Cyborganic Host (jonl) Wed 26 Dec 12 07:21
Welcome to the 2013 edition of the Bruce Sterling/Jon Lebkowsky State of the World conversation/rantfest. Bruce and Jon, old friends and rambunctious digerati, have made this annual mess every year of the 21st century; this year's model should be particularly interesting, given the current hyperactive state of the world and the abundance of available conceptual lenses. Bruce Sterling is a science fiction author, journalist, design theorist and critic, public speaker, and world traveler. Currently based in Serbia, he spends much of his time on the road, and has a truly global perspective which you see in his novels, nonfiction pieces, and his blog, "Beyond the Beyond." In addition to his novels, Bruce has focused on the cutting edges of digital/hacker culture, climate change, global politics, and contemporary design. He founded the Viridian Design movement, the Dead Media project, and is currently fired up about the new aesthetic, augmented reality, and design fiction. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_sterling. Jon Lebkowsky has been an Internet evangelist and expert, web consultant/developer, social commentator, gonzo futurist, media analyst and critic, and sometimes activist. He was a cofounder of FringeWare, Inc., an early digital culture company/community, and has worked with and written for bOING bOING, Mondo 2000, Whole Earth, Plutopia Productions, Digital Convergence Initiative, Wireless Future, the Society for Participatory Medicine, EFF and EFF-Austin, the WELL, WorldChanging, SXSW, Social Web Strategies, et al. Lately he's part of a web development cooperative, Polycot Associates, and cofounder (with Amber Case, Tyger AC, and Patrick Lichty) of Reality Augmented Blog (http://realityaugmentedblog.com). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Lebkowsky
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 26 Dec 12 08:00
The state of the world 2013 seems incoherent, unfathomable, often terrible, often exhilarating. Ive been immersed in the Internet ecosystem for almost two decades now, and the surge of information has been increasing exponentially throughout that time, a real firehose of data, much of it unstructured. I devour more new facts in a day than my ancestors ate in a lifetime. Theres a real richness to it, but theres also powerful existential indigestion. And when you swallow the worlds information, there are inevitable toxins, so many raw, wild, and often conflicting chunks. In the 21st century, with so much knowledge created every day, hour, minute, second, we have many sources of confusion: new studies reverse the findings of older studies, new interpretations of facts radically change perspectives, theres a real crisis of authority, a question whether we know what we know. I find myself questioning everything I read, hear - even what I see with my own eyeballs...
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 26 Dec 12 09:28
I'm glad to be here. I'm glad to have the WELL here, too. I'm even properly glad that the World is still here. So, I happen to be in Belgrade this season, a city that's dear to me, but not exactly a burg known for its straw-hat-and-cane light-comedy material. When living in Belgrade, I become a somber, ponderous, literary guy. A bespectacled, serious-minded character, in a long gray gentleman's overcoat and a Russian-style fur hat. I just bought the new fur hat for Xmas. To tell the truth, the hat is Swedish and 100% polyester fake fur. However, it looks incredibly Russian, and the locals compliment me on my dress-sense. My personality changes with these differences in my locale. Belgrade is a spiritual home for me. Italy is where I feel most intelligent. Texas is where the heart is. Traipsing from one to another is like pitchforking a compost-heap. It aerates me, somehow. From here in the Balkans, the state of the world can be pretty easy to understand. This world is a place of tragic gravity. Great empires go to the Balkans to perish. A man's victory condition is a pained and stubborn dignity in the face of the inevitable sordid oppressions. Of course, you're gonna be dishing out some of this suffering yourself -- the guy in the shaving mirror is a malefactor too -- but there's never much pressing need to reform your own behavior. Of such crooked timber as mankind, no straight world was ever built! When the world ends, it'll end in Belgrade ten years later because they never met the international requirements. Now, I've noticed over the years that these Well State of the World encounters commonly develop into a series of eloquent complaints from everybody concerned. Here in the Balkans, we are second to none in that regard. We complain even when things are going pretty good, so as to keep up our guard against possible acts of treachery. So -- before the inevitable doom that will beset this years' discourse -- let me offer a few brief notes about some interest groups of 2013 who seem to be having a pretty good time. They don't need to complain much, because they're doing great.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 26 Dec 12 09:38
#1. The 3d printer guys. Just so interesting! Gotta love them! There's a classic little tech-development boom happening in this space. It's very old-school desktop 1980s. I rather expect to get one of these devices some day soon. Here in Belgrade, I just wrapped up and shelved a perfectly functional desktop computer -- just because it was old, and I don't need it. With desktop computers so clunky and obsolete, I've got room for a 3d printer now. "I got rid of a computer for Xmas" is the new "I got a computer for Xmas." "I got a 3dprinter" is the new hipster desk-ornamenting knick-knack. Of course it's not that you own a printer, it's what you print with it. That's why I watch open databases like "Thingiverse" with more interest than the printing devices themselves. #2. Koreans. 2012 was all about K-pop and Samsung. Who can't admire these two mushrooming efflorescences of Korean soft power and Korean hard manufacturing? They're the New 1980s Japan. #3. Indians. Bollywood has long been a hobbyhorse of mine, but 2012 was the first year in which I formally interviewed a Bollywood star -- for a pricey Swiss magazine, no less. In 2012, Indian cinema was making unprecedented amounts of money. There's been an unheard-of stream of Indian box-office smashes, and there are plenty more in the hopper. The various Bollywoodians I'm following definitely feel the wind at their backs. Some of the younger artistes are getting all voice-of-a-generation about themselves. They're not just selling the usual masala movie rubbish, either. A player like Aamir Khan here seems to be methodically working his way into Ronald Reagan territory. Aamir Khan's all backlit-patriot after playing heroes in his movies. Look at the extensive phone and digital tie-ins here. Pretty snazzy. http://gigaom.com/cloud/how-indias-favorite-tv-show-uses-data-to-change-the-wo rld/ #4 Turks. It's easy to appreciate the Turks from the distance of Belgrade. Sure, Turks are pretty miserable, but just look at the truly awful state of everybody else around them! Syria reduced to bloody rubble... even the Greeks, the Turkish bete noire, are in anguish. The Greeks had most everything the Turks ever wanted from the world, and the Greeks were reduced to ruin by it. The Turks can feel pretty pleased about their luck. The Turks should knock it off with jailing all those Turkish journalists, but at least that means people are reading the news in Turkey. In 2012, a glossy new Turkish historical soap-opera, "Suleiman the Magnificent," had women swooning from Moscow to Sarajevo, while Turkish Airlines is flying all over the region. It must feel pretty good to be Turkey now: an Islamic-political NATO power, treated like responsible grown-ups while the Israelis are sawing off their own feet in public. #5. China. Yes, they're very big and powerful. I wish they were more interesting. I try, but.... While Turkey seems to have a Moslem charm offensive going on, everybody around China is keenly resentful of their island-snatching behavior. The only allies the Chinese have are pariah states who depend on them for loose cash. If the Chinese were as diplomatically charming as the Brazilians, they'd have taken over the world five years ago. Why are they such boorish hicks? #6 Tea Party guys. It's always "the worse, the better" with these Trotsky-style fanatics. Every failure, rejection and common-sense setback galvanizes them to new extremes of faith-based ideological weirdness. As someone who hangs out in Europe, I'm used to bizarre political movements, but the Tea Party is truly impressively strange by anybody's standards. Acidheads have had more coherent thinking than these Creationist Randite gold-bar-eating pro-coal zillionaire market fundie people. They lost the American election, but winning one and governing a superpower never seemed to be on their agenda. That hasn't discouraged them, though. They've got ladder notches and fallback positions all the way to the prepper graveyard. #7 Qataris. The financiers of Al Jazeera, of the Arab Spring, Egypt, Libya, Syria, etc etc. There's only a quarter of a million of these people, and all their real decisions are probably made by six aristocrats, but the effect they have on the world is incredible. If the War on Terror had a winner, it's the Qataris. Nobody ever dares to say anything mean about them. Even Israel and the USA are afraid of them, because the USA and Israel both instinctively kowtow to rich guys with TV stations. #8 Stacks. In 2012 it made less and less sense to talk about "the Internet," "the PC business," "telephones," "Silicon Valley," or "the media," and much more sense to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. These big five American vertically organized silos are re-making the world in their image. If you're Nokia or HP or a Japanese electronics manufacturer, they stole all your oxygen. There will be a whole lot happening among these five vast entities in 2013. They never compete head-to-head, but they're all fascinated by "disruption." Why these canny subversives have let idiots like the Koch Brothers buy the American government, I just dunno. The Stacks could buy the Republican Party, lock stock and barrel, with their pocket change.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 26 Dec 12 10:18
If I was managing investments for the stacks, I would consider the American government a bad investment at the moment, especially given the ideological and conceptual disarray within Congress and the Senate. We talk about the disruption of various industries by the emerging (or post-emergent, I suppose) Internet media environment, but the disruption/destabilization of political frameworks and institutions, and the impact of that crisis of authority I mentioned, are somehow not getting the same level of analysis. Lawmakers are deluged with information like the rest of us but more so, challenged by complex and contradictory policy tangles worse than the dreadlocks of Cthulhu, pounded by lobbyists from more or less sinister angles of the left and right, tempted to wade trickling streams of power feeding into pools of money, and scrutinized by voters and their surrogates as the inescapable light of Internet-mediated transparency derails the protective obfuscations that was so much a part of old-media politics. Whatever you say, whatever you do, there's a bartender, waitress, or masseuse nearby with a phone-camera and a YouTube account. American government is like one of those failing businesses where everyone in the org chart is too engaged in CYA shuffling to consider, let along protect, the company's current and future well-being. The Koch Brothers would do better to buy shares in the stacks, but they're a century behind in their thinking.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 26 Dec 12 11:20
Well, the Stacks have heaps of cash, and obviously the American government seems like a bargain to a lot of other people. Buying it might be a bad investment, but not buying it could be a lot worse. If you're running investments for the Stacks, do you really want Sheldon Adelson on line one for Washington policymakers? The guy is a lunatic. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheldon_Adelson
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 26 Dec 12 11:46
I love this, from that Wikipedia article: "Originally a Democrat, Adelson became a Republican as his wealth increased. 'Why is it fair that I should be paying a higher percentage of taxes than anyone else?' he reportedly argued to an associate." That short paragraph gets to the source of a conflict that's shaking the world right now. The Democrat Adelson probably believed that the wealthy should pay a bigger share of the cost of government because they can afford it, and because government has facilitated their opportunity to grow rich. When you're the guy with the big bank account, you're less inclined to part with accumulated ducats. Two perspectives on economic justice, both with a rationale. It's a wicked problem of polarization. At global scale, it appears that we have more warm bodies than we can support with available resources, and the population just keeps growing, and in some locales, living longer. Competition's increasing, economies are failing, what's the solution? I once quoted an environmental scientist in a conversation with Jamais Cascio. The scientist said the earth's current resources can't support universally extending a high standard of living, as we have in the U.S. Jamais said this was a bad assumption, the issue being "... as we have in the U.S." Everyone could have a high standard of living by some more moderate definition, one that doesn't assume a 2000 square foot home on a half-acre lot in the suburbs. Everyone could be rich, if rich is defined, not as Sheldon Adelson would define it, but as someone like Jamais or Bill McKibben might define it. Greed, like polarization, is a wicked problem. Jamais' response was reasonable, but was it practical? Can we eradicate greed? It's deeply embedded. Even the most enlightened struggle with it (if they say they don't, they're not enlightened).
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 26 Dec 12 12:24
The locals here in Belgrade get unnerved when I say that things are improving here. I'm not gonna argue value-metaphysics, but the streets are in better condition. There's a handsome new bridge across the Sava River. The shiny high-tech Ada Bridge is on t-shirts and postcards now; it's the beloved symbol of a new dispensation. Belgrade store fronts no longer look like grimy ex-Communist depots. The local merchants have learned the dark arts of capitalist marketing, so there are tie-ins, loss leaders, and branding. Kiosks, which used to be the survival islands for a stricken populace, are just street-stalls that sell some convenience goods. The forged and counterfeited products -- there used to be every kind of those, in heaps -- are fading away. The running shoes are authentic shoes, the batteries actually work, and the fake DVDs have been trumped by fast, efficient broadband piracy. Belgrade women are wearing Desigual coats these days. Nobody who is flaunting the notoriously eccentric Desigual is in any "Transition Economy." They're not the women of Vienna, but they're certainly out-dressing the women of Zagreb, who are doing their level best but just don't get it with that Belgrade intensity. The shopkeepers and restauranteurs are attentive and cordial to customers, even to the Germans and Japanese. They've internalized that social relationship now. Nobody remembers what Communism once was. They've forgotten how to do Communism, what it felt like, what it meant, why it mattered. Younger people don't know what Yugoslavia was. For them, a national border is an annoyance that keeps you away from your Facebook friends. There are new bookstores in Belgrade. There seems to be more regional publishing, too. It's odd that ink-and-paper media should be a big local deal, but local TV and radio, which used be very lively, are almost inert now, mostly because nobody is screaming in anguish. Serbs are still exceedingly keen on being more Serbian than thou. Yet they're also showing a revived and healthy interest in the nearby Turks and Croats. As a nation, Serbia is a small republic -- but Belgrade is a metropolitan city. It cramps people's imaginations to be stuck inside a tight little Ruritania. The city's too big for the nation. Belgrade has never been Paris, but it's traditionally been a regional attraction, where Eastern Europe's truly benighted and miserable can find a pretty good neon-lights party. Belgrade never did much top-end champagne, brandy and caviar, but they generally had a good solid blue-collar line in yogurt, brandy and sausage. To become a party town again, they don't have to outdo Paris. They only have to outdo Zagreb, Ljublana and Bucharest. I hear some rumors -- and I believe them -- that Greeks are fleeing the EU and starting businesses in Belgrade. Turks are investing, too. When the Radical Party took power in the recent elections, every sane person chewed their nails to the elbow in fear. Once in power, the Radicals did the opposite of what the "Western-oriented market reformers" wanted them to do. That's turned out to be a rather popular set of policies. They won that first election fair and square, and if things go on at this rate, the Radikalni are gonna get re-elected. The Balkans are, by their nature, a region of turmoil. One terror car-bombing or a political assassination could restore the normal discord in 24 hours. Plus, climate change is hitting this part of the planet just like everywhere else; it's the solstice pit of dark December and I've got my window open -- global warming brought shirt-sleeve weather for Christmas. However, to complain about Belgrade under these conditions is just a temperamental habit. The Yugoslav wars are fading into the past with all due speed; those were some stately, 20th-century, old-fashioned wars, with their front-lines, TV, and state-controlled radio. Not a drone in sight, not one handheld smartphone. Not even one suicide bomb. Sometimes you've got to take the good wherever you find it.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 26 Dec 12 17:15
Austin, on the other hand, is booming, and then some. We now have Circuit of the Americas, an advanced 3.4 mile Formula One racing circuit that's already hosted the U.S. Grand Prix as its inaugural race. Some Austinites were freaked out at the prospect of huge global crowds filling the highways, 'copters buzzing overhead, more potential growth, more potential taxes, etc. The first race went pretty well, infrastructure was managed effectively; traffic ran smoothly; there were boisterous, friendly ambient parties and events; Austin glowed even more brightly on various geographical and concept maps. There were loud and persistent ka-chings. You'd never know there were wars, famines, hurricanes, earthquakes, climate change, fiscal cliffs and global financial mayhem, deranged serial killers, jackbooted thugs, drug cartels, or other forms of evil in the world. All concerns set aside for the duration of the Great Race featuring the highest of high tech automobiles.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 27 Dec 12 00:54
It only makes sense that Austin would have the classed-up, Cosmic Cowboy version of NASCAR.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 27 Dec 12 01:08
Here's a swell, extensive, grindingly detailed article on the Chinese "princeling" class and their capitalist clan machinations. There's an undercurrent in this article about how much trouble these Stanford-educated, English-speaking technocrats are in, for being so rich and conspicuously successful in pokey old China. And this is published in BLOOMBERG. Have they ever heard of Mr. Bloomberg? Are they entirely devoid of self-awareness?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 27 Dec 12 01:09
Adiministrivia (jonl) Thu 27 Dec 12 06:11
The short link for the 2013 State of the World conversation: http://bit.ly/2013-state-of-the-world If you're reading this and you're not a member of the WELL, you can submit commits or questions that hosts from the WELL will dutifully post here. To do so, click the link at the bottom of the page, where it says "Non-members: Submit a comment or question."
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 27 Dec 12 07:29
I met with a South Asian delegation a couple of weeks ago - representatives from Afghanistan, Kyrgyz Republic, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Their program was called "Strengthening Civil Society"; my subject was the role of the Internet and digital media. I realized that, through television and later the Internet, they'd been exposed to a persistent feed of impressions about the U.S.A. That persistent media exposure has carried something more than facts - there's a vibe, a sense beyond knowledge, a kind of charisma. It's not about political beliefs or economic systems or business acumen. Beyond that, there's a vitality and a moral tone that resonates deeply. And there's the fact that we really do have a civil society. Even polarized as we are today, even with greed and corruption and occasional psychosis disturbing social and cultural stability, there's still a general widespread respect for the rule of law, for doing the right thing. When you fall down in the USA, chances are somebody will come along and lift you up. It's kind of amazing, when you think of it, this idea of sustained civility, relative safety, even given the exceptional crimal breaches and psychotic breaks. I wonder if we're drawn to fantasies of the zombie apocalypse, where civility is strained to the point of breaking among the few remaining humans, as a contrast that reminds us how well our social structures hold together, how relatively safe we are in our various cubbies and homes, well-fed, warm when it's cold and cool when it's blindingly hot.
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 27 Dec 12 07:32
Just a minor point here, but I really don't think that "the government" helped Sheldon Adelson build a gambling empire with tentacles deep into Macao. At least I hope not.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 27 Dec 12 08:36
I'm sure you're right, but he grew his fortune in the U.S., via Comdex, and the Sands and the Venetian in Las Vegas. If he'd gone from Macao penniless, and tried to build an empire from scratch, I don't suspect he would've got anywhere.
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 27 Dec 12 09:55
no, he went to Macao *after* all of that. Sorry for the interruption.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 27 Dec 12 11:03
I love those "civil society" guys. There's a group here in Belgrade called the "Center for Cultural Decontamination" that's been civilly decontaminating for, gosh, must be twenty years now. Things never feel any less contaminated for them. One gets the impression that, although they don't exactly love the contamination, they'd be at a loss for what to do without it. There's a kind of "civil society" which is mostly about the soft power of public opinion on the actions of government, and then there's something else that I guess one might call "social capital," which is why people don't just go cut the throat of the neighbor and run off with his microwave. It's been my experience that they're not the same thing, and the one can actually get in the way of the other. The Balkans has always been pretty low on "civil society," because most political decisions are made in smoke-filled rooms by angry drunk guys. But in terms of "social capital" they're quite keen on looking after one another. The populace is very polite and considerate, by American standards. Hold-ups, muggings, drive-bys, gang rapes, maniacal outbursts by guys with automatic weapons, they're all practically unheard-of. The feeling on the streets of Belgrade is vastly calmer and cozier than, say, Los Angeles. By the standards of Belgrade, you'd think that LA was a para-militarized civil war zone, even though LA has got "civil society" like nobody's business.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 27 Dec 12 11:11
The Italians are second-to-none with the "social capital," which is a major reason why their government is so dysfunctional. Italy really isn't a "nation" with a "government," it's a bunch of extremely civilized city-states where a nationalist lifestyle was imposed during the 1860s. If the local predators in France and Austria hadn't invented national government, I don't think the Italians would have ever gotten around to it. Now we've got social networking entering the mix, and I really wonder. It isn't government, or civil society, or social capital... people adore it, obviously, but you have to wonder what the upshot will be in the long run. What will people say about it in 20 years, or 40 years?
Emily Gertz (emilyg) Thu 27 Dec 12 11:14
Welcome, Bruce! I appreciate how you've opened this year's email@example.com. How about that Psy: Who'd have thought a K-popster would be the first guy to hit a billion views on YouTube? And if you add in all the affectionate rip-offs, probably moving in on two billion. (Loved the MIT homage: "Opa Chomsky style" indeed.) Gangnam Style's world domination gives me more hope than just any political event of 2012. We're over 20 years out from the founding the WELL, which was among the first generation of what's now being called social networking. Does that suggest any answers to what people will say about the current social media, in 20 or 30 years?
David Gans (tnf) Thu 27 Dec 12 11:17
I walk around this world feeling both deeply rooted in the societies I am part of and hopelessly out of touch with the thousands of cultures that exists all around me. All this media, all these social networks, all these choices.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 27 Dec 12 11:56
<captward>, sorry for the confusing typo. I meant to type "if he'd gone TO Macao penniless." My point was that Adelson built his fortune in the U.S. - though I suppose it's arguable whether the U.S. government helped or hindered. Probably more a matter of infrastructure than policy. Back to our regularly-scheduled program...
those Andropovian bongs (rik) Thu 27 Dec 12 12:06
Seems to me that a major trend worth watching will be the attempts of both governments and corporations to control conversation on the internet. Any thoughts, gentlemen?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 27 Dec 12 12:16
<tnf>: I'm not sure we're built to handle that firehose of information choice. I ran across a Ted talk by Gary Wilson called "The Great Porn Experiment" and a related website, "Your Brain on Porn" (http://yourbrainonporn.com/). Wilson talks about the impact of Internet porn, which is a subset of all the stuff flooding through the firehose. We've never been able to consumer information like this before, to be so exposed to so many different signals and perspectives and lifestreams. Where porn's concerned, we've never been able to consume so much of so many different blobs of pornographic content, and he argues that our brains and bodies aren't equipped to handle it, that there's a resulting addiction, desensitization, depression, and sexual dysfunction. I'm still processing this, not thinking so much about the issue of porn as the broader effects of knowing too much about too many things. I find myself taking more breaks from the streams of information by and about my friends, reading more books and fewer activity streams. When I'm surfing online in hyperdrive mode, I feel an anxiety about all that's happening and how to track it. Every day I get notices about so many events that are happening at once, and for every event I make, I feel I'm missing a dozen others. Is it better not to know? I suppose I've been information-greedy, and greed is destructive.
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Thu 27 Dec 12 12:47
I still don't have a good grasp on history and the great ideas of past thinkers! Now data is doubling on the NET about every two years (granted most of it is crap). Beginning to wonder if the 'past' is going to vanish, or collapse to a ten year horizon, and the impact of all that. Existentially, we're all surviving in the 'now' and creating our own futures; really appreciate both your updates on life as it actually is in both your 'urbs - there's a comforting resiliency there. But I've always found some comfort and wisdom in looking back to see how others did it and what they thought about.
(Jeff Kramer) O o . o O (jeffk) Thu 27 Dec 12 13:00
At SXSW this year a reporter from the Denver Post asked me what I thought the next big thing would be. I felt kind of foolish when I responded with 'personalization', but the more I think about it, the only hope for dealing with that information firehose is some better filtering. It's nice to have subject matter experts like <jonl> and <bruces> around to be human filters, but I suppose that's what journalists and critics have always been for. A lot of us globally aware, internet native, early adopter types are hitting our mid-30's, complete with careers and kids and the responsibility for leading our family groups for the next generation. We read stuff about the mind-boggling amount of debt rolling around the financial system, experience a record breaking weather event every few months, and see places like Greece take the expressway from excess to austerity in less time than it takes to age tequila. Our parents generation would have bought bigger houses, put down roots and settled in for the long haul, but my lizard brain keeps whispering to stay light and keep the options open. So what do we do? Do we double down on where we're at, or do we stay location-light, burrow our roots into the net, and go where the wind takes us?
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