More on Why Science Needs Fiction

By Teresa Heffernan

The Singularity University, founded by Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil and located in Silicon Valley, brands itself as about “Science. Technology. The Future of Humanity.” This for-profit uncredited institution offers opportunities such as: 7-day workshops for executives and entrepreneurs (US $12,000); a 10-week Graduate Studies Program (US $29,500); and events like the 2-day conference at NYU that focuses on how new technologies are impacting finance (VIP tickets are US $10,000; general admission is US$ 5,000; and a special rate that students can apply for is US $2,500).

Corporate sponsors include, Google, the Kauffman Foundation, and ePlanet Capital. Who is envisioning the “future of humanity”? The prices are already exclusionary; the core faculty and chairs listed on the university website are dominated by greying white men; and the faith in technology and profit are unwavering, while the world’s problems are understood as great “market” opportunities (

The university’s mandate is to teach people “to utilize accelerating technologies to address humanity’s hardest problems.” Humanity’s “problems” are never with humans themselves their slogan suggests: poverty, depression, social inequity, colonialism, genocide, famine, climate change, pollution, trash, water scarcity, dying oceans, superbugs, disappearing species—can all be solved by innovative technology. The dark sides of science and technology are swept under the carpet as the seductive mantra of endless progress is trumpeted. This problematic strategy is brilliantly captured in the opening of Duncan Jones’ 2009 film Moon that begins with an advertisement for “Lunar Industries.”

The promise of a world-healing technology is mixed with images of sparking lakes, smiling racially diverse children and women, elephants roaming the savannah, a comforting voice and a soothing soundtrack. The advertisement then gives way to the reality of a business that has capitalized on the oil crisis and has established a mine on the moon to extract helium-3 and send it back to earth—a new technology that addresses the problems of an old one. On the desolate moon-scape, Sam, the man who operates the system and longs to return home to his wife and family, discovers that he is one of many short-lived replaceable clones with implanted memories of a family and is slated to be incinerated at the end of his contract in order to save the company the hassle and expense of sending new workers to the moon. While Sam blindly serves technology in the name of the future for humanity, he realizes he in turn has been enslaved.

Despite its declared interest in “humanity,” the Singularity University offers no courses in the humanities and human culture…nothing, for instance, on literature, language, gender studies, history, art, music, cultural studies, race studies, post colonialism or philosophy. Catapulting us into a shiny, bright future full of instant fixes, the complicated terrain of ethics and fiction is cast aside in favour of the truth and practicality of science harnessed to corporate interests. Reminiscent of nineteenth-century utopian dreams about technology, the Singularity University operates as if the horrors of the twentieth century—machine guns, gulags, gas ovens, atomic bombs, death camps, all designed by engineers and scientists and built by “reputable” companies—never happened. As if the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb and who lived to witness Hiroshima and Nagasaki never had a moments regret even as Oppenheimer lamented in an address to the American Philosophical Society: “We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world … a thing that by all the standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing. And by so doing … we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man.”

As science was emerging as a discrete and soon to be dominant way of knowing and as the industrial revolution was transforming the English country-side, Thomas Love Peacock in his “Four Ages of Poetry” (1820) argued that poetry was increasingly useless and retrograde in the age of scientific invention: “A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.”His friend, Percy Bysshe Shelley, responded with his spirited “A Defence of Poetry” in 1821. He wrote: “The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave.”

As profit, innovation, and technology (or the new educational push for STEM programs: Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) are once again offered as short-term solutions to our world at the expense of the long traditions of the humanities, Shelley’s “Defence” might serve as a useful reminder of the limits of this approach. In the periods in history when calculation trumped imagination, Shelley argued, there was the greatest social inequality: the rich got richer and the poor got poorer as the society was torn between “anarchy and despotism.” As we witness spontaneous global demonstrations and brutal state suppression of them (from Cairo to Istanbul to London to New York City to Athens), the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and the disregard for the planet and fellow species; the cultivation of an ethical imagination that Shelley promoted at the outset of the industrial revolution seems newly urgent. Rather than manically throwing expensive newer “exponential” technology at older technology in a desperate attempt to deal with the many problems it produced—we need to rethink our relationship to the future of humanity.

(Feature image source: Singularity University)