Stanislaw Lem’s dystopia

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:

Stanislaw Lem’s vision of the future deserves more attention. I like this writer. I read Memoirs Found in a Bathtub which I thought was awesome.

I attended two more Singularity Summits, in 2008 and 2009, and during that three-year period, all the much-vaunted performance gains in various technologies seemed paltry against a more obvious yet less-discussed pattern of accelerating change: the rapid, incessant growth in global ecological degradation, economic inequality, and societal instability. Here, forecasts tend to be far less rosy than those for our future capabilities in information technology. They suggest, with some confidence, that when and if we ever breathe souls into our machines, most of humanity will not be dreaming of transcending their biology, but of fresh water, a full belly, and a warm, safe bed. How useful would a superintelligent computer be if it was submerged by storm surges from rising seas or dis- connected from a steady supply of electricity? Would biotech-boosted personal longevity be worthwhile in a world ravaged by armed, angry mobs of starving, displaced people? More than once I have wondered why so many high technologists are more concerned by as- yet-nonexistent threats than the much more mundane and all-too-real ones literally right before their eyes.

Lem was able to speak to my experience of the world outside the windows of the Singularity conference. A thread of humanistic humility runs through his work, a hard-gained certainty that technological development too often takes place only in service of our most primal urges, rewarding individual greed over the common good. He saw our world as exceedingly fragile, contingent upon a truly astronomical number of coincidences, where the vagaries of the human spirit had become the most volatile variables of all.

It is here that we find Lem’s key strength as a futurist. He refused to discount human nature’s influence on transhuman possibilities, and believed that the still-incomplete task of understanding our strengths and weaknesses as human beings was a crucial prerequisite for all speculative pathways to any post-Singularity future. Yet this strength also leads to what may be Lem’s great weakness, one which he shares with today’s hopeful transhumanists: an all-too-human optimism that shines through an otherwise-dispassionate darkness, a fervent faith that, when faced with the challenge of a transhuman future, we will heroically plunge headlong into its depths. In Lem’s view, humans, as imperfect as we are, shall always strive to progress and improve, seeking out all that is beautiful and possible rather than what may be merely convenient and profitable, and through this we may find salvation. That we might instead succumb to complacency, stagnation, regression, and extinction is something he acknowledges but can scarcely countenance. In the end, Lem, too, was seduced—though not by quasi-religious notions of personal immortality, endless growth, or cosmic teleology, but instead by the notion of an indomitable human spirit.

Like many other ideas from Summa Technologiae, this one finds its best expression in one of Lem’s works of fiction, his 1981 novella Golem XIV, in which a self-programming military supercomputer that has bootstrapped itself into sentience delivers a series of lectures critiquing evolution and humanity. Some would say it is foolish to seek truth in fiction, or to draw equivalence between an imaginary character’s thoughts and an author’s genuine beliefs, but for me the conclusion is inescapable. When the novella’s artificial philosopher makes its pronouncements through a connected vocoder, it is the human voice of Lem that emerges, uttering a prophecy of transcendence that is at once his most hopeful—and perhaps, in light of trends today, his most erroneous.