Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 1 Jan 01 19:03
This is our second "state of the future" discussion with author Bruce Sterling, who began last year's discussion with this description of his work: "I decided some time back my core competency was in being 'an artist whose theme is the impact of technology on society.' This is a good definition because it allows me to meddle in a lot of stuff with a clear conscience. "But my business card says 'Author / Journalist.' Author because you can be one without being much of anything in particular. Journalist because you get to ask lots of questions and nobody finds that peculiar." So Bruce wears two hats, or perhaps two heads: he's a prolific author of "hard" science fiction, and a brilliant gonzo journalist focusing on themes of science, technology, and society. But there's more: he's a professional futurist whose speculative imaginings are contained by his finely-tuned bullshit detector. He's a public speaker popular for his wit in delivering rants structured around razor-sharp insights about the subject du jour. And he's an effective online activist, mostly through his Viridian Design Movement. The Viridian goal is to raise consciousness about environmental degradation and global warming through ad hoc distributed development of stylized design strategies, as opposed to the drab doctrinaire approach of your average tree-hugging work-shirt environmentalist. Bruce recently published his latest novel, _Zeitgeist_, a fiction about the state of the human narrative in 1999, with the chaotic end of the second millennium approaching. We're beyond that now; the millennium has just turned, and the world is almost too strange for words. But that never stopped us before, so we're game for more discussion: the state of the world and the known universe, circa 2001, according to the Viridian pope-emperor Bruce Sterling. Reference sites: http://www.well.com/~mirrorshades The web site for the WELL's Mirrorshades conference, which is a kind of post-cyberpunk log of high weirdness. http://www.viridiandesign.org The official web site of the Viridian Design Movement.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 1 Jan 01 19:08
It's 2001, and I'm still waiting for that PanAm flight to the moon! How do you think the Clarke/Kubrick vision has panned out, and what does that say about science fiction, futurism, and the art of prediction?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 2 Jan 01 16:12
Personally, I think that one buffer year for the 21st century is plenty. I'm ready to treat 2001 as 2002 and get on with it. The movie 2001 could turn into an interesting contemporary film if you subtracted the Monolith. The Monolith of course is the mystical sci-fi McGuffin, it's been sitting buried in the Moon for four million years, never needs oiling, never gets moldy or mildewed. That's because it's made out of 100 percent nonbiodegradable sense- of-wonder sci-fi baloney. With the Monolith shoved off the stage, a lot of "2001" really does look impressively prescient. Without the Monolith, you don't need the Jupiter Mission. HAL doesn't have to appear in the movie. HAL has got his hands full just being an overworked, broken-down Internet router or something.... There's no astronauts, no super-aliens, no psychedelic posthuman transformations. Instead, you'd have a film in which the year 2001's business and government people were the central figures. Dr Heywood Floyd would look just fine in the WTO or ICANN. Personally, I'd pay good money to see a movie about what those Pan Am stews are up to in their downtime. I'm figuring they're in Ibiza at a rave, eating sleek little pastel pills and avoiding casual sex with dodgy Eurotrash. Everything about space in "2001" is breathless, wide-eyed and silly. In the 1960s, Outer Space was always treated as an all-purpose signifier: it meant the frontier, religion, apocalypse, utopia, evolution, the Thousand Year Reich and the Immanent Will, whatever. That's contrasted to the sensible way that contemporary people feel about Outer Space, ie, that it's a very large, useless, empty area where there's no workable business model. But, space excepted, the future's daily life is handled in a very offhand, matter-of-fact way by Kubrick, and it's still really good, effective cinema. His imaginary, made-up 21st century life feels more authentic than his carefully researched 18th century life in "Barry Lyndon." Seen today, the sharp suits and the sets in 2001 have a very cool kind of Retro Moderne interior-design thing going on. If you walked into a contemporary dotcom office that was got up in those 2001 white plastic pedestal sofas, you wouldn't think it was phoney, past-it, or out of place. You'd just think "Wow, how archly self-aware of them." It's a remarkably good movie, especially considering that it's all about American cultural dominance and it was made by a couple of British guys. Plus, it was made in 1968 and it still matters. Quite an achievement. People who waste their breath dissing "2001" in 2001 have no idea how incredibly stupid and short-sighted they themselves will look in 2032.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 2 Jan 01 17:46
Having reached the transitional year 2000, you released a book (_Zeitgeist_) set in 1999. How did you come to write speculative fiction about the past?
Steven Solomon (ssol) Wed 3 Jan 01 12:56
I went into the theater to see 2001 as a depressed, timid 13 year old. I came out, not really comprehending what I experienced, but still a changed individual. It really was a pivotal moment in my young life. Over the years, I've seen it again and again, and even in its simplicity and (naturally) predictibility, it still blows me away and inspires me, both in the story itself, and the making of the film.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 3 Jan 01 15:45
I've come to the conclusion that there's something wrong with "the future." Western concepts of future time and future history have been conflated with old Judeao-Christian and Platonic folk ideas. Just because something hasn't happened yet, and you don't know what's going to happen, and nobody knows what's going to happen -- well, that may make the future mysterious, but that mystery doesn't make it divine. The future isn't a stage set. The future is history that hasn't happened yet. Many cultures have a hard time dealing with concepts of time: origins, gotterdammerungs, eternal cyclicity, infinity, divine fate, predestination, periods before your birth and after your death when you cannot be an eyewitness and a social actor -- it's hard to settle down and get cozy with this. It took writers a surprisingly long time to figure out that it was possible to write fiction set in a future time. This didn't happen until the 17th century, and even then it was very rarely and mostly by accident. Even Jules Verne had a hard time building a nice solid futuristic milieu that contemporary readers were willing to swallow in a fictional format. His best effort, PARIS IN THE 2OTH CENTURY, was unpublishable, and he had to debut with a thriller book about hot-air balloons. Most of Verne's books were technothrillers, ie, basically contemporary works set in "the year 186-", an imaginary time that is not quite the future, nor is it now. Tom Clancy does the same thing. He writes books which are basically military hard-SF, but he doesn't have to put his audience through any native sci-fi version of the suspension of disbelief. We're just suddenly in a time where nuclear superterrorists can plausibly blow up the SuperBowl; Presidents and Prime Ministers have different names and backgrounds, stuff on the Pentagon's drawing board is workable, that sort of thing Once I got my head around this idea that "the future" was bogus, I was able to mess around with a lot of the invisible assumptions in science fiction. I found that my science fiction got a lot more effective and spooky when it was set in places like Chattanooga rather than the rings of Saturn. Not that there might not someday be people around the rings of Saturn; it's just that the rings of Saturn won't really be settled until they've somehowe become a place rather like Chattanooga. A place with a sense of native locale, an embedded history, a workable zeitgeist and genius locus, a functional society and economy, that sort of thing. Complicated, boring things. History. Once you make this realization, you can turn the full power of science fictional thinking onto pretty much *any* time and *any* place. You don't have to wrap the year 2001 up in mylar to make it seem exotic. Believe me, by the standards of the year 1851, we are radically exotic. We are really out there. We're mindblowing. An issue of today's New York Times wafting onto the desk of, say, President Franklin Pierce, and attracting the attention of the learned minds of the day... It would *really hurt them.* They might not survive it.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 3 Jan 01 16:30
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 3 Jan 01 16:41
1) So how do you define science-fictional thinking, if you disregard the the usual furnishings (the future, space travel, etc.)? _Zeitgeist_ definitely feels like science fiction, because it has none of those things. 2) There's a self-reflexive quality to the book's focus on "the narrative," and the sense of reality as a story we're telling, and the prescience of one who goes meta, peeks outside the narrative to see the possible paths it might take, the possible "futures." Is that quality of Leggy Starlitz something that you see in yourself?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 4 Jan 01 15:21
"1) So how do you define science-fictional thinking, if you disregard the the usual furnishings (the future, space travel, etc.)? _Zeitgeist_ definitely feels like science fiction, because it has none of those things." If SF has a grand theme, it's the disparity between what we know and how we feel about it. There's a lot of terms for this: "Sense of wonder" -- "cognitive estrangement -- "ecstasy and dread" -- Lovecraft liked to call it "cosmic fear". The thing that distinguishes SF from fantasy and horror fiction is the extrapolative element. Let's imagine that we've got a kraken, a giant legendary squid-monster from the depths of the sea. If a kraken shows up in a fictional narrative and the kraken is your secret magic friend, that's a fantasy. The kraken is entering the narrative to assuage deep and prerational feelings in the reader that can't be dealt with in realist fiction. If the kraken rends and devours you and then vanishes from human ken, it's horror. It's important that the kraken never be fully understood, and that it should vanish, because a horror that is permanent and in broad daylight is not a "horror" -- that's just a way of life. But if we somehow find out how much the kraken weighs, plus a string of weird, intriguing facts about its natural history, culminating in a plot twist that allows us to defeat or maybe even domesticate the kraken, then we're in a science fictional narrative. We're not merely parading a kraken because it's a Big Weird Object. We're trying to come to some kind of coherent intellectual grip with its krakenness. Not just in a dry labcoat fashion, either, but in a more immediate, hungry way, maybe the way a hick from 1880s North Dakota might scratch his head over a brand-new Sears Roebuck catalog. The genre's "usual furnishings" -- time travel machines, rocketships, robots that look like your Mom -- those are neither here nor there. Societies at certain times find some of these notions more exciting than others, so they attract more ink, but they're not what it's about, any more than Hong Kong cinema is about trampolines or swords with red tassels. The truth is that SF doesn't have to be about anything; it's the SF approach that carries all the power, while the signifiers are more or less arbitrary. If your head is big enough around, absolutely anything can be a kraken. If SF has a real lesson, any truly profound insight to offer, it's that reality truly is weird. Any structure imposed on it by human intellect is bound to be merely provisional and parochial. There's a kraken in every grain of sand. But if the world has anything to teach science fiction, it's that the sense of wonder is a very frail and temporary feeling. Even a genuine, truly terrific kraken-monster, like Tyrannosaurus Rex the Tyrant King of Lizards, can be turned into a plush little purple bore like Barney the Dinosaur, with his smooth white teeth like a clerical collar. Every wonder contains the seeds of its own banality. '2) There's a self-reflexive quality to the book's focus on "the narrative," and the sense of reality as a story we're telling, and the prescience of one who goes meta, peeks outside the narrative to see the possible paths it might take, the possible "futures." Is that quality of Leggy Starlitz something that you see in yourself?' Aw, that's not a conventional science fiction book; I took pains to mess with that. ZEITGEIST is a fantasy technothriller. I'm a big fan of postmodern deconstructionist theory; it's like a dark brother to science, because it makes really radical, nuttily poetic assertions that are never subjected to experimental proof. A lot like science fiction does. The attraction is mutual, really. Pomo people are really interested in science fiction because they consider it a kind of folk-response to technosocial stress; SF is really easy to deconstruct, because it tends to be written by people who are imaginative and inventive but rather poorly socialized. Whereas pomo people consider themselves genuinely sophisticated, not to be taken in by mere Eurocentric hokum like "laws of nature" or "the human condition" or "common sense." On the other hand, SF is a lot older than pomo theory, has a much bigger audience, and is going to outlive it, probably by many decades. So who is patronizing whom? I considered it frankly hilarious to write a fantasy work set in 1999 in which postmodernism is the fantasy element. In ZEITGEIST, pomo theory is a working system of magic. It allows theory- adepts to do incredible things that are frankly supernatural. One of the greatest and most exhilirating things about reading guys like Jean Baudrillard or Arthur Kroker is that they can make anything seem like anything just by talking about it. There's a marvelous wizardry to their rhetoric. It's a very science-fictional thrill really; it's like that sudden petrifying moment in really good SF when you think, "wait a minute, I never thought of it *that* way -- Oh my God, what if it's *really like that*?" That book is formally inventive. It took a lot of nerve to write a pop novel in which characters cite Foucault the way guys in a space opera might cite Einstein. People have told me that they think it'll fly right over the heads of the readership, but (a) it won't and it hasn't, and (b) who cares? If anybody's got a license to fly over people's heads, it's a science fiction writer.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 4 Jan 01 16:19
I really liked the conversation near the end between Leggy and Zeta, where she says he's "totally provisional and completely without morality. You can personify the trends of your day, but you *never get ahead of trends*." And she says "the twentieth century is already over in my heart," then goes off to do good. That's almost like jettisoning the pomo ambivalence and making a commitment to some kind of meaning. It's like she jumps out of the narrative. Are you going to write more fiction? Isn't there a Viridian Design book in the pipe?
Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 4 Jan 01 18:52
And what about the Viridian Design shooting gallery project? Will that actually be produced or will there just be a prototype?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 5 Jan 01 09:26
'I really liked the conversation near the end between Leggy and Zeta, where she says he's "totally provisional and completely without morality. You can personify the trends of your day, but you *never get ahead of trends*." And she says "the twentieth century is already over in my heart," then goes off to do good. That's almost like jettisoning the pomo ambivalence and making a commitment to some kind of meaning. It's like she jumps out of the narrative.' *Well, she certainly jumps out of *his* narrative. I'd guess that's part of a genuine generation gap; not that you do something different than your parents, but that you do something that truly and irretrievably baffles them. *I'm not worried much about the pomo "ambivalence" part. It takes incredible amounts of commitment to hang out in the pomo scene long enough to become the kind of guy who gets Frequently Cited. Besides, if you make a commitment to just one system of providing meaning, that doesn't mean that you are "truthful" or "faithful" or anything at all worthwhile. Basically, it means that you are a dangerous hick. You are going to spend your whole life cruelly exploited by the first televangelist guru who figures out how to push your one big red button. Are you going to write more fiction? Isn't there a Viridian Design book in the pipe? *Yeah, I got a nonfiction futurist book coming out from Random House. It's called TOMORROW NOW. It's rather like Arthur Clarke's PROFILES OF THE FUTURE, my take on what the big trends are, and what the early 21st century is likely to look and smell like. It has a lot of Viridian thinking in it, but it goes beyond my pressing concerns with the Greenhouse Effect. As for fiction, sure I'm writing fiction. I got some brand-new science fiction out right now. http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/ "And what about the Viridian Design shooting gallery project? Will that actually be produced or will there just be a prototype?" *Well, it's not up to me to produce that piece of vaporware. It's up to Dr. Jeremijenko at the New York ACT Lab. I know that she's perfectly capable of doing it, but I can't tell you if she actually will, or when, or how. *I really have to watch it with this Viridian stuff; it's real easy to slide into a situation where I start design production. Making and selling things, in other words. But I'm no industrial designer and certainly no engineer. As for becoming a retailer, that is a hellish nightmare to be avoided at all costs. *Even if it turned out to be a lot of fun for me to (for instance) hook up air rifles to voice recognition chips, there are big opportunity costs in my amusing myself in that way. If I'm doing design and production, I can't find time and attention to write about it, and when it comes to amusing hobbies, I've already got one: running an Internet list about cybergreen design. I'm better off devoting my energy to becoming a better design critic. I'm no use at design work, but I'm getting better and better at talking about it.
James Howard (howardjp) Fri 5 Jan 01 09:32
Slightly off topic, I wanted to say "User-Centric" hit way too close to home. I think I work with those people. :)
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 5 Jan 01 14:25
You just edited a Time Digital 'flip' issue for January/February 2026. Could you say a little about how you got the gig, how you put the issue together? (For our readers, the issue's at http://www.time.com/time/digital/reports/future/index.html
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 5 Jan 01 22:24
"You just edited a Time Digital 'flip' issue for January/February 2026. Could you say a little about how you got the gig, how you put the issue together? (For our readers, the issue's at" http://www.time.com/time/digital/reports/future/index.html *Well, a gig's a gig, y'know. The editor, Joshua Quittner, whom I happened to know, asked me if I was up for it, and I said I'd do it. A lot of work followed, but it was as simple as that, really. It's both a portrait of an imaginary 2026, and a very close parody of TIME DIGITAL. I got a few friends and Viridian running buddies to join in on the fun, especially a guy named David Rice who runs a parody web-humor site called futurefeedforward. He's kind of a web-centric cross between science fiction, the Onion, and Mark Leyner. As far as I can figure it, he's never been published in the science fiction press or, in fact, anywhere on paper, but the stuff he does is very inventive. http://www.futurefeedforward.com * I have to give the guys at Time Digital a lot of credit, especially Lev Grossman. He took stuff that I turned in that was provocative and crazy, and he made it sound exactly like the cheerful, approachable, upbeat prose we always expect from the AOL Time Warner empire. This when we're talking about topics like cannibalism and spy robots lurking in the sewers -- *cheerfully,* mind you, and in a relentlessly *affirmative, consumer- friendly way.* I have to consider this one of the weirdest cyberpunk stunts I ever pulled off. I love the idea of this demented material hitting people who are completely unable to expect it. I can only imagine guys leafing through the mag in the dentist's office, trying to find the specs on a digital camera, and stumbling across our 2026 list of hot products. That was a grand finale to a really satisfying year for me.
Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 5 Jan 01 23:42
Bruce, futurefeedforward is the best new site I've read in I don't know how long. I'm in awe. I've nominated the "Amazon.com Runs for Washington Senate Seat" story for a Nebula.
happy I'm nappy (reid) Sat 6 Jan 01 07:44
Bruce, what are your thoughts on the convergence of ubicomp and distributed computing? Do you see any sort of technological singularity lurking in the future, behind these forces? Speaking of technological singularity, I've been wondering about this cutout-snaptogether design movement that seems to be all the rage these days. It seems like all the examples of output from these personal fabricators are banal GPS handhelds and cel-phones which equals boring. Does this represent a lack of imagination on the part of the designers, or does it represent a future that is just too strange to imagine?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sun 7 Jan 01 09:05
'Bruce, futurefeedforward is the best new site I've read in I don't know how long. I'm in awe. I've nominated the "Amazon.com Runs for Washington Senate Seat" story for a Nebula.' *Well Cory, I'm with you all the way there, brother. David Rice has a lot of talent, and he is cooking this stuff up and posting it for nothing. *I have high hopes for science fiction after the dotcom crash. The two best SF writers of the 90s were Neal Stephenson and Greg Egan, and they're both former programmers who couldn't make a living in The Industry. With The Industry on its knees now, we may see some great science fiction from people we've never heard of. *I was happy to give David Rice a paycheck for that work in TIME DIGITAL. I kinda worry about him running out of creative steam before some publisher figures out he's a genius. "Bruce, what are your thoughts on the convergence of ubicomp and distributed computing? Do you see any sort of technological singularity lurking in the future, behind these forces?" *Well, I'm a major ubicomp fan, but the thing I like best about ubicomp is that (unlike AI and VR) it's non-Singularity like. The Singularity is a very cool idea, and I give Vernor Vinge every credit for thinking that up, but there's something very detached and mathematics-professor about that way of thinking. The Singularity is a kissing cousin of the Turing Test; it's a metaphysical idea which is meant to finesse a real-world design problem. It's onw of those scientific theorist-vs-experimentalist wars, and those rarely end well for theorists. "You can't possibly build one of those because there's a logical absurdity there." "To hell with your logical absurdity; look at the cool breakthrough gizmo I've got in this box!" "Speaking of technological singularity, I've been wondering about this cutout-snaptogether design movement that seems to be all the rage these days. It seems like all the examples of output from these personal fabricators are banal GPS handhelds and cel-phones which equals boring. Does this represent a lack of imagination on the part of the designers, or does it represent a future that is just too strange to imagine?" *It represents a lack of imagination. The future's strangeness can take care of itself. This reminds me of something Bill Gibson used to say in the early days of virtual reality: by now, they ought to have something where you just attach it to your face and start screaming in total mindblown amazement. Why didn't that happen? The answer can be found in something that the Situationists once said about Surrealism: "The imagination of the unconscious is impoverished." With total creative freedom, with nothing left to wrestle with, to push forward or push against, you're left treading air. *People are still looking for the grain in the fabricator medium. And in other digital media, too. Why is synth music so banal, why is sampler music so derivative, why are computer graphics so corny? The potential seems total -- you can put any kind of noise into MIDI, you can put any color of pixel anywhere on a screen. It's as if a novelist had been told that he could type any combination of letters on the screen and it would become a word, a sentence, a book. But that's not how art happens. Explain to me how great cinema is suddenly coming out of Iran. *Iran?!* But it is! .
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 7 Jan 01 09:28
But is this really a problem with the media? They way I see it is that computers facilitate the creation attempted art by the artless, and the distribution of the crap that results so that it reaches an audience unfiltered by the traditional crap-detectors & filters employed by editors, publishers, etc. With disintermediation we get a lot more junk. But we still have the potential for creative people, those who have real imagination and craft, to create compelling computer-mediated art and design, no?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sun 7 Jan 01 21:45
I don't think a lack of crap-detectors is the problem. Techno-art has a whole slew of difficulties. Personally, I like to think that there's always *some* kind of "potential for creative people," even if your laborinjg away in your prison cell with a pencil stub.
Thomas Armagost (silly) Mon 8 Jan 01 01:11
<scribbled by silly Mon 9 Jul 12 15:48>
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 8 Jan 01 05:33
Back in response 11, you said "when it comes to amusing hobbies, I've already got one: running an Internet list about cybergreen design." How did this come about? How did you connect the idea of a design movement to a concern about global warming?
Life in the big (doctorow) Wed 10 Jan 01 07:57
Hey, Bruce, remember that stuff in Distraction where every meeting is preceeded by secretive mutual search-engine research on all the participants? It's here, except it's being used by date-hungry singles: http://www.observer.com/pages/world.asp
Farooq Khan (farooq) Thu 11 Jan 01 14:15
With what purpose does one write about the future? Is it with a serious attempt to explore what lies ahead for the human race? Or is fiction the product of a capitalist culture which centres itself on the principle of utility, where utility for many means some form of mind escape, due to the extremeties of life? How does one appraise SF work? is it based upon the genius of ideas that are explored or the very real possibilities it offers the human race? Which is more valued, a clever imagination where the story is far removed from the human condition and our reality? Or where the story explores a very real future, alternative futures where thinking is provoked to politically act, act to attend things in the present that will stop disaster in the future or to encourage things so that we build a better future? Or is fiction simply there to entertain? and if so is that not to the detrement of the human condition?
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 11 Jan 01 14:38
In some ways, those read as very personal and individual questions.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 11 Jan 01 18:45
Science fiction is necessarily pretty close to a major future trend like the Greenhouse Effect. My getting involved in postindustrial design... basically, it means that I'm taking a step out of SF and toward a practical response to a menace that is getting much less theoretical. After design, that comes an involvement in engineering. Then, emergency services. Then, military psychological operations. Finally I end up stacking sandbags under blackened, roaring skies, if I still have enough strength to get out of my wheelchair.
Members: Enter the conference to participate