Matthew McClure (mmc) Tue 4 Jan 11 12:47
Two things I thought were notable in 2010 were the passing of Chambers Johnson (*Blowback*, *The Sorrows of Empire*, *Nemesis*) and the meeting in Cancún. Johnson was very good at tracing - and decrying - the increasing militarism and imperialism of the USA. I think his passing leaves an empty niche that I hope gets filled. Cancún didn't produce much in terms of specifics but did illustrate that leadership on world-changing matters like climate change is more likely to come from people like Mexico's Felipe de Jesus Calderon Hinojosa than from Barack Obama. Pursuant to George's <16>, Bill McKibben had a very eloquent argument in *Mother Jones*: "If we let this planet warm much longer, scientists tell us that we'll lose forever the chance of getting back to 350. That means we'll lose forever the basic architecture of our planet with its frozen poles. Already the ocean is turning steadily more acidic; already the atmosphere is growing steadily wetter, which means desertifying evaporation in arid areas and downpour and deluge elsewhere." (http://bit.ly/gWh9XJ) Happy New Year!
Matthew McClure (mmc) Tue 4 Jan 11 13:17
Oops, meant Chalmers Johnson, not Chambers, in <26>. More of a mindo than a typo.
Gail Williams (gail) Tue 4 Jan 11 13:50
I know the feeling. Fat-synapsed it.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 4 Jan 11 15:25
Here's a Chalmers Johnson quote: "In Blowback, I set out to explain why we are hated around the world. The concept "blowback" does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to and in foreign countries. It refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. This means that when the retaliation comes -- as it did so spectacularly on September 11, 2001 -- the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback." Hearing something like that from someone of his background reminds me how woefully ignorant we inherently must be of the state of the world we're here to discuss. Journalism is deceptive - you get facts, but no truth.
la brujaja (zorca) Tue 4 Jan 11 18:57
with all this talk in america of founders' intentions, i've been going back and rereading a bit. it's bracing/terrifying to read james madison, for instance: "If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy." we must look so foolish (and pompous) to those abroad. any advice for those of us still clinging to the hope that democracy can be reignited here?
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Tue 4 Jan 11 20:09
From off-WELL reader email@example.com: You mentioned the need for people to address climate change themselves. An interesting effort for that is underway at <http://climatecolab.org/> Question: while information is now easily accessible, people still show an amazing tendency to believe things that said information shows to be false (cf. climate change). Is there any hope that this will change? Will the web evolve into an instrument that causes people to become better informed?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 5 Jan 11 01:43
In the intro to this talk, we say this is the 11th annual State of the World talk, but there was a 12th, in January 2000, called "Bruce Sterling: A Viridian Future." (Just wanted to correct the record - we had two different numbers in the air.) Also a reminder that anyone can send a comment or question for this discussion to inkwell at well.com, and a host of the Inkwell conference will post it here. Finally, note that Bruce in in Belgrade, several hours ahead of the U.S., ostensibly sleeping while the rest of us are posting.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 5 Jan 11 02:05
Quick insomniac response to karger at mit.edu, above: You ask if the web will evolve into an instrument that keeps people better informed, and I refer you to my post above where I say "Journalism is deceptive - you get facts, but no truth." While that may have been an overstatement, it's relevant to your question. With the web we have an explosion of information, more and more "facts" delivered to more and more people, but a glut of information can obscure the truth, rather than reveal it. Access to information isn't the same as access to understanding, to wisdom. People can be on fire with bad facts, or misguided interpretations of facts. A robust information environment invites robust propaganda techniques. At the same time we see Internet adoption increasing, we see increased political polarization, due in part to astroturf engines spewing political lies and disinformation. To your specific point, industries that could be adversely impacted by viable responses to anthropogenic climate change, and others who see climate change as a liberal plot to bring more regulation to "free" markets, are forcefully spreading doubt that climate change is related to human activity, or that climate change is even happening (harder to argue when polar ice caps are melting and weather effects are increasingly evident). The issue's heavily politicized and propagandized, and I would argue that it's easier to mislead within today's robust, complex information environment than it might have been in a simpler and more limited information environment with channels dominated by a few real experts and a more constrained debate. We need a whole new kind of literacy to extract real understanding from the complex 21st century media matrix. (I'm looking forward to the book Howard Rheingold's writing on the subject of digital literacy.)
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 5 Jan 11 06:17
From John Ohno, via Facebook: "The focus appears to be on physical technologies that help with increasing the signal to noise ratio by filtering out the noise, but historically, that has been the job of social technologies (by which I mean things like money, government, and table manners). Perhaps social technologies could be leveraged in the context of avoiding the kinds of problems that we are getting with the pollution of google alert results, etc., especially if our social tech is not then standardized and reimplemented in the form of a physical technology (like twitter's 'retweet' becoming a button -- a monoculture is much easier to subvert, and physical tech tends to be both less mutable and more likely to be made universal than equivalent social tech)."
Man proposes. Man (God?)disposes (robertflink) Wed 5 Jan 11 07:15
The forgoing prompted some questions I can't resist. How do we increase diversity, freedom, opportunity, etc while developing the never-before-existing common perceptions and cooperative actions on a world scale over long periods of time that seems to be required to address global problems of concern? I fail to see how a system truly capable of addressing these global problems would be run well by creatures that have been historically shown to be susceptible to the seductions of power. Is virtual omnipotence sobering for humans? Even gods seem to have had trouble here. Is the cure much worse than the disease?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 5 Jan 11 08:05
We can take some comfort in discussing the State of the World, rather than the state of the USA. Back in the 90s, when I was travelling in Europe, I used to get a lot of eager queries about the USA. What's new over there, what are you doing with your lives and your riches and your technology, why is your government like that? This was considered a matter of urgency, and most Europeans I met, who were naturally from techie, artsy and literary circles, held views of America that were surprisingly like contemporary paranoid Tea Party views. They had interestingly wacky private theologies about the Pentagon, the CIA, Wall Street, the malignant military-industrial complex and so forth... Not that they ever bothered to find out much about the factual operation of these bodies. Stilll, they were sure that the USA really mattered. Nowadays, the Europeans are just not all that concerned about Yankees. They don't ask; they're incurious about America, they are blase'. Being an American in Europe now is rather like being a Canadian, and it's trending toward being a Brazilian. Americans are much rarer in Europe, due to the cost of the euro. Wikileaks or no Wikileaks, there's no sense that that USA has any particular agency in Europe or the world, other than the usual oil and Moslems. There's no global American agenda that matters to anyone much. Civil rights? Free expression? "Winds of freedom and democracy?" Aw come on! People in Europe were extremely scared when the USA invaded Iraq, but now that the paper tiger is stuck there, they no longer fret much. People in the USA are certainly upset about the visible decline of the USA, but if you look at the US from a European perspective, the USA isn't doing anything very alarming or even interesting. It's a big country, yes, but it's a peaceful, stagnant, slothful country. There are no riots or violent street marches in America. There aren't any assassinations, which America used to be so famous for. Militias are nonexistent. There are no coups brewing. There's zero in the way to effective dissidence about the American ultrarich and the moguls in the banking system. The American Left is completely enfeebled and without one creative idea in its head, and the American Right is delusionary; it's not a violent, nationalist, scary right-wing, it's a bunch of fat southern guys listening to Glenn Beck and denying evolution. The US is broke. So they can't buy anything from people; they're not selling anything that people want, except for guns and iPhones. There's just not a lot of reasons for foreigners to exercise any hostility against the US, or even care what the beached whale is doing one way or the other. American soft power is vanishing. Foreigners are much less interested in American television, movies, pop music... America once had a tremendous hammerlock on those expensive channels of distribution, but those old analog megaphones don't matter half as much in today's network society. The USA has become a big banana republic; in other words, it's come to behave like other countries quite normally behave. The upside is that we don't get blamed for what happens; the downside is, nothing much happens. Decay and denial. Gothic High Tech.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 5 Jan 11 08:05
With that said about the USA, I kind of worry about the Europeans. I know them better now than I used to, and the bloom is off the rose there for me. One always knew, as an American, that you were in old societies, but the gaudy tumult at the end of the Cold War disguised that. Now the Europeans really do seem to be acting old -- not delusionary and bewildered, like the USA, but elderly, crotchety. Bent over their knitting. Without Americans and Soviets around to boss and screech at them, the Europeans are obsessed with immigration and internal minorities. It's all about the lazy, job-stealing Polish plumber or the North African guy next door who killed a goat in his bathtub.... Obviously immigration is a big deal for small, relatively homogenous societies with big language and heritage issues. But something about this pervasive anxiety really makes contemporary Europeans seem feeble and small-minded. These used to be massive, globe-spanning, imperial states. Even in the Cold War, they were at least the major pieces on the planetary chessboard. Now you can ask what the glorious European Project is about, and it's mostly about a cushy retirement for what's left of their managerial class. Europe's younger generation is getting one of the rawest deals you can imagine. Then there's Brazil. Oh boy!
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 5 Jan 11 08:06
People in the discussion here have been fretting about violence. Brazil is incredibly violent. Murder rates are sky high. The most popular movie in the country is a gritty cop shoot-'em called "Elite Troop" which is all about green-beret types fighting the drug gangsters in major Brazilian cities. It like a drug-fueled class war or a class-fueled drug war, take your pick. The violence is on television all the time too, in bars, hotel lobbies, it's a Vietnam level of rat-a-tat-tat. Obviously this drug violence is not going to go away in Brazil. They're not going to beat it with helicopters and Iraq-style house raids. The demand for the drugs isn't going away, and the favelas have an infinite supply of young outcastes. There's also kidnapping and burglary as thriving enterprises. But if one asks if Brazil matters these days, if its trade is expanding, its influence rising, if is government is nationally or internationally effective, the level of violence in Brazil scarcely comes up as an issue. Obviously the violence matters plenty if you yourself get shot or mugged or robbed, but in geopolitical terms, it's just not very much of a problem. Even as a problem, it's a puzzling business. I went into a favela in Sao Paulo, because I had some friends who knew a guy there who was a kind of left-wing crime writer type. This was an exceedingly interesting visit, and I naturally imagined, "wow, we're heading for a genuine favela, this is gonna be a menacing journey full of crack-fueled tough guys. Then we moseyed into the favela and it was basically a nursery. It was full of little kids. Our writer friend showed us a kindergarten he was sponsoring. It was impossible to come across all Mickey Spillane when you were being followed around, by dewy-eyed curious four-year-olds. They were born there. They lived there. Our host had two major beefs about his native favela, (a), the drugs, which he doesn't consume and (b) police death squads showing up in plainclothes packs and icing any teenage male on a motorbike. Because having enough cash to own a motorbike is prima facie evidence of favela drug money. Also, tough kids on bikes with pistols can zoom over toward the police station and return fire. Obviously that won't do. I believed him. I'm quite sure he was telling the truth. The favela is in the grip of the dope trade and summary executions. It's a fact, but as far as me myself being in the favela, obviously the locals could give a damn. They didn't care. They couldn't have been more politely indifferent. They're not some kind of supernatural ultramenace from Mars, they're big-city poor people in improvised housing.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 5 Jan 11 08:07
Later, in Brasilia, the wife and I were idly strolling down the major boulevard when some female bureaucrat made us as tourists. She busybodied on up to us and in excellent English, she urged us to get off the streets and hide our shoulder bags. Because we might get robbed. Robbed, in broad daylight, in the streets of the capital of Brazil. We were two strolling pedestrians in a colossal empty street... More like an endless plaza, really, a kind of Brazilian Tian An Men... And the question is, you know, robbed by WHOM? Robbed HOW? There wasn't a soul around. Just us. And her, trying to clue us in about the crime terror. I could envision getting robbed at the local bus station, which was maybe four colossal blocks away, because if you're a thief, you can grab the bag, hand it to a confederate, jump on two buses and split the loot later... but nobody walks across vast areas of empty space and sticks up a foreigner. That's just not practical. That's not how crime works. "There's nobody here to help us," my wife observed, gazing around us at the urban abyss all spooked, but how was it even possible to be afraid of nobody? There was no threat. So, basically, it was the two of us who were the issue-- two people talking English and rubbernecking. Rulebreakers. This apparatchik woman was trying to chide us into a taxi, so we would stay out of trouble. We ourselves were the trouble: in much the way that a dorky guy who fails to take off his shoes in the airport terrorspace is a menace to propriety. In reality, nobody was going to hurt us. We were stout and sober and fresh from Belgrade. We could probably curb-stomp most Brasilia purse-snatchers, unless they knew capoeira. I still wonder about it. Just suppose, for some reason, that Al Qaeda had hijacked three Brazilian airplanes and attacked the tallest buildings in Sao Paulo and the defense ministry in Brasilia. That would have been shocking, and everyone would have expressed regret and anger and sent blood donations, and by now everyone would have forgotten all about it. It would have been a freakish oddity, and by now Brazil would be just fine, as Brazilian as ever, and no more daunted by that incident than a rubber sandal by a pebble. "Violence." Yeah, right.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Wed 5 Jan 11 09:29
How do you see the global shift in power and development - the BRICI's(Brazil, Russia, India, China and Indonesia)? We've been talking about Robert Kaplan's Monsoon and Ian Morris' Why The West Rules - For Now here on the WELL. They both seem to think the new Great Game is the Indian Ocean region, from East Africa to Malaysia and Java and argue that it's not a question of if, but when - varying from 2050 to 2100. Are time and tech going to speed things up so quickly as to make that kind of global power shift?
KUMBAYISTA! (smendler) Wed 5 Jan 11 11:44
>>This apparatchik woman was trying to chide us into a taxi, so we would stay out of trouble. Maybe the trouble was waiting inside the taxi... (2010 was the year Brunner used for STAND ON ZANZIBAR, right? With its pseudo-cabs?) I might think this is emblematic of something: the folks "warning you of danger" may have nefarious intent themselves. How do you know whom to trust?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 5 Jan 11 13:12
I gave a talk about the history and future of the Internet at a local coworking facility today, and I was thinking how serene and attentive everyone seemed. No sense of angst in the room. A bunch of freelancers eager to learn more about the network that's become a foundation for their way of life. We take the network for granted, like indoor plumbing, running water, and central air. The future of the Internet isn't science fiction, in fact it's rather mundane. "Augmented reality" sounds sexy, and it's useful, but it's really nuts and bolts and geocodes. Almost boring to think about. All the standards and patterns for life online are pretty well established; I'm having trouble thinking what would knock my socks off at this point. A couple of weeks ago I saw The Eggmen, a Beatles cover band here in Austin, perform "I Am the Walrus" with strings, every note in place, and I thought how much of life is like being in a cover band, trying to hit the right notes, make that perfect replication of what went before.
david gault (dgault) Wed 5 Jan 11 13:18
>make that perfect replication of what went before. In my little neck of the internet woods, we automate to achieve that goal.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Wed 5 Jan 11 14:39
Sylvia is knocking my socks off at the moment...an AI personal digital assistant. I love it. Should be ready for public release soon...http://vimeo.com/4234956
Gene Gallagher (gallaghergene) Wed 5 Jan 11 15:38
I guess this is no news or old news, but I must chime in with a couple of commentary bits: -guy in CA tells me that he notices a real shortage of ammo at gun shows recently. -Bakersfield, where even real Mexicans speak English with Oakie accents, has a sizable, prosperous and enterprising Sikh population that includes some American converts. Am I off-subject? I don't know.
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Wed 5 Jan 11 17:16
More from off-WELL reader firstname.lastname@example.org: Jon, I agree with your point about the need for a new information literacy. But there's a big challenge for this kind of literacy: apparently, people don't want it. There's plenty of evidence that people use the Web selectively to confirm their prejudices rather than seek the truth. <http://www.suite101.com/content/we-are-all-biased-mental-filters-a325376> <http://social.cs.uiuc.edu/papers/pdfs/hicss09-echo-gilbert.pdf> Traditionally, those who were illiterate may have been too embarrassed to admit it, but the benefits of literacy were widely recognized. It doesn't look like that's the case for this new literacy. If people don't care, can the right skills ever spread?
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Wed 5 Jan 11 17:17
And from email@example.com: It's been a tough year for the Europe, a continent haunted by the spectre of defaulting PIGS. With Bruce in Belgrade, and Serbia poised to join the EU in the next 3-4 years, I find myself wondering what it's like looking in from the outside. Europe was the future once: a low-key future of soft power, cities of culture, and Large Hadron Colliders. In 2008, Bruce said there were days he found himself thinking that "the EU is more likely to become Google than it is to become a state." Does this still stand?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 5 Jan 11 19:32
Responding to David Karger: Good point re resistance to digital literacy; my thought is that we have to teach it K-12, and it'll take time. And we have to define digital literacy before we teach it - I'm hoping Howard's book will be part of that solution. Seth Mnookin, author of "The Panic Virus," speaking on CNN, just pointed out that there are still people who believe the world is flat.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 6 Jan 11 02:35
"The Sikhs of Bakersfield." Wasn't that a really cool Dwight Yoakam song?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 6 Jan 11 03:06
Things haven't been looking great for the EU as a 'state.' It's not Google, either. Despite its elected parliament, it's more a protocol than a state. You obey the EU standards and they make you look European, and if you do that long enough, then they let you play. But the game as a whole isn't evolving much. It became a really big deal here in Belgrade when the Schengen travel barrier dropped for Serbia. It felt like a matter of hours before this crooked corner of the Balkans stopped being a cyberpunk dystopia and turned into a paranormal romance. A lot of European investors showed up -- not enough to avert a minor downturn, but some did come, and with money -- and it was startling to see a Serbian re-branding charm offensive breaking out at the airport and the major hotels. Suddenly Serbia, this notorious cockpit of ethnic mayhem, was all about rosy-cheeked madchens in hand-knitted aprons out in the blooming apple orchards. Serbia was even an eco-resort. Serbian media, which used to be noted for its virulent party-controlled tabloids and its edgy, hardcore-alternative dissidence, really isn't about much of anything now. It's about tennis stars and water polo and celebrity couples. This week I saw Marina Abramovic, globally notorious Serbian nutcase self-scarring performance artist, wearing lipstick and a pretty hat on the cover of ELLE. Yeah, the bourgeois, ladylike Marina Abramovic! Man, if they can calm ol' Marina down, anything's possible. In short, Serbia's becoming a European backwater instead of a hideout for crazed refuseniks. The other big change here is the growing Russian influence. The Russians had cash and the Serbs sold off a lot of infrastructure to them; the Russian alliance is the ace in the hole in case Europe gets all obstreperous. There's also a growing Turkish influence. Serbs hate Turks and vice-versa, but there's some kind of tacit alliance there between former-Ottoman powers that are on the fringe of Europe and not allowed in it. It's been ten years since the war. That's a pretty good long time, even by Balkan standards. People are aces here at nourishing resentments, but nowadays they seem more worried about 1389 than 1999. Serbia is no longer a tortured, crooked, postwar province of a wrecked country... it's becoming just a weird little country with a dark but receding past. I never thought it would be relaxing to come here, but now I have a quieter new apartment in a rather more leafy and spacious part of the city, and, you know, it IS relaxing.
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