Bruce Sterling: Gothic Chic in the Future Favela

On: December 21, 2009
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About Morgan Currie
I’m an American with eight years of experience in video production, but today I'm a student in Amsterdam, thinking a lot about mediums, the Media, technology, and humans & machines communicating in their specific, special ways. I'm finding methods to give these thoughts a space of their own.

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Bruce Sterling delivered the futurist goods at this weekend’s lean but excellent conference You Me and Everyone We Know is a Curator. Here’s a transcription of the entire delivery typed up as best I could, but it still doesn’t transmit Sterling’s oratorical flare. This seductive and prophetic keynote speech – refreshingly without powerpoint – set an urgent framework for the rest of the lineup, which I’ll write more about soon.

Bruce Sterling: Gothic Chic in the Future Favela

The next decade we’re entering into the teens. It’s a decade inhabited by digital natives, rather than digital revolutionaries, though this is something that has already happened. It’s already behind us, after 1989,when we switched from analogue to digital, from actual to virtual, from scientific to user-centric, local to global, multinationals to financial moguls.

Most of my life has been spent talking about this change. This next decade is in the hands of people who don’t care about that. They don’t know what a typewriter ribbons was. They don’t remember older ways of doing things abolished by these revolutions. Digital natives are growing up in a depression, when banks make people poor, and healthcare makes people sick. Digital natives never have to be told to digitize anything. The hardware is all around. Their immediate response is to grab for a mobile or a laptop.

The driving forces of the digital revolution continue and intensify, but there is no previous order left to rebel against. We don’t get a digital new world order. Digital culture is too fluid and inherently destabilizing, there are too many small pieces to join, and it’s always in beta form. The digital is a tool, but not a tool that interest groups can use to advance their own interests. We don’t get prosperity or governance from it. It’s not a force for good or ill but a phenomenon like electrification, the railroad, or other transformative infrastructures. Railroad natives were bored to death by people who explained railroads as if they were impressive. They’re just there once they’re there.

Now we need to comprehend the teens…today. My intuition is that the teens offer two categories of historical experience. What’s it like? Gothic high tech and favela chic. These two cultural sensibilities are not here yet.

Gothic high tech is the analogue past, It’s the industrial order with enormous holes and absences, with dead areas formerly thriving but that have been undercut or disintermediated, or digitally layered over or off-shored or abandoned. They no longer pay or socially function. They are ruins. In the graphics world they’re obvious: analogue graphics, letter set, hand-letter typed fonts, scissors, glue, type setting machines, books, magazines, print media, and the early digital media of 80s and 90s, stuck on abandoned websites and dead social networks. No one is in charge; it’s visibly decaying. Megatons of it, irrelevant, incapable of restoration, the walking dead…the House of Usher.

This will worry us. Rot was caused by the fact that you are super high tech. These are the consequence of the transition. The transition has torn money out of the system faster than wealth was generated. You are the curator of conditions of gentile poverty. The curator repurposes it; the heritage industrialist, the cultural industrialist, the knowledge worker of a dysfunctional heritage have awesome access, but are broke. The European cultural experience becomes the global experience. Amsterdam’s industrial shipping infrastructure has become a tourist attraction. Repurposed city centers are now common in Europe; they are shrink-wrapped ruins of Chinese restaurants, Braziliian night clubs, the spear heads of globalization. High-tech gothic.

It’s not conservative or backwards looking to say the basic means of production are cut and paste. This enables one to skip the boring parts that require original thought from scratch. No blank page is already blank.

Favela chic takes the logic of software and networks and applies them to institutions no matter what they are. It’s like taking a mac laptop and using it to hammer in nails. It represents the promise of change, instead of making do with overused stuff. It makes sense to young people and idealists. It’s consistent and easy to grasp. The problem is that over time, it tends to be squalid. It is user centric rather than planned. It’s made of small pieces joined: beta, open source rather than refined by competition. It pastes over institutional failngs with utopian rhetoric. Time reveals its slipshod cheesiness and cheapness, its poor engineering. Electronic democracy is about blogs, spam, flame wars, rather than the responsible participation in society. Sharing music means destroying the music industry. Digital artisanship means precarious employment. Dot com starts ups means existing monopolies on the ground and occupational forces that can’t establish functional governments. E-banking means financial panics. It’s endearing but flawed. It can’t take yes for an answer, which would imply building something solid instead of the next favela. It can’t acknowledge downsides. The universal forces of time and entropy apply to their labor. Revolutionaries are allergic to continuity. Digital culture will need critical reassessment in about five or seven years from now.

For people in museums this is more problematic. Because it’s more about irruption. We should scan all of our museum holdings and put them online, but now no one comes through our doors. How can we pay to maintain our website? The favela chic response is to just change the subject.

Mackenzie said the mobile internet is gonna be twice as big as the laptop revolution. The logical step isn’t to create a workable public order but a decent civilization. The logic is to transform everything into equivalents of internet architecture. Citizens become users, laws become code, cities become urbanwear applications.

Will we become internet civilization? No, the internet is unstable. Guidebooks become old fashioned immediately. The internet has gothic high tech aspects that can’t be disguised. Whereas the museum’s purpose is to hold on in perpetuity. There is no storage method for digital data that can predictably last for fifty years. Favela chics are jargon imperialists. They say if you’re not on search engines you don’t exist.

What is the response? The Unesco Cultural Heritage, academic conferences, live events. This conference is about picking over the ruins of favela chic and pulling it into gothic high tech. The digital is going to vanish like the dot coms, unless efforts are made to snatch it back. But that’s the problem. Nothing is left to conserve. Advanced but rapidly decaying hardware is everywhere. Maybe we’ll have an internet of things?

It’s critical to understand this will pass, this period has clear issues and a victory condition. There’s a promising situation called chic favela gothic. We’ll grow into an oxymoron. Realizing contradictions open things back up. Favelas are the plant nurseries, the squats, the reunited spaces, repurposed structures. High-end, low-end, for everybody. Chic favela gothic looks like a violent contradiction of terms, but it will make sense.

In 2020 children of digital natives will be interested in their analogue grandparents, in our parents. Those living from ’45 to ’89 will be romantic to young people denied that way of life. The digital revolution will have outlived its luster. It won’t be shiny or new but fashionable to count cost and valorize painstaking, beautiful analogue things that belonged to long dead atomic ladies and gentlemen. They’ll prize analogue museum pieces for weird, wrong reasons. What does a chic favela gothic institution look like? How does it strategize? It wouldn’t want a gothic ruin, but an unprecedented, elegant combination. Everybody lives in museums, in resolving contradictions. In new forms of the old continuity.

In the digital dark ages we may lose tons of stuff. I’m worried about the death of analogue published documents, magazines, and newspapers. We may lobotomize ourselves. We may become haunted by totalitarian states that ceaselessly reinterpret the past. Actual people’s experience that are set in record then incessantly reworked. The internet lends itself to that. Things we see stored there are not really restored. We don’t have storage methods. We can have a black out that lasts years. The internet is vulnerable to all kinds of passing upsets.

There may be a tipping point where it’s easier for a social network to start a religion or a museum, rather than the other way around. We may start making printouts of our digital stuff. But I say in my book Shaping Things that design objects exist as data and only occasionally as printouts. Right now we’re doing a crap job. No social network is also doing a cool store. Deviant art could lead the art world; deviant art has tons of art and could build a Deviant Art museum. Los Angeles low-brow artists have their own curators, collectors, and distribution system. But I worry about rhetoric that valorizes this stuff. Time will not be kind.

18 Responses to “Bruce Sterling: Gothic Chic in the Future Favela”
  • December 22, 2009 at 11:56 am

    thanks for blogging this! (I for once did not bring my laptop and just listened, which is also very nice…). I most liked the fact that both keynote speakers did not need visual distraction (e.g. a powerpoint/keynote) to tell their story. What I really did not like is that often speakers were referring to the talk by Sterling via the two metaphors of Favela Chic and Gothic High-tech, but clearly missed the point of these metaphors.(especially the members of the ‘panel’ discussion at the end, they had been sleeping all day I think). Who’s gonna take up the impossible job of reporting the lecture by Andrew Keen?

  • December 22, 2009 at 12:52 pm
  • December 22, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    […] See the original post here:  Masters of Media » Bruce Sterling: Gothic Chic in the Future Favela […]

  • December 22, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    I completely agree with tjerk. Sterling made really coherent arguments about the differences between Gothic High Tech and Favela Chic and many of the the speakers after him were taking the term and redefining his explanation to match their argument. Andrew Keen will definitely be a tough one to report.

  • December 23, 2009 at 12:06 am

    […] a professor at UvA and the day’s third speaker (after Bruce Sterling’s provocative, prophetic speech), discussed the problematic promiscuousness of the analogue-to-digital object. When the analogue is […]

  • December 27, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    RT from ajkeen: for those that missed the unmissable @bruces in Amsterdam, he is speaking in Berlin on 6 Feb http://bit.ly/8yb1lX tell him I sent you

  • December 29, 2009 at 12:04 am

    […] course it is much better to see Bruce Sterling perform but luckyly Morgan Currie published a full transcription of his speech from the symposium in Amsterdam last weekend. I was blown away […]

  • December 30, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by chumleyandpepys: RT @jafurtado: Bruce Sterling: Gothic Chic in the Future Favela, by morgancurriev | Masters of Media http://is.gd/5wGaL

  • December 30, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    […] now. For an excellent transcription of Sterling’s speech I refer you to the blog post done by Morgan Currie. I must say that the notions expressed by Sterling were repeated out of context by many speakers, […]

  • January 12, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    […] the ‘You, Me, and Everyone We Know is a Curator’ symposium where he gave his recent speech. I’ve taken this opportunity to ask him a few questions about, among other things, […]

  • January 19, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    […] Doeswijk (source designhistoryNL), but like to emphasize the provocative introductional speech of Bruce Sterling (Cyberpunker and blogger for Wired)  “Gothic Hightech in the Future Favela”. download […]

  • March 8, 2010 at 12:32 am

    […] Masters of Media » Bruce Sterling: Gothic Chic in the Future Favela […]

  • November 27, 2010 at 3:09 am

    […] are beginning to look less like a place to doss down for a few nights or a week, and more like a Sterlingian interstitial favela. The very existence of these subterranean temporary autonomous zones is a quirk of Las […]

  • December 9, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    What new sub-cultures will form in this decade?…

    Here are some subcultures that are in formative stages right now and that I expect to grow significantly (as well as mix & mingle) in this decade. Few of them offer the peculiar brand of inauthentic authenticity that hipsterism affords, though. Some ma…

  • January 6, 2011 at 5:32 am

    […] http://mastersofmedia.hum.uva.nl/2009/12/21/bruce-sterling-gothic-chic-in-the-future-favela/ ” Electronic democracy is about blogs, spam, flame wars, rather than the responsible participation in society. Sharing music means destroying the music industry. Digital artisanship means precarious employment. Dot com starts ups means existing monopolies on the ground and occupational forces that can’t establish functional governments. E-banking means financial panics. It’s endearing but flawed. It can’t take yes for an answer, which would imply building something solid instead of the next favela. It can’t acknowledge downsides. The universal forces of time and entropy apply to their labor. Revolutionaries are allergic to continuity. Digital culture will need critical reassessment in about five or seven years from now. “ […]

  • February 6, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    […] ‘Bruce Sterling : Gothic Chic In The Future Favela‘ Sterling muses on the coming ‘teens (it was written in 2009). We’re no longer […]

  • March 2, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    Thanks for the transcript! One more for my Atemporality collection :) I typed out the Bruce’s talk at the reboot 11 conference: http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2011/02/transcript-of-reboot-11-speech-by-bruce-sterling-25-6-2009/

  • November 17, 2014 at 8:11 am

    nice post,great .thank you

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