Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 1 Jan 04 14:31
This is our latest "state of the world, the future, and everything" annual discussion with author Bruce Sterling, whose latest science fiction novel, The Zenith Angle, is due in late spring from Del Rey. Bruce is also known for his journalism (e.g. his monthly column for Wired Magazine), futurism, and culture hacks (the Dead Media Project and the Viridian Design Movement). He's also a public speaker and world traveler. Leading the discussion: Jon Lebkowsky, a technoculture-focused writer, activist, and consultant who, like Bruce, spends most of his time in Austin, Texas.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 1 Jan 04 14:35
2003 was a crazy year leaving so many issues on the table, I'm not quite sure where to start. From your latest Viridian note, I see that you're thinking about attention conservation vs increasing loads of spam... is that a good place to start? Should we scale the war on terrorism to include spammers?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 1 Jan 04 15:21
It was a crazy year. Very. I'm glad to have survived it. I don't believe in "War on Terror," but there's definitely a titanic struggle going on. One side, the New World Order side, has a capacity to wage war, so that's what they do, even though that's not one of their best moves. The other side is the New World Disorder, and they're too disordered to throw any real wars, so they commit mayhem on the tribal and individual level. An individual wrapped in a belt-bomb, that's their cruise missile. Their great hope is that War creates more Terror and not less. It certainly worked for them in Chechnya and Afghanistan. The two worlds interpenetrate. They even breed one another. It's very striking to dismantle one's anti-spam armor and just look at the face of the Internet these days. This center of the high-tech realm is fantastically corrupt. There is most every variety of mayhem represented there. I haven't been urged to strap on a belt-bomb yet (probably because I can't read Arabic), but I get pitches for drugs, human trafficking, oceans of porn, kidporn, 419 scams by the thousands, great blooms of viruses... And it's not somewhere "Out There," beyond the walls and scanners of Homeland Security; this stuff is *in the homeland,* brother, it goes wherever my laptop goes.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 1 Jan 04 15:48
I chuckled at the thought that the U.S. Congress figured it could stop spam. Waiting to see how that plays out. I used to say, vote with your delete key, but my delete key wore out.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 1 Jan 04 19:36
I don't believe that the almighty majesty of the US Congress is enough to stop globalized spam, but I also don't believe that the forces of civilization are helpless before bandits. That is a counsel of despair. Once you believe that legitimated government is mere empty posturing, you will end up in living in a Russian-style mafia kakistocracy. And you will deserve that. Spammers are not monsters ten feet tall. Spammers are vermin. If we all looked, acted, thought and behaved as badly as spammers do, our world would be reduced to desperate penury. Spammers are parasites. They contribute nothing to the general welfare. Spammers couldn't trust each other with five bucks to walk down to the corner grocery and bring back a loaf of bread. They are wicked and malicious and they should be brought to justice. The day when the delete key still ruled, well, these cool clean technocratic days are over on the Net. Microsoft might patch some security holes here and there, but there are no technical solutions to semantic frauds like phishing. The Internet has become a massive, worldwide medium. It has become a global arena of massive popular struggle, It's Chinese Indian American Brazilian European, the world wide works, and it reflects our own faults and deficits with cruel accuracy. When we look at the Net these days, we are staring straight into the portrait of Dorian Gray. That's no longer the vector-graphic portrait of DARPA and Bolt Beranek and Newman in the 89-column screen there. That is the portrait of mankind, warts and all. We are gonna see the face in there that we deserve. We deserve better than this. People of goodwill need to work toward that end, no matter what anybody's Congress may attempt to say or do.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 1 Jan 04 21:41
Any ideas for 'working toward that end?' Like stuff you're doing, personally, that others might consider?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 2 Jan 04 10:32
Well, it's easy to think that Big Wide World has got too much going on compared to tiny little me, me, me, but that's a fallacy. if there are 7 billion people in the world then you should feel just fine about it if you are doing one seven-billionth of the work. Probably the single thing I do personally that reduces the crude havoc on the Internet is avoiding the Windows OS. Use a Mac, for heaven's sake. Stop adding to the pollution of viruses, and stop offering slave machines that spew spam for others. Even Microsoft itself can't keep up with their own patches. Why should you have to do all that labor? Just step off that treadmill there and buy a different machine that isn't easy prey to every cybercrook around. This offers the considerable benefit that you don't have to act all conscientious about it all the time. Bad design isn't your fault, but it's your fault if you buy bad design, knowing that it's bad. And it is. This is the skinny here, if you're all into tech-speak: http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/55/34554.html Complaining to the cops about crime is generally a good idea. Of course, they don't solve all the crimes, but when they hear enough from the constituency they reassign some personnel. The Internet Crime Complaint Center: http://www.ic3.gov/ In a lot of places on the planet, the cops are also the criminals. if that's the case then you should complain to "Transparency International." And good luck surviving. http://www.transparency.org/ SpamAssassin here on the Well seems to be doing a pretty good job for me, and I also have a spam label in my Mail program. But that isn't going to stop the more sophisticated spoofs and semantic hacks, which I expect to be the big coming thing in spamdom. It's an inherent part of the problems of globalization, that capital moves faster than institutions can. This includes criminal capital of course. We've reached a situation where any nation-state that breaks becomes a criminal haven, a narcoterror racket, a money laundry, and a redlight district. That's why we're chasing our own shadow in a War on Terror. We're gonna continue chasing it until we get some kind of global civil society happening. I don't know how we do that, but that's the challenge of the current epoch. It's not a problem that's insoluble. It's good to have challenges, they get us out of bed in the morning.
Andrew Alden (alden) Fri 2 Jan 04 10:58
Looking forward to a great discussion here! As for me, I'd like to do one SIX-billionth of the work if I could, to make up for some of those who can't or won't act.
Berliner (captward) Fri 2 Jan 04 11:14
Actually, though, it'd be a bit more than that. No sense trying to make an infant in Baluchistan shoulder a fraction.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 2 Jan 04 11:43
The Internet seems to be transitional at the moment. We're at a point where whole countries and very heavy commercial interests want to tweak the system to fit their biases. Media industries see their control of distribution mechanisms challenged by network-savvy kids building p2p networks faster than the RIAA/MPAA can slam 'em down. What's the future of the relatively dumb network that has served us so well?
Brian Dear (brian) Fri 2 Jan 04 12:38
<scribbled by brian Wed 20 Mar 13 18:15>
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Fri 2 Jan 04 13:45
The Net long relied on various forms of trust that now seem pretty unreliable. Do you think there are ways to get back the trust, or do we need trust workarounds?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 2 Jan 04 14:43
My thinking on these issues has been affected by hanging out with computer cops since the early 90s when I wrote "Hacker Crackdown." Cops are never really much afflicted by the "trust" business. You rarely see cops get all hurt and down in the mouth because some trusted city solon or universally admired Ken Lay business figure turns out o be crooked. They just consider that part of the human condition. Gail Thackeray once told me that 15 percent of the population was impeccably honest and would rather starve than steal. And fifteen percent would steal anything not nailed down. And the cause of law enforcement was to establish an atmosphere of deterrence that would win the hearts and minds of the remaining 70 percent. At the time, I found this alarmingly cynical, but as more time passes I've come to take some comfort in it. The percentages may not move that much, but individual human beings can move through those categories. I've seen a whole lot of people outgrow cracking; they just get over it. The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. People who are sociopathic harm themselves in a lot of other ways, they can't keep a marriage together, they can't sit still in a room, they're addictive, itchy and compulsive; to be a bad person in love with transgression is bad for you. Societies where the 70 percent are thieves -- they can't pave the roads, they can't cure the sick, they have no future. The Internet has always been "very transitional." Stuff just booms and blooms and collapses in there, there are vogues and rumors and moral panics. I suspect that the deep driving forces are social and ethnic and civilizational now, it's no longer a matter of sort-of engineering the hubs to be smarter or dumber, or sticking in spam guards and security patches. The driving forces are things like vast batallions of Chinese and Indian software engineers who are discovering that this stuff can be bent to their own civilizational purposes. In my new daily weblog I spend a lot of time just looking over national boundaries. This used to be really tough. Now it's just there: Google in a dozen languages, translation software, reams of stuff in servers all over Asia, Europe, Australia. It's point-and-click globalization.
Theodore C Newcomb (nukem777) Fri 2 Jan 04 16:04
Bruce, do you think this is all just a transitional phase of new technologies intersecting with globalization, as we come to see ourselves as citizens of the world? Or do you think there may be new divergent technologies on the horizon that will continue to change how we communicate? Or both? I guess what I'm thinking is that if the Net is what we are all going to be using for the next 40 years or so as a primary method of communication then it's up to us to educate ourselves accordingly. RFM has been the catch phrase ever since I began pointing and clicking 10 years ago. But it seems as the various digital technologies interconnect with the Internet, people want to know even less and less as to how it works and how to work with it.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 2 Jan 04 21:23
Hey, I googled RFM and got 578,000 hits; still not certain what you were referring to, nukem-san. Do you really get the impression that people want to know less about how this stuff works? I keep running into people who are just catching on, and want to know more... and more and more. Political consultants, especially. The Howard Dean campaign made the Internet real for them, and now they want to figure out how to replicate his success... not easy to do, because it's not just a set of practices you can adopt. Dean was successful because he was willing to defer some control, instead cultivating emergent support. Which brings me to another question, Bruce - some peple see the Internet as a platform for Democracy, where weblog technology enables whole communities of Thomas Paines writing virtual tracts. Is that your sense... that the Internet drives a kind of political renaissance?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sat 3 Jan 04 07:39
I think Nukem is politely referring to the programmer acronym "RTFM", meaning "read the fucking manual." It's the commonest guru response when newbies are hassling you to do their own homework for them. RTFM and you'll be able to do that on your own. In the case of the American polity, the manual is supposed to be the Constitution. It gets kinda spooky when power-players in the USA decide to no longer read it. I'm very interested indeed in smart-mobs, but a mob isn't a democracy, no matter how much hardware its members may be carrying or how clever they get at deploying it. Woodstock is unexpected, delightful and surprising, because nobody expected it and there are huge raw energies there. Altamont comes to grief. It's like a principle. Burning Man doesn't come to grief, but Burning Man has a cabal of hardened, experienced cadres, it only lasts three days, and it's swarming with cops. Burning Man is organization disguised as licence. If bikers started beating and knifing naked people at Burning Man they'd be jumped on by Danger Rangers and Nevada cops with guns. Burning Man is a party, not a city-state. I'm gonna believe in the Internet as a true-blue "platform for democracy" when a bunch of people go start some new settlement, using the Internet first, and then a town *grows up around that.* It's like the apotheosis of the "smart house," which isn't a normal house with some wiring and chips strung through it, but a place specifically built to shelter the network. A functional polity needs a social infrastructure. Government requires things like separation of powers, balance of powers, consent of the governed, rules of order for debate. It needs civility. Its institutions have to command public credibility. It helps a lot if they've been around a while and their workings are open and obvious. The Internet has been around a while but it's conspicuously lacking in those other things. I'm glad that major candidates are understanding that the web is around, and I'm all for Thomas Paine getting a few sentiments off his chest. Radio used to have much the same political role, when it was shiny new and sexy in the 1930s. Radio is technology, not a political panacea. Roosevelt was great at radio, but so were Goebbels, Huey Long, Father Coughlin and Mussolini. Those particular struggles weren't resolved by building better vacuum tubes. Radio is still around, and we don't have highly advanced, highly democratic radio now. We've got awful radio.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 3 Jan 04 09:58
Radio technology is the basis for wireless data technologies, like the 802.x evolving standards, and people like David P. Reed and Kevin Werbach are lobbying for more open spectrum. My understanding of the open spectrum arguments is that we could stop licensing spectrum and depend on smarter technologies, e.g. cognitive radio, to mitigate interference. I had these fantasies of radio like the web, where the barriers to entry are low, anyone can generate signal, and eventually we have thousands, even millions, of radio stations, just like we have thousands of blogs today. We could have Viridian radio broadcasting eco-design rants 24/7. Do you have room on your roof for a radio transmitter?
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Sat 3 Jan 04 10:29
The thing I find kind of scary about the Internet is that it's not going to be too long before you can't turn it off without becoming some sort of survivalist kook. Radio and TV have been around for decades but you can easily do without them, plus the fact that there's so much crappy radio and TV makes it not too hard to do. But in a decade or two, I could see it being damned difficult to pay your bills, correspond with friends, find a job, do your job, or shop without an Internet connection. At the same time, there's this tremendous potential for wasting time, just like TV, that's always one step away and you can't throw out. And the Internet hasn't yet reached its full addictive potential as a form of entertainment yet. It's going to be like having a slot machine in every home, and at work, too. And if enough talented people work at it hard enough and the business model turns out right, it might be a slot machine with high artistic and cultural merit and good production values. So maybe if it all gets clogged up with spam, it's not the worst thing in the world.
Berliner (captward) Sat 3 Jan 04 10:44
Seems to me if Bruce had an antenna on top of his house, he'd get a visit. Weren't there a couple of low-watt FMers busted in Austin some years ago?
Ted (nukem777) Sat 3 Jan 04 10:51
Yes, I was being polite about the manuals, which I still don't believe too many people are reading. I just switched to Linux and I'm surrounded by manuals and links to all the user groups I could find so that I can get started learning it. From my experience I'm in the minority. I have friends who own their own small businesses and have virtually no security to their computing networks because they don't want to learn anything and just find it all too complicated. I think that's probably the norm. Jon, I'm not too taken with the Dean internet hype, even tho I've been contributing. First of all we're only talking about 180,000 people. That's really not much politically and not the swing group that will make the final decision anyway. Bruce, I agree with you about mobs and democracy. I don't see the web as providing any more than a means of communication and information. I don't think any messiah's, political or otherwise, are going to be coming out of the web. Actually, just the opposite. I think we are moving toward the 'iconization' of sentiments and trends...ala William Gibson's Idoru.
Theodore C Newcomb (nukem777) Sat 3 Jan 04 11:01
Re: spammers...Neilson/Net Ratings released a survey,http://www.bigblueball.com/news2/article.asp?id=463, saying 75% of connections to the Net are via IM's, media players, and P2P's...I think that's probably the trend...away from e-mail. I'm looking for the next improvement on the cellphone/PDA/web connection and that will probably be about all I'll use communication wise. A home computer will pretty much be for research, news and entertainment tied in to some big screen replacing the TV.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sat 3 Jan 04 14:06
I do have room on my roof for a radio transmitter, and I have New Year plans -- vague ones, but real plans -- to have some commercial guys come in and splash wi-fi all over my neighborhood from a mast on my roof. I was gonna offer it as a free-rider thing, and then I thought -- y'know -- it's just a dead cinch that warchalking spammers are gonna come park vans in my front yard. I don't have time and energy to keep these predators at bay from people I am trying to help. So let a commercial service do it, and pull some money out of the system in order to keep the infrastructure on the up-and-up. It's less of a menace to civilization that way. I wouldn't mind becoming a home-DJ and doing some kind of round-the-clock iPod spewing Internet music thing. I've been checking that out on iTunes, and boy is that stuff weak. There ought to be an Internet radio channel that is amazingly, mind-blowingly keen-o, the very voice of musical liberation, but if so, I've yet to find it. It has the soporific qualities of cable access, only more so. One is tempted to just boldly dash out there and cut those zombies at ClearChannel a new one, but, well, hobbies like that have the bad habit of becoming massive attention hogs. Even assuming, of course, that armed RIAA agents didn't come to kick my door down. I'm never going to run a propaganda station. When it comes to my own rantings, I draw the line at forcing them on people without some kind of warning.
Uncle Jax, the Nicest Asshole on the Well (jax) Sat 3 Jan 04 15:17
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 4 Jan 04 00:10
You've been focusing on 'new world disorder' for years, and we've billed this as a 'state of the world' discussion, so we should talk about this latest war - not so much Iraq, I think that's just a battle in a larger war, which is probably best characterized as the U.S. "New American Century" neoconservatives vs the rest of the world. Did you see this coming?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sun 4 Jan 04 09:34
Well, it didn't take genius to see that the Bush clan had it in for the Tikritis. As soon as they hauled Saddam out by the scruff of the neck, everybody goes "whoo" as if it were all over now. Because everybody had it figured that the UN resolutions, the tons of nerve gas, the human rights blither, that was all pretext. "He tried to kill my Dad," you know. Al Qaeda is more sophisticated than people let on, while American power centers seethe with tribal rage. It there was a shock about this, it was the way the Disorder revealed itself *inside Washington.* A raid by mountain bandits on the World Trade Center really was a kind of PR genius, but I don't think anybody, including the neocons, really got it that the US Administration would be willing to cut all the barbed wire, ride hell for leather and try to settle every issue on the planet with a vigilante shotgun. The neocons are okay with that, though. They see themselves as heroic rebels against a choking global orthodoxy, a small but divinely inspired elite who will bend the world their way if they can just hold on long enough for truth to prevail. The Disorder always thrives on these sentiments; they've very Serbian, very Afghan, very US Confederacy, too. Women in the Balkans really love "Gone with the Wind." There's a kind of cult for it. If Croats and Serbians lived in America they'd live in some of those pro-Bush Red States. http://observer.guardian.co.uk/magazine/story/0,11913,1115505,00.html "I won't think about occupying Baghdad today; I'll think about it tomorrow." Very Scarlett O'Hara, that. (Rhett Butler works for Enron and Halliburton.) As Cavour once put it, "you can do anything with bayonets except sit on them." So there's not gonna be a lot of "major combat operations", but there's gonna be a whole lot of nationalist intifada. There's a fractal quality to it, it's a nested series of Venn diagrams. The American neocons are a nationalist intifada. The Disorder and the Order interpenetrate, the Lexus is parked under the Olive Tree, and McWorld is where the children of the Jihad eat.
Ted (nukem777) Sun 4 Jan 04 10:01
"The Disorder and the Order interpenetrate, the Lexus is parked under the Olive Tree, and McWorld is where the children of the Jihad eat." Now that's poetry. Well put, both sides feed off one another. More to the point, they need one another to keep their agendas going. What about the rest of the world though? Don't you find it strange that here we are at a point in history where there is one dominant superpower that could take a giant leap forward for civilization on the planet and instead chooses to revert to form? Well, I guess that doesn't surprise me so much. But I am surprised that the rest of the world seems to be sitting back and taking it. And I would have hoped that whatever forces of civilization are being formed and/or unleashed by and on the Internet would spring forth. But I'm not sensing much of that either. Am I missing something or hoping for too much too soon?
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