inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #0 of 177: What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Wed 31 Dec 08 10:00
As has become our custom, the new year in the Inkwell begins with a visit
from longtime Well member, Bruce Sterling. This will be Bruce's tenth
overview of Things in General, the State of the World, Where We Have Been
and Where We are Tending.

Bruce Sterling, author, journalist, editor, and critic, was born in 1954.
Best known for his nine science fiction novels, he also writes design
criticism. He is a contributing editor of WIRED magazine and a columnist for
MAKE magazine. He also writes a weblog.

During 2005, he was the "Visionary in Residence" at Art Center College of
Design in Pasadena.  In 2008 he was the Guest Curator for the Share Festival
in Torino, Italy and also "Visionary in Residence" and the Sandberg
Instituut in Amsterdam.

Jon Lebkowsky is Bruce's regular partner in these highly informed

Jon is a cultural strategist, social commentator, and web strategist. He
writes about culture, technology, media, sustainability and other topics for
various publications, and has been blogging regularly since 2000. He's an
acknowledged authority on social media and online community. He is cofounder
of Social Web Strategies, where he does strategic consulting and coordinates
social media planning and web development.

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 was
involved in online community and e-commerce projects throughout the 1990s,
and 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 e-
commerce and online community initiatives for Whole Foods Market. After
leaving Whole Foods, he formed Polycot Consulting, one of Austin's lead web
consulting and development companies through the 2000s. He was involved in
the emergence of social technology in the early 2000s, and has been a leader
in the use of social technology for political activism. With Mitch
Ratcliffe, he co-edited the book Extreme Democracy.

Gentlemen: ring out the old, won't you, please? Pretty please?
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #1 of 177: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 31 Dec 08 11:11
Hello to all, and thanks to Bruce Umbaugh for kicking this off. We should 
start with the economy - much confusion there. I'm hearing otherwise smart 
people say that this is just a down cycle, no big deal, we'll spin around and 
boom again before you know it. I don't see how anyone can confuse this with 
business as usual. And I don't think it's about a few blithering crooks and a 
festering rash of bad decisions. Feels more like paradigms shifting and, 
while shifting, some are collapsing. How does this look to you, especially 
from your global suitcase perspective?
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #2 of 177: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 1 Jan 09 04:03
Do we HAVE to talk about the economy this year?  I'm wondering what
conceivable event could overshadow the fiscal crisis.  Maybe a cozy
little nuclear war?

An Indo-Pakistani nuclear war might conceivably take a *back page* to
the fiscal crisis.

I always knew the "War on Terror" bubble would go.  It's gone. Nobody
misses it.  It got no burial.  I knes was gonna be replaced by another
development that seemed much more burningly urgent than terror Terror
TERROR, but I had a hard time figuring out what vast, abject fright
that might be.

Now I know.  Welcome to 2009!

What I now currently wonder is: what kind of OTHER development makes
us stop maundering about liquidity issues?  You know what's truly weird
about any financial crisis? WE MADE IT UP.  Currency, money, finance,
they're all social inventions.  When the sun comes up in the morning
it's shining on the same physical landscape, all the atoms are in
place.  It's not merciless enemies would blow themselves up in order to
bleed on our shoes... oh wait.  They are.  Well, it's not like the
icecaps are melting.

Oh wait.  The icecaps ARE melting.  Okay, maybe I'll start over next
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #3 of 177: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 1 Jan 09 08:21
A collapse of the Internet could be daunting - worse for me than collapse of 
the abstract economy. (The alternative currency/next economy thinkers have 
convinced me that less abstract, perfectly viable forms of exchange are 
waiting in the wings.) 

Are we growing more or less prone to hostility and war? Reading the letter
from Gaza that Jasmina Tesanovic posted: "Nowhere is safe anymore."

A post-economy USA seems cozy by comparison.
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #4 of 177: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 1 Jan 09 09:38
I'm a bohemian type, so I could scarcely be bothered to do anything
"financially sound" in my entire adult life.  Last year was the first
year when I've felt genuinely sorry for responsible, well-to-do people.
 Suddenly they've got the precariousness of creatives, of the
underclass, without that gleeful experience of decades spent

These are people who obeyed the social contract and are *still*
getting it in the neck.  The injustice of that upsets me.  The
bourgeoisie who kept their noses clean and obeyed the rules, I never
had anything against them.  I mean, of course I made big artsy fun of
them, one has to do that, but I never meant them any active harm.  I
didn't scheme to raise a black flag and cut their throats because they
were consumers. 

I even fret about the bankers.  Seventeen percent of the US works in
financial services.  That's a lot.  I've got friends and relatives who
work in those industries.  I frankly enjoy tossing myself into
turbulent parts of life, because I'm a dilettante who bores easily, but
jeez, bankers are supposed to be the ultimate humorless brown-shoe
crowd.  They're not supposed to wake up on a sleeping roll and scrounge

If the straights were not "prone to hostility" before that experience,
they might well be so after it, because they've got a new host of
excellent reasons.  The sheer galling come-down of watching the Bottom
Line, the Almighty Dollar, revealed as a papier-mache pinata.  It's
like somebody burned their church.

 I keep remembering the half-stunned, half-irritated looks on the
faces of those car execs when they were chided for flying their company
jets to Washington to beg.  I felt sorrow for them.  Truly.  These
guys are the captains of American industry at the top of the food
chain.  Of course they fly corporate jets.  Corporate jets were
*invented* for guys like the board of General Motors.  And now they're
getting skewered for that by a bunch of punk-ass Congressmen they can
usually buy and sell?  

*That's* the issue at stake, a few jets?  General Motors built the
aviation industry in World War II.  General Motors aircraft pounded
Nazi Germany into a flaming ruin.   Here they get this off-the-wall,
total-hokum act of peanut-gallery gotcha humiliation about the
corporate airplanes they've used for fifty years.  That must have felt
surreal, even nauseating.

There are going to be so many nettling, humiliating experiences for
similar people, people congenitally unable to laugh at themselves and
roll with the punches.  Nowhere is safe any more, not even the
mirrorglass skyscraper, not even the boardroom.  

I wish I could make them feel safe, but since I've lived in parts of
the planet with no-kidding, real-deal economic collapse...  I dunno,
does reading Dmitri Orlov feel safe?  I love that guy's writing, I
really get it about him, but the prophets of doom have so little
comfort to offer people.  Last thing I heard about Orlov the guy had
chucked it and was living on a small boat.
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #5 of 177: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 1 Jan 09 13:28
I have to love a guy who talks about a "collapse gap." He's got a blog called
"ClubOrlov" at, and in his intro to a guest
post on December 23, he says " I called it as I saw it, and, unfortunately, I 
seem to have called it correctly. The US is collapsing before our eyes. Stage 
1 collapse is very advanced now; stages 2 and 3 are picking up momentum." 

In 2005 he wrote advice on "Thriving in the Age of Collapse." I wonder if he would 
advise differently today?

Your last Viridian note had advice, not necessarily for "thriving" during a 
"collapse" - more general, but probably also useful in lean times. You wrote 
that piece in November, as the shit hit the fan. Anything to add?
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #6 of 177: John Payne (satyr) Thu 1 Jan 09 21:37
Amazing Filtered Things <> has 
published several photosets of post-collapse Russia.  This one from 
October, '07 is the most recent I could find...
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #7 of 177: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 2 Jan 09 02:38
*Yeah, I've got plenty to add on that topic.  I'm probably gonna be
adding on that topic for the next ten years.

*I scarcely know where to start.  Actually, I think I *do* know where
to start, with an ambitious new Internet project.  Weirdly, I can't
make the time to get there from here.  Because I'm snowed under with
work.  I never had such a busy December. Never.  Apparently they all
stopped shopping and started demanding that I write magazine articles. 
I'm still not done.  I've got two deadlines this week, plus this WELL

*I'm sure this beats sleeping in my car while waiting for my real
estate career to recommence -- I mean, of course it's nice to be
busy... but what if the *rest of my life* looks like this?   What if
this is the New Normal?  Will I ever get a minute's peace to think
seriously about the Big Issues?  

Maybe Orlov needs a deckhand.
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #8 of 177: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 2 Jan 09 02:49
*Americans -- and Orlov's an American now, he's much too relaxed and
funny to be a Russian -- love to imagine that America leads the
collapse.  If we're not the Shining City on the Hill, we've at least
got to be the Smoldering Wreckage on the Hill.  You know: as long as
we're always the Hill.

*People with loose money still think we're the Hill.  That's why all
the loose change is moving into Treasury bonds.  I mean, if you buy
China, you're basically buying US Treasury Bonds anyway...  Japan is
old and gray and has no rate of return... Rich Europeans can't take
Europe seriously.  They're afraid it will turn into an actual empire
instead of their toy trading bloc, so they're always parking their cash
somewhere far outside their own legal jurisdiction...  

So what does that leave you, if you've got a spare 50 billion? 
Brazil?  Russia?  India, for heaven's sake?  What kind of rich person
preserves his wealth in INDIA?  You'd have to be crazy.  Should you buy
oil?  Oil's got blood all over it and it's skyrocketing up and down.

So that leaves the Americans -- the global wealthy are clinging to 'em
like a drunk to a lamppost.  When Russia collapsed, every Russian with
a shred of wealth shipped it to Cyprus and Switzerland.  The Americans
 don't have a place to offshore their money.  They can offshore their
LABOR, that's dead easy, but their money?  If the American dollar goes,
finance as an industry gets the blue screen of death.
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #9 of 177: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 2 Jan 09 03:14
*These posts are making the New Year situation look blacker than I
think it is, so maybe I should raise the cogent issue of self-reliance
and "resilient cities."  I notice that John Robb, one of my favorite
prophets of doom, has formed some tacit New Urbanist alliance with
James Howard Kunstler, also one of my favorite prophets of doom.  

This would be John "Global Guerrillas" Robb and James Howard "Long
Emergency" Kunstler, for those of you entering the catastrophe
sweepstakes late in the game.  If you've never read these guys before,
you might want to take a walk around the block before Googling 'em, as
otherwise your heart might stop.

In any case, after eight glum years of watching Bush and his neocons
methodically wreck the Republic, both Kunstler and Robb have gotten
really big on American localism -- "resilient" localism.  Kunstler has
this painterly, small-town-America, Thoreauvian thing going on, kinda
locavore voluntary simplicity, with lots of time for... I dunno, group 
chorale singing.  Kunstler seems kinda hung up on the singing effort,
somehow...  Whereas Robb has a military background and is more into a
gated-community, bug-out-bag, militia rapid-response thing.

Certainly neither of these American visions look anything like what
happened to Russia.  As Orlov accurately points out, in the Russian
collapse, if you were on a farm or in some small neighborly town, you
were toast.  The hustlers in the cities were the ones with inventive
opportunities, so they were the ones getting by.  

So the model polity for local urban resilience isn't Russia.  I'm
inclined to think the model there is Italy.  Italy has had calamitous
Bush-levels of national incompetence during almost its entire 150-year
national existence. 

 Before that time, Italy was all city-states -- and not even "states,"
mostly just cities.  Florence, Milan, Genoa, Venice.  Rome.  They were
really brilliantly-run, powerful cities.  (Well, not Rome -- but Rome
was global.)   Gorgeous cities full of initiaive and inventive genius. 
If you're a fan of urbanism you've surely got to consider the cities
of the Italian Renaissance among the top urban inventions of all time.

And cities do seem in many ways to respond much better to
globalization than nation-states do.  When a city's population
globalizes, when it becomes a global marketplace, if it can keep the
local peace and order, it booms.  London, Paris, New York, Toronto,
they've never been more polyglot and multiethnic. 

 In my futurist book  TOMORROW NOW I was speculating that there might
be a post-national global new order arising in cities.  Cities as
laboratories of the post-Westphalian order.

However...  okay, never mind the downside yet.  Let's just predict
that in 2009 we're gonna see a whole lot of contemporary urbanism going
on.  Digital cities.  Cities There For You to Use.  Software for
cities.  Googleable cities.  Cities with green power campaigns. 
Location-aware cities.  Urban co-ops. "Informal housing." 
"Architecture fiction."  The ruins of the unsustainable as the new

A President from Chicago who carried the ghettos and barrios by
massive margins.  Gotta mean something, I figure.
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #10 of 177: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 2 Jan 09 05:02
I was on a call recently with a business that produces "resilient
cities" planning, database-intensive digital planning. We also
organized a meeting of local activists to talk about the potential to
form an alternative currency, and there was a lot of energy in the
room. With a little discipline that energy could flow somewhere.
There's a bunch of examples of alt.currency:
My sense was that liquidity crisis seemed so entirely possible that
community leaders wanted to have a fallback medium of exchange waiting
in the wings.

On the other hand, I've met with local business people who are saying
that there's no imminent crisis, the economy's really okay, this is
just another cycle of recession. They say the idea of "collapse" or
depression or even strong recession is driven by media. Nothing sells
papers, but panic still sells whatever passes for media these days -
page views. Not sure how many clickthroughs they're getting from
Americans who're convinced their jobs are in jeopardy - if they still
have jobs.

So we have a weird state of whimper vs bang, and a whole army of
traditional business people in denial, while the alt.culture folks are
out their planning, and planting corn in their backyards.
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #11 of 177: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 2 Jan 09 05:34
Administrivia: if you want to pass the url for this talk around,
here's a shortened version:

This conversation is scheduled to last two weeks. If you're not a
member of the WELL but have a comment or question, send to inkwell [at] Our hosts can post it here.

If you're talking about this conversation on Twitter, use this
hashtag: #stateworld09.
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #12 of 177: John Payne (satyr) Fri 2 Jan 09 09:47
Short term, I think the economy will rebound.  Long term, we're in for
changes that won't be denied, and the longer we try to put them off the
harder they're going to hit us when they do arrive.
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #13 of 177: Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Fri 2 Jan 09 10:13
Good to see you here again, Bruce! 

I've been thinking a great deal lately about the difference between
globalization and global consciousness.  Globalization is an economic
phenomenon with more efficient deliveries of commerce worldwide that
largely supercedes the political nation-state.  A global consciousness 
relates more to an emerging ethos that encourages us, as technological
apes, to be more aware of how our collective behavior impacts our
sustainability on the planet.

Of course, the City-States are important economic foci on earth, but
they are greatly benefiting like never before from an information age
that has created a global web of communication and commerce.  When you
talk about rich Europeans parking their money in American dollars, or
gray old Japan, or the bloody oil money, you're identifying some of the
players in the game, but only somewhat placing them as players on the
big gameboard.

I think you are correct that, in many ways, the Nation-State
configuration is less and less relevant, but if we allow ourselves to
buy into the fragmentation of postmodernity, where positionality,
diversity and ennui rule the day, we lose sight that there are big,
tangible players who have the power to behave in ways with their
political clout, capital, manufacturing and commerce that are either
earth-friendly or not earth-friendly.  For example, if in 2098 most of
us are driving solar-juiced cars that max out at 58 mph, the species
will be fine.  It might mean less bloody oil wars, much smaller
environmental transportation impacts, money (R.O.I.) still to be made
by those manufacturers/investors, and jobs as usual for Joe and Jane

I'd like to think that in the midst of the paradigm shift you address,
we are seeing the emergence of a new zeitgeist.  I see this as a
consciousness that is moving away from the weary morass of
postmodernity where we throw up our hands, resigned to the behaviors of
the oily Geo. W Bushes, the self-indulgent, billionaire Europeans, and
the eco-monster manufacturers in third world countries.  Instead, I
hope we will approach a critical mass in the populace where we
persistently insist––politically, economically, spiritually––that our
business and government leaders adopt behaviors that embrace a new
global consciousness. Namely, globalization can be "governed" with
larger planetary and human interests in mind.

If we are to be hopeful (rather than resigned to the inevitability of
collapse where humans are inherently predisposed to shitting in their
own well), don't we need to believe that awareness might be coming full
circle in terms of seeing and acting collectively as responsible
denizens on earth.  For example, included in the characteristic spirit
of the counterculture were ideals for a consciousness
revolution––honoring mother earth, we-can-change-the-world, the oneness
of being, conscientious consumption, appropriate technology, and world
peace.  I see the characteristic spirit of these beliefs as now
shaping the ethos of this emerging global consciousness. As survival
pressures increase, we will become resourcefully more green by

Bottom line, I am saying that with more collective outcry, higher
expectations for our VERY IDENTIFIABLE power moguls on this planet, and
an insistence of greater adherence to an ethos of sustainability for
all the big players, we need not treat global collapse (economically or
environmentally) as the inevitable fate of humanity.        

inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #14 of 177: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 2 Jan 09 11:08
Well, I have to doubt that we're all left-wing green yeoman peasantry
by next Christmas. But we won't be stricken cannibals gnawing each
other's thighbones, either.

As for local currencies -- what, hot-pink San Francisco rubles?  Yeah,

Cellphone banking is happening now among Third Worlders who never saw
a bank in their lives -- forgotten people who'd be spat upon by
conventional bankers.  Their need for money is so dire that even
rapacious cellphone outfits look good to them.

There are two major kinds of poor in this world: people inherently
incapable of generating value for others, and people who are KEPT from
making any money by oppressive systems that don't serve their
interests.  You don't have to be a Marxist to see that this second
problem is a major issue for everybody now.  

The shattered banks are making honest, industrious, capable people go
broke.  It's not that we created some over-complex loan vehicles, and
things would be great if we returned to the limpid honest of the Gold
Standard.  That's idea is wingnut hokum.   Money is always a social
invention. Money is never simple or natural.  Money always has winners
and losers.

The problem with these booming cellphone banking systems -- thriving
in places like Kenya -- is that they are stealth operations.  If the
local kakistocracy caught on that the Little People were actually
making money, they'd drive by in a Mercedes Benz to beat and shoot
them.  Improving things by  stealth has limits.  Kenya isn't like Kenya
by accident.

The same goes for Americans trying to rebel against Wall Street. 
There's no visible other space.  There's no liberated territory.  It's
like rebelling against a funhouse mirror because it makes you look so
fat and stupid.  

I get it about the Phil Gramm argument that one should always put up a
brave front in big troubles.  So Americans are a lame bunch of
crybabies...  I guess the Americans ought to put up with the savage
loss of their comforts, privileges, prerogatives and civil rights, and
let the likes of Phil get on with the everyday plunder.  

But dude, this is not just a bad vibe happening.   Merrill Lynch is
gone. Enron is long gone.  Madoff is a crook.  The big boys are
hurting.  Cities are broke, states are broke, the feds are a
laughingstock.  The Congress and the former Administration have fully
earned the public's contempt.  You can't "blame the media" for that. 
Even the media's broke -- ESPECIALLY the media.    You can't pull a
Reagan, triple the national debt and pretend that everything's jolly.

I agree that there's an irrational panic now.  There are also a large
crowd of severe, real-world, fully rational, deeply structural problems
that have gone unconfronted for years.  These problems are not
directly responsible for the money panic, but the blatant neglect there
has created an atmosphere of crisis. 

The Iraq War was a harebrained adventure that wrecked the
international community.  And to what end?  The War on Terror is a
bust: stateless terror is the new status quo.  

Huge demographic changes in the world have not been confronted.  Why
are the victors of World War II still the so-called Security Council?  
What real security are they providing most living people today?   

The planet's population is aging.  Contemporary Italy looks like a
Florida retirement city.  And it's not just the rich white guys who
forgot to have kids -- Mexico is also rapidly aging, and China has
one-child families.  We lack the financial capacity to allow retirement
funds to run the world.  We can't have ninety-year-old rentiers who
are rich when young people can't go to college.  That doesn't compute.

Then there's energy.  I'm not a Peak Oil guy, but of course wild
turbulence in energy prices is gonna put people on edge.  How can any
person of reasonable prudence invest, plan and build with that kind of

Last, and slowest, and worst, there's the climate.  The planet's
entire atmosphere is polluted.  Practically everything we do in our
civilization is directly predicated on setting fire to dead stuff. 
Climate change is a major evil.  It's vast in scope and it's
everywhere.  The climate crisis would be a major issue even for a
technically with-it bright-green secular Utopia, where every single
citizen was an MIT grad.  Of course our world looks nothing like that. 
 Nor will it.

The people fighting climate change -- they look like Voltaire
combatting Kings and Popes.  They're still eighty percent witty
comments.  They have a foul, hot wind at their backs, but they don't
yet have the battalions.  

Communism, capitalism, socialism, whatever: we've never yet had any
economic system that recognizes that we have to live on a living
planet. Plankton and jungles make the air we breathe, but they have no
place at our counting-house.  National regulations do nothing much for
that situation.  New global regulations seem about as plausible as a
new global religion.

None of this a counsel of despair.  Seriously.  We dare not despair
because in any real crisis, the pessimists die fast.   This is a frank
recognition of the stakes. It's aimed at the adults in the room.  

Let me put it this way. People don't have to solve every problem in
the world in order to be happy.  People will always have problems. 
People ARE problems.  People become happy when they have something
coherent to be enthusiastic about.  People need to LOOK AND FEEL
they're solving some of mankind's many problems.  People can't stumble
around in public like blacked-out alcoholics, then have some jerk like
Phil Gramm tell them to buck up.

When you can't imagine how things are going to change, that doesn't
mean that nothing will change.  It means that things will change in
ways that are unimaginable.  
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #15 of 177: KUMBAYISTA! (smendler) Fri 2 Jan 09 11:33

>>Communism, capitalism, socialism, whatever: we've never yet had any
economic system that recognizes that we have to live on a living

Designing such a system should be pretty high on the to-do list, then.
 Are there any economists - or anyone else, for that matter - working
on that task?  

I am so much looking forward to getting past the old
socialism/capitalism arguments, and having some new terms to work with
that don't just provoke kneejerk reflexive reactions but actually
require some thought and contemplation.
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #16 of 177: KUMBAYISTA! (smendler) Fri 2 Jan 09 11:36
This is a marvelous quote, btw:

>>When you can't imagine how things are going to change, that doesn't
mean that nothing will change.  It means that things will change in
ways that are unimaginable.  <<
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #17 of 177: Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Fri 2 Jan 09 11:37
<left-wing green yeoman peasantry>

<counsel of despair>

<frank recognition of the stakes>

<change in ways that are unimaginable>

"left-wing, yeoman and peasantry" are your words, Bruce. "Green"––
however ostentatiously the big corporations have appropriated the
concept––is a vital concept for the future of humanity.

How can we have a frank recognition of the unimaginable?  If we can
imagine better groundrules for the Power Moguls, perhaps there will be
hope for our great grandchildren. Derisive assessments from wired
foxholes won't get us there.  

Yes, to what <smedler> suggests in #15
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #18 of 177: (jacob) Fri 2 Jan 09 12:01
One thing that's come to mind lately is your bit about the RFID'd hammer
that you could lend to a neighbour and yet always know where it was.
Netflix and City Car Share implement certain aspects of that already, and I
can see that trend continuing.

But one aspect of that model of being able to rely on access to shared
resources is that consumption will be reduced.  Most of that reduction will
be in consumption that was wasted, so in the long term this will be good
for efficiency, but in the short-medium term it seems likely to be another
destabilizing force for the economy.  Everywhere that we can trim a little
off with a little application of IT, we will.  Corporations are doing this
internally in a huge way that's not totally visible - they can see the
savings from uniform implementation in a way that individual households
can't - but the consumer versions will follow.  This can't help but depress
demand.  Any thoughts on that, a few years on from the hammer example?

My other frequent thought is that the US and Europe are already
post-scarcity economies, in large part.  The costs of everything have
crashed, and the asset bubbles we've had are partially about the problem in
establishing stable returns in an economy where prices are naturally always
dropping from technological advances.  The US, much of Western Europe,
Japan, maybe Korea, are already more than capable of producing a house,
car, furniture, appliances, clothing, and food for all of their inhabitants
using capital (though perhaps not resources) that already exists within
their countries.  For all kinds of reasons most of those places don't
actually do that, but they could.  The current organization of society
requires a large section to live in poverty, pour encourager les autres,
but the majority of the population live in a state where the basics of life
are assumed to be birthrights.

Meanwhile, about a 1/3 of the world lives in an extreme scarcity economy,
and another 1/3 lives in the garbage produced by the rich 1/3's
post-scarcity economy - China, India, Russia, primarily.  That is, they've
absorbed the cheap labour, pollution, and destructive resource extraction
parts of the rich world economy in the hope of joining it one day.
Probably not wrong about that prospect, either.

But the US hasn't (until recently) seemed to be looking hard at ways to
keep the machine running when non-scarcity and technological advance are
undercutting profit margins and employment.  In fact, planning in the US
seems to have devolved, via the MBA culture, to looking no further than the
next quarter, with evident consequences in the economy.  This has reduced
the financial industry to noise trading rather than investment, and the
disruptions of that approach are evident too.  Do you think might mark a
turning point in planning versus laissez-faire, or will it be back to
business as usual by 2010?
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #19 of 177: Hugh Watkins (hughw1936uk) Fri 2 Jan 09 13:48
change, and death, are the only certainties in our tiny lives
(cosmically seen)

A seven year basic economic cycle has long been a popular, if
unprovable, theory

Concurently with 9 and 13 year cycles causing peaks and troughs by
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #20 of 177: (dana) Fri 2 Jan 09 14:52
George Mokray writes:

I follow both Kunstler and Robb and have my beefs with both (Kunstler
doesn't want to organize and Robb believes he's discovering everything
himself, to be overly harsh about it).  What I'm finding here in the
city streets of Cambridge, MA is that we have been following a Gandhian
economic path.  The newest example is the monthly weatherization
barn-raisings we do.  A small group, which could be characterized as a
seva ashram, organizes a barnraising on a local house and 30 to 40
people come over and insulate everything they can reach in a half day
and install energy efficiency devices all over the place.  One house
gets tighter resulting in immediate savings of energy and money and
more comfort and a whole group of people learn how to do the same
things for themselves.  This could be considered local production,
swadeshi but, instead of spinning thread for khadi cloth on a spinning
wheel (recently the traditional charha spinning wheel has been adapted
to generate electricity from the same hand motion that spins the
thread), we are weatherstripping windows and doors and caulking cracks
in the foundation.  

The thirty year campaign for farmers' markets and local (organic)
foods may also be considered as an exercise in Gandhian economics as
well.  Gandhian economics is small group economics, collaborative
economics where the object is not greater per capita consumption or GDP
but full and productive employment.  It is a labor-intensive

What I keep on discovering is that the best responses to our present
predicaments have been available for decades.  The only thing is we
don't usually do them until the manure hits the ventilation system and
some trendy new guru comes around to proclaim the next revelation.

But then I'm still waiting for somebody to update Edward Sylvester
Morse's 1881 solar HVAC patent and that the New Alchemy Institute
proved the efficacy and economics of small-scale agriculture around
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #21 of 177: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 2 Jan 09 15:40
New Alchemy Institute was visionary, an excellent model that we should
revive - probably on every city block.

"Among our major tasks is the creation of ecologically derived human
support systems - renewable energy, agriculture aquaculture, housing
and landscapes. The strategies we research emphasize a minimal reliance
on fossil fuels and operate on a scale accessible to individuals,
families and small groups. It is our belief that ecological and social
transformations must take place at the lowest functional levels of
society if humankind is to direct its course towards a greener, saner

"Our programs are geared to produce not riches, but rich and stable
lives, independent of world fashion and the vagaries of international
economics. The New Alchemists work at the lowest functional level of
society on the premise that society, like the planet itself, can be no
healthier than the components of which it is constructed. The urgency
of our efforts is based on our belief that the industrial societies
which now dominate the world are in the process of destroying it."
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #22 of 177: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 2 Jan 09 16:03
I like that George gives us something to think about that's concrete,
local, and scalable. Isn't that how we have to approach solutions?
Global scale abstraction doesn't speak to us as well.

Bruce, what kinds of solutions are you seeing from designers,
inventors, and other innovators that you're hanging out with? 
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #23 of 177: Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Fri 2 Jan 09 16:08
re: "Last year was the first year when I've felt genuinely sorry for
responsible, well-to-do people.  Suddenly they've got the
precariousness of creatives, of the underclass, without that gleeful
experience of decades spent living-it-up."

What it seems to come down to is that we're all dreamers, and if you
try to suppress that then you end up being susceptible to some
particularly boring dreams, like making a killing on the real estate or
earning a steady 10% per year on the stock market.  And then 40% of
the dreams go up in smoke, but I figure it's like a forest fire.  The
results may look bleak, but for the survivors, life goes on.  It goes
on whether you learned anything or not, though I hope we do.

One thing we learned from last year's rise and fall of gas prices is
that people really do respond to incentives, but a system that's
over-adapted to an artificial stability can't keep up.
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #24 of 177: (jacob) Fri 2 Jan 09 18:59
I think I am going to file "over-adapted to an artificial stability" away
for later.  That's an excellent description.
inkwell.vue.343 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World, 2009
permalink #25 of 177: Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Fri 2 Jan 09 19:24
<Global scale abstraction doesn't speak to us as well>

Grass roots, bottom up communal-style barn-raisings or Gandhian
economics all sound like good, plausible hippie-speak solutions to me. 
Yet grassroots approaches in no way negate global concerns and global
approaches to positive change.  Certainly with the internet and
commerce becoming worldwide, global scale considerations become less
and less abstract every day. It is the mindset of the large-scale
business and political players that especially need to be persuaded or
coerced into more earth-friendly behavior.  

This is the emerging new Zeitgeist of our time. It has to be if we are
to avoid awful collapses within our human civilizations.  Our brains
are getting better at comprehending planetary ecology as a system
possessing its own slow-moving intelligence, and the world as a living
system that is now reacting to the collective excesses of human
behavior.  Such awareness is the first step to imagining necessary
large-scale behavioral modification.  The "ecological footprint
analysis tool" from the University of British Columbia, is one such
large-scale, conceptual manifestation that is not an abstraction.


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