inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #0 of 116: What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Mon 31 Dec 07 11:50
    
We ring in the new year with our ninth annual visit from Bruce Sterling, in
which we review recent events, gaze into the future, and generally discuss
the state of the world.

Bruce Sterling, author, journalist, editor, and critic, was born in 1954.
Best known for his eight science fiction novels, he also writes short
stories, book reviews, design criticism, opinion columns, and introductions
for books ranging from Ernst Juenger to Jules Verne. His nonfiction works
include THE HACKER CRACKDOWN: LAW AND DISORDER ON THE ELECTRONIC FRONTIER
(1992) and TOMORROW NOW:  ENVISIONING THE NEXT FIFTY YEARS (2003). He is a
contributing editor of WIRED magazine and a columnist for MAKE magazine.

During 2005, he was the "Visionary in Residence" at Art Center College of
Design in Pasadena and is currently the guest curator for the SHARE Digital
Culture Festival in Torino, Italy.

He has appeared in ABC's Nightline, BBC's The Late Show, CBC's Morningside,
on MTV and TechTV, and in Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, the New
York Times, Fortune, Nature, I.D., Metropolis, Technology Review, Der
Spiegel, La Repubblica, and many other venues.

Our interlocutor with Bruce is Jon Lebkowsky, an authority on social media
and online community and, like Bruce, a longtime member of the Well.

Jon writes about culture, technology, media, sustainability and other
topics for various publications, and has been blogging regularly since
2000. In 1991 he cofounded the pioneering online company FringeWare, Inc.,
the first company to attempt e-commerce. The company published the
influential magazine FringeWare Review, which had an international
distribution. He worked with bOING bOING (as associate editor for the
original paper zine), HotWired, The Whole Earth Catalog, Electric Minds,
and many other web and cyberculture projects and endeavors during the World
Wide Web's first decade. In the late 90s, he was actively involved in the
creation of various e-commerce and community initiatives for Whole Foods
Market (and gained quite a few pounds, for obvious reasons).

So, guys, how *are* things? What's going to hell in a hand basket? About
what can we be optimistic? How is this New Year's different from all other
turnings of the calendar?
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #1 of 116: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 31 Dec 07 13:08
    
Everything's peachy, with a few exceptions... the economy of the USA
is crumbling, of course, and the U.S. government's bleeding dollars (as
well as real American blood) in Iraq. Climate change is accelerating,
polar ice caps are melting, whole species are disappearing.  Developing
nations want their chance to be the next USA, and they're not
especially interested in hearing that it's not possible for everyone to
leverage the same increasingly limited resources. 

What happens when we pay everybody in the world a living wage, and
give 'em all a chance to own an SUV and a house in the suburbs? How
many worlds would it take to float that boat? How pissed are they going
to be when they realize "lifestyles of the rich and famous don't
scale," in fact the lifestyle of the typical middle-class American is
not sustainable.

I'm writing from a quiet neighborhood in Texas where everybody's
preparing for New Year's Eve. They'll celebrate like always, drink more
than they should, ogle the street performances and art at First Night
downtown, watch fireworks like it's the fourth of July, Tomorrow
they'll watch football and eat a spoonful of black-eyed peas for luck.
Nobody's freaking out yet, but they're shaky. And well they should be.

I'm not worried. I see via Boing Boing that I can buy moldable moon
sand and pancakes in a can. I'm okay, as long as the RIAA doesn't catch
me copying a song from a CD that I supposedly own to a computer that
I'm pretty sure I own. Or maybe I don't own anything; maybe I'm just
renting - licensing - all my surroundings.  I hope they don't repossess
that candle before it burns out...

At least I'm not living in Kenya, where all hell's broken loose after
the latest election.  I'm not living in Pakistan, where Bhutto was
martyred last week, assassinated, no doubt, by some Pakistani Lee
Harvey Oswald. Politics in the U.S.A. is safe, right? We're completely
civilized. 

In the geek circles that Bruce and I both know so well, there's no
real sense of urgency about the state of the world, at least that I can
see. I wonder about that.

So my first question for Bruce: how's Torino?
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #2 of 116: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 1 Jan 08 04:07
    
Well, we were off to a rocking start here in Torino when New Years Eve
was cancelled for 2008.  Instead of fireworks, booze and public
hijinks, the Mayor commissioned a solemn march of mourning for seven
laborers who have died in a local industrial accident.

So I was out on the streets last night... they were eerie.  The only
people hitting the bottle and partying were the local Arabs, who were
blasting rai music and throwing glass and fireworks out of their
tenement windows...  There were also a few puzzled tourists who didn't
seem to get the last-minute bulletin.

The rest of the population seemed to fall in line as one with the
wishes of the Mayor and the Archbishop.   They just shuttered the show,
end of story.  

You always hear tell from other Italians that the Turinese are a
solemn, reserved and disciplined lot....  I wrote that story off
because, by American standards, it's hard to find any fraction of the
Italian populace that comes across as genuinely solemn and reserved.  
But to cancel New Years -- even cancel *private parties* -- is really a
surprising and impressive gesture.

So: instead of starting 2008 with some bubbly orgy of prosecco and
lambrusco, I went home and I started work on a new short story.  This
is the only time in my 53-year lifespan that I spent New Years' Eve
working.

And you know, I think I may be better off for it.  Here in Italy, I
learn something new every day.
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #3 of 116: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 1 Jan 08 07:08
    
I visited your blog and saw the Torino cancellation post
(http://blog.wired.com/sterling/2007/12/torino-suddenly.html), but what
caught my eye was the later post of the Hollywood Church of Religious
Science marquee
(http://blog.wired.com/sterling/2007/12/another-spectac.html), which
says "Nothing changes if nothing changes," which you call "another
spectacular insight into 2008."

What should change in 2008, and what critical changes can we actually
expect, from your perspective?
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #4 of 116: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 1 Jan 08 08:13
    
Well, it's an American election year.  At the far-away end of it,
anyhow.

I don't doubt we'll see a few 'critical changes' in 2008, but I'd be
guessing they don't arrive through any power-player's focussed intent.
They will be dreaded changes that are predicted, and watched in detail,
and impossible to avert.

 The political and economic landscape in 2008 is full of spinning,
tottering Chinese plates poised on tall pool-cues.  Wild-card stuff
like currency collapses and international financial panics and loose
Pakistani nukes.

I wouldn't have guessed this, but in 2008 it looks like even Al Qaeda
has finally lost its dance-beat.  They used to kill whole airliners and
embassies and dance clubs and skyscrapers full of aliens and
unbelievers.  They had the world set on its ear.  

But if you look at what they're up to lately, they're almost entirely
obsessed with killing Sunni Moslems nowadays.  They're killing so many
Sunni Moslems that all the other parties who used to enthuse so about
killing Sunni Moslems are losing interest.  Because if Al Qaeda
slaughters crowds of Sunni worshippers in Sunni mosques on major Sunni
holidays, what can the rest of us do to keep up?

I'm sure that, in the jehadi camps, there's a lot of backpatting this
holiday season over getting a Lion of the Resistance to liquidate
Benazir Bhutto.  Still: wouldn't it have been vastly more effective to
assassinate, say, Angela Merkel the female Chancellor of Germany? Or
kill Putin, maybe?  They used to think so big! 

If Angela Merkel had been killed by a suicide bomber the Europeans
would be in fullscale antiterror lockdown right now.  Whereas
destabilizing Pakistan is like.... it's doable, but what gives there? 
Millions of pious Moslems die in a civil war in the birthplace of the
Taliban?  And this advances the general cause of piety in what way,
exactly?

Pakistan could very easily smash to bloody pieces in 2008.  If it
does, nobody anywhere is gonna try and stitch Pakistan back together. 
Pakistan has a bigger population than Russia.  It is just too big for
any of the other power-players to handle.  So if it ignites, it'll
burn.

So they'll just blow up the local missile sites (if they can), and
then watch in grim disbelief.  

Some people still think that there's an "Islamo-fascist tyranny"
somewhere that hates our freedoms and can organize Islam-dom into a
coherent fascist state...  There's just no way.  Al Qaeda and the
Taliban aren't true "fascists." Fascists can at least make trains run
on time.  Even Communists were better-organized.   The mujihadeen have
no organized army and no industrial policy and they don't know where to
find any.  Because God was supposed to handle all that for them. 
You're supposed to die nobly in a crowd of unwitting strangers, and
then God's supposed to make that all better.  That's the big plan.

But when you blow up the china shop, God doesn't reassemble the plates
for you.  Being faith-based doesn't trump reality.

It's pretty good news that Al Qaeda is getting tired and losing its
charisma.  They've held center stage more than long enough.  

I think "we" in the largest sense, planetary civilization, world
culture or whatever, we're closer to a consensus idea of futurity than
it's been since, say, 1997.  It's a green futurity.  People don't like
it much, but they know it's coming anyway.

Ten years ago, there was a little Belle Epoque era of good feeling
there when the "Washington Consensus" held its sway... and the thought
among opinion-makers of the time was, you know, let the dot-com Long
Boomers run that show.    Everybody knew that what they were saying and
doing didn't make much sense -- but at least there was plenty of pie
there for the Formerly Free World.

Now the Americans have clearly lost the thread... the Americans are
really just horribly out of it, they're like some giant fundie Brazil,
nobody takes their pronunciamentos seriously or believes a word they
say... Whereas the world is much more seriously global now.  China and
India are real players, they're part of the show and they matter. 

  Serious-minded people everywhere do know they have to deal with the
resource crisis and the climate crisis.  Becaus the world-machine's
backfiring and puffing smoke.  Joe and Jane Sixpack are looking at
four-dollar milk and five-dollar gas.  It's hurting and it's scary and
there's no way out of it but through it.

Everybody's reluctant to budge because they sense, probably correctly,
that they have to wade through a torrent of mud, blood sweat and
tears.  Maybe, then, they emerge into the relatively sunlit uplands of
something closer to sustainability.  

So: I don't expect too much to happen in 2008: except for that
intensified smell of burning as people's feet are held to the fire.  
"Nothing changes if nothing changes." But if nothing changes, then more
and more china is going to flat-out shatter and break.

THEN they'll move.  If they see somebody making money at it, they
might move pretty fast.
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #5 of 116: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 1 Jan 08 11:59
    
I suppose regime change in the U.S. could improve its standing and
influence in the world community, but who will lead in the 21st
Century? I suppose New York and Los Angeles will seem quaint, somewhat
tired communities next to Shanghai, Moscow, and Dubai?
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #6 of 116: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 2 Jan 08 06:46
    
I'd be guessing there's a pretty good chance that cities will lead.

Nation-states seem bewildered by the contemporary political and
economic climate.  Still, there are lots of urban areas that seem
lively.  New York looks downright dynamic.  There are a lot of words to
describe Los Angeles, but "quaint" certainly isn't one of them. 

  Here in Italy the national government is the despair of the populace
(to judge by the press coverage), but Torino's got a lot going on as
an urban center.  They're not going to lead in national politics -- at
least, I don't *think* so -- but in terms of grabbing an aging, vacant,
screwed-up industrial infrastructure and retrofitting it successfully
for new conditions, Torino really *does* lead.  Torino's full of
opportunity.

I don't think anybody wants to become a Chinese Communist any more --
except for a few cocaine-crazed Maoist weirdos in the Andes -- but
there really does seem to be a Chinese model-of-development now.  In
the Balkans, in Europe, you can see it at work.  It's very
street-level, very under-the-legal-radar -- it comes out of car trunks
and off the backs of bicycles, and the labels are dodgy and its all
sold for the "china-price."

Torino's got the biggest outdoor market in Europe, a place called the
"Porta Palazzo" -- Chinese, Rumanian emigres, Arabs, a few Nigerians
and Eritreans and such... the economic vitality there is awesome. 
Turin is a chilly, Alpine-foothill kind of place... and there are a lot
of poor people here, mostly the emigres... yet *nobody is cold.*
Nobody's blue and shivering.   Because they're all warmly dressed, in
new, cheap, Chinese clothes.  Boots, hats, gloves, mufflers, they're
crazily cheap.

Ragged clothes were the signature of poverty for centuries.  That
former reality is just gone now.  The fancier clothes here are also
made in China, but with more IP protection.  I don't know if that's
"leadership" -- but it sure is transformative.

My guess is that, among your list, Dubai has got the best chance to be
 called "quaint" one of these years.  It's built on oil and
autocracy.... its got a phantom-like, Fatehpur Sikri feeling to it,
like a Las Vegas desert dream.  Maybe it can thrive as an offshore
colony for India.  In much the way that, say, Vegas seems really sexy
and sophisticated to someone from Omaha.

We expect somebody to "lead" by acting all conventionally leaderlike
-- Putin "leads."  Sarkozy would like to "lead."  Bush imagines that he
"leads."  But it's entirely unclear where these guys think they're
leading people: they lack much in the way of any explicit societal
vision, and if they made that explicit, I don't think people would much
want to live there.
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #7 of 116: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 2 Jan 08 12:43
    
Conspiracy theories abound; I hear occasional theories about shadow
governments and stealthy wealthocracies that are engineering a future
that works for them, if for no one else. The economic reality you
describe sounds very laissez-faire, decentralized, and out of control
(in the Kevin Kelly sense). Given the "bewilderment" of nation-states
that you describe, are we evolving away from monolithic government
entities? What about the scattered pockets of already-built WMDs,
organized and disorganized armies, other instruments of lethal force?
And where are powerful corporations in this? Are they, too, bewildered?
Are we going to see a massive unraveling of force in the world,
similar to the unraveling of the USSR, if only because no entity can
afford to pay the increasing costs of control?
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #8 of 116: What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Wed 2 Jan 08 13:19
    
Is this anticipated "leadership of the cities" the herald of the decline of
the nation state? Or has that ship sailed?

(And, for those following along on the World Wide Web: by e-mailing the
hosts at inkwell@well.com you, too can join the conversation with Bruce
Sterling on the state of the world.)
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #9 of 116: Jamais Cascio (cascio) Wed 2 Jan 08 14:11
    
Hey Bruce.

You've lived in Europe for a few years now, and this year you moved to a 
genuine "old Europe" EU/NATO country. How has that shifted your view of 
The Future?
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #10 of 116: Cogito, Ergo Spero (robertflink) Wed 2 Jan 08 15:27
    
Any comment on the affect of the growing entertainment (broadly
considered) industry in 2008?  I mean something other than increased
obesity due to lack of exercise.  Perhaps a profusion of imagination?
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #11 of 116: John Payne (satyr) Wed 2 Jan 08 18:43
    
This, in <4>, stood out for me...
> I think "we" in the largest sense, planetary civilization, world
> culture or whatever, we're closer to a consensus idea of futurity than
> it's been since, say, 1997.  It's a green futurity.  People don't like
> it much, but they know it's coming anyway.

What's up with people not liking a green future?  Are they equating it 
with deprivation?  Do they imagine themselves raising their own food with
shovels and short-handled hoes?  Are they thinking about gas rationing?  
Water rationing?

Whatever happened to the notion that a green future might be more fun?
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #12 of 116: QUESTION FROM DEAN LOOMIS (davadam) Wed 2 Jan 08 22:39
    
Dean Loomis writes:

Your latest novel, The Zenith Angle, seemed to me to be a regular
Clancyesque techno-thriller, with similar chances at best-sellerdom.  
William Gibson, writing stuff set in the recent past, has actually
made it on to the NY Times' list for his most recent two efforts.  The
Nebula Awards seem to be dominated by fantasy rather than SF.  The
Sci-Fi Channel on TV shows Extreme Championship Wrestling. Mainstream
authors like Cormac McCarthy write books that would not raise an
eyebrow if included in SF collections. Gibson has been quoted as saying
that the critical event of the "technological singularity", where the
future 
becomes unforeseeable, has already been passed.   Nobody would have 
believed that the fabled "Northwest passage" ice-free from the
Atlantic to the Pacific was a realistic event, yet it was there last
summer.  Is there any point to SF as something to be taken seriously
rather than as a branch of the "young adult" section of the bookstore?

Cheers,
- Dean
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #13 of 116: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 3 Jan 08 06:02
    
*Conspiracy theories are for saps.  I mean, yeah, the Cheney energy
camp that decided to logjam Kyoto and invade Iraq was a "conspiracy,"
but that's not a "theory."


*On to the commentary:

This, in <4>, stood out for me...
> I think "we" in the largest sense, planetary civilization, world
> culture or whatever, we're closer to a consensus idea of futurity
than
> it's been since, say, 1997.  It's a green futurity.  People don't
like
> it much, but they know it's coming anyway.

What's up with people not liking a green future?  Are they equating it

with deprivation? 

*Yes.  That, and a vast, thick, ear-buzzing swarm of regulatory
inspectors.

 Do they imagine themselves raising their own food with
shovels and short-handled hoes?

*If they can still afford a suburban back yard, yeah.  

  Are they thinking about gas rationing?  

*That'll be fun.  Actually, what happens nowadays is that
guys like Putin just shut off the natural gas lines, cunningly
timing that for maximum political impact.  You can see guys
like Chavez and Ahmedinajad giving each other medals while
the plan to crash the dollar... they're still using faxes,
those oil boys, but when they mull over what Enron did
to Silicon Valley back when Bush loved them, wow, the
sky's gotta be the limit.

Water rationing?

*You got Atlanta, you got Australia...  if it doesn't rain,
what else do you do?

Whatever happened to the notion that a green future might be more fun?
  
*Well, green would be a LOT more fun in that green actually is a
future, but the truth on the ground is that things are a lot browner
than they looked.  No ice in the Arctic in *five years*?!

http://climateprogress.org/2007/12/12/an-ice-free-arctic-by-2013/

*Five years?  There's just no way to cakewalk past a specter like
that.  That's not gonna be any fun.

*On the plus side, I'm finding it kinda fun to be in a fossil-fuel
car capital that's trying so hard to install trolleys and trains.  For
a science fiction writer, a lot more "fun" to imagine a green future
than it is to live in a green present; a green present is mundane.  The
victory condition isn't a life when green is 'fun.'  The victory
condition is a world where green is all there is. Where brown is gone.
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #14 of 116: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 3 Jan 08 06:17
    
"Is this anticipated "leadership of the cities" the herald of the
decline of the nation state? Or has that ship sailed?"

*People have been talking about the twilight of national sovereignty
for as long as I can remember.  The thing that's different now is those
big, scary, non-integrating Gap patches where the Westphalian deal is
just frankly dead.  Beyond help.  Failed states, non-states.  People
are getting used to failed states, or fake hollow-states.  They are
starting to talk seriously about a "failed globe."

*The classic idea was that states would bow the knee to a new global
order, but what if that's even more screwed-up than a nation-state? 
What then?

*Well, there's nothing inherent about nations as an organizing
principle.  Nations could go away.  Global government, that's never
existed. It's a sci-fi idea.

*It's kinda hard to imagine *cities* going away, though, short of a
massive population crash.  All the major cities in the Balkans are
still there, even though the "nations" they conjure up have changed
their flags, passports and currencies five or six times.

*New York has a future.  Chicago has a future.  San Francisco is
dynamic.  Any place called a 'creative class city" is very attractive. 
  Life in American heartland Red States is cheerless and imperilled
and getting worse...  I've been to places where nations lose their
primary loyalties... in a globalized world, they just... leach out.
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #15 of 116: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 3 Jan 08 06:23
    
Is there any point to SF as something to be taken seriously
rather than as a branch of the "young adult" section of the bookstore?

*Well, not a "genre," as some sacred aisle in the bookstore where
you're supposed to feel all "serious..."  This question looks archaic
to me.  Do you actually still go to bookstores?  You don't just Amazon
stuff?

*I take works of fiction seriously when they deal seriously with
serious issues.  I think that's a matter of how things work out on the
page.  It's not a matter of genre or marketing, if it ever was.   It
isn't the New York Times bestseller list that validates SPOOK COUNTRY. 
It's more the sensibility that book invokes, some author trying really
hard to battle with contemporary shadows.  It reads like Soviet
dissident literature, almost.  Some of that stuff was quite whimsical
and fantastic, yet it also felt about as serious as fiction is able to
get.
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #16 of 116: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 3 Jan 08 06:57
    
Here's a question Stefan Jones emailed to me...

Twenty years ago, it  seemed only  Whole Earth Review readers were 
getting their organic hemp panties in a knot about sustainability and
lifestyle footprints. Conservative pundits who needed fodder for an
overdue column could sneer at Paul Erlich for losing that bet about
commodity prices.

Now the whole sustainability thing has gotten legit, amazingly fast.
High scrap metal prices are driving  tweakers to steal aluminum guard
rails, catalytic converters, and the bronze plaques on war memorials.
I've been in houses where every light socket has a wee florescent
spiral.

Do you think we can keep up the new frugality thing? (We meaning
Americans of the USAin variety.) Put another way, do we have it in us
to give up the fat and happy lifestyle for something better insulated 
and harder to chew?
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #17 of 116: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 3 Jan 08 07:21
    
Riffing myself on some of Bruce's responses - more comments and
question:

*Conspiracy theories are for saps.  I mean, yeah, the Cheney energy
camp that decided to logjam Kyoto and invade Iraq was a "conspiracy,"
but that's not a "theory."

jonl> In the FringeWare years we played with conspiracy theories as
objets d'art. When I realized that some of our adherents were not in
the least ironic, that they were true believers, I felt a chill... but
it was interesting to think how their world-views developed from an
attempt to build a reality around limited facts, with limited
understanding.  Actual conspiracies have significant social and
political overhead and are practically impossible to hold together in a
world where even simple partnerships tend to fall apart.  How do we
refocus energies currently devoted to conspiracy thinking, and conspire
to survive?

 Do they imagine themselves raising their own food with
shovels and short-handled hoes?

*If they can still afford a suburban back yard, yeah.  

jonl> In Austin, there's a movement to farm every available bit of
land.  For instance, YouthLaunch has its "Urban Roots" program with a
vision for "the urban farm" managed by kids 14-18:
http://www.youthlaunch.org/programs/urbanroots.php

"Is this anticipated "leadership of the cities" the herald of the
decline of the nation state? Or has that ship sailed?"

.
.
.

*Well, there's nothing inherent about nations as an organizing
principle.  Nations could go away.  Global government, that's never
existed. It's a sci-fi idea.

*It's kinda hard to imagine *cities* going away, though, short of a
massive population crash.  All the major cities in the Balkans are
still there, even though the "nations" they conjure up have changed
their flags, passports and currencies five or six times.

jonl> I think it's more a question whether we see increasing
decentralization - the forms of organization that follow might be
urban, rural, whatever makes sense. Maybe counties and provinces are
the basic level of organization. Does the nation-state go away? Or does
it just become less relevant? And, as I asked before, what do we do
with the various national repositories of WMD?
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #18 of 116: John Payne (satyr) Thu 3 Jan 08 07:51
    
> *Well, green would be a LOT more fun in that green actually is a
> future, but the truth on the ground is that things are a lot browner
> than they looked.

We're awfully late off the starting line.  If we'd read the writing on the 
wall back in the 60s, and taken it seriously, like a looming imperative 
rather than a pipe dream, the world would be greener today, and the way 
forward much clearer.

As it is, we've done our best to ignore and deny that there might be any
serious problems with business as usual, and so we still find ourselves
heavily dependent on oil, much of it imported, including for food
production, so dependent that it's difficult to imagine how to get from
where we've blundered to that green future without going through a crash
that brings the whole machine to a stop.

Meanwhile, technology continues to progress and offer pieces to the puzzle
of how to proceed, pieces we'll need to augment with changes in the way we
do things for them to make much of a difference.

For example, just about everybody realizes that dependence on oil for food 
production is a big vulnerability, so the question arises how else we might 
fuel the tractors, and people are hard at work on developments like 
cellulosic ethanol, which is a good thing in itself, but why aren't we 
hearing about substituting electric motors and photovoltaic arrays?  So 
maybe it would either mean dragging a power cable or building tractors like 
hay wagons, with a large surface area, so what?  Wouldn't either of those 
be far better than burning diesel refined from petroleum that had been 
pumped out of the ground thousands of miles away?

The longer and harder we cling to business as usual, the worse the crash is 
going to be, when it comes.
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #19 of 116: Peter Hart-Davis (bumbaugh) Thu 3 Jan 08 08:36
    
from off-Well:


Hi There

If I may contribute.

Once again an extremely interesting discussion.  Thank You.

"Nation-states seem bewildered by the contemporary political and economic
climate."  A fine turn of phrase, which I do agree, seems to sum up
Nation-state's response to present global conditions.  Even those
Nation-states which appear to be in the pound seats at the moment.

Over the last few weeks I have noticed a number of references online to the
'four horsemen of the apocalypse' in discussions on 'the contemporary
political and economic climate' and out of the corner of ones eyes one sees
the flickering of signs such as food shortages, H5N1, Pakistan or saber
rattling about Venezuela or Iran.

Could it be that the time is running out for conventional leadership to
ride to the rescue and if so anybody have any ideas on what unconventional
leadership might be?

Peter
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #20 of 116: Henry Schroy (hankschroy) Thu 3 Jan 08 11:07
    
* Seems like the mindset that easily grabs on to conspiracy theories
and clings to them like religion isn't too different from
scripture-thumping fanatics.  Both don't seem to allow much space for
rational discussion and verifiable evidence to seep in.

* With all the talk about the looming collapse of the U.S. Dollar, I
was reminded of WG's "SPOOK COUNTRY" where he talks about the 100 bill
being the de facto currency of the worldwide underground economy. 
Seems like nowadays there would be a better choice for such a standard
! (if this were in fact true.)

* Having lived in New York for 16 years now, I like the idea that
cities are and will become more and more sovereign entities - every New
Yorker knows that New York ain't America...  

* There was also mention of Atlanta, another city that I've lived in,
and Australia, as part of a comment about resource scarcity.  What
about Australia?  It seems like there is much more of a culture of
forward-thinking environmentalism there, even if the past x many years
have been burdened by a Bush-lovin' conservative government.  Isn't
there a green future for those down under?  And isn't Sydney one of
those great cities of the future?

* Any thoughts on the implications of the huge oil reservoir off of
Brazil's coast?
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #21 of 116: John Roberts (bumbaugh) Thu 3 Jan 08 12:37
    
John Roberts writes:


(From off-Well)

Hi, Gang!

Mind if I add a pinch of something to this punch-bowl?

What spooks me about our future isn't so much the idea of the Four Horsemen
of the Apocalypse bearing down upon us with fistfuls of H5N1, pricey milk,
loose nukes, failed political orders and what-have-you. Nor am I
particularly bothered by the inability of science fiction writers to
correctly guess how tech will affect our future.

Most of us grew up being spoon-fed The Apocalypse, whether it involved
silly A-Bomb Survival Drills ("Ok, Class, now place your books over your
heads, your heads between your legs... and kiss your asses g'bye..."), or
your friendly neighborhood Christian Fundamentalist, ("It's written in The
Book that all Hell's gonna break loose. God ain't sayin' exactly which day,
but you'll sure know when it happens..."), or simply hearing President
Reagan intone --I paraphrase, here-- "This current crop of youngsters may
very well survive -- to see the End Of Days...", etc. Failed political
orders?  Man, I was born in '74. Y'know, the year of Nixon's Greatest
Achievement (getting ridden out on a rail:)). What political order? After a
few decades (Centuries?) of this sort of thing, is

it any wonder that people can't seem to agree on a survival strategy when
*actual* problems rear their heads? Who can keep up with it all?

There's no question that we have some serious challenges ahead. What spooks
me most is that quite a sizable chunk of the civilized world seems to have
given up on even trying to envision the future at all. Why bother, when it
most likely ends in fire or ice? What if instead of death by
animal-to-human transmission of plague (ooh, I really hope it won't be
pig-to-human; rhinitis would suck!) we find ourselves faced with all sorts
of other Apocalyptic scenarios not mentioned in The Book: massive credit
card debts piling up, millions of sub-prime loan home foreclosures, peak
oil, etc.?

Could it be that many of our troubles are rooted in Apocalyptic thinking?
Mightn't it be necessary for us to bust a cap in those tired old "End of
Days" horses before the bulk of the civilized world can become more forward
thinking?

It seems obvious that conventional political, business and religious
leaders are not up to the task of solving our biggest future problems. One
major reason for this is that the most successful of them are more
opportunistic than visionary. The human equivalent of hammer-head sharks,
happy to bite into any old thing they bump into, but not particularly
interested in anything else.

You  wanna know who I think has the stuff to lead us into the future?

Sci-Fi writers. Not because they are always right about the future, (ex:
E.E. Doc Smith wasn't so far off, was he? I mean, we all know somebody
who's in training to become a Lensman, right?), but because the chief value
of Sci-Fi has more to do with it's ability to help us envision *any kind of
a future*, than actually making realistic predictions.

Are you game, Mr Sterling?

--JR
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #22 of 116: pardon my amygdala (murffy) Thu 3 Jan 08 13:07
    
>Could it be that many of our troubles are rooted in
>Apocalyptic thinking?

It does seem like there are a lot of people who are sort of tapping
their toes and checking their watches for that inevitable doomsday they
know is just around the corner. Doomsday prognostications and dire
scenarios seem to be a feature of the human condition. The nature of
someone's particular doomsday appears to depend largely on their
ideological stripes. Another feature is that when doomsday doesn't
occur as expected, the non-occurance doesn't feedback in such a way as
to make people question the kinds of thinking that lead to their
doomsday predictions. They go on making them.
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #23 of 116: COMMENT FROM MORGAN KNAPP (davadam) Thu 3 Jan 08 20:49
    
From off-WELL:

So what do you think of the hydrogen breakthroughs, the aluminum in
water catalyst, and the sonic transponder on vials of seawater.

Do you feel this has the necessary low-tech edge to break through the
conglomerate hold on isolated people and towns, to allow self
sufficency, and maybe save the last of the trees from firewood?

A mom and pop hydro stand along the road to Darfur sounds pretty damn
promising to me. !

Morganism
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #24 of 116: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 4 Jan 08 02:46
    
"You  wanna know who I think has the stuff to lead us into the future?

Sci-Fi writers."

*Yeah, Newt Gingrich thought that. Gingrich is a science fiction
writer.

*Y'know, you don't wanna go there.  Not really.  Science fiction
writers are not as bad as apocalyptic conspiracy theorists (except for
the ones who ARE apocalyptic conspiracy theorists), but they're not the
kinds of personalities you actually want in positions of power and
authority.  Science fiction writers like amazing and wonderful and
freaky and dreadful stuff.  They get bored with the dull stuff, like
making sure your kids have shoes and plumbing and your population has
civil rights.  Quite commonly their OWN kids don't have shoes and
plumbing.  Like in the lightbulb joke:

Q.  How many science fiction writers does it take to change a
lightbulb?

A.  None; their wives do it for them.

Actually there's a whole series of those.

Q. How many feminist science fiction writers does it take to change a
lightbulb?
A.  That's not funny.

Q. How many literary science fiction writers does it take to change a
lightbulb?
A.  Never mind the technical details; I want to know how he feels
about it...

I could go on.
  
inkwell.vue.317 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2008
permalink #25 of 116: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 4 Jan 08 03:07
    
This is a rather doomy conversation... it has to be, because that
definitely suits the period, it reflects the facts on the ground... 
but one of the ways to escape a sense of learned-helplessness is to
postulate the opposite.

Like:  imagine a world in which Bush was one of America's greatest
presidents.  He was still Bush, believing everything he believes, but
he was a statesman whose vision had overwhelmed his critics.

For instance:  Imagine that Iraq had been brimming over with nerve
gas, secret missiles and even some homemade nuclear devices.  Every
grim thing that noted RAND futurist Donald Rumsfeld (remember him?)
belived about the Iraq situation was keenly prescient and accurate. 
So a pre-emptive invasion was completely justified; even brilliant. 

We'd still be in Iraq right now.  EVERYBODY would be in Iraq right
now.  The Coalition of the Willing would probably be in Iran, too, and
aiming for Pakistan.  There would be a military draft, and a world war
of sorts, but what other choice would we have?  Bush would be a
military hero who had saved us from a nuclear Pearl Harbor.

Imagine that the destruction of the middle class, the K Street
strategy and crazy income disparities had led to a brilliantly solid
American economy.   It was Republican, yet technically innovative, with
a sound dollar, a government surplus, Chinese-style ten percent GDP
rates, and stock market boom conservatively based on radically improved
productivity and genuine prosperity... Bushnomics would rule the
world.

Imagine that the Christian Right set America's social policies, and
that they were Christian ladies and gentlemen.  Imagine that they had
so much moral authority through their good works and spiritual power
that one felt ashamed in combatting them.  They were not demagogic
Elmer Gantrys who bashed gays, ambushed women and ruined the nation...
instead, wherever their kindly shadow fell, the hungry were fed and
housed, sinners were rehabilitated and made active members of the
community, drug abuse was abandoned in favor of prayer, Martin Luther
King's southern baptist dream vision was destroying the scourge of
racism from sea to shining sea... The Culture War would be all over;
the USA would be a theocratic state.

But none of that happened.  Instead, we have what we have.  And the
people who voted for that -- Joe and Jane NASCAR, with their
variable-rate mortgages and their cousin in the Army -- man are they
ever gonna catch it in the neck.  The closet is full of skeletons, and
that's bad, but the skeletons are there for good reasons; they're all
skeletons of rotten policies that died horribly and deserved to die.
  

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