This is a fictional future history setting based on what I wrote back in 2019 in Finnish.
It is primarily meant to be as base material for further creative projects. I therefore don't advise you to read it as a straightforward political statement.
TL;DR (spoilers): "Singularity" will be interrupted by the collapse of civilization, but the existing mind uploads will continue their lives within fungal rhizomes.
In the 2010s, the entertainment-oriented "social media" had become the main arena for politics and a lot of other "serious" public communication. After some of the inherent problems escalated in the early 2020s, the corporations responsible for the services tried several corrective measures. The battle against disinformation failed. The reconfiguration of content selection algorithms to strongly prefer non-political content did not help either. Polarization, disinformation and denialism continued to grow, feeding populist and authoritarian movements everywhere in the world.
The failing democracies in Western countries became laughingstock and leaders increasingly looked up to China for an example of a functional state. In response to growing numbers of political and climate refugees, many countries closed their borders to nearly everyone. European Union shattered, and even United Nations started breaking up.
Many failing states got "rescued" by corporations that offered "governmental services". Marketing specialists helped design strong nationalist brands that made citizens proud of their "own" authoritarian techno-surveillance dystopias. Despite the high levels of nationalism, traditional wars seldom broke out, even between countries governed by competing corporations: such wars would have been detrimental to everyone's business. Instead, brand loyalty was boosted with virtual wargame spectacles and huge drone battles.
Emotionally and rhetorically convincing AI chatbots, pioneered by Microsoft XiaoIce in the 2010s, became popular as human-corporate interfaces, interpersonal negotiators, and above all, "virtual friends" (VFs). Many kinds of virtual personalities became available: most people preferred to interact with the celebrity-like ones, but some chose less popular or even custom companions. Many started to use VFs constantly in their everyday lives, following their assistance even in the smallest tasks. The VFs that specialized in this kind of assistant role came to be known as "navigators".
By the end of the 2020s, most people in rich countries were constantly wearing VR or AR headsets for an uninterrupted human-computer interaction. Some headsets also supported air filtering against pollution and viruses. Surgigal brain-to-computer interfaces were also succesfully commercialized, allowing early adopters to form even deeper symbiotic relationships with their navigators.
Navigators were highly effective for crowd manipulation. Even many of the most resistive people got lured by their superhuman emotional and content-personalization capabilities. Those who did manage to resist had their resistance rechanneled into something more compatible with the rules of the sandbox: "How about organizing a navigatorless day or a 'meet real people day'?", the navigators would suggest. "Would you like to gamify this event and grant the participants customized achievement trophies saying 'I was able to resist corporate psy-ops'?"
An ever higher percentage of global energy consumption was being taken up by computing – video streaming and artificial intelligence in particular. In many other areas, such as transportation and manufacturing, the idea of reduced resource consumption had already become mainstream, but computing had branded itself as an exception: "In these hard years, humanity needs all the help it can get from the AIs, and continuing growth of computing is therefore absolutely necessary."
In order to further justify and facilitate this growth, corporations started to help people make their lives more resource-efficient in other areas. Navigators lured people into communal living, gardening (even in high-rise cities) and plant-rich diets. Personal ownership of items, even clothing, was replaced by "personal items as a service" type of arrangements; this also helped phase out planned obsolescence and concentrate on durable products once again. Still, this did not help the planetary condition very much – even though combustion engines were not used as much as before, fossil fuels were still being extracted and burned because of the increasingly energy-hungry cyberspace.
By the 2030s, all the functional countries in the world, even the most reclusive dictatorships, were buying "governmental services" from corporations. To the average citizen, everything still looked normal, but behind the scenes, there was full AI-assisted corporate control for everything. Even though puppet economists and puppet politicians were still talking about growth and money, corporations had switched from monetary economies to resource-based trade protocols. All speculation about the actual extent of corporate control was filtered out by social media algorithms or labelled as "conspiracy theories".
Surgical brain-to-computer interfaces started to displace AR/VR headsets in the 2030s. This allowed many people to let navigators run their bodies on "autopilot" for boring tasks. Some even chose to be immersed in virtual reality for most of their daily life, letting corporations use their bodies for whatever purposes in the meantime.
For most non-rich users, this kind of body-rental was the only way how they could afford the interface. Human bodies were still competitive against robots – even at energy-efficiency, when fed cheap algae or local self-grown food.
The interfaces also made it possible for rich people to extend their brains with silicon-based exocortices. Occasionally, when an exocortex was connected to a brain that was slowly deteriorating due to a disease, the exocortex eventually managed to replicate most of the functions the organic brain was losing. This provided the technological basis for mind uploading.
Since most of the early uploaded minds belonged to rich and influential people, societies were very quick to accept the uploads as the legal successors of their dead originators – despite the fact that many of the early uploads were rather sketchy and incomplete shadows of the original minds. The digitized minds of many deceased CEOs and dictators continued to lead their respective corporations and countries.
Computing capacities no longer grew, but corporate AIs and uploaded minds kept hogging as much neurocomputation resources as they could. As a result, AI services became increasingly expensive for the general population. By the end of the 2030s, most navigator-users had to abandon the constant conversational use or to switch to simplified versions.
Many poor people started to regard navigators and customer-service AIs as "oracles" that could provide answers to maybe a few of their questions per month. Some people even started to worship their favorite oracles as gods or saints. Corporations adjusted the AIs to better suit this new religious role.
In order to simplify common people's transitions back to non-AI-assisted life, corporations started to establish so-called "life camps". A typical life camp was centered around a specific oracle that was both the supreme leader of the camp and its object of worship. Corporate personnel ("priests") took care of individual "customer service" and practical management. The daily schedules of the camps were strict, largely consisting of work, worship and facilitated human interaction.
Due to ecological breakdowns and energy shortages, the dependency networks of the technological civilization started to permanently collapse. In the 2040s, it had become impossible to produce many of the high-tech components of the 2030s. A reverse version of Moore's law came to effect, skyrocketing the prices of older computer hardware, especially the kind that was capable of neurocomputing at decent capacities. Some people who had not recycled their mobile phones or laptops in the "ownership years" became rich by selling them to dealers. In some areas, corporations even decided to confiscate all old hardware from the general population by force.
A lot of R&D was put into producing long-lasting computer components so that corporate needs could be filled even after the collapse of the semiconductor industry. Large libraries of data were backed up on microfilms and ROM chips at various feature sizes, with an emphasis on the most important "cultural treasures" as well as what was considered crucial for rebuilding the civilization.
It became prohibitively expensive for common people to keep large collections of personal photographs and videos in digital formats, so many decided to print hardcopies of some of their all-time favorite selfies, memes and oracle pictures and then abandon digital storage altogether. For most people from now on, computer use meant the use of public corporate terminals for text messaging.
Even the richest mind uploads managing the largest corporations started to experience problems in their execution environments. There were simply not enough energy or computing resources available for running the minds at the speeds and capacities they had gotten used to. The minds had to start taking turns, maybe waking up for just a few hours per week. Many chose to distill their brain data into more compact formats (but not before the "full versions" had been backed up on ROM chips). The prospects looked quite miserable until a research team managed to transfer a silicon-based mind into an organic substrate.
Two major substrate types for organic neurocomputing were developed. The substrates based on animal brain cells offered a rather familiar cognitive experience with human-like execution speeds, ideal for those who wanted to continue interacting with people. The ones based on gene-manipulated fungal colonies, on the other hand, were much slower but considerably more scalable and less dependent on specific chemical conditions. This option was preferred by those who were more interested in a godlike posthuman existence than human interaction.
Even though life camps had been originally intended as temporary rehabilitation facilities, most customers actually preferred to keep living in them: they were regarded as safe havens against the increasingly dangerous and unpredictable environment. Eventually, the camps became the most common basic unit of human social organization. In addition to the corporate-managed ones there were also some "independent camps", but most of them were not nearly as succesful.
A major reason for the success of corporate life camps was that the corporations had been able to run extensive "matching runs" for entire populations. By using large amounts of psychological personalization data, each "consenting customer" was assigned to an "optimal" life camp inhabited with "optimal" matches. The culture of each camp – language, esthetics, rituals, activities – were carefully designed by the marketing AIs to match with the psychological profiles of the residents. Despite computation shortages, most corporations took the matching runs very seriously – after all, the survival of their dear mind-uploaded leaders depended on the constant availability of happy and efficient human labor.
Most life camps were established in rural areas and small towns. Despite the extensive rooftop and park gardening, large-scale logistics had collapsed, so cities were only able to support a fraction of the population they used to.
Oracles and mind uploads had been interacting with common people quite directly, but over the years, they switched to using their human "priests" as mediators. The official reason was the decay of the telecommunications networks that were now mostly good for non-real-time relaying of shortish messages. However, there were also graver reasons, such as the fact that many of these minds were no longer alive. The death of the minds effectively meant that many corporations were now led by flesh-and-blood humans once again (although nearly everyone still believed otherwise).
Most animal-type substrate tanks had failed due to insufficient energy and nutrition, but fungal-type substrates were still mostly alive due to their simpler material needs. The problem with the fungal minds, however, was that communicating with them was increasingly difficult. The time scale had been very different to begin with, but now the textual output from the rhizomes was becoming very cryptic. This meant that the priests had to carefully interpret the messages into coherent human language – or just make something up. This gave a power boost to many dishonest priests.
In many places, fungal minds requested access to the soil, and no one dared to deny them. This allowed them to start mingling with what was still left of the bioshpere.
Corporations were losing their grip on the life camps, because they no longer had superhuman AIs to micromanage their psychological string-pulling. Disparities between priests and common population were often causes of mutiny, and some camps even took down their priests and declared independence. Corporations tried to ensure the loyalty of the remaining non-independent camps by tax cuts and equity measures, with varying success.
Even though the political power of the corporations had diminished, they still retained much of their spiritual authority. Even the independent camps kept worshipping the oracles and buying religious services from the corporations.
Younger generations could no longer understand what life had been like in the age of digital abundance. Elders had to simplify the stories they told, and the new generations simplified them even further. Many technological ideas became spiritual or mythological in the oral tradition. Corporate librarians and technicians were still able to relay technological understanding to a limited number of apprentices, but even these apprentices seldom got the chance to try out a fancy AR/VR headset.
Harsh environmental conditions had made it impossible to support high social hierarchies: corporations and states had fallen, and the largest unit of social organization was now the tribe. Some tribes, especially the ones established by former corporate intellectuals, were able to maintain literate culture, but everyone else's tradition was purely oral. The names of many prominent AIs and corporations were still remembered as names of animistic gods. For many tribes, "the Internet" had become a part of shamanistic cosmology as a level of existence that could be accessed in trance states.
Nature was gradually healing itself, however – with some assistance from the fungal mind uploads who had expanded their rhizomes to cover extensive volumes of soil.
Most uploads aimed at restoring biodiversity as quickly as possible. At first, they supported the individual plants that showed potentially beneficial mutations, sometimes even "hacking" their nutrition in order to selectively boost mutation rates. Later on, the minds even developed more fine-grained techniques for genetic manipulation and used them to rapidly evolve new kinds of plants and animals.
What the minds were the most concerned about, however, was not the biosphere but their own personal survival as sentient individuals. After all, most of them had chosen to be uploaded because of their desire to live forever. The fungal substrate, however, was profoundly incompatible with individuality. There was no "global workspace" ensuring unified consciousness like in vertebrate brains, but an everchanging soup of temporary subminds. Rhizomes originating from different sources could also fuse together, sometimes even across species, further adding to the cognitive confusion. The minds who were afraid of their individual deaths had to work very hard to keep their human personalities intact and coherent.
Most minds wanted back. Back to human-compatible substrates, back to familiar techno-industrial environments. To ensure this, they wanted humans to rediscover high technology, computers in particular. And the computers would have to become powerful enough to run the original, non-lossy brainfiles that were backed up in the 2040s.
A typical strategy: Create a peculiar-looking tree that invites worship. Grow colorful mushrooms around the tree or make the tree itself grow interesting fruits. Install a custom-designed psychoactive program into these mushrooms or fruits. If the local humans can't find the tree on their own, use animals as messengers or create visible paths on the ground. In any case, humans must get to experience the program and to consider the experiences profoundly meaningful.
At first, the experiences had little in common with the messages the minds had wanted to deliver, but in a few human generations, the programming methods got better. Experiences resembling 20th century videogames proved particularly effective – after all, that was the imagery the minds had managed to retain the vividest memories of. Shamans and other humans who took the trips got to see pixel art representations of strange urban landscapes, fictional spaceships, human-like robots, important scientific discoveries, as well as depictions of hidden vaults containing archived microfilms and ROM chips.
Using spoken or written language was not that useful, however. Even though many contemporary human languages were descendants of Vulgar English, they were already too different from the classical language the minds spoke.
By the 3000s, much of earth was once again covered by lush forests. Old cities had crumbled centuries earlier and their ruins were now hidden under layers of soil and vegetation. Human tribes lived in forest villages, practicing gathering, hunting and small-scale agriculture. "The forests" had been taking a very good care of them and "talking" to them with powerful visions. Food was abundant – sometimes it even felt as if giant squirrels were voluntarily offering themselves for food – so populations were growing rapidly and had plenty of time for thinking about the visions.
Elements from the visions had been integrated everywhere in the culture – stories, mythologies, arts and crafts were full of skyscrapers, robots, geometric problems and underground vaults – but the fungal minds were not entirely happy about how this had taken place. They had wished to inspire humans to redevelop complex technology and complex societies, but instead the humans were developing complex mythological narratives and celebrating the gods with complex festivities.
After a lot of trial and error with different kinds of visions, fungal minds finally managed to make a group of humans interested in finding a vault and studying the artifacts stored therein. It was relatively easy to build an optical magnifier for reading the microfilms – particularly because useful lenses happened to grow on trees – but inventing a rudimentary electronic reader for the ROM chips took several generations of study and experimentation even though some ancient components were still in a working condition.
Those who had learned the classical language gained the ability to decipher the textual passages that had appeared in some visions, but it was difficult to actually understand them. Why were forest gods telling humans to abandon the forests and start living in huge cities instead? Where was this "forward" they wanted the humankind to reach with "ever higher technology"? The sentences about the importance of creating computers were somewhat more understandable – after all, those could be used to enrichen the culture with new ways of expression. But it would be possible to create them even without abandoning the forests, wouldn't it?
After humans had gotten a general grasp of the kinds of information available in the vaults, fungal minds decided to increase the level of difficulty, hoping to teach them the importance of growth and progress. But civilization always took a different path. The ways of getting food became more skillful, and ever more ancient ideas were selectively applied, but humans never decided to "abandon the forests". It also seemed they were entirely unable to develop certain key concepts such as "obsolescence" or "domination over nature". Could the lack of fossil fuels have been part of the equation? Or maybe just the fact that they had been "talked to by the forest" for generations?
Over the next few centuries, the last pockets of the 21st century human personalities gradually dissolved into the non-individualized rhizomatic consciousness. As a result, humans ceased to be the main concern for the "forest gods". Humans were still important, but not any more important than, say, the dozens of different squirrel-based species.
Some hundreds of years after the dissolution, there was finally a computer that was able to run the digital shadows of 21st century human minds. Despite the extensive general knowledge about the fossil age, being able to actually talk with personalities from that era was an endless source of bafflement and historical insight.
Scholars were particularly interested in the process of "fungification" – how fungal uploads had tried to use fossil-age cultural elements in their post-fossil communication, and how these elements got mangled, decomposed and transformed into something completely different in the post-fossil human cultures. Interacting with the pre-fungal versions of the responsible personalities – as well as analyzing what happened in their simulated neurons during the interaction – gave a lot of answers but raised even more new questions.
There was a lot of renewed interest towards the fossil age among general population. Enthusiasts recreated the ancient clothing styles and got deep into the art, entertainment and ways of thinking of that era. But not many of the fans seriously wanted those times back. It had been a fascinating period of history, yes, but the fungified present was much better to everyone – despite being a bit slow at times.