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July 10, 2014

Singularities in the rearview mirror
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:58 AM * 107 comments

Writing at io9 recently, Charlie Jane Anders mentioned Jo Walton’s 2009 essay on tor.com, which discussed George Eliot as a pre-SF writer who dealt with SF themes and topics. From the tor.com essay:

She saw how technology changes society—she understood that thoroughly. In a way, she was someone who had lived through a singularity—she had seen the railroad coming and had seen how it had entirely transformed the world she grew up in, with second order effects nobody could have predicted. Her books constantly come back to technology and the changes it brings.

I was emailing back and forth with Serge, and he mentioned a series he’s been enjoying lately: Halt and Catch Fire. It’s not SF, in the sense that it’s not postulating an unknown technology. Rather, like Middlemarch, it’s an examination of the impact of a real technological change on a pre-existing society. It is, if you will, looking at that particular view out the side-windows or the rearview mirror rather than the windscreen.

I think this particular sub-category of liminal, not-quite-SF storytelling is interesting, for the same reasons that I’m interested in the SFnal flavor of the real-world terraforming efforts that I see around me in the Netherlands. I think they can inform our thinking, both about change and about the ways our genre deals with change. Also, it’s neat.

What other stories are there in this area? And where else, on the borderlands of our genre, are there similar caches?

(Thanks, Serge, for suggesting that this would make a good blog post.)

Comments on Singularities in the rearview mirror:
#1 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 07:56 AM:

Edith Wharton.

#2 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 08:29 AM:

A lot of stories from Appalachia, set in the 1930's-1950's, are like this (Jesse Stuart is reasonably easy to find and a good place to start.)

Appalachia had somewhere between bad and no roads until the 1950's in many areas; the social changes that the roads brought was huge.

I'd also say that Willa Cather's stories of the prairie are often in this category; the cultural change is from one place to another, but the landscape is entirely foreign to its inhabitants. ("Peter" is an excellent example.)

#3 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 08:39 AM:

I feel like the role of the internet in Napoleon Dynamite is something that Abi might want to consider, but I don't have very coherent things to say about it.

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages and similar "sciency fiction" (and I might put Halt and Catch Fire in this category as well, like Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis and The Bug by Ellen Ullman) often borrow approaches and values from speculative fiction.

#4 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 09:05 AM:

There's probably a way to piece together something about the influence of communications technology by looking at tv shows like the X-Files (where Mulder and Scully have cell phones, and the writers find ways for them to lose their phones in every episode so as to enable stories that would be cut down by having the characters in contact) and Burn Notice (where everybody is constantly in cell phone contact with everybody else).

#5 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 09:20 AM:

A few more thoughts: Jeffrey Archer's The Prodigal Daughter, the film Easy A, and the fiction chapters of Dave Barry's Dave Barry in Cyberspace particularly concentrate on the effects of new information technology on the main characters. There's also some pivotal info-tech stuff (and manufacturing-related plot) in Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, but then again A Suitable Boy is kind of like the Mahabharata -- everything is in there.

Information tech has such a thorough effect on so much literature that I find myself wanting to find more stories that are (obliquely) about other important advances, such as healthcare, manufacturing, transport, and food storage. Perhaps I should read some Jesse Stuart!

Regarding other related sets of stories, I know other people have already had interesting thoughts on procedurals and technothrillers in general, and on the link to horror (Atwood, Bradbury, Crichton).

Oh, and I should link to Jacqueline Houtman's list of sciency fiction books. "Sciency Fiction is fiction in which accurate non-speculative current science is integral to the story." Perhaps I overreached earlier.

#6 ::: Cassy B. sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 09:21 AM:

I'd suggest The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers by Tom Standage. It was written in 1998, when the internet was still a toddler, but it draws some very interesting conclusions about technological changes.

#7 ::: Cassy B. doesn't spot spam after all ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 09:23 AM:

So sorry; sticky nym.

#8 ::: James Harvey ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 10:10 AM:

I wonder if Elizabeth Gaskell's glorious North and South could fit in this category. It looks out of the side window, to use your phrase, at the industrial revolution in the Black Country. I was completely blown away by it...

#9 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 10:19 AM:

Who was it who said that if science fiction is about the effects of a new technology on the lives of the characters, Singin' in the Rain is a science fiction story?

#10 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 10:31 AM:

There are some very interesting bits in Bleak House that hint at this.

The protagonist visits a miserable mill town full of miserable people.

The rural gentry have the option of taking the railroad to London.

An industrialist meets with Lord Dedlock to ask him to release one of his servants from service so she can (gasp!) get an education so she's fit to marry his son.

The great changes that will rip up traditional society are not the theme of Bleak House (as they are in "Downton Abbey"), but they're there.

#11 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 10:39 AM:

1994's "Princess Caraboo"...

It's set during the Regency, with the familiar trappings, but early on we get a reminder that the world is about to change. We get a glimpse of a railway being built, and we see a locomotive, very primitive by our standards, but it marks the end of a world constrained to muscle power.

#12 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 12:24 PM:

#6 ::: Cassy B. @ #6 I'd suggest The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers
A while back, Boing Boing reintroduced readers to Wired Love (1880), a novel about an on-line relationship between two telegraph operators. I’d suggest that the less obvious social change that also drives it was the shift towards young people of both sexes moving to the city to look for work, and living in boarding houses – it’s sort of a 1880s version of Friends, with the heroine and the various other characters all living down the hall from each other in the same building (though carefully supervised by their landladies). The second half does unfortunately fall into the rom-com cliché of the misunderstanding that could should been cleared up in thirty seconds, but I guess it can be handwaved as “the heroine is sufficiently insecure to believe her gossipy landlady instead of all the actual evidence.”

Serge Broom @ #11: we see a locomotive, very primitive by our standards, but it marks the end of a world constrained to muscle power.
Actually, one of the things I feel steampunk tends to miss is that the Industrial Revolution was literally fueled by horse-power – pit-ponies were used to actually get the coal out of the mines, and barge-horses towed it to the machinery.

#13 ::: Henry Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 12:31 PM:

I seem to remember Patrick linking to Cosma Shalizi's "Singularity in Our Past Light-Cone" piece back in the day - http://vserver1.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/699.html. It's short enough to post in full (worth clicking through to original for hyperlinks though).

Attention conservation notice: Yet another semi-crank pet notion, nursed quietly for many years, now posted in the absence of new thoughts because reading The Half-Made World brought it back to mind. The Singularity has happened; we call it "the industrial revolution" or "the long nineteenth century". It was over by the close of 1918.

Exponential yet basically unpredictable growth of technology, rendering long-term extrapolation impossible (even when attempted by geniuses)? Check.

Massive, profoundly dis-orienting transformation in the life of humanity, extending to our ecology, mentality and social organization? Check.

Annihilation of the age-old constraints of space and time? Check.

Embrace of the fusion of humanity and machines? Check.

Creation of vast, inhuman distributed systems of information-processing, communication and control, "the coldest of all cold monsters"? Check; we call them "the self-regulating market system" and "modern bureaucracies" (public or private), and they treat men and women, even those whose minds and bodies instantiate them, like straw dogs.

An implacable drive on the part of those networks to expand, to entrain more and more of the world within their own sphere? Check. ("Drive" is the best I can do; words like "agenda" or "purpose" are too anthropomorphic, and fail to acknowledge the radical novely and strangeness of these assemblages, which are not even intelligent, as we experience intelligence, yet ceaselessly calculating.)

Why, then, since the Singularity is so plainly, even intrusively, visible in our past, does science fiction persist in placing a pale mirage of it in our future? Perhaps: the owl of Minerva flies at dusk; and we are in the late afternoon, fitfully dreaming of the half-glimpsed events of the day, waiting for the stars to come out.

#14 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 12:44 PM:

Sarah @ 12... One problem I often have with steampunk is that people in such worlds tend to shed Old Thinking as the new tech comes in. I'd point out that the Great War was a steampunk war, where the Old Thinking *drove* events with the help of the new tools, with rather messy results.

#15 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 12:47 PM:

Regarding looking at the world thru SFnal lens... Back in 1981, I bought and read Clavell's "Shogun". Not because so many people were talking about it, but because an SF publication described it as a First Contact story.

#16 ::: Adrian ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 12:47 PM:

Does it have to be on purpose? I think Laura Ingalls Wilder was looking out the side window at what the railroads did to the prairies, but I'm not sure how much she was aware of that.

I agree very strongly about Gaskell. Maybe also Frances Hodgson Burnett, with steamships and telegraphs? I notice it more in her work for adults, like _The Shuttle_, but it's also there in _Little Lord Fauntleroy_.

The examples that come to my mind seem to be written before sf was really established as a genre. I think of _Green Glass Sea_ and Tim Powers' work as sf, despite being set in the past and our timeline.

#17 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 12:50 PM:

I just got to the chapter in Life on the Mississippi where Mark Twain celebrates the perfection of the steamship pilot's trade (and the monopoly of their guild), just as the railroad and tugboats made the steamships a thing of the past.

SINGULARITIES IN MIRROR ARE LARGER THAN THEY APPEAR

#18 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 12:57 PM:

More recent: I just reread Cryptonomicon (1999) and I found it was disorienting how much of the wild then-cutting-edge ideas in the "now" part of the story are ho-hum take-it-for-granted now. Well of course immigrants in developed countries use video chat to keep in touch with people back in their homeland. Of course there are cryptographic-based money schemes. Of course government spies are tapping overseas Internet exchange points. And so on...

He missed some important points though - just think how rich Neal Stephenson would be if he had spotted and seized the opportunity to become a mogul of Internet cat video.

#19 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 01:12 PM:

Nesbit's The Railway Children, I think. There's probably more of it in children's fiction than we notice.

Not singularity-oriented, but I've long had a soft spot for the technology-fiction of Martin Woodhouse, who also wrote many episodes of Supercar and a few early episodes of The Avengers. His Giles Yeoman series, starting with Tree Frog, deal with people working on the cutting edge of then-current technology and having some interesting experiences. His TV training shows in the fact that his novels begin with the climactic scene, then go into flashbacks to explain how the characters got there. Moon Hill is classic on this point: the characters are in a cave on the side of a volcano that is about to erupt, in a truck filled with high explosive whose refrigeration system has failed, while they're being held there by armed snipers outside....

#20 ::: Adrian ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 01:36 PM:

Oh, I just thought of a current example. Sara Paretsky writes about the effects of modern industrial pollution and spy technology. It's about as sf-nal as _Zodiac_ or Slow River_, only it's not classified that way (in libraries or in my head.)

#21 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 01:49 PM:

And then, of course, there's William Gibson's Pattern Recognition trilogy, which reads almost exactly like science fiction but is solidly contemporary. (I actually saw the video of the AirPenguins before reading Zero History, but it's still spookily sfnal.)

Tom Whitmore, thanks for reminding me of Martin Woodhouse; I loved his Leonardo novels as well.

#22 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 01:50 PM:

Just occurred to me as being relevant to this thread: Kipling's "Farewell, Romance!" which looks at how no one ever idealizes the technology of their own time; though he sticks to examining nostalgia for obsolete technologies, and doesn't bring up people who get excited over anticipated future invention.

#23 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 02:17 PM:

#12 ::: Sarah

Actually, one of the things I feel steampunk tends to miss is that the Industrial Revolution was literally fueled by horse-power – pit-ponies were used to actually get the coal out of the mines, and barge-horses towed it to the machinery.

Yes. And before the railroads (particularly in England) heavy transport was done by water along canals.

#24 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 02:44 PM:

Carol Kimball (23): Harking back to our recent discussion of romance novels, the plot of Loretta Chase's Miss Wonderful* hinges on the hero wanting to build a canal for industrial access** in Wales and the heroine not wanting such a thing near/on her family lands.

*related to Mr. Impossible
**to mines? probably, but I don't quite remember

#25 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 02:56 PM:

Theophylact @21: Glad to! I'm really surprised he's not better known. And yes, the Medici books (collaborations with Robert Ross) are good fun as well.

#26 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 03:31 PM:

Serge, #15: One of my LibraryThing tags on the book Southern Ladies and Gentlemen is "alien culture". It's tongue-in-cheek, but only partly.

#27 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 03:55 PM:

When I was in St Louis recently, the family went to the big transportation museum. Big, yes, full of trains for the train people, and cars for the car people, and older cars for me... plus some things I'd never thought about, like horse-drawn passenger rail cars. Because you have the rails but not the steam engine quite yet, so why not put a coach on flanged wheels? Compared to the ENORMOUS engines, particularly the SUPER ENORMOUS one, it seems... exactly right.

#28 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 04:03 PM:

27
Horse-drawn rail was a thing, even into the 20th century. There was one in Upland (California), on Euclid, which was drawn by mules northbound, and gravity southbound (the mules had a platform to stand on).

#29 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 04:19 PM:

Lee @ 26... I'd never have guessed, even after watching "Suddenly Last Summer". :-)

#30 ::: Tim Hall ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 04:33 PM:

27

Common in the early days of railways. The Stockton and Darlington, the world's first public steam railway in 1825 only used locomotives for freight, and passengers were horse-drawn to start with.

Horses were still shunting wagons well into the 20th century. The lasted almost as long as steam locomotives.

#31 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 05:01 PM:

Lee @26: I tend to tag stuff like that as "genre: anthropology".

#32 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 05:19 PM:

A lot of late colonial/postcolonial literature fits the bill. It's about social/cultural/political transformation. A classic example, of course, is Achebe's Things Fall Apart, but one could make an argument for his Anthills of the Savannah (doubly so for it being set in a fictional African country that was a deliberately inverted Nigeria).

A historical (or, perhaps, pseudohistorical) novel that I think qualifies, and that I happen to like a great deal is John Hearne's The Sure Salvation set on an illegal slaving voyage around 1860.

#33 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 05:21 PM:

Southern Ladies and Gentlemen is hilarious--but yes, fairly alien.

Another book I recommend in the same alien[1] category is Levi's Will by Dale Cramer.

1) It's entirely familiar to me, but I'd expect it to be alien to almost everyone on this blog.

#34 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 06:26 PM:

I seem to remember being told here that Richard McKenna, author of the novel that "The Sand Pebbles" is based on, considered his story to be SF. Mind you, he himself was an SF fan.

#35 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 06:42 PM:

Sumana 5: Under Houtman's definition, I guess Gravity counts as sciency?

#36 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 09:52 PM:

#13 ::: Henry Farrell

The Singularity with enumerable attributes is not the True Singularity.

#37 ::: Cat Eldridge ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2014, 11:20 PM:

@2: Appalachia was hardly the only rural area in the States that didn't have decent roads 'till the 50s. Mid coast Maine where I grew up head dirt roads well into that decade and no electricity until roughly the same time.

I was told tales of my great- grandparents in the 30s taking an annual trip to Bangor, forty miles from their home, by wagon once a year to purchase what they didn't produce on the farm or buy locally. I suspect for them paved roads would have been unimaginable!

#38 ::: Daniel Boone ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 12:17 AM:

Bob Webber #36: You've put your finger on something that's been bothering me about this thread. There are hard singularities and soft singularities, and the notion of a singularity in the rear view mirror only makes sense for singularities that are rather soft indeed. In the hard singularity scenarios (where SkyNet wakes up and pretty swiftly starts feeding everything on the planet into the computronium furnaces) there's no rear-view mirror and nobody left whose processes look recognizably like historical reflection.

#39 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 01:49 AM:

Cat Eldredge @37: Within the Seattle city limits there are still well-populated areas that have no sidewalks. This is hard to imagine for many urban folks. "The future is here -- it's just not evenly distributed."

#40 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 02:06 AM:

Aha. I knew there was a reason this topic was giving me deja vu, then google helpfully explained that it was because of a comment I posted here four years ago...

#41 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 06:46 AM:

Before the industrial revolution was the agricultural revolution, and well before that, fire was a disruptive technology. If we survive, I suspect there will be more.

Yes, the future is not evenly distributed. I call this the technological gradient. It was quite obvious back in the early part of the 20th century, visiting relatives in rural Missouri. I'm not sure if the steepness of the gradient has changed (it was actually a whole set of gradients, of course) or if the changing baseline makes it harder for me to see it.

#42 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 07:48 AM:

Bob Webber & Daniel Boone... Skynet would be the culmination of advances in chemistry, metallurgy, mathematics, physics, etc. In other words, there is no such thing as a hard singularity, but there are plenty of soft ones, as James Burke's 1978 tv series "Connections" showed.

#43 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 07:58 AM:

@Bob Webber,36: For some reason my brain insists that post should read

1. The Singularity with enumerable attributes is not the True Singularity.

#44 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 08:06 AM:

And the future is not evenly distributed even in a single place; Trevor Noah [South African comedian, funny, daywalker] was talking about the first escalator in , I think, Mozambique; it was in a mall. People lined up to ride it. And when their friends rode it, they took videos. On their iPhones. And posted them to Facebook.

#45 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 08:17 AM:

Tom Whitmore @#39: a good many suburban neighborhoods here, including mine, don't have sidewalks. There's a strong prejudice against foot travel. (It's for people who can't afford cars.) I get funny looks, and occasional offers of assistance, when I walk the one mile from my house to the local shopping center.

#46 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 08:50 AM:

Tom, #39: In Houston, there are new housing developments that have no sidewalks. Everyone is supposed to have a car, after all. Who walks anywhere but peasants?

#47 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 09:51 AM:

Don Simpson @41:

Before the industrial revolution was the agricultural revolution, and well before that, fire was a disruptive technology. If we survive, I suspect there will be more.

Between those, but at least as important, is the development of widespread literacy. (And, earlier, of writing at all, for that matter.) For the first time most people had access to more information than they could carry in their heads, and to the knowledge of people who they hadn't personally met. We talk about our external backup memory now, but the same thing happened then, right up to concerns about people no longer being able to remember as much as they once could.

#48 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 10:04 AM:

Yeah, my standard list of singularities goes "language, agriculture, writing, industry/factories, the Internet/cheap computing". (I hadn't considered "fire" but it's a good candidate.) The criterion here is "something that transforms the species into a form that would be hard for the older generations to understand if they saw it."

At this point the hard-line Singularitarian points out that the time intervals in that sequence decrease exponentially. So do we talk about the "real" singularity that arrives when transformations start occurring weekly, then daily, then hourly? Or do we think about human progress as having a sigmoid shape and flattening out in our lifetime?

#49 ::: Carrie V. ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 10:25 AM:

I had a professor point out just how giddy Stoker is about data technologies in Dracula. They use typewriters, phonographs, shorthand, there are newspaper articles, telegrams. They can solve mysteries because of how Mina compiles information with her modern secretarial skills.

It's a Victorian techno-thriller as much as it's a horror novel.

#50 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 10:42 AM:

The Blue Ant trilogy is SFnal, but not speculative (except for Bigend's final get in Zero History). It's also nearly singulatarian, in that acts that require almost unimaginable capabilities and influence in the first book (the creation of the footage; tracking Cayce's dad) are ho-hum and everyday in the third and also the reverse (hiding; becoming free of the past).

#51 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 10:57 AM:

Carrie V @ 49... And it involved medical innovations such as blood transfusions.

#52 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 12:45 PM:

Andrew Plotkin @48

When I was at school we had men on the moon and supersonic airliners. Tell kids that today and they won't believe you…

…until they have checked on Wikipedia.

#53 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 01:02 PM:

I suppose the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia is a sort of multi-factor singularity. Flying machines, of course. But it also needed radio transmitters with pedal generators. In the Second World War there were RAF Dakotas flying casualties back from Normandy, with nurses on board. Now there are air ambulances all over Britain (and it looks like a certain Prince, who used to fly Air-Sea-Rescue, will be putting in some flying time as an Air Ambulance pilot). And, apart from the flying, similar technology has come into use on ground ambulances: radio and on-board medics.

#54 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 01:13 PM:

Neither moon landings nor supersonic airliners are interesting when you're talking about changing the way we live. (Same goes for today's Japanese bullet trains and autonomous Mars rovers, for that matter.)

#55 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 01:25 PM:

Andrew, that's just not accurate. The space race drove a lot of the miniaturization we now take for granted, because of the need to reduce the weight of everything launched to the absolute minimum possible. Your smart phone owes its existence to the space race. The moon landing AS SUCH, maybe not (though an argument could be made that its long-term effects shortened the Cold War, I'm not enough of a historian to make or evaluate such an argument).

While it's possible that the miniaturization would have happened anyway, in this timeline it was driven by the space race.

I'm assuming the cellphone/smartphone's impact on the way we live is a given here.

#56 ::: Narmitaj ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 01:41 PM:

Sarah @ 22 "Kipling's "Farewell, Romance!" which looks at how no one ever idealizes the technology of their own time"

I used to wonder about this with Fred Dibnah, a 20thC UK steeplejack with a fascination for steam who accidentally became a TV personality presenting doccos on the Industrial Revolution. People opined that he was born out of time and would have loved to have lived in the 19thC, but my theory is that if he had, he would have hated all the new-fangled noisy steam-powered metal machines and would have looked back admiringly at the 18th and 17thCs. And so back ad infinitum.

#57 ::: Zack ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 02:16 PM:

James Herriot's autobiographical novels of life as a veterinarian in rural England shortly before, during, and after the Second World War contain an example that completely blew my mind (at about age ten) when I realized that it was an example of this: (quoting from memory)

...for the first time we (veterinarians) had medicines that actually worked.

He's talking about sulfanilamide.

#58 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 02:48 PM:

Solid-state electronics almost completely halted a bunch of miniaturization efforts in older technologies. I still have some nifty surplus items like mustard-seed incandescent lamps, rice-grain magnetic relay switches, a tiny 100-channel selector switch using a motor-driven wiper, etc. Peanut vacuum tubes are still being made, but not the really tiny ones they had in some hearing aids. And I used to have some old parts for RoboTyper machines; manual typewriters that could be switched to the control of pneumatically-read punched-paper piano rolls for "boilerplate" text.

#59 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 03:23 PM:

In the books about technology-driven change, I like Barbara Willard's "Mantlemass" series, starting with The Lark and the Laurel, about the transition from forestry/farming to iron-making in the great forest. The story is set in Ashdown Forest, in Sussex, but the same sort of changes happened in Picardy and Flanders; the resulting erosion moved the coastline from Brugge to Zeebrugge, and led to Antwerp replacing Brugge as the major Flemish port[1].


On the "critical technologies"--I tend to think sterile technique beats even penicillin[2], although only by a little, and the telegraph beats the internet.

Is there a more precise word for what I call "social techologies?" Things like statute law, and courts, and written land title? One I think of is the scalable military force, like the Roman legion--it's a major historical force, and dies off for nearly a millenium.

Cat Eldridge @ 37

I knew Appalachia wasn't the only long-settled place like that; do you have any suggested books set in Maine about that change? I'd love to be able to compare.

1) This is my understanding--if it's wrong I'd welcome correction; it's not the time period I know best.
2) Ante-natal deaths both infant and maternal, and the birth rate, both head down well before the discovery of penicillin. And sterilization--the contraceptive method of choice for the parents of the Baby Boomers--was certainly common by 1927 (Buck vs Bell.

#60 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 05:25 PM:

SamChevre @59:

Post-partum death of mothers/children drops in the 1840s courtesy of the work of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis.

Hand-washing and sterile technique.

#61 ::: Danny Sichel ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2014, 06:39 PM:

Andrew@48 - your list largely matches mine; don't forget cities (creating new environments!), domestication (creating new animals!), and math (the first method for predicting the future that actually worked!).

#62 ::: SKapusniak ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2014, 06:27 AM:

Danny@61, Andrew@48, others:

Contraception, that women control...

...is surely a ruddy great -- and, in recent weeks, extremely loud -- elephant of a Singularity squatting in the room somewhere?

I don't have the knowledge to give book recommendations for that, although there have to be many. Surely.

Also want: Fantasy series about the invention of the contraceptive spell that our heroines' organisation was recently founded to teach to all women to cast; alt-history novel on the rediscovery of silphium -- in a version that actually was a contraceptive -- and the secret of its cultivation (by Islamic Scholars?) during the Middle Ages; and that one short story where our cyborg 18th Century heroine calls out the time-lost AI Battle Computer that adopted her, for training her up to be a super-soldier when the specifications for the right sort genetically engineered plant was sitting *right there* in its data banks all the time.

#63 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: July 12, 2014, 08:28 PM:

The massive social effects of technological advances are a large part of the delight of some of the Discworld novels, including the latest, Raising Steam.

Also recommend Tom Standage's The Writing on the Wall -- history of social media dating back to the Acta Diurna posted on the Forum wall.

#64 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2014, 10:52 AM:

#44 the novelty of an escalator:

When I was in boarding school, some of us went on a field trip to the UN. There was one boy in the group who was from way out in the country who said it was the first time he had ever been on an escalator.

#65 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2014, 11:52 AM:

Was reading Michael White's Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer the other day—a good book though the author is strangely uninterested in calculus—and it struck me that, to the very small minority of 17th-century people who were interested in such things, the scientific revolution of that era must have felt like a singularity. Newton was a pivot between the old alchemists' ways and the clean new future of force diagrams and integrals.

John Crowley's Ægypt books are about a modern man groping for a rupture in history that he feels must have happened around the 1500–1700 period, when the world stopped working one way and started working another. Come to think of it, if you're looking for a singularity around then, surely the Reformation is it: a huge change in people's notion of authority and truth, and a massive hammer blow to the social order.

#66 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2014, 12:23 PM:

Margaret Ball's A Bridge to the Sky has algebra making it to Europe as, at least, a huge revelation-- as I recall, it made Gothic cathedrals possible.

It turns out the the book isn't included in most (any?) lists of her work.

#67 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2014, 12:45 PM:

I just added the book to Ball's wikipedia page.

#68 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2014, 12:54 PM:

64
I remember the treat it was to go to the city where there were escalators and elevators - I grew up in a place where most buildings were (and still are) three or fewer stories.

#69 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2014, 01:45 PM:

I happen to be reading Train by Tom Zoellner, a history of railways with particular attention to how the technological intertwines with the social.

I thought this group might enjoy this passage from the first chapter, p. 17.

Stephenson's invention quickly became an indispensable part of British life, and just as quickly it brought about a great social embarassment: people were suddenly forced to talk with strangers. The earliest train carriages were build like stagecoaches with benches facing one another, which might mean the horror of prolonged eye contact. And so the habit of reading a book while traveling - as an escape from boredom and awkwardness - led to a literacy explosion among the bougeois classes as low-cost books became widely available within the railway stations.

A young man named W.H. Smith earned the license to sell newspapers and books along the Birmingham Railway and later opened a stall in London's Euston station; the chain now blankets the nation. In France, Louis Hachette copied Smith's success and opened a "railway library" in 1852. Romance novels, detective thrillers, travel essays, children's fables - all could be picked up for pennies in the fleeting minutes before departure. In 1936 a publishing executive named Allen Lane took a train to visit his superstar author Agatha Christie and became dismayed at the lowbrow selection in the station kiosk. Lane was convinced there was a market among train riders for quality fiction and prose, and he went on to found the publishing house Penguin in a church basement in London.

#70 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2014, 02:52 PM:

One of the things I love about Making Light is that I can come back from a con (ReaderCon in this case) see a post, think about a response (in this case, Standage's The Victorian Internet), and find that response already in comments. :-)

#71 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2014, 03:14 PM:

OtterB #69: the son of the W.H. Smith who founded the chain of bookshops became a member of parliament and a government minister, rising to become First Lord of the Admiralty. He was famously pilloried by Gilbert and Sullivan.

#72 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2014, 04:54 PM:

Fragano @71, I didn't know that connection!

#73 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2014, 07:13 PM:

OtterB #72: I learnt it watching the semi-staged version during the 2005 Proms.

#74 ::: Jen Birren ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2014, 05:54 AM:

SKapusniak @ 62
"Also want: Fantasy series about the invention of the contraceptive spell that our heroines' organisation was recently founded to teach to all women to cast"

This is part of the backstory of Sherwood Smith's Sartorias-deles universe. It's portal fantasy; the first people to be transported to a world with magic, thousands of years ago, happened to be women, so the first spells developed include one large and permanent one: in order to *get* pregnant, women on that world have to eat a particular herb for some months. There's also a spell for people to have a baby without sex. The very big difference this makes to the societies is rather subtly shown, I think.

#75 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2014, 12:00 PM:

Sarah @ 12: initially yes, although the replacement of biological labor with mechanical was part of the industrial revolution. Note also the use of manually-cycled steam engines to clear the pits in which those ponies worked, and the mass harnessing of water power (e.g., a local grain mill replaced by a regional cloth mill). Depends on where you set the bounds of the IR, perhaps?
       et al re continued use of biological power long after any date usually given for the end of the IR: when I visited the circus museum in Baraboo, they had an exhibit about the conversion from horse power to horsepower, which happened for Ringling Bros. in the 1930s. (I don't know the dates of other circuses' shifts; would Ringling have been later because the family sire was a harness maker?) I don't remember whether elephants were still used for setup or just shifted to parade work at the same time.
      The exhibit had a D-6 bulldozer, but only pictures of the D-7 (cf "Killdozer".)

Serge @ 34: that's definitely a rear-view look; Wikipedia notes that McKenna served on a more-modern ship than the one he wrote about. But he had a very individual worldview (cf my query in OT#198), so I could believe he held that opinion.

Andrew @ 54, extending Xopher: shinkansen \might/ be a symptom as well as a cause, but IMO they're a major part of the shift from a localized society; think about what you might see for yourself (instead of relying on reports) when travel time is slashed. Obviously airplanes are a further step, but they have greater costs that reduce their breadth.

Fragano @ 71: what a fascinating connection -- especially considering the circularity of the number of SF readers who are G&S fans (at least into my generation -- I don't know how much the knowledge of G&S has faded since I was a lad).

#76 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2014, 12:35 PM:

CHip @ 75: I don't know how much the knowledge of G&S has faded since I was a lad
A sad thought, but I've been doing my part for the next generation - I just took my son to see the local production of The Mikado a few weeks ago.

(And thanks to Fragano for that tidbit about W.H. Smith; I still recall most of the songs in H.M.S. Pinafore from performing in it as a teenager.)

#77 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2014, 01:09 PM:

CHip @75

Horses went out of use in British farming mostly during and after WW2. It ties in with the Ferguson system tractor, initially manufactured by David Brown and Ford. before Ferguson started building the TE20 "grey fergie" in 1946.

The sort of road haulage that circuses and fairs did wasn't a good fit with the trucks of the 1920s. Steam traction engines were still common, and could mount generators for the colourful electric lighting. Some circuses had special railway trains, and the road haulage only needed to be short distance.

This was a factor in British tank design. The loading gauge in Britain was smaller than on the continent, so German tanks could be wider. Since a tank needs a certain length/width ratio to steer well, this meant that British tanks had to be all-round smaller, and since the men were no smaller, this led to problems squeezing a more powerful engine in. It also limited the size of the turret ring, which put limits on the gun, both recoil forces and recoil distance.

It wasn't until the British ditched the rail-transport requirement, during the war, partly because of American-built heavy road haulage systems, that they could build something as good as the Centurion tank.

Meanwhile, the very effective 17-pounder gun was mounted on US-built Sherman tanks, and a less-powerful version, the 77mm, was mounted in the Comet.

Another factor in the timing may be the quality of the roads. In Britain, at least, many rural roads were surfaced with tarmacadam as make-work as the country works its way out of the Great Depression. But it wasn't the growth in road haulage that weakened the railway companies, they were eagerly grabbing at the opportunities. The post-war nationalisation was partly down to the problem of paying for the deferred maintenance work.

And, if you have been watching the Tour de France, some of the roads they raced over, in both England and France, might not have had a good surface had they been in the USA.

#78 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2014, 05:31 PM:

Lots of "obsolete" technologies are still in use in odd corners of the world, or for special cases, or as hobbies or art. It seems to me that complex high-tech stuff is the most vulnerable.

#79 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2014, 07:05 PM:

Mary Renault's The Praise Singer is, in part, about the the changes to the profession of reciting poet/actor that resulted from a new technology: writing.

The MC catches his apprentice with a written version of a poem; the apprentice says it's just to assist him in memorizing it. At that point the MC knows that change is inevitable, and fears for his profession, and for the quality of poets.

Later, he reluctantly assists with a project to get Homer written down, because his royal patron (IIRC) asks him to. Many poets are participating, and it's not long before he comes upon a line he himself did not have. "Pure gold; it had to be Homer." At that point he embraces the future.

#80 ::: charming quark ::: (view all by) ::: July 14, 2014, 07:45 PM:

Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

#81 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2014, 09:46 AM:

charming quark @ 80... Definitely.

#82 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2014, 01:23 PM:

I keep coming back to language as perhaps the truest singularity mentioned here, one where it's truly impossible to explain from this side to the other side what the change represented (though it's also then one where the sort of as-it-happened reporting under discussion is impossible.)

Part of this may be that my toddler is currently passing through this singularity himself as he learns to talk[1]. I can see the frustration when he can't make his needs and wants known, and the sheer joy when he knows the word for what he wants or what he sees. And I have to wonder how much of the reason why we don't have memories of that age is that learning language reconfigures our brains so much that we just can't access the older material anymore.

[1] I'm using this to encompass both the spoken word and the baby signs that he's also learning. His current vocabulary is about half and half, with a little overlap.

#83 ::: Em ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2014, 01:40 PM:

Lorax @82 : I'm spending quite a bit of time babysitting my nephew at the moment, who is at the very-limited-spoken-vocabulary stage (also the "understands a lot" stage - he's a clever kid, in my utterly biased opinion). At the moment, his vocabulary consists of:

"Oh, LOOK!"
"Oh, WOW!"
and "OH NOOOOO".

We've yet to discover a situation that isn't covered by one or a combination of those things.

#84 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2014, 02:30 PM:

Lora's & Em: Proposed, that a Singularity is the social equivalent of a Mystery for individuals.

#85 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: July 15, 2014, 04:43 PM:

lorax @82: This certainly makes sense to me. My earliest clear memory is of when I was around four years old, and had (presumably, shortly before the memory starts) encountered the concept of another language. I demanded to know how to say "water" in Spanish, and my mother told me; that part I remember as something I once remembered, not specifically. The memory I still have is me playing on rocks, saying "Agua, agua, agua" to myself as I played. Trying to remember the word.

(Most of my next earliest memories are about the bilingual kindergarten in Costa Rica I attended while my parents were doing language school; about 50/50 memories of dealing with language and insignificant social encounters. But that's just confluence of events rather than significant, I think.)

#86 ::: estelendur ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2014, 01:14 AM:

lorax @82, apparently when kids access earlier memories, they sometimes can only describe the memory using words they had at the time it was formed. (I'm unclear on exactly how this works, but that was the gist of the conclusion.) So, perhaps!

#87 ::: Brenda Kalt ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2014, 12:24 PM:

The singularity no one ever mentions is the knot. It makes everything that requires restraint (prisoners of war, slaves, horse domestication) possible.

#88 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2014, 12:58 PM:

86
Some of the very earliest memories are things like scents. You get those, and you don't even have words. (The one I've 'always known' is the smell of an oilfield. Which, yeah, within the first two months.)

#89 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2014, 03:58 PM:

Brenda Kalt @ 87: Some of Delany's stories in the Neveryon setting mention the lock and key as a similar singularity, enabling prisons, slave collars, prisoners, slaves, fetishes for prisoners and slaves.... (In at least one of them he mentions that locks which take different keys are still hundreds of years away.)

#90 ::: Teka Lynn ::: (view all by) ::: July 16, 2014, 08:48 PM:

My mother has told me that her earliest memory is of being held in her mother's arms and reaching for the thermometer outside. She says she knew the word "thermometer" and repeated it carefully several times in her head before saying it. She got very frustrated because she could not *say* "thermometer" even though she knew the word, and began crying. Nana said something like "Oh, you don't want that!" and took her away to do something else.

#91 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2014, 12:36 AM:

Brenda Kalt @ 87: Yes! Knots are a vast and ancient technology. And so is the highly related craft of weaving. I imagine they both started with natural items like thin plant stems and branches, perhaps sinew, and expanded with the making of tieable stuffs like leather thongs and then strings (from spun thread on up to rope). Somewhere in there, sewing appears....

#92 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2014, 03:02 AM:

And somewhere else, cat's cradles....

#93 ::: Michael Bloom ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2014, 06:09 AM:

Seems to me that lurking within the most recent (soft) singularity is the cost differential of transporting data versus transporting stuff, including people. What I'm groping for here is something about how the Internet revolution has somehow squeezed such large scale old technology accomplishments as the moon landing or the Grand Coulee Dam out of the realm of possibility, but I don't think I've had enough coffee yet to give this notion any rigor.

(What triggered this idea here was Sandy B. @44 on cellphone captures of the escalator, but behind that, the most depressing thing I read this morning was a rant on First Draft on how the US is so profoundly unwilling, and therefore unable, to provide decent care and accommodations to refugee children from various dysfunctional Central American client states.)

#94 ::: Em ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2014, 09:19 AM:

Michael @93: In response to the "where is my flying car?" complaint, I've often said that the future used to mean better modes of transportation (jetpacks, flying cars, spaceships), whereas what actually happened is that we made physical transportation less necessary by instead focussing on better communication methods. Teleconferencing, video chat, reliable phone service - heck, I helped a friend on the other side of the country shop for a wedding dress via texted photos once. I think that may be related to what you're saying.

I would, however, still really like a flying car.

#95 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2014, 09:57 AM:

@Michael Bloom, 93: This feeds into one of my obsessions. Electricity has traditionally been about Big Projects (electricity costs around a dollar a watt, and typical projects are 400 to 1,400 million watts...) and one of the problems with renewables (solar and wind) has always been "We don't have storage" and "We need backup power plants running." With better weather forecasting, and better communication, we don't need nearly as much backup; with more distributed intelligence we can do demand response and we don't need as much storage. We could build a giant battery, or we could just get 2000 volunteers to let us turn on their fridges and A/C a little earlier and turn them off at peak hours.

So, yeah, we're doing software so we don't have to do as much infrastructure.

#96 ::: Adrian ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2014, 12:10 PM:

Brenda Kalt at 87, knots make an awful lot of things possible that have nothing to do with restraint. Fishing with nets, or hook/line/pole. A lot of fastening of bundles--to a high branch where animals can't reach them, or to a person's back so hands are free. I agree that it was a major discovery.

#97 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2014, 01:16 PM:

Michael Bloom #93: Especially given that the dysfunctionality is an export from the US.

#98 ::: Michael Bloom ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2014, 03:13 PM:

Em @94: I wasn't looking for the flying car so much as thinking of the sort of culture we now enjoy, and of course I thought of the metaphor I wanted right after I posted (delayed effect of coffee)-- we're becoming belter culture, where we live in teeny little communities (or solitude) on our various asteroids, and travel or trade gets prohibitively expensive in reaction mass or time or both-- but we've all got shiny new ansibles. I too have dear friends I communicate with mainly on the net, but how much of our various hungers can be fed by data alone in its various guises?

One of the political symptoms of our apparent just-around-the-corner isolationism is that maintenance of important systems isn't getting done-- rails, roads and bridges; water and gas mains; the power grid; etc. Maybe we'll need the flying cars just to avoid falling into the sinkholes?

Sandy B. @95: Yes. Partly there is a failure of imagination, where the idea of big central power plants (e.g.) seems to preclude thinking about how to engineer a smart grid. Partly this is the law of unintended consequences again, where we see how much of "economy of scale" depended on the cost of the information required to administer wisely, but this information (like most data) is now significantly cheaper. (That last may be the one original idea I can contribute to this thread.) And partly entrenched interests blocking change, just because they can.

But we can't abandon physical infrastructure altogether. At some point somebody will have to deliver the goop that our 3D printers need to operate, right?

Fragano Legister @97: Exactly. Welcome to the Orphanage of St. Blowback.

#99 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2014, 04:26 PM:

Michael Bloom @93 & @98: What squeezed the Grand Coulee Dam out of the realm of possibility was not the Internet but the fact that we've already built dams in, well, damn near all the canyons which can accommodate a structure of that scale save the Grand Canyon (and that was a near thing).

Isolationism? Hardly. More of humanity lives in urbs now than at any previous point in our history. And the Internet is one of the big enablers which allows us to do so better.

#100 ::: estelendur ::: (view all by) ::: July 17, 2014, 08:12 PM:

Michael Bloom @98: sociality that takes place in virtual spaces (e.g., anthropologically notably Second Life, saliently notably, well, here) is still real sociality. We still create and are created in turn by interaction, even when we cannot reach out and get someone's dead skin cells on our fingertips. The internet, as Kevin Riggle said, being the great enabler of that as well as of urbs.

#101 ::: Beowulf ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2014, 09:10 PM:

While there is some controversy among historians, it is generally accepted that improved saddle design and the introduction of stirrups had a major impact on the development of feudalism and chivalry. Can anyone think of a good story that explores this? The closest thing I can think of is Ivanhoe which is a huge stretch.

#102 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2014, 10:03 PM:

101
Horse collars, so that horses could breath and pull loads at the same time. (Different anatomy from oxen. Ox collars on horses cut off their air.)

#103 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2014, 01:24 PM:

Beowolf @ 101

Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles--I think it's in The Singing Sword; they're right on the border of historical fiction and fantasy. But the introduction of the stirrup is definitely in one of the books in that series.

#104 ::: Beowulf ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2014, 08:16 PM:

SamChevre @ 103
I've added that to my to read list.

P J Evans @102
Thats another good one.

I think "You've Got Mail" counts as sciency fiction, but I've never properly watched it only seen bits and pieces on TV. Also, I remember seeing romantic comedy set at a company thats getting its first computer, and has the existing staff's reaction to the computer as a major part of the plot. Unfortunately, I can't recall the movie's name.

#105 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2014, 08:46 PM:

Beowulf (104): Would that have been Desk Set? Great movie.

#106 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2014, 09:36 PM:

Dave Bell @ 77: the interesting thing to me was that Ringling Bros moved to bulldozers rather than better trucks; IIRC they moved mostly by railroad (with short hauls from rail to arena, as they still do in some cities), but were also using horses for setup labor -- for which a bulldozer was more maneuverable, fast enough, and less troubled by bad ground than a truck.

estelendur @ 86: I don't think I believe that (memory vocabulary is limited), based on some of my recollections -- but memory may be different for people who remember visually as-much-as/rather-than verbally.

The discussion on knots as singularities touches on plying heavy cords from smaller, which suggests weaving. Knotting isn't much good without plying because a thick solid won't knot and a thin solid won't hold much load; weaving seems a more subtle singularity, but think of what happens when you can work from scraps instead of solids -- a bit like going from stone axes to forged tools?

#107 ::: Beowulf ::: (view all by) ::: July 20, 2014, 06:01 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 105 I just looked at the IMDB page for desk set, and I think it was that movie.

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