This Is What It Feels Like to Pass Through A Singularity

The government has an automated system to track your movements and monitor who your friends are. Our news comes from remote-controlled "drone reporters." There's a device in your pocket that can produce a sex partner for you at the touch of a button. Maybe the singularity just happened, and we didn't notice.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of whistleblower Ed Snowden's recent revelations about the NSA's surveillance of Americans is how little they shocked most people. A common response was that we already knew the government was spying on us, or that only a fool would think their emails and phone calls were private. Snowden's story was just confirmation of something many of us already took for granted. And yet it blew up into the story of the year because it was also a genuine revelation. Our vague, occasionally paranoid, suspicions that we live in a landscape alive with surveillance devices turned out to be true.

What is that feeling, the uncanny realization that you are actually living in your own fantasies? In the 1970s, Alvin and Heidi Toffler called it "future shock." Today, we might call it passing through the singularity. Either way, we've gone from dreaming about a world that might be real, to accepting that our dreams are hard facts.

For years, we've been having a cultural conversation in the west about the erosion of traditional ideas of privacy. People are sharing private moments with the world on an unprecedented scale, thanks to social media and ubiquitous mobile devices with cameras. Sometimes, as the Star Wars Kid taught us, this is awkward and even tragic. And sometimes it's enough to stoke the fires of a revolution, as we observed during Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and current protests in Turkey.

So much of what was once deemed private has made its way into the public realm that today's public sphere might be unrecognizable to people who lived twenty years ago. Which brings me back to my earlier observation about the singularity.

Understood broadly, a singularity could refer to any moment in historical time when the events that follow it are almost incomprehensible to the people who lived before. For example, people living in the 1950s would find our relationships with mobile devices today almost incomprehensible. Or, if you wanted to pull out to an even longer timescale, people living in 1213 would probably be unable to comprehend most things about city life in 2013 (though the piles of trash on the street would convey a meaning that transcends time).

Futurists like Ray Kurzweil have suggested that the singularity will happen almost instantaneously, perhaps right after the first artificial intelligences come online. Vernor Vinge, the computer scientist and science fiction author who popularized the idea of a "technological singularity," told me that when it happens it will be obvious because literally the entire landscape will be transformed. Mountains would appear where before there had been ocean. People would be able to do differential equations in their heads. In other words, we would absolutely notice when the singularity arrived.

But there's also the possibility that singularity isn't something you notice except in retrospect. It's an idea of the future that you've been dreaming for so long that it no longer seems as if mountains have erupted from the ocean when they do. Because we always figured those mountains would show up one day.

Imagining that the singularity is always "near," but never here, can undermine our ability to understand what's really changing right under our noses. Today, I would say the thing we are missing is the way that the public sphere is changing far more than the private one.

This Is What It Feels Like to Pass Through A Singularity

That's why Snowden's revelations have been so crucial. He's helped us understand how surveillance systems — on our streets, in the skies, and in our back pockets — aren't causing a rupture in our private spaces, but in our public, political ones. It's not so much that our neighbors and friends are seeing us in our underwear, dancing to Lady Gaga. It's that public servants, institutions and governments, are seeing everything we do, from the underwear thing to the exact passages we read in a treatise on Islam retrieved via Google Books.

And no, this isn't fostering a new age of transparency. First of all, a transparent society is only democratic when everyone is equally exposed — and a secret NSA program is by definition not exposed. Some of us are more transparent than others, as the social media pigs on Animal Farm might say.

More importantly, as Snowden pointed out in his first statement about NSA surveillance, the issue is who gets to interpret the information about you. Even if you are innocent, the datastream you've left behind will be so rich that it's open to multiple interpretations. It doesn't matter than you intended to research chemical weapons online for an RPG you're in. If an intelligence agent decides that your searches fit a pattern of terrorism, your explanation isn't going to hold much weight.

Transparency, in other words, is not a window on truth. It's just a window on data that has to be interpreted. Our emerging public sphere is more interpretable than ever before, thanks to the thousands of layers of data that have settled like sediment over every surface of our social lives. And those with the most power will write the interpretations.

So maybe this is what it feels like to live through the singularity. While you weren't looking, the public sphere became subject to a new interpretation.

Annalee Newitz is the author of the book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.