Review of "The Spike"

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Tue, 12 Aug 1997 02:44:32 -0500

Regarding Damien Broderick's "The Spike"...

So! The news is out, eh? I still can't find it at so if
anybody finds out how to get Spiked in the U.S., let me know. I've got
requests for half a dozen copies.

Take note, ye who post to Our Most Extropian List: Many trenchant yet blunt
comments about us appear in a footnote on page 261 - and are not listed under
our names in the index!

Regarding the book itself:

Sure, it's a fine book. Novelty, bright hints of strangeness, casually
dropped gems of information... A fine book. Wrong, of course. "Wrong, but
interesting and informative" is all you can hope for when discussing any
future, much less the Spike.

The book had quite a few highlights; completely new pieces of information that
delighted and surprised me. The Alpha Point... pixels in the Utility Fog...
Moravec's description of Exes... and the fine distinction between
Transcension, Inflexion Point, and Event Horizon, which I liked very much. I,
for one, am an unabashed student and advocate of Transcension.

There are a *few* disputes I have with the book. Note that I'd dispute "The
Spike" if a Vingean Power had written it. What can I say? Finding flaws in
anything is part of who I am. Besides, since the Singularity presents an
alternative, we don't need to pretend that life, or anything in it, is perfect.

Dispute the first: After reading my section, I stopped and spent a frantic
day writing "The Ethics Of Cognitive Engineering"(*). Broderick wasn't overly
fond of - i.e., he was horrified by - my suggestion to tinker with the brains
of children. Said so in writing, too. So I think I probably did manage to
genuinely shock a few readers.
(* =

And then too, I'd have been happier if there'd been room for all my technical
paragraphs... instead of just the dramatic conclusions. Suddenly I understand
certain stylistic anomalies in books such as "Engines of Creation". The
authors will carefully explain a new technology, and then - just as they reach
the dramatic conclusion - start repeating themselves.

Well, it's not pedantry... it's not lack of imagination... it's not
fanaticism... it's not bad editing. What they knew - that I didn't, alas -
was that the dramatic conclusions are what will be quoted out of context.
Therefore, every dramatic conclusion must contain, in summary, all the
reasoning that leads up to it. You have to write for your readers' readers,
not just your readers.

Personally, I'm not sure I could stand to write like that. Well, it's the
most "controversial" people - read "loony" - who get all the media attention.
So perhaps it's all for the best; why shouldn't one articulate person get in
by mistake? Besides, this is a hypertext world. If I want to write
summarized dramatic conclusions, I can write a distinct "Quotable Version" and
link to that.

Ah, well. Hence the phrase: "Help... I've been popularized." On the whole,
I came across as someone worth reading... and I can't expect Broderick to say
in 6 pages what I said in 40. And it's nice to be referenced; it makes you
feel more solid, as if your existence is stabilized within the interpersonal
network of the world.

Dispute the second and stylistic: Broderick doesn't harp on hubris the way Ed
Regis does, but his occasional courtesies to his predecessor still get on the
nerves. It's even worse because I know perfectly well that Broderick isn't
shocked by any of this; he's been on this list long enough to lose it.
Delight in the new, or occasional horror, yes. But shock? You can't make me
believe it. Broderick isn't a technophobe, and I'd wish he'd stop trying to
pretend he was.

And Broderick is writing about the Singularity, not high technology. For the
Singularity, hubris isn't the appropriate emotion. One feels faced with some
great tidal wave of change, vast, tall, overwhelming, strange, rushing at us
inexorably whether we say yea or nay... As Vinge put it, "Sometimes I think
I'd feel more comfortable regarding the Singularity from a remove of a
thousand years... instead of twenty." Where Broderick conveys that, the book
is good - but where he gets confused and thinks he's Ed Regis, well, I'd
rather he hadn't.

Dispute the third and futuristic: Broderick is *still* trying to write about
Life After Singularity in human terms. I hate that. It strikes me as such a
huge waste of time. It's not that we can't figure it out - though we can't -
it's that, well, who *cares*? Leave it to our future selves! *We* should be
figuring out how to get there. In this sense, it could be said that I
disagree with the premise of the whole book. Everything Broderick discusses
could be divided into two groups: Things that, were I writing them, I would
call "The Near Future"... and things that aren't really our concern. Alas,
you can't sneak up on the Singularity through "careful, detailed thinking
about what it would really be like to be uploaded into a computer".
[Paraphrase.] You can fill the air with guesses, striving always to make the
guesses as *strange* as possible. But of course you can't get it right.

Finally, dispute the fourth: I feel that Broderick is occasionally too
judgemental... and at times, parts of the book show a definite bias towards
what happens to be his own position. So he's human. I only worry because, as
I was quoted, I came across as being a little socialist. This is because one
or two sentences from "Staring Into The Singularity", the ones concerned with
"social science", do sound socialist if divorced from the previous sentences
explaining what exactly is wrong. Call me loony, but Broderick seems to
advocate taking a center road between socialism and capitalism, and I can't
help but think the two are unrelated. But the real me tries to think up
streamlinked economies that are to capitalism what capitalism is to socialism.


So does the book justify its existence? Of course. Don't mind me. The above
items are really minor flaws. Broderick wasn't launching a project to design
a Power; he was writing a book. What you measure in Extropian books are their
love of the new, their bright hints of strangeness, the casually dropped gems
of information. On that scale, Broderick did fine. "Wrong, but interesting
and informative" is all you can hope for when discussing any future, much less
the Singularity and Spike.

--       Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.