Money makes singularity

by John Quiggin on January 27, 2009

Money makes singularities. The most obvious example is hyperinflation, where a gradual rise in prices gets built into expectations and institutions and accelerates, feeding on itself (and the capacity of the printing press to add zeroes) until prices are doubling daily and rising a million-fold within a month. It’s this kind of thing that led Richard Feynmann to suggest that we should talk of “economical” rather “astronomical” numbers. Eventually, hyperinflation collapses on itself, and trillions or octillions of currency units disappear or are replaced by something new, and hopefully more stable.

Singularities can go in both directions. Only in a monetary economy is it possible to generate a depression, in which goods go unsold because those who would trade them lack the money to do so. The downward spiral of a depression shares many of the viciously circular characteristics of a hyperinflation, but in reverse.

Although the Singularity has long been a staple device in science fiction, allowing us, as it does, to posit radical changes in society and technology without the need for increasingly untenable assumptions about the feasibility of ever-faster physical space travel, Accelerando is the only book I’ve read that really gives me the feel of an approaching singularity event.

Starting at a breakneck pace and picking up from there, Accelerando captures the Singularity in its form and prose. Stross’s super-evolved lobsters and feral abaci make for an account that’s both more readable and, paradoxically, more convincing than supposedly serious works like Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near.

The book begins in the near future, just on our side of the Singularity, introducing Manfred, patriarch-to-be of the Macx family, who is a kind of nomadic netrepreneur, using his Internet-enabled sunglasses to make innovations for which he is paid in reputation. The intelligent agents he designs to exploit financial derivatives markets soon develop into self-aware structures (the ‘Vile Offspring’) that outgrow any need for their human creators, who are forced to migrate to the neighbourhood of Jupiter. Subsequent generations of the Macx clan take the story further, in a plot that’s appropriately impossible to summarise.

Stross bombards us with new ideas and new takes on old ones, at a pace that carries its own conviction. The Fermi problem, for example, gets a good treatment. Earth is not the only planet to have undergone its Singularity, and space turns out to be full of products of, and refugees from such processes, exploiting uploads and wormholes to engage in virtualised faster-than-light travel.

At one level of course, the story takes us right back to the founding myth of science fiction, that of Frankenstein and his monster. But, in the early 21st century, we’ve gone beyond monsters, robots and even computers. It’s the disembodied and reified artifacts of law and corporate finance that truly have the power to devour their creators.

{ 3 comments }

1

Henry 01.27.09 at 11:04 pm

The key quote here is on p. 240 of my edition.

“You’ve got to wonder where the builders of that structure came from. And where they went. And whether they realized that the destiny of intelligent tool-using life was to be a stepping-stone in the evolution of corporate instruments.”

2

Brad Holden 01.29.09 at 7:16 am

Henry and John Quiggin bring up my favorite parts about these books. The Singularity is coporations run amuck. Truly efficient markets and rational agents, which mere humans are hopelessly unable to compete with.

3

Bill Gardner 01.29.09 at 7:24 pm

Wasn’t it Lukacs who argued that the novel, as a literary form, arose as an expression of a certain kind of individual produced by capitalism? Which, in this fable, ended up consuming the individuals, and their novels with them.

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