virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Thu 12 Aug 04 09:12
Bruce Sterling's new novel, The Zenith Angle, tells the story of Derek "Van" Vandeveer, a computer wizard pressed into serving the nation as professional information warrior. As always, Bruce draws on events both real and virtually so to develop his story. For the first time, he writes a tale whose characters are aware of the events of September 11, 2001. Bruce is well known as a journalist and cyberpunk fiction writer, but his sideline is as a culture hacker, with the Dead Media Project and more recently Veridian Design. Jon Lebkowsky is, like Bruce, an Austin, Texas kind of a guy these days. Jon is an activist who also writes about technoculture and serves as host here at The Well's inkwell.vue. He recently managed the University of Texas' Wireless Future project and a national wireless conference within South by Southwest Interactive. Glad to have you with us, gents!
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 12 Aug 04 17:50
Thanks, <bumbaugh>! Bruce, you normally write speculative fiction about possible futures... but _The Zenith Angle_ is speculative fiction about a possible present. What made you decide to write about the here an now?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 12 Aug 04 18:44
I couldn't resist. The material was just too good. Now that I'm all gray-haired, people trust me with stuff that they shouldn't. Every time I go to Washington these days, some spook sidles over and says, "Hey! Didn't you write ISLANDS IN THE NET back in the 80s? I read that when I was twelve!" Then they proceed to say something indiscreet about goings-on in Afghanistan. Things just get weirder. The book ends with my hero, Van the white-hat hacker, agreeing to go to Switzerland. I'm going to Switzerland tomorrow. Literally. Got a flight to Zurich just after noon. I hope I can check in on inkwell from the Zurich central rail station. They've got wi-fi. Failing that, I may have to log in on a Treo handheld.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 12 Aug 04 20:22
What's happening in Zurich? Or are you just playing out the White-Hat Hacker fantasy?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 13 Aug 04 06:24
Nothing is happening in Zurich, but I got asked to teach for a few days at an outfit called the European Graduate School, which is in the shadow of the Matterhorn, or so I'm told. This is also the year when people asked me to teach. Thank God they're not asking me to teach creative writing! No, I'm teaching media and industrial design. I just delivered a keynote speech at SIGGRAPH, the thesis of which is that there's really not gonna be all that much difference between those two fields any more. I'm working on a little MIT Press book in which I'm going to try to prove it. On the flight in about four hours. Given that it's Friday the 13th, maybe the seats will be a little less crowded. This may be the last broadband I see for a while, so I'm cramming photos into my blog. http://blog.wired.com/sterling/
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 13 Aug 04 09:22
When you're back online in Zurich, and getting back to the book, I'm wondering about your own September 11, 2001. How did the bombing of the World Trade Center strike you at the time, vs the way it strikes the characters in the book? (And I guess "strike" is the best word to use there.)
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 17 Aug 04 05:13
Well, at the moment it struck me as being a strike against, not the USA, but World Trade. I figured it for some group of extremely committed radicals who were trying to suck the oxygen out of the anti-WTO crowd. In the days that followed, it was very touching to see every society on the planet in tearstained, candle-burning solidarity with the wounded USA, but boy, that sure didn't last long. Now the "Washington Consensus" of the 1990s is as dead as the Brezhnev Doctrine. I often wonder what the world would look like if Al Qaeda had decided to crash planes into, say, Copenhagen. Suppose the atrocity were just as large and just as wounding, but there was no military response. Would we be more secure or less secure today? I'm not actually in Zurich; I'm in a small ski-resort town named Saas-Fee. And the hotel has wifi. Swiss wifi, man, I'm livin' large. The WTO just met in Switzerland and had one of its least-heralded, most successful meetings ever. The Brazilians got pretty much everything they wanted. Since the Brazilians also made it their policy to co-opt the anti-WTO orgs, this is a remarkable development... It's kind of the "Porto Alegre WTO," or the "Brasilia Consensus." It's a big deal for the majority of the planet's populatio, but the US pays no never mind these days because we're too busy getting shot at.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 17 Aug 04 05:36
Brazil has the strongest South American economy, they're forward looking, they've claimed much of the virtual real estate at Orkut and Multiply, and they throw great parties. Brazil is the wave of the future, no? Back to the book... your protagonist is basically a geek. It's as though Hitchcock made North by Northwest with Wally Cox instead of Cary Grant... or maybe where Wally Cox *becomes* Cary Grant. Did you base Derek on anybody in particular?
smells like (sushi101) Tue 17 Aug 04 06:24
Hi Bruce I am going to Ars Electronica in Linz ( http:www.aec.at ) again this year and am happy to see you among the speakers. Reading the synopsis for your panels discussion: "...The second panel, DISRUPTION, is about error, accident, and dissent. It is intended to reveal how the value of intent is relative and how counter-force can dominate in an imperfect world where things dont always go as planned." got me thinking if you are going to use the post 9/11 observations as an vantage point? Looking forward to hearing you there.
Duncan Stewart by way of (bumbaugh) Tue 17 Aug 04 14:01
From off-Well: << Apologies in advance for my haphazard thought process here >> Bruce, in this latest book, our hero Van moves hither and yon trying to crack a technical problem (vague, but spoiler free); meanwhile you re criss-crossing the country (and the pond) yourself with conferences, presentations and teaching gigs, addressing the problem of the permanence of impermanence, as it were, of our buy-it-now-and-toss-it-in-6-months culture. And blogging it all now. I like to think that I m getting a broader idea of what s happening in the world through the web and liberal media rather than from the network news here in the States. But it s not an inexpensive proposition; cable television, cable modem, subscriptions & and new computers like your laptop, my ol trusty(?) home PC went belly-up (again!) just a couple of weeks ago. And I recently cancelled the cable tv, for cost as well as being an attention suck for children and adults alike. If it weren t for the fact that the household has several other computers online (plus work&), I d be seriously info deprived. In addition to the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest, do you get a sense that there s also an knowledge gap, between the techno-savvy and the not-so-much? On world issues, I mean, not just which mp3 player has the longest battery life? Is being connected necessary in order to be informed? Duncan Stewart
docile (brenner) Tue 17 Aug 04 23:55
Doesn't that depend on the meaning of "informed"? I ask this because in this new book, Bruce shows us that the work ethic and the technology make the protagonist and his wife seem very disconnected from one another and their child. In this book, the gizmos are just tools, and the real "information" is that people need each other. (Old school cyberpunk meets metro-sexual fatherhood, eh?)
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 18 Aug 04 00:45
Well, there's no question that I'm personally acquainted with a host of geeks. Brilliant people are often workaholics. Workaholism is an affliction. Families pay a price for that. It's just how things are. The thing that always intrigued me about technothrillers was that technicians are support staff rather than protagonists. I mean, who makes a worse enemy -- James Bond, with a "license to kill" -- or H. Ross Perot? Perot's a weedy-looking Wally Cox mainframe nerd, but he doesn't hesitate to hire ex=Special Forces types and conduct private black-bag operations in Iran. If you're a topflight guy in today's society you can hire all the James Bonds you want. Why go on pretending otherwise? As for cancelling TV to save money, that's a swell idea. You ought to just pitch the thing out of the house like an obsolete slide projector. http://www.aiipowmia.com/inter24/in040324perothonor.html
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 18 Aug 04 14:14
What do you think September 11th was about? Are we really seeing a Muslim fundamentalist jihad here? (Somebody was telling me today that two sets of fundamentalists are at war, Muslims and Capitalists.)
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 18 Aug 04 23:22
Well, I think what September 11 was about was a calculated provocation against the "Washington Consensus" by an extremely violent group of fanatics with no ability to govern. Al Qaeda has the relationship to Islam that the Khmer Rouge had to Marxism. To me the most significant thing about Al Qaeda is not that they are Muslim but that they are stateless. Their personnel are almost all diaspora people, exiles. The most effective ones have Western educations. So it's not a clash of civilizations, it's a clash of globalizations. The ability of the American administration to assert its will around the world has been very much hampered. The US is now bogged down in a ground war where nationalist resentment rises every day. By contrast, Al Qaeda, who number at most maybe 30,000 revanchist adventurers, are methodically demonstrating their ability to wreak bloody havoc pretty much anywhere on the planet. Their loss of so-called "bases" in Sudan or Afghanistan or the Pakistani tribal lands never bothered them much. They're not a government, so they don't need "bases." The mere fact that they exist and have credibility, that's what makes Al Qaeda the "Base." Five years after 9/11, the USA is a deeply polarized society with alienated allies and practically zero diplomatic credibility. The least whisper from the Al Qaeda camp is pored over and valorized; they're crazy, but they're successful. The emptyhanded USA with its witch-hunts for nonexistent WMD looks simply delusional. You'd be hard put to find a Mexican, Canadian or Briton with the least belief that the Bush Administration means anything it says. This enormous setback came because of the loss of two and one-fifth buildings. We really need a better word for this struggle than "terrorism." People in the US were once pretty frightened about Communist subversives, but very few Americans are genuinely frightened about Al Qaeda. We just resent them furiously, we lost all sense of perspective. Americans aren't terrorized by Al Qaeda, but in 9/11, Americans got jolted into an unthinking revanchist rage that revealed the American state's deep political weakness. Outside the US borders, the US Administration no longer looks like an outfit that thinks clearly enough to set a global agenda. Fundamentalist capitalists are just watching those oil prices and sweating bullets, while at the WTO, where the US one strode the stage like a Colossus, the Chinese and Indians closet themselves with the Brazilians. The Washington Consensus of the 1990s is as dead as the Brezhnev Doctrine. On the other hand, the clock won't stop ticking. Ten years ago people just talked about globalization; now we're really wading in knee-deep.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 19 Aug 04 08:47
What would it take to make the U.S. functional, or at least less dysfunctional, in all this? Some people are hopeful that Kerry's election, which looks pretty likely, will make a difference, but we seem to be seeing manifestations of problems that run much deeper than anything a regime change could fix?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 19 Aug 04 13:24
What would it take? It'll take time. People are always claiming that the American polity has no historical awareness and has no patience in struggle, but that's a canard. The US has outlasted any number of rival regimes. The US outlasted a "thousand-year Reich." It contained a rival economic system for decades on end. "War on Terror" is a really goofy formulation, and Bush II kicked his dad's supreme New World Order coalition into pieces. That's too bad, but what does *terror* have to offer anybody, in the long run? If you kiss Al Qaeda right on the lips, they'll turn your society into a flaming skeleton. They're a suicide cult. How long is suicide gonna stay romantic? Even if you're a sincere Jihadist and you want a faith-based, divinely inspired Caliphate, you still need a method of governance. Al Qaeda doesn't have one. They don't think that's important. They are wrong.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 19 Aug 04 13:50
Al Qaeda seems like one kind of entrepreneurial outfit, one that's selling jihad and destruction of infidels, and Zenith Angle seems to be, in part, about the resilience of the American entrepreneurial spirit, which is selling innovation and (at least supposedly) individual liberty. Is this a war of the entrepreneurs?
Angus MacDonald (angus) Fri 20 Aug 04 16:47
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 20 Aug 04 16:53
No problem, go right ahead!
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sat 21 Aug 04 00:00
Problems of innovation and tradition are literally older than the hills. Especially in the Middle East, where a lot of the "hills" turn out to be former cities. If you accept the formulation behind a phrase like "Electronic Frontier Foundation," it implies a process of governance. The "frontier" of high-tech moves on over the horizon in a fine Vannevar Bush "Science the Endless Frontier" fashion, but somebody, somewhere, has got to assimilate and govern the aging innovations. ZENITH ANGLE pops the question: is the Bush Administration up to a challenge like that? Is anybody? Maybe you can examine the maelstrom of Dodge City illegality in your email, and let the record speak for itself. Governance may fail. It's failing in a lot of places and circumstances. The "electronic frontier" may turn out to be inherently ungovernable. In which case, the "frontier" may not have much to do with 19C American notions of statehood and legitimacy, It may have a whole lot to do with the places on the planet in 21C that really are ungovernable, such as Chechnya, Congo, Kashmir, Fallujah, Colombia, Afghanistan. You'd have a hard time disinterring the "Wild West" in the American West, but the "Wild East" is as real as a vodka bottle broken over your head. Now those guys are a couple of mouseclicks away instead of at the far end of a 45minute ICBM launch. Welcome to modern politics.
Angus MacDonald (angus) Sat 21 Aug 04 12:44
[post above reformatted for legibility]: Jon, to me it seems it's not totally about American "entrepreneurial spirit," but also about how, as Bruce describes above, longevity requires skills at governance. In new industries, there have been and will be plenty of entrepreneurs who make huge initial successes but can't sustain a business beyond ten or twenty quarters, just as political revolutionaries are notorious for failing badly at administration. We're lucky that so many of the 1776 gang apparently wanted to go back to their plantations and shops afterwards and be left alone, rather than keeping the combat going till they died. Also, is it okay to ask questions about or comment on the novelistic strengths and surprises of the book? [I don't want to drag things into "creativewritingland" if that's inappropriate.]
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sun 22 Aug 04 02:04
It's actually kind of fun to drag intractable governmental-technical issues into creativewritingland. When I was in Washington researching spacewar for WIRED, I was very aware that I was in the middle of a right-wing technothriller novel that was struggling to write itself. September 11 had some cornball aspects to it; it really was gaudy, gory and excessive, like Z-grade Hollywood disaster fare. The business with the missing WMD is very Dr Strangelove -- it's like some loon in a wheelchair barks "coalmine gap with the Russians!" and every living soul takes that logic at face value. Everybody buys into the mythical WMDs... It's an error in judgment so colossal that it can't even be whispered aloud. Why did the world believe in this? Hussein has been in custody for months now. What's his storyline about the WMDs? Did he never have any? Did he think that he had some? Did he order them made and nobody obeyed? Did he destroy them all at the last minute as a political ploy? Even if he wants to lie about it, why is there such a haze of obscurantism about his means and motives? It doesn't feel like foreign policy at all; it's like a thriller movie where the director died, the screenwriter drank himself into a fit and then the whole biz was patched-together by special-effects guys somewhere in Turkey. It's as if we're never to get the thread again; we seem to be waiting patiently for another disaster so large that it merely elipses the other one.
Ted (nukem777) Sun 22 Aug 04 04:39
No doubt we have all the techno-toys to play war, but the human errors that have been made in Iraq have been horrific. There seems to be a widening gulf between the Pentagon, and their ability to "wage war", and the policy makers and their ability to do just about anything. Do you think we are just that stupid, due to blind political agendas, or is there some kind of gap occuring between technology and all that it affords and society's ability to integrate it all into the matrix of policy and planning?
Uncle Jax (jax) Sun 22 Aug 04 05:39
There's a gap between Americans believing that "having it all" is their birthright and reality.
Ted (nukem777) Sun 22 Aug 04 07:02
I get your point (jax), but I think our policy has lately been shaped more by the fear of "losing it all". The fat cats all seem to be running scared to me.
docile (brenner) Sun 22 Aug 04 07:09
Back to the WMD issue, here's another take on that subject, in no less an authority than the Pasadena Star News: "This fear of WMD influenced Franks' military planning. It prompted him to emphasize speed: Intelligence said Saddam's "troops arrayed around Baghdad were holding WMD, and we could expect them to use those weapons as we closed the noose on the capital unless we got there before the Iraqis were ready.' Franks didn't mass 500,000 troops on Saddam's border in a rerun of the first U.S. war on Saddam, partly because he feared such troop concentrations in Kuwait would be vulnerable to WMD. If Franks distorted his military plan around a lie as the "Bush lied' true believers must think he shouldn't have retired with high praise, but been court-martialed. The real liar in all this, of course, is Saddam Hussein, who didn't come clean about his weapons programs in what was likely an effort at strategic deception to cow his opponents at home and deter his enemies abroad. Any moral opprobrium about the Iraq War should attach to him, not the men who tried their best to deal responsibly with him and his regime even if one of those men happens to be a Republican president of the United States." http://www.pasadenastarnews.com/Stories/0,1413,206~11851~2350453,00.html
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