called You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, is one of Mr. Kurzweil’s fiercest and most intelligent critics. In an essay Mr. Lanier published a few years ago-”One Half a Manifesto”-he characterizes Mr. Kurzweil’s ideas as not only implausible, but as a type of totalitarian fantasizing. But Mr. Vance never thought to call Mr. Lanier, who is an authoritative if sober voice in the world of technological and futurist discourse.

Nor will you find any mention of Douglas Hofstadter. The distinguished professor of cognitive science-and a Pulitzer Prize winner, if you are looking for prestige-had this to say in an interview about the Singularian ideas that Mr. Vance so much admires: “It’s as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can’t possibly figure out what’s good or bad.” Mr. Hofstadter recounted inviting Mr. Kurzweil and another like-minded futurist to speak at a symposium and was struck by how “inhibited” the two men were: “I had to go into their books and read out loud their most crazy quotes in order to say, ‘Look, you’re not saying in front of this audience of a thousand people what you’ve said in your books. Here’s what you’ve said in your books. What do you think of this?’ The symposia weren’t satisfactory to me; the people didn’t confront their own ideas.” The biologist PZ Myers, who runs the respected science blog Pharyngula, dismisses Mr. Kurzweil’s ideas as “New Age spiritualism.”

But there is not a word from such authoritative dissenters and debunkers. Instead, Mr. Vance reverentially sums up the Singularian vision as the dawn of a literal new age, a time when “beings and machines will so effortlessly and elegantly merge that poor health, the ravages of old age and even death itself will all be things of the past.” Five thousand words. In The New York Times. On the front page of the business section-while entire municipalities and states go bankrupt, while universal access to health care is still a chimera, while the next uncontrollable environmental disaster is most likely right around the corner. If this is the future of the way the mainstream media outlets are going to report on the future, beam me up and away.

editorial@observer.com