Future Reflections: An interview with Bruce Sterling

On: January 12, 2010
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About John Haltiwanger
An underliner. An intensifier. A meanderer. A walker in betweens. The gross product of the souls of forebears sliced into ribbons and blown into a clay him. A poetic impulse. An open source advocate. A master of ceremonies. A writer of codes. An interface fiend philandering among operating sytems. Creative nonfiction research artist. Textual mystic. Frequently explicit Function 'popular education' enumerated 03.03-12.6 TESC (Evergreen) WA NW US. Political economics, systems administration, cultural studies, writing, ethnomusicology, computer programming, web design, etc. All part of a balanced liberal arts degree. Socialist high school founded by feminists with a farm (Putney) 01-02 VT NE US. Deserter of West Chester PA. 16 year old proto Perl monger. 26 year old Ruby excavator. New new media student, old new media sponge. Mondo minded year 2000 Millenial Generation American. Of a rare form. Eagerly chewing electronic book reviews, ctheories, and autonomedias independent of any formal Media scholastics. Before the field had a name in my mind. Chasing a thing called 'software studies' through the tubes, across the Atlantic, and into a Nederlands classroom. Playfully aware that this bio, like the medium it exists in, like the life it describes, remains malleable. Yet static in its own right.


Today I have the pleasure of presenting you with a short interview with Bruce Sterling. Bruce was kind enough to say “we’ll give it a shot” to an e-mail interview when I cornered him at the bar after 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, commons-based peer production, the Internet of Things, the bifurcation of psyches across actual and virtual space, and the extent to which there is hope left for the Internet.

You’ve called cell phones “tin wind up toys compared to what is coming”–will you share something of what you are envisioning here?

That one doesn’t take genius. There’s a whole lot of noise coming out of the mobile space. Most of it isn’t about phones as “phones” any more, it’s all about mobility, about portable applications. Maps, location services, augments, photos, streaming video, social interfaces, sensors of all kinds.

When some guy is sitting in a bar Twittering to 50,000 followers, that’s not really a “phone” any more. These are the early days of this wave of development.

In 1990, there were still phreakers running amok, “owning” whole sections of telecommunications systems, and I was dubbing tapes like all the other people I knew. In 2000, Kevin Mitnick was actually released from prison, while the L0pht merged with @stake and millions signed up to Napster a month. In 2010, the US government will host at least one systems cracking competition and we have seen legal cases close in judgments against P2P mainstays like The Pirate Bay and isoHunt. What room remains for unsanctioned use of the Internet infrastructure?

Spies, thieves, phishers, botnets, hacktivism, pirates, the secret police. Other people’s cybermilitary. Corporate crime. Industrial espionage. Porn, prostitution, money laundering, illegal emigration. Fraud, narcotics trafficking. Fencing of stolen goods, sale of forged goods. There’s plenty going on in the badlands. Bright geeky hacker kids who want to get root on the florist’s shop are kinda yesterday’s news.

Does the FCC’s language of “legal software” in its net neutrality policy proposal signal future moves to legislate what software is legal, and for whom?

The FCC is a shadow of its former self and doesn’t have enough money, clout or talent to do anything much. Unless there’s a crisis of some kind, that is.

You’ve expressed reservations about valorizing what you’ve dubbed the ‘favela chic’, the permanent beta, open source, commons-based peer production we’ve all come to know, and some to love. Do you agree with Yochai Benkler that “the emergence of a substantial role for nonproprietary production offers discrete strategies to improve human development around the globe” or is its potential generally overstated? What is the role of nonproprietary, commons-based peer production in this contradictory third way you hint at in your essay ‘Revisions of Digital Culture,’ this favela gothic chic?

Well, I agree with Yochai that the emergence of a substantial role for nonproprietary production offers discrete strategies to improve human development around the globe, but all means of production offer those strategies. That doesn’t mean those offered strategies get used: poor people are constrained in poverty for major social reasons, not because nobody got around to giving them freeware.

New means of production generally offer fantastic new methods to wreck and destroy. People think that nonprofit sharing, since it isn’t all capitalistic and corporate, must somehow be great for poor people and everyone else. Sometimes, yeah, but by definition, no. If I peer-produce food in a not-for-profit coop, and the outclassed commercial grocery folds up and leaves town, then people who aren’t in my coop are out of luck when it comes to food.

Furtheremore, my commons-based peers may well hate the guts of your commons-based peers.

After the initial hype with a new tech, there’s commonly a trough of disillusionment, followed by a slow climb onto a plateau where technology is useful (and boring). Some day peer production will likely be useful and boring, but right now we’re just leaving the stage where it seems like a great cure for old problems, and entering a Gothic stage where everything looks shot full of holes and nothing much seems to be working out well. I note that Wikipedia and Creative Commons are both begging users for money this season.

You have isolated ‘spimes,’ or the ubiquitous computing object, as a potential vector for revolutionizing industrial and infrastructural efficiency. Yet it seems this efficiency can cut both ways, potentially enabling the kind of totalitarian control that gets vectoralist class all wet as easily as enabling a city of glass where the control, and even the composition, of the spimes remains in the hands of average citizens. What does your ideal “internet of things” look like? Do you see the future heading towards that?

I don’t have an “ideal” Internet of Things. I don’t even have an “ideal Internet.” Certainly spimes have some fantastic abuse potential. If they existed they would be a very powerful, dangerous technology.

Guys in the “vectoralist class” have absolutely no idea what a “vectoralist class” is, so that’s not a major issue. The Masters of the Universe are gonna do what they can to prosper, which, lately, means mostly going broke in public. I can promise you that if “spimes” ever appear in real life, they’re not going to say “brought to you by the vectorialist class.” They’ll appear to be much like today’s everyday objects and services, only with different potentials for design, identification, tracking, searching, databases and recycling.

As recently discussed in a Wired article, thorium is an abundant, even green, nuclear fuel that was disregarded as an energy option in the 1970s because its outputs were not easy to weaponize like uranium. Will there ever be an end to federally subsidized technological development where war is the only politically valid first cause, a time when efficiency rather than simple, absolute control becomes a dominant driving force behind the expenditure of tax dollars on technology development?

Simple, absolute control must seem pretty efficient to a lot of people. If you’re asking if we will ever have pure technocratic engineering decisions that are somehow divorced from all political considerations, the answer is no. If you are wondering if government-subsidized technological development can fail and go away, sure — the Nazis subsidized all kinds of violent high-tech oddities, and they were crushed.

When investigating online communities, some colleagues and I came across the case of Carmen Hermosillo, better known to WELL folk as humdog. Here is an individual who whose contacts and history were more digital than analog, someone who developed frameworks for outlining the pitfalls of virtual relationships and yet was herself unable to avoid those very pitfalls. People are becoming more and more impacted by their “virtual others,” as demonstrated by the increasing rise of suicides that revolve around problems with online origins. What happens to us as we begin to partition our selves across actual and virtual space, in both but never only in one, the signifier of the physical self as inadequate as the data body in representing the entire assemblage of that is an individual?

Well, I used to correspond with Carmen on the Well, and it was pretty clear to many of us that, for all her talents, this was an emotionally troubled person who was likely to face difficulty. I’m hard-put to blame her ardent virtual activities for her problems because I rather imagine Carmen would have been just as distraught a hundred years ago, just through other means, motives and opportunities.

It’s true that suicide is migrating onto the web, but so is almost every other kind of intimate mayhem: a day scarcely goes by without some melancholy tale of web fraud, web stalking, web bullying, web voyeurism, web blackmail, web divorce, and so on. There are a few web tragedies that lack precedents, but most of them are the same old troubles on a newer set of screens.

As we move from the age of the digital native to the age of the cloud native, discussing the “power of the net” becomes increasingly, to use your metaphor, like the generation who saw the railroads built trying to explain the importance of that development to a railroad native. Now we look to our railroads for potential solutions only to realize that they’re basically gone. The next generation does not seem to parse the gravity of what policy around the net can do to shape what can and can not be done on that net. Is it just a fact that, as Geert Lovink says, “We are all connected, yet we do not care,” or is there a chance that the general population will begin to contemplate deeper thoughts about their net connection (let alone computers) than whether they can connect to Facebook or not?

I’m with Geert Lovink on this one. When I was young I didn’t waste a lot of intellectual effort on the supposed wonders of broadcast television and America’s interstate highway system. Young people strongly identify with initiatives they are undertaking that their parents don’t understand.

Now that America’s interstate highway system is visibly crumbling, you might find some young people taking a coherent interest in it.

What’s the number one long shot, against all odds development you would most like to see miraculously arrive in the next 10 years?

Any kind of carbon-free power that doesn’t blow up the world at the drop of a hat.

In reverse, what is your worst fear that also seems most likely to happen?

A climate tipping-point into sudden climate chaos.

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