Beware the Singularity, Singing the Retribution Blues: New Works by Rick Dooling
The best writing challenges our preconceptions of the world, and Rick Dooling is an author who consistently does that in his essays, long form nonfiction, and novels. He’s also a screenwriter. If you know his work, then you know how his language and ideas stretch your mind. If you don’t know his work, then consider this a kind of book club recommendation. I promise, you won’t be disappointed. The following piece I did on Dooling appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) a couple years ago upon the release of his book, Rapture for the Geeks, When AI Outsmarts IQ. The work reads like a cross between a love ballad to the wonders of computer technology and a cautionary tale of that same technology one day overtaking humans’ capacity to control it. Around this same time, a suspenseful, supernatural film Dooling wrote the screenplay for from a Stephen King short story, Dolan’s Cadillac, finished shooting. Dooling previously collaborated with King on the television miniseries, Kingdom Hospital. Dooling is currently working on a TV pilot.
You can find more pieces by me on Rick Dooling, most efficiently in the category with his name, but also in several other categores, including Authors/Literature and Nebraskans in Film.
Beware the Singularity, Singing the Retribution Blues: New Works by Rick Dooling
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It’s been awhile since Omaha writer Rick Dooling, author of the novels White Man’s Grave and Brainstorm, enjoyed this kind of traction. Fall 2008 saw published his cautionary riff Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ (Harmony Books). His screen adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, Dolan’s Cadillac, will soon be released as an indie feature. Dooling, collaborator with King on the network television series Kingdom Hospital, was flattered the master of horror himself asked him to tackle Dolan, a classic revenge story with supernatural undertones.
Dooling’s no stranger to movie-movie land. His novel Critical Care was adapted into a Sidney Lumet film. The author was preparing to adapt Brainstorm for Alan J. Pakula when the director died in a freak accident. Then there was the creative partnership with King. But writing books is his stock-in-trade, and even though Dolan could change that, Rapture’s what comes to mind in any appreciation of Dooling.
Like much of his socially conscious work Rapture’s a smart, funny, disturbing, essay-like take on a central conflict in this modern age, one that, depending on your point of view, is either rushing toward a critical tipping point or is much ado about nothing. He fixes on the uncomfortable interface between the cold, hard parameters of computer technology’s increasing sophistication and meta-presence in our lives with existential notions of what it means to be human.
High tech’s ever more integrated in our lives. We rely on it for so many things. Its systems grow faster, more powerful. Dooling considers nothing less than humankind nearing an uneasy threshold when the artificial intelligence we’ve engineered surpasses our own. He lays out how the ongoing exponential growth of super processing capabilities is a phenomenon unlike any other in recorded history. The implications of the singularity, as geeks and intellectuals call this moment when interconnected cyber systems outstrip human functioning, range from nobody-knows-what-happens-next to dark Terminator-Matrix scenarios.
A fundamental question he raises is, Can the creators of AI really be supplanted by their creation? If possible, as the book suggests it is, then what does that do to our concept of being endowed with a soul by a divinity in whose image we’re made? Is synthetic intelligence’s superiority a misstep in our endeavors to conquer the universe or an inevitable consequence of the evolutionary scheme?
“Well, we all know what evolution is. We’ve read about it, we understand it, it’s just that we always have this humancentric, anthropocentric viewpoint,” Dooling said. “Wouldn’t it make perfect sense there would be another species that would come after us if evolution continued? Why would we be the last one?”
Is AI outsmarting IQ part of a grand design? Where does that leave humanity? Are we to enter a hybrid stage in our development in which nanotechnology and human physiology merge? Or are we to be replaced, even enslaved by the machines?
The real trouble comes if AI gains self-knowledge and asserts control. That’s the formula for a rise-of-the-machines prescience that ushers in the end of homo sapien dominance. Or has mastery of the universe always been an illusion of our conceit? Is the new machine age our comeuppance? Have we outsmarted ourselves into our own decline or demise? Can human ingenuity prevent a cyber coup?
Arrogantly, we cling to the belief we’ll always be in control of technology. “Do you believe that?” Dooling asked. “It is kind of the mechanical equivalent of finding life on other planets.” In other words, could we reasonably assume we’d be able to control alien intelligent life? Why should we think any differently about AI?
Pondering “what man hath wrought” is an age-old question. We long ago devised the means to end our own species with nuclear/biological weapons and pollutants. Nature’s ability to kill us off en masse with virus outbreaks, ice cap melts or meteor strikes is well known. What’s new here is the insidious nature of digital oblivion. It may already be too late to reverse our absorption into the grid or matrix. Most of us are still blissfully unaware. The wary may reach a Strangelove point of How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Microchip.
It’s intriguing, scary stuff. Not content with simply offering dire predictions, Dooling examines the accelerating cyber hold from different perspectives, presenting alternate interpretations of what it may mean — good, bad, indifferent. This kaleidoscopic prism for looking at complex themes is characteristic of him.
Extremities lend themselves to the satire he’s so adept at. He finds much to skewer here but isn’t so much interested in puncturing holes in theories as in probing the big ideas and questions the coming singularity, if you ascribe to it, inspires. His drawing on scientific, religious, literary thinkers on the subject confirms his firm grasp and thorough research of it.
The project was a labor of love for Dooling, a self-described geek whose fascination with computers and their content management, data base applications began long before the digital revolution hit main street. We’re talking early 1980s. “Not many writers were drawn to computers that early,” he said, “but of course now you can’t write without a computer most people would say.”
He designs web sites, he builds computers and because “I knew I wanted to write about this,” he said, “I knew I was going to get no respect until I could at least write code and do programming.” Deep into html he goes.
The pithy, portentous quotations sprinkled throughout the book come from the vast files of sayings and passages he’s collected and stored for just such use.
Aptly, he became a blog star in this high-tech information age after an op-ed he wrote that drew heavily from Rapture appeared in The New York Times. His piece responded to oracle Warren Buffett’s warning, “Beware of geeks bearing formulas,” following the stock market crash. Dooling enjoys Web exchanges with readers.
“I’m telling you every blog from here to Australia quoted this op-ed, with extended commentary. I’ve never seen anything like that happen with my work before. It took me completely by surprise. It makes you realize how powerful the Internet is.”
If you doubt how ingrained our computer interactions are, Dooling said, think about this the next time you call Cox Communications with a technical issue:
“Your first few minutes of interaction are being handled by a chatterbot,” Dooling said, “and some people don’t even realize it. It’ll say, ‘Let me ask you a few questions first,’ and then it’ll go, ‘Hold on and I will connect you with one of our assistants’ or something like that. And when you’ve reached the point where the thing has gathered everything it can automatically gather now you need an intervention from someone in India to come on and actually take over and start doing the human interaction. Until then, that’s a piece of software talking to you.
“The chatterbots are getting very good. It’s taking longer and longer in a Turing Test type of situation” for people to determine they’re bandying back and forth with a machine not another person. He said that’s because advanced chatterbots can be programmed to exhibit qualities like humor or variations of it like sarcasm.
“I mean the very first one, Eliza, I talk about in there (Rapture), they fooled hundreds of people with in the beginning because people were naive back then. The designers did it just by turning every question around. They call the software a Rogerian Psychiatrist because you go, ‘I hate my brother,’ and it responds, ‘Why do you hate your brother?’ Or you say, ‘I feel terrible today, and it goes, ‘Why do you feel terrible today?’ My favorite one is, ‘My brother hates me’ and it asks, ‘Who else in your family hates you?’ Do you love it?”
For those who dismiss high-tech’s hold he points to our computer, iPod, cell phone, online fixations and prodigious digital activities as creating cyber imprints of our lives. Our identity, profile, personal data, preferences become bit/byte fodder.
“And it’s true, you know, because when you log onto something like dig or slash.com they’re showing you stuff based upon every time you’ve been there and what you clicked on,” he said. “And when you’re going on something like Wikipedia and contributing content the operating system is like, Oh, good, more content here. ‘Based on your contributions in the past, it appears you really enjoy the singularity, would you like to write an article about it?’
“At one point in there (Rapture) I think I quote George Johnson from The New York Times, who takes it to the next level by saying, Look, does it really matter what you believe about your dependence if Amazon’s picking your books and eHarmony’s picking your spouse and Net Flix is picking your movies? You’ve been absorbed, you’ve been to the operating system, they already own you.”
Skeptics counter that’s a far leap to actually losing our autonomy. “Yeah, but in exponential times a very far leap is no longer a very far leap,” said Dooling.
Virtual reality’s dark side also interests Dooling. “Well, it does make you think about things like technology or Internet addiction or any of those things,” he said. “I believe that’s very real and it’s just going to get worse. A lot of people don’t even realize they are addicted until they’re stuck somewhere without their iTouch or whatever. And then you see it in your kids. You know, what does that mean?”
He said at book club forums he does for Rapture “people have a sense technology is changing them but they are uncertain about its effects. They also sense the dramatic speed and exponential increases in power, but don’t know where that will all end up. Most people feel like computers are already smarter than them, so they are more curious about the possible dangers of a future where computers are literally in charge of the Internet or our financial welfare. We’ve seen just a sample with the computer-generated derivatives that began the latest crash. What about nanotechnology and the gray goo phenomenon? That is, the possibility a terrorist or ‘mad scientist’ could create something that replicates, exponentially of course, until it crushes everything…It goes on.”
Dooling doesn’t pretend to know what lies ahead. He’s only sure the techno landscape will grow ever larger, more complex and that America lags far behind countries like India and China in math, science, IT expertise, broad band penetration and high tech infrastructure. The good news is greater connectivity will continue flattening the world, opening up new opportunities.
“In the short term I think what you see is exponentially increased collaboration and intelligence sharing and data sharing,” he said. “But beyond that we don’t know where it’s going to go.”
The same can be said for Dolan’s Cadillac. At the start anyway. Obsession, Old Testament-style, is the theme of the Stephen King story Dooling adapted. More precisely, how far will someone go to exact revenge? King’s original appears in his short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes.
In the script, which adheres closely to King’s story, Robinson (Wes Bentley) is bent on avenging his wife Elizabeth‘s murder. His target — big-time criminal Jimmy Dolan (Christian Slater), a human trafficker who makes the drive between Vegas and L.A. in his prized, heavily-armored Cadillac escorted by two bodyguards. The ruthless Dolan, who ordered the hit on Elizabeth, seems impervious. Robinson, a school teacher, appears outmatched. But with the visage of his dear-departed egging, nagging, cajoling him on, Robinson lays a diabolical trap for Dolan and his Caddy.
After King asked him to adapt it, Dooling read the tale and it hooked him. How could it not? It has a relentless, driven quality that captivates you from the jump and never lets up, with enough macabre twists to keep you off balance. From the first time we meet Robinson, half-out-of-his-mind laboring on a desolate stretch of U.S. 71 in the killing Nevada sun, we know we’re in for a ride. We have no idea what he’s doing out there. That’s what the rest of the film is about.
Dooling said he likes the story being “the revenge of a common man, not an ex-Navy Seal or ex-cop or whatever. He doesn’t care if he loses, because his life is over anyway, but he’d really rather make sure he gets Dolan first.”
Another writer took a crack at adapting Dolan. That left Dooling with a choice.
“In Hollywood you can either look at the first project and try and fix it or you can choose to start from scratch,” he said. “I decided to write it myself, which is riskier, because if you do it yourself there’s no one really to blame except you.”
He said King’s story is set-up as “the perfect second half of a movie,” which found Dooling filling-in “how did we get here.” That meant detailing the back story of how Elizabeth (Emmanuelle Vaugier) stumbled onto Dolan and crew to witness something she shouldn’t, her going to the feds and despite protection being killed. It also meant fleshing out Dolan’s lifestyle and business dealings and Robinson’s transformation into a single-minded vindicator.
The film shot largely in Regina and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 2008, where Dooling was on set for weeks. He saw several cuts of the film, including the final. He’s pleased with the results. Among other things, he’s impressed by Bentley and Slater in the leads.
“Bentley’s quite bland to begin with, but once he begins stalking Dolan he makes himself into one intense, haunted creature,” said Dooling, adding Slater makes us “like Dolan every once in a while. Not many bad people are just plain bad. They usually have a story…and Slater is good at telling us that story.”
He admires the inventive ways director Jeff Beesley handled Elizabeth’s many ghostly appearances, both visually and with voiceover.
It was Dooling’s first experience with an indie project. “It was both scary and exciting because you’re kind of out there, up in Regina. It was great. Lots of fun.”
- Hear that? It’s the Singularity coming. (sentientdevelopments.com)
- The Illusion of Control in a Intelligence Amplification Singularity (acceleratingfuture.com)
- Skeptical take on Singularity (boingboing.net)
- What is the Technological Singularity? (thenextweb.com)
- Three arguments against the singularity (antipope.org)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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