Ray of Fright: Techno-Dazzled Times Airs Futurist Fluff

ashlee vance Ray of Fright: Techno Dazzled Times Airs Futurist FluffI’m not one who thinks that newspapers are going to become obsolete anytime soon, but there is no question that the new pressures faced by the media business are influencing the way newspapers represent what’s happening in the world. Consider the shameful way in which technology is often reported.

What newspaper publishers and their editors fear most is the future. For that reason, they do not approach the subject of technology with anything like the skepticism and detachment with which they report on, say, politics. Technology is synonymous with the future, and since the great apprehension is that older news forms will get left behind by the future, technology has to be appeased whenever it comes up. To doubt technology’s claims is to make yourself vulnerable to charges of being reactionary. To explore the motivations and alliances of its major figures is to risk being accused of acting spitefully out of anxiety. Instead, the news editor or reporter finds himself in the paradoxical position of wanting to appear “forward”-thinking, kissing the future’s behind whenever technology presents itself.

You would think the paper of record might be a little more skeptical of claims that the ability of humans to upload their brains into robotic systems would make human beings immortal.

So you get piece after piece in The New York Times by editorial writer Adam Cohen about the irrefutable virtues of the Internet. Not long ago, Mr. Cohen wrote an homage to Facebook, the occasion for which was his invaluable discovery on Facebook that someone he used to know had died. “I’ve decided that I am going to remain Luke’s Facebook friend as long as his family keeps his page up,” he concluded with cloying insincerity, after explaining that his “friendship” with poor Luke amounted to the latter friending Mr. Cohen on Facebook out of the blue and sending Mr. Cohen “a steady stream of updates on his life.” (Mr. Cohen, who often writes worshipfully about the Internet for The Times, also wrote a book called The Perfect Store: Inside Ebay, a valentine to the online retailer.) Or you get Professor Steven Pinker in the op-ed pages of The Times, defending the Internet against charges that it is disastrously influencing our cognitive and affective faculties-just four days after The Times ran an article (about 10 years too late) about how the Internet is making us all distracted and socially alienated. “Far from making us stupid,” Mr. Pinker obsequiously declared, “these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.” I’ll bet there are a lot of people whose interests are reported on in The Times who would also love it if any bad press that their projects (i.e. investments) got were instantly refuted on the op-ed page. Tough luck.

This past Sunday, the paper outdid itself on the subject of technology. On the front page of the business section, The Times published a 5,000-word article about a techno-trend that was some of the most irresponsible and incompetent journalism I have ever seen. Written by Ashlee Vance, the article was on something called “the Singularity,” and its hero was the futurist Ray Kurzweil.

Mr. Vance defined the Singularity as “a time, possibly just a couple decades from now, when a superior intelligence will dominate and life will take on an altered form that we can’t predict or comprehend in our current, limited state.” That posed a problem right there for anyone reading for sense. If no one can “predict” or “comprehend” what the Singularity is, how can anyone claim to predict or comprehend it? But that didn’t stop Mr. Vance from spending the next several thousand words presenting a number of Singularity experts who did precisely that, claiming to predict and comprehend what Singularity is, or will be.

You would think that as the technology of drilling for oil at the bottom of the ocean has just created the worst environmental disaster in history, when the technology of data retrieval and transmission recently helped create one of the worst financial calamities in history-to take just two examples of techno-dysfunction, both superbly reported on by The Times-the paper of record might be a little more skeptical of claims that the ability of humans to upload their brains into robotic systems would make human beings immortal. But despite the requisite jokiness at moments, Mr. Vance reports on the Singularity movement-which now has its own university at a NASA-sponsored campus in California-as though its childish fantasies were about to become as handy and familiar as the toaster.

Was Mr. Vance impressed by the socially prestigious atmosphere? We read that “some of Silicon Valley’s smartest and wealthiest people have embraced the Singularity” and that “a group of very rich, very bright Singularity observers” are sympathetic to the movement. He further breathlessly reports that “hundreds of students worldwide apply to snare one of 80 available spots in a separate 10-week ‘graduate’ course that costs $25,000″ and that “more than 1,600 people applied for just 40 spots in the inaugural graduate program held last year.” We read that Google and other corporations are throwing around astronomical sums of money, $30 million here, $10 million there. With so much cash, and so much exclusivity, how could Singularity University not be a legitimate place for the study of legitimate ideas?