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By Worshiping Silicon Valley, Do We Condone Inequality?

BC writer embedded at Ray Kurzweil's Singularity Summit raises question in his new 'nonvella.'

Geoff Dembicki 15 Nov

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy, climate change and technology for The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

When the 2012 Singularity Summit took place in San Francisco, hundreds of people watched artificial intelligence visionary Ray Kurzweil speak in Nob Hill, one of the city's richest neighbourhoods. Afterwards, they descended a steep slope for drinks in the Tenderloin, one of its poorest. Among them was young B.C. writer (and former Tyee intern) Adam Pez, who found it hard to ignore the symbolism. Kurzweil had used upward-sloping graphs to argue techno-progress is inexorable. The steep slope separating downtrodden Tenderloin from wealthy Nob Hill had a similar shape.

As if to confirm his suspicions, Pez got into a debate on the walk down with one of the summit's ''Singulatarians,'' a delegate convinced that technology is an unstoppable force with limitless capacity for social good, capable of someday fixing politics, climate change and animal cruelty. ''What the numbers show,'' Pez countered, ''is that the colour of one's skin and the amount of money in one's wallet have been the prime determinants of who has won and lost the 'progress roulette.' ''

Pez recalls all this in The Silicon Rapture, a handsomely printed 60-page book just put out by Vancouver's Nonvella, a recently formed boutique publisher specializing in works longer than magazine stories and shorter than full-length books.

The events Pez describes took place two years ago, yet the themes he addresses couldn't be timelier. Our society deifies innovation. Of the top 20 ''disrupters'' on Vanity Fair's New Establishment list this year, 19 made their fortunes from tech. And here in Vancouver, Mayor Gregor Robertson is ''bullish on attracting tech companies.'' Yet our worship of technology may hide an unpleasant truth. For if we buy into the notion that techno-progress has no limits, Pez's book suggests, we may also condone inequality.

'Effectively immortal'

Last month I saw Kurzweil speak to a sold-out crowd in Vancouver. The famed inventor, artificial intelligence theorist, futurist and director of engineering at Google presented a graph, as he does at most such talks, whose steep upward slope illustrated how computer chips have gotten exponentially smaller and more efficient over past decades. Kurzweil brandished this visualization of Moore's Law as evidence that technological progress has an ''inexorable mind of its own.''

Kurzweil made similar claims at the 2012 Singularity Summit. He co-founded the annual event to foster debate about the ramifications of a 21st century in which, he argues, we're likely to experience 20,000 years worth of innovation. ''Depending on whom you speak to,'' Pez writes, ''the Singularity is the idea that anyone alive in 40 years or so will be able to upload their minds into computers and become effectively immortal.'' For Kurzweil and his disciples (many of whom belong to Silicon Valley's intellectual elite) it's not a matter of if this happens, but when.

In his book The Singularity Is Near, Kurzweil envisions a future where thinking has been freed from ''the severe limitations of its biological form.'' He thus argues that our unyielding devotion to the techno-progress that gets us there is ''an essentially spiritual undertaking.'' Yet the Singularity can easily be imagined as a nightmare.

The 2005 sci-fi novel Accelerando, for instance, depicts profit-seeking machines that build a giant solar panel called a Dyson sphere around the sun. ''The remnants of humanity, evicted from their homes -- like those ejected from cities by gentrification today -- build refugia on the chill, desolate fringes of the solar system,'' Pez writes.

Unrestrained capitalism

Such talk shouldn't be dismissed as mere fantasy. For the Singularity's basic logic -- that techno-progress is an inexorable force capable of granting us transcendence from physical limits -- is used by libertarian elites like Peter Thiel, a billionaire tech investor and Singularity Summit co-founder, to make the case for unrestrained winner-takes-all capitalism. ''The history of progress is a history of better monopoly businesses replacing incumbents,'' Thiel argued recently in the Wall Street Journal. ''Monopolies drive progress.''

Yet even he concedes that the monopoly tactics used by the Silicon Valley ride sharing firm Uber are ''ethically challenged.'' Uber, which is fighting to get into B.C. against the objections of local taxi regulators, has sent undercover recruiters into the cars of its competitor, Lyft. And the firm has also wreaked havoc with Lyft's dispatch system by ordering, then cancelling, thousands of rides. Meanwhile, Uber's own drivers accuse their employer of poor and unsafe work conditions. ''We just want to be the biggest company in the world, whatever we need to do,'' one Uber manager has explained.

But since Uber uses disruptive technology, and since technological progress is an inexorable force that can't be constrained, we shouldn't be too critical of the firm's business practices. Or at least that's how the renowned urban theorist Richard Florida -- who cites Kurzweil as ''an idol and mentor'' -- explained to me during a recent interview in Vancouver. ''Clearly the Ubers of the world are revolutionizing transportation,'' he said. ''We can't be Luddites and smash the digital dispatch.''

Nagging doubts

To an extent, Florida is right. And it's certainly true that in an era defined by global crises -- whether of climate change, overpopulation, resource scarcity or hunger -- our society has never been so desperate for new technological solutions. Yet the urban theorist has of late lamented the growing class divide -- and wealth disparity -- between the creators of techno-progress and the service workers who support them.

In Vancouver, ''the erosion of the middle-income class and the movement toward a two-class society brings back dark memories of older divided societies,'' reads a report from the University of Toronto's Cities Centre. ''The trends are unsettling.''

When Business In Vancouver asked Mayor Robertson last month how he expects to reverse such trends, his answer -- as is typical today in a society that reveres Silicon Valley firms like Apple, Tesla, Google and Uber as the ''New Establishment'' -- evoked the notion that societal progress is led primarily by new technology. ''We address [unaffordability and inequality] by creating good jobs,'' Robertson said. ''It's a big reason why I've been so bullish on attracting tech companies here.'' No doubt many people will benefit from the opportunities those companies bring.

Yet is it wise to put such uncritical faith in technology? To treat it as an inexorable force distinct from ourselves? And does doing so benefit all of society equally, or only its techno-elites? Pez left the Singularity Summit with nagging doubts. ''The fantastic and sometimes shocking technologies discussed at the summit could easily render human beings irrelevant in a winner-takes-all society even more unequal than our current one,'' he writes. Such a future may sound like a far-off dystopia. But after finishing Pez's book, I wondered if we're already well on our way there.  [Tyee]

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