The Singularity

The Singularity

SAMUEL BUTLER (1835-1902)

“Think of and look at your work as though it were done by your enemy. If you look at it to admire it, you are lost.” – Samuel Butler

Butler is best known for two works, “Erewhon” and “The Way of All Flesh.” “Erewhon” was published anonymously — it was a scathing social satire of Victorian Britain and religion — but once it became successful Butler acknowledged authorship.

By the way, “Erewhon” is an anagram of “Nowhere,” and the author left instructions for it to be pronounced in three syllables: E-re-whon. I just learned this. All my life — or to be specific, the two or three times it has come up in conversation since college — I pronounced it “AIR-one.”

Butler comes up now because a) I’m halfway through National Novel Writing Month, and b) I’m going back to work as a news editor. Both endeavors require a critical eye.

Is my writing any good? Sometimes I think yes, but then again, I’m fond of the writer. Using Butler’s sage advice to imagine the writer as the enemy, it’s easier for me to identify precious and soporific passages in my novel that I overlooked when I was dazzled by the author’s staggering genius.

Is my editing of other peoples’ writing any good? It had better be, because I’m fond of the reader. As a newspaper editor my goal is to serve the reader. So let this serve as a warning to reporters: I’m embracing Butler’s advice to view you as the enemy. If I begin reading your copy with the idea that you are the enemy of solid reporting, clear thinking, and graceful writing, I’m more likely to demand those things in your stories. And the reader will be better off for it.

One last thing about Samuel Butler: He is the Father of the Technological Singularity. (And you probably thought it was the science fiction writer Vernor Vinge!) Butler read Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” when it came out in 1859, and Butler, who witnessed the impact of the Industrial Revolution on rural England, quickly extrapolated that machines were evolving just as humans and other species were. Some day, Butler said, machines would become smarter than humans.

In the satirical utopian nation of E-re-whon, machines are outlawed for that very reason.

A lot of really smart people think the day when machines get smarter than humans — they call it the Singularity — will arrive before the end of this century. Some, including Vernor Vinge, expect a super-human intelligence to be created by the year 2030. The super-intelligent machines will then begin designing even more intelligent machines. At that point, Vinge and other Singularity disciples say, the human era on Earth will begin to wane.

On the bright side, maybe the machines will be able to help me figure out Social Security, my pension, Medicare, and my television remote control.