virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Wed 4 Jan 06 10:27
How is the world this year? Bruce Sterling (he of the Dead Media Project, Wired magazine, Veridian Design, and many successful novels and lectures) returns to discuss it with us. Here, again, to lead the conversation is Jon Lebkowsky (like Bruce, a member of The Well, Jon's a techno-culture-focused writer, activist, and consultant). What are the issues, gents? Anything *really* new and different about the year gone by? What to expect in the year ahead?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 4 Jan 06 12:18
I'm still in shock, recovering from 2005. I'm tempted to rail about disasters of biblical proportions, but I fear the various flavors of fundamentalist will assume a rationale for apocalyptic acts of destruction. Bruce, you spent the year teaching design. How did that effect your perception of the various earthquakes, hurricanes, wars, famines, plagues, etc.? Can we design our way out of this mess?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 4 Jan 06 16:37
I know it's spooky, but this isn't anything compared to what's coming down the pike. Yeah, I spent a year teaching design. The top issue in the industrial design field is that everything "industrial" is going to China. This isn't brute labor these Chinese are up to; basically, they're working their way out of Communism. This new industrial revolution the Chinese are having dwarfs anything the Chinese have ever done before. The transformation is swift and colossal. If you're in shock, imagine them. Imagine being some minor-league peasant apparatchik in China whose family tilled the same patch of soil for the past 3000 years. And then your son comes home and demands broadband so he can play Korean wargames. Huh? But the Chinese aren't freaking out about it; they're not wringing their hands, declaring war on abstract nouns, succumbing to fundamentalist bullshit, or telling everybody that the Chinese way of life is not up for negotiation. Basically, they're just getting on with the necessary work at hand. They've always been a cauldron of toil. Now they're getting paid! Who wouldn't go for that? They're not "designing their way out of the mess." Basically, they're doing it the Deng Xiaoping way, which is "crossing the river by feeling the rocks with your feet." That doesn't make the change any less profound, though. 2005 was a crap year for the US, but China and India are off their knees and on their feet. In the global perspective, that's a big deal.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 4 Jan 06 18:59
So once they're on their feet, do they bury us? Or do they buy us?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 4 Jan 06 19:13
I guess those prospects are mighty exciting, but what if the Chinese just go about their own booming business? Do they HAVE to buy or bury anybody? And even if they do, isn't Siberia just sort of sitting there? Maybe they buy or bury South Korea. Check out this NYT piece on the huge Chinese appetite for South Korean hiphop. The fact that there is South Korean hiphop is wack enough, but imagine a vast China enthralled with Korean hiphop! Do they have to buy or bury any American hiphop? Heck no, man. They become the planetary hiphop majority by force of numbers. They can just sublimely ignore American hiphop, just like the US government does. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/02/international/asia/02korea.html?hp&ex=113617 8000&en=f06cacf38dc8f861&ei=5094&partner=homepage
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 4 Jan 06 22:27
I was thinking metaphorically, that they would bury us by marginalizing our economy. Developing nations also have an edge, because they can leapfrog over industrial dinosaurs; this is South Korea's real power, so I'm told. On the other hand, I was talking to someone today about collaborative economies - thinking about moving away from competition with other nations, in favor of collaboration. I suppose that sounds subversive at the moment, to those who feel that competition is still possible. So maybe the hiphop we all listen to is created collaboratively, via the web, by djs in Korea, China, and East L.A.?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 5 Jan 06 06:52
Well, much as I appreciate Chinese manufacturing excellence, I don't think they'll be "burying" anybody till they've got some Chinese soft-power... global-scale Chinese music, film, anime, Beijing consensus diplomacy, that kind of thing. When and if people start getting "Sino-ized" rather than "Westernized," that'll be a big deal. I just don't expect to see that happening. I think we are well past that epoch. We're all in the same global stew now. Koreans exporting black American music to China? Hey, if you're looking for Confucian cultural purity, game over. I'm quite the Sinophile. I think what they've done in the past 20 years is a near-miracle. If you'd gone back 20 years ago and asked American diplomats for their top-end positive China scenario, it likely would have been something like this situation today. So if we're getting what we want from them, why are we bitching? Do we miss those glamorous Great Leap Forward days when starved corpses were floating down their rivers? Have they failed to brandish enough hydrogen bombs at us lately? Do we miss the sweet accommodations of the Gang of Four? Our economy really needs some 'marginalizing.' The old economy is not sustainable and is dangerous to us and to everyone we know. We shouldn't cling to yesterday's methods. The American competitive advantage is the proven and repeated ability to invent new economies. We Americans suck at surrounding the oil wells with land-mines and demanding a check on everybody's papers. That strategy doesn't play to our strengths. Over in Europe, a bunch of quarrelsome states moved away from their attempted burials into collaboration. Did Germany "bury" Belgium lately? Did France "bury" Spain? No. You just wander around throwing Euros at people. The Greeks aren't sobbing into their Danish beer about being crushed by the international competition. This isn't a "Chinese century," or anything so corny and fearsome. The Chinese have got maybe 25, 30 lively years in the sun before they run into the weirdest demographic problems on the planet. That doesn't even count their restive land-empire and the pervasive corruption problems they have. We ought to be crossing our fingers for the Chinese people, rather than sitting in some neocon bunker plotting their demise. I already saw this handwringing playbook, back when Japan was booming in the 80s. Did we all die because Japan boomed? Do we hate them forever? It's a non-issue.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 5 Jan 06 08:18
I think Americans who worry about China's potential domination of markets are really concerned about he economic decline of the USA. China is a convenient target for their anxieties, easier to grasp than complex global forces that go bump in the night. Developing nations are doing just that, developing; more slices of the world pie, less room for dominant forces. Are we in transition from a world dominated by superpowers to a world of networks and markets, a p2p world where hierarchies have crumbled? Is the violence and confusion we see today symptomatic of a struggle to retain concentrations of power and money that are inherently doomed by global structural evolution?
Sofia's Choice (amicus) Thu 5 Jan 06 11:05
I think it's absolutely hysterical that Chinese kids are making money working up low-level characters in virtual worlds to sell to Americans. The happier analog to teen girls and boys undressing in front of web cams, which I think I predicted (not that I was the first) back in 1990 or so ("Polly Jean Amour and SeeYouDoMe").
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Thu 5 Jan 06 11:55
Which way does the surveillance backlash go, Bruce? More state power, or less, and with what results?
Dan Mitchell (mitchell) Thu 5 Jan 06 12:02
Bruce: please say more about weird Chinese demographics.
John Payne (satyr) Thu 5 Jan 06 12:02
> economic decline of the USA Relative or absolute? Looked at in relative terms, by how many times the income of the average American worker exceeds that of the average worker in whatever country we're being compared to, their advancement is our decline -- but that way lies nothing but madness. Even the poorest of nations will eventually get on board the prosperity train, as they become the last places to run to for cheap labor. But, aside from having to pay a little more for produce, some continued loss of jobs to off-shore operations, and increased competition for non-renewable commodities that are beginning to be in short supply, how does this hurt us? And, considering that increased incomes in places where people have historically had trouble just feeding themselves translates to new markets, the net effect might actually be positive. We'd be well advised to helpful in finding ways for emerging economies to be complementary with our own, rather than in direct competition with it, and, as much as possible, to bypass dependency on the non-renewables to which we are currently addicted.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 5 Jan 06 13:49
"Which way does the surveillance backlash go, Bruce? More state power, or less, and with what results?" The hot-button here is always domestic spying for political advantage. Nixon could have used all the Cuban refugees he wanted to spy on Cubans inside the USA; but when he let them loose on the Democrats, it meant his head. It took a while, but the state can't stand internal spying on the state. Obviously it takes some state-power to run an outfit like ECHELON, and In-Q-Tel is busily spreading the grant money for tomorrow's Total Information Awareness system right now. But I suspect that the "backlash" goes someplace pretty strange. I'm thinking the future of surveillance belongs to partisan blogger-mobs howling for blood. You can see a guy like Josh Marshall trying to start his own private-investigation agency over at TALKING POINTS MEMO... He's nickel-and-diming it, but what if he had a few million? A cat like Abramoff has had the run of K Street for years now. Nobody brought it up, nobody said a thing... If I were a spook from an unfriendly power and I wanted to destabilize the American political system, I'd be feeding the American poli-bloggers big chunks of fresh meat. It wouldn't matter if it came from right or left. Just as long as it was shocking, and not the sort of thing the mainstream media saw fit to touch. Blowjobs. Gay White House reporters. That sort of thing. There's a major-league video sex scandal in Indian politics right now. It's got rather little to do with India per se and everything to do with how easy it is for political operatives to videotape moral panics and distribute them. It is proving enough to wreck the major opposition party in the biggest democracy in the world. Pakistani intelligence couldn't have done a neater job, and, you know, maybe they did.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 5 Jan 06 14:00
"Bruce: please say more about weird Chinese demographics." Here's some stuff out of a British think-tank: "As early as 2015, China's working age population will actually start falling. By 2040, today's young workers will be pensioners - in fact the world's second largest population, after India, will be Chinese pensioners. (...) "There could well be 100 million Chinese people aged over 80, more than the current worldwide total, as Richard Jackson and Neil Howe point out in their excellent paper, The Graying of the Middle Kingdom (CSIS 2004). (...) "Because of China's one-child policy there will be fewer new workers under its so-called "4,2,1" population structure - four grandparents, two parents and one child. This is a demographic transition that many countries go through. But a process that is taking a century in the west will take 40 years there. The desperate rush for economic growth is fuelled by fears that China could grow old before it grows rich. "Not so long ago, China was one of the world's most youthful countries, with a median age of 20. Its median age is now estimated at 33. By 2050, the United Nations forecasts, China's median age could be 45, against 43 for the UK and 41 for the US. (((That's not the weird part - just getting old. Every country's doing that. This is the weird part: the Chinese gender imbalance.))) "Imposing the one-child policy on these long established customs is having an extraordinary effect. If you can have only one child it becomes highly desirable to have a boy. The rule is not as strictly enforced as it was, but you can now see its effect on the second child, which in the eyes of many Chinese really is the last chance to have a boy. For every 100 female second children, there are 152 males. Overall, there are now about 120 boys for every 100 girls in China. "The country is waking up to this extraordinary imbalance. Last year it banned ultrasound testing to try to stop gender-based abortion. But already it means China is facing a world not unlike a traditional Oxbridge college, with far too many men relative to women. That is why we can already read in the media accounts of young women being bribed or even kidnapped from places such as North Korea or Vietnam. China is going to have to attract large-scale female immigration or many of its young men will leave." (((I'm not sure that I buy the mass-migration theory, but there's never been a society anywhere, ever, with that kind of age and sex-ratio structure. China forty years from now looks like a lumberjack camp for geezers. I wish 'em luck with that.)))
nape fest (zorca) Thu 5 Jan 06 14:08
i had a chance conversation with a young chinese guy while spending too many hours in an airport a few months ago. he'd come to the U.S. to visit family members and was headed back. he is studying industrial design in peking. i said something about how that would likely guarantee him fat salaries for life and he laughed. not exactly a happy laugh. he said that there are hundreds of design schools in china now, but a very small percentage of the students are finding work once they graduate. one of the reasons he cited was the fact that good design was often deemed frivolous since, in truth, schlock consistently sells better within china. i asked if he thought this would change soon. he said he thought it would take at least a generation. he said that there is enormous pressure on rural populations to move to cities and so the level of cultural sophistication and demand for good design keeps falling. he said that the level of corruption within the major manufacturing companies and the governmental bodies with whom they must work was not only entrenched, but resistant to any review or recall. i asked if government censorship was at least partly responsible for the inability too challenge the corruption. he said that we misunderstand how most chinese view free expression. he said most people there don't care about free speech guarantees. they just want to make money. more money than last year. so far, most people are making more money and so there is little call for change. i'm sure he spoke at least partly from the vantage point of jaded youth, but he was certainly less than enthused about his future as an industrial designer in china. he said that even though he had won several prestigious awards and came from a well-known family, it was unlikely that he would be allowed to leave the country and he anticipated a difficult road ahead. couldn't help tossing this into the conversation...
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 5 Jan 06 14:43
It's hard for us to imagine living in a country that doesn't place some value on free expression, but that's because it's part of our tradition. And considering that there are still many here that place safety above liberty, it's not hard to image that someone in China would be indifferent to free speech guarantees. Chairman Mao once said something about effective governance being a matter of keeping the people's bellies full and their minds empty...
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 5 Jan 06 14:58
I think when I was in my 20s I may have said the same about most Americans -- that they > don't care about free speech guarantees. they just want to make money. > more money than last year. I might still say it now and then, to be honest.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 5 Jan 06 15:39
Well, I'm used to designers moaning by now. They moan much less than most novelists, probably because they're not melancholics by temperament. There's one thing you'll never hear a designer from any country ever say: that consumers have too high a standard of taste. I have to wonder if there is any place where consumers are too refined, knowledgeable, and picky. If so, I'd be guessing Denmark. I don't hang out with Chinese designers, but from what I hear, they have a problem anticipating changes in taste. You can get across to Chinese students that consumer items ought to be more elegant. It seems to be harder for them to grasp that manufactured objects will and should look radically different in ten years. Media design people have no problem with that concept, but graphic design and industrial design people sometimes do; they tend to think that the best design is "timeless." The cyberati types, through harsh personal experience, are way more into the sell-by date. I spent a lot of my time last year trying to convince my Art Center students that technological transitions make sense and can be anticipated. There are ways in design to make the passage of time your friend.
Christian De Leon-Horton (echodog) Thu 5 Jan 06 16:01
China is a big deal for me, in large part because I spent seven years of my military career watching them. Frankly, I abhor the camp of the Yellow Peril fearmongers, because I think they are likely to get us into trouble. From a military standpoint there's not a doubt in my mind that sooner or later we're going to be in some kind uneasy, armed standoff with China. We're both competing for the same resources, after all. For the military industrial complex apologists who say that our technology will allow us to face down China, I say baloney. The Chinese can buy technology that they don't currently own, and they can reverse-engineer it and have it on the shelf much faster than we can develop new stuff to outsmart them. And let's not forget we're talking about a military heritage that wrote the book on asymmetric warfare--at least three times. I don't think armed conflict between the US and China is inevitable, however, because China is going to have its own problems before too long. The sheer population pressure would be difficult even without the upcoming affluent lifestyle demands. It's not going to be long before they start running headlong into Malthus. Therefore a great deal of the Chinese military apparatus will probably be looking inward, attempting to enforce security. We're already seeing that in the way they attempt to control the internet. But on the more positive side, I think China has tremendous human capital. Don't underestimate the power of those millions of Chinese engineers trying to find ways to bring clean water and cheap electricity to the Chinese people. If there are sustainable energy devices out there to build, Chinese factories and cheap labor are going to build them in massive amounts. The Chinese had a long history of sustainable agriculture before the Great Leap Forward, and I suspect many of those techniques will be brought into play. The Loess Plateau is already being taken out of grain production and moved over to forestation. More to the point, I strongly suspect Chinese bioengineers will be on vanguard of cutting edge techniques for producing edibles in industrial parks. Once the Chinese brain mass is turned toward solving the problems of ecological sustainability, I think we're going to see something fantastic. And if the Chinese people benefit, we are all going to benefit sooner or later. Or I sure hope so, anyway. I'd hate like hell to get into a shooting war with those folks. That's my recurring nightmare.
Christian De Leon-Horton (echodog) Thu 5 Jan 06 16:06
By the way, the Korean hip-hop thing is pretty goofy from an American standpoint, not just because it's in Korean but because it's total poser nonsense. Korean and Chinese hip-hoppers make the Backstreet Boys look like genuine hood rats. The international appeal of hip-hop is in its underdog roots and minority thug credibility. If you really want to see some true international hip-hop, you got to go to Europe and watch Turks and North Africans laying it down in German. Now that's some good shit!
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Thu 5 Jan 06 16:17
Bruce, did you spend much time last year talking about Viridian design? Or has that reached its expiration date?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 5 Jan 06 16:34
Well, it's hard to be a design fan when you're a design professor with an office and a salary. I also consistently find that worldchanging.com covers every cybergreen issue I'd like to cover, and then some. At the moment, I'm contenting myself with writing the introduction to their forthcoming book. Still, if I find something to say about design and climate change that isn't already being said louder elsewhere, you can bet I'll say it. When I first started this Viridian effort back in 1998, Chiapas was on fire. Today it's Texas that's on fire. Tomorrow? It's gonna be worse.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 5 Jan 06 18:39
Speaking of Texas... You're a Texan from the Rio Grande Valley who's been traveling the world and is moving to Belgrade, so you have an unsual perspective. Since I'm a fellow Texan, I find myself wondering how your various movements have affected your Texas roots, and vice versa?
from GEORGE VOGT (tnf) Thu 5 Jan 06 19:15
George Vogt writes: How about a "mortality and morbidity report" from the Dead Media department? I just noticed that my neighborhood photography shop has been replaced by a Chinese restaurant. "Is the [movie] theatre really dead?"
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 6 Jan 06 06:00
Well, after most of a year in California, I think I've reached some kind of global escape-velocity. I'm not so much "moving to Belgrade" as finding another place to set down my laptop. I know I'm doing Australia and Sweden in a few months. I may be back in Los Angeles to do some consulting in a matter of days. I'm a child of the Texas oil diaspora. People in my family have been in the Persian Gulf, the North Sea, Trinidad... It surprises me a little to see how many Texans I know, who seem like perfectly normal homebodies, have offered to show up on my doorstep in Belgrade. My elderly aunt is jetting all over central America this year. I have a Texan uncle who lived in a recreational vehicle for about a decade. I dunno what gets into us. Maybe its genetic.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 6 Jan 06 06:05
I saw somebody taking pictures with a film camera yesterday. That painful way he had to stop and compose his shots... It was like watching a guy write with carbon-paper and a manual typewriter. I never used to carry a camera in the days of yore; there's nothing more likely to signify you as a tourist and a mark for hustlers. But I've got a digital camera in my pocket most every day now. It's a routine. Every iPod you see is a dead Walkman. When photography shops die, their souls probably go to FlickR. http://www.flickr.com/
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