Sunday, May 5, 2013

Bruce Sterling lights it up

One of the best things I read in April was the transcript of Bruce Sterling's closing remarks at the 2013 South By South West conference.

Sterling is always a fascinating and insightful observer of modern society, and he really was on target this time.

Sterling starts by taking the long view:

I’m out in Arizona visiting a certain desert canyon. I always wanted to see it: Walnut Canyon National Monument.

Walnut Canyon, an extremely Southwestern place. It happened to have a little civilization in it once, from about 1100 A.D. to maybe 1250 A.D. The most high-tech guys in the Southwest.

Now the interesting thing about these ancient cliff-dweller guys is that they were much, much more high tech than South By South West.

He contemplates the events at Walnut Canyon in the context of the passing of the "Personal" computer:

Then we look back in nostalgia at the Personal Computer world. It’s not that we were forced out of our stone boxes in the canyon. We weren’t driven away by force. We just mysteriously left. It was like the waning of the moon.

They were too limiting, somehow. They computed, but they just didn’t do enough for us. They seemed like a fantastic way forward, but somehow they were actually getting in the way of our experience.

All these machines that tore us away from lived experience, and made us stare into the square screens or hunch over the keyboards, covered with their arcane, petroglyph symbols. Control Dingbat That, backslash R M this. We never really understood that. Not really.

Sterling's point is that he's trying to understand the social aspects of technological change:

Computers were really, truly disruptive. Mobile devices are so radically disruptive that they even disrupted computers. They’re a bigger deal then the dead bookstores. We’ve got guys who own cell phones in this world who can’t even read.

And I’m very intimate with this spectacle. I’m very keen on all its little ins and outs.

The thing that bugs me about your attitude toward it is that you don’t recognize its tragic dimension.

This is something that literature has always been very keen on, that technology never gets around to acknowledging. The cold wind moaning through the empty stone box.

One of Sterling's points is that human beings should be aiming for quality rather than quantity:
A crapject is what happens when you give somebody access to the cheap means of production, and they just start LOLCatting with physical objects. They’re just emitting jokes as real things, you know? And they’re like crap, and they can’t be sold, and they basically have the same value as any other content on the Internet. They just happen to have been made of plastic, or birchwood, or foamcore, or concrete, or whatever you’ve managed to drag into the means of production.

And his other point is that technologists need to have a more developed system of ethics:

When you disrupt the stone box, the stone box goes empty. It’s not merely irritated or disturbed, it’s dead. It’s dead media. It’s dead, it has been killed, and to be a phoenix you have to admit your complicity in the barbecue fire.

It’s your fire, it’s not somebody else’s. Yes, we killed the past. We didn’t pull the trigger on it directly, but it died for our benefit, it died through things we did.

Own up to that. Own up to that: yes, we burned it up. No one is historically innocent. Yes, we are carnivores at this barbecue. Yes, it died, we roasted it, we ate it.

You may not agree with everything Sterling says; I'm certainly not a complete believer.

But his points are powerful, well-considered, and forcefully made.

You won't regret spending a few minutes reading his entire essay, or listening to the speech.

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