inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #0 of 196: Brady Lea (brady) Sat 4 Jan 14 20:19

It's time for the 2014 edition of the state of the world conversation with
Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky. The WELL has hosted this conversation
every year since 2000, ranging free through the worlds of technology,
design, politics, high and low culture, and fashion.

Bruce Sterling is a science fiction author, journalist, design theorist and
critic, and public speaker. Since he lives in Europe and travels the world
attending conferences and speaking, Bruce brings a high altitude broad
perspective to the table. 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


Jon Lebkowsky is a future-focused social polymath and lately skeptical
Internet maven. He's been a social commentator, gonzo futurist, media
analyst and critic, web consultant/developer, and online 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:


inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #1 of 196: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 5 Jan 14 10:47
1993 was the birth of the mainstream Internet, with the arrival of the
Mosaic browser and the first steps toward privatization of the
backbone and a move away from the acceptable use policy that prohibited
commercial activity. Two decades later, in 2013, the Internet as we
knew it, a network of networks, is dead, replaced by a network that has
become the de facto platform for delivering media. Media is no longer
strictly professional, anyone can produce content of any kind, but the
culture of free is dying, and professional content production is
finding an audience again, and finding ways to extract payment for
access to established professional writers, musicians, videographers,
etc. At the same time, anybody anywhere can create content and drop it
into a more or less public channel. The volume of information, new and
replicated, is exploding.

Bruce made a related point last year, as he came up with the concept
of "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. "

This is pretty well-established theology at this point, but I think
we're still in a transition with attendant confusion. These stacks and
related businesses are all about media and marketing, and they require
massive cycles of content, not so much as product but as fuel for the
engines of commerce. So the pipes are full of information, but it's
less reliable than ever - we're missing the intermediary vetting within
the cycle, everybody's running just to stay in the race. And where
media is amplified by a proliferation of content - channels and sources
- there's more room for media manipulation, political propaganda and
commercial marketing messages are embedded, often indistinguishably, in
the signal and the noise. 

Given all this, and implications that will emerge as we talk over the
next couple of weeks, I'd say the current state of the world is

Bruce, how's life across the pond?
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #2 of 196: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Mon 6 Jan 14 04:53
Well, it's 2014, and I thank goodness the WELL is still here.  I've
never been so happy to have an Internet account that doesn't belong to
some ultra-rich creep.

It'll be hard, this year, not to dwell obsessively on the capering
specters of the NSA, Snowden, Wikileaks, Bitcoin… 2013 turned out to be
the year when the Digital Revolution trended Stalinist.  Old-school
Digital Bolsheviks scattered hapless in every direction, as Big Data
Killer Bot Commissars scoured the darkening landscape, and Trotsky went
to ground in Ecuador.  

An extraordinary atmosphere of sullen, baffled evil, as the year
opens.  I don't know what to compare 2014 to --  except for many other
glum post-revolutionary situations, when the zealots succeeded in
toppling the status quo, then failed to install a just and decent form
of civil order.  The world in 2014 is like a globalized Twitter Egypt.

What's become of yesterday's august, sturdy, pre-digital institutions?
 For instance: why does the United States even have a Congress, in
2014?  Is it habit?  The Congress doesn't do anything now.  Everybody
despises them.  They despise themselves even more than the public does.

Of course it's easy and traditional for the American public to curse
the Congress, but they've never been this low in their own self-esteem.

Is it any wonder that the NSA took a page from Google, and started
throwing money in the direction of anything that even LOOKED like it
might be surveillance?  The NSA interpreted privacy as damage and
routed around it.  Why not give that a try?  The NSA has no effective
civilian oversight.  Whoever does?  

Suppose the entire US Congress came to your house in a body, to you,
as a citizen, and they told you, well,  anything at all -- in their
collective wisdom -- something minor maybe, say they recommended a
roach insecticide, for instance.  Would you take that act at face
value?   Would you listen to the Congress with the respect due legally
elected officials, and do what they said?

"Hey," you might say,  "the  US Congress is the legitimate, elective
legislative body of a superpower;  so they can't be that bad!  I'd
better buy that aerosol can and spritz it around some!"  Would you do
that?  Really?  Wouldn't you pull an NSA, and pretend to do it, and
then lie to them, lying as minimally as you could?   

After all, the NSA has got a job to do just like the rest of us, while
the Congress has spent entire years now trying to drown itself in a

Half the US population thinks the the US Congress is trying to murder
them with health care.  I guess that Congress Log is better than a
malignly active Congress Stork -- at least they're not impeaching
anybody now -- but it's  weird to see a legislative body with so little
self-confidence or sense of its own credibility.  They really seem
disrupted, irrelevant, in a hapless Gothic decline, as if the Congress
is eager to be unplugged and then replaced by some Silicon Valley
solutionist lobbyist market-for-votes.
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #3 of 196: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Mon 6 Jan 14 04:57
Before we start geeking out majorly on 2014's many scandalous
cyber-issues here -- and me especially, because, well, gee whiz --
let's have a brief review of the changes seen between the last WELL
State of the World, and this  new one for 2014.

Last year, I started by listing some more-or-random interest groups
who seemed to me to likely to have a rather good time in 2013.  I
figured these interest-groups looked perky and energetic, and maybe
they would prosper, or at least be fun to watch.  How'd they do?

  --->  "#1. The  3d printer guys.  Just so interesting!  Gotta love

*Well, the 3D crowd did have a pretty good time of it in 2013.  Then
their little hobby markets started saturating, and also some cruel
patent-trolling broke out.  They're still doing okay, but the buzz of
2014 has moved to "wearables."  Whatever that is.  "Wearables" means
all kinds of stuff.  A 3DPrinter is a genuine, kind-of functional
machine, but a "wearable" is pretty vaporware, almost as vague as

*When wearables arrive, I hope they're Italian.  If you've gotta wear
the damn things all the time, they ought to at least look elegant.

----> "#2.  Koreans.   2012 was all about K-pop and Samsung."  

*Samsung, a true industrial titan now. Tremendous year in 2013.  If I
was a K-pop guy, though, I'd be seriously upset about the North Korean
regime ruthlessly machine-gunning members of their own ruling family. 
I'm hard-put to imagine that ending well.  Kinda puts a pall on the
disco party there.

--->  "#3. Indians. Bollywood has long been a hobbyhorse of mine…"

*Man, did they ever cash in with Indian cinema in 2013.  Just maharaja
heaps of glittering rupees.  Unheard-of.  I dunno what they're gonna
do with all that wealth. I don't think they know, either.  They've
never had that much money in the "filmi" biz.  I'll keep watching.

----> "#4  Turks.  Sure, Turks are pretty miserable, but just look at
the truly awful state of everybody else around them!"  

*The awfulness around the Turks is still there, but then the Turkish
regime had to go buy and money-launder all that Iranian oil. Back to
the dark clouds of the Shadow State for dear old Turkey.  They've sure
got a lot of enemies, but they are their own worst foes.  Another
great, missed opportunity by a nation with a genius for missing them.

----> "#5.  China.  Yes, they're very big and powerful… everybody
around China is keenly resentful
of their island-snatching behavior…."

*Boy, I'll say.  In 2013, the Japanese premier went and stepped on the
live wire of Asian politics, twice.  Because he went to the local war
criminal cemetery, which, for 60 years, has been as bad PR-wise as the
Bridge on the River Kwai.  

*Yet everybody concerned -- Koreans, Taiwanese, Yankees, Vietnamese,
whoever -- after this ghastly affront, they were like: "Well, I reckon
he had to do that! Better scrape up some live debris from Fukushima,
and build some offensive warheads!  This is a new China, and we don't
like 'em at all.  Man up, Japanese guys!"

*Maybe it feels good to be aggressively Japanese, yet finally out of
the bad odor of World War II.  Much like their colleagues the moderns
Germans, those champions of free expression and stalwart enemies of
wiretapping.  Coolest guys around when it comes to modern freedom and
dignity, Germans.  They're kind of amazing.

*What the hell, nobody can remain the picture of evil forever. 
Especially with the Chinese doing their level best to grab the red-hot
crown of Sauron there.

----> "#6 Tea Party guys. Acidheads have had more coherent thinking
than these Creationist Randite gold-bar-eating pro-coal zillionaire
market fundie

*The Tea Party did okay in 2013.  I don't think they lost any votes. 
They're even a little more measurably Creationist than they were back
in January 2013.  They think they'll win the Presidency next time, but
after four years of their crazy obstinacy, what's left of American
governance?  If you think of the Tea Party as useful idiots for larger
forces that want to destroy the middle class and the nation-state,
they're a wonderfully successful group.  A thousand times more
effective than Occupy, for sure.

*The Tea Party gold-bug contingent lost a heap of money this year. 
The Tea Party preppers are starting to look like a dress-up fantasy
subculture of some kind, rather like steampunks.  Still, the Tea Party
at least gets the satisfaction of being mulish and spiteful, and that's
what they like best.

--->  "#7 Qataris.  The financiers of Al Jazeera, of the Arab Spring,
Egypt, Libya, Syria, etc etc." 

*Their Qatari zillionaire Renaissance went badly bust in Syria.  Back
to the drawing board.  If you can wipe the blood and nerve gas off a
drawing board, that is.

---->  "#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."  

*It turned out the NSA was studying the Stacks better than anybody
else. In 2013, kindly, ultra-popular, liberating social media turned
into sinister surveillance marketing, almost overnight!  And there are
plenty more scandalous shoes to drop.  If "DropoutJeep" is inside the
iPhone, what's inside the Kindle, what's inside the Android?  What's
inside the PC, even?   "NSA Inside."

*The Stacks could have rallied and risen to this grave political
crisis, but they haven't.  They hunkered down, blinked at each other,
and muttered into their beer. It's like they all stared straight into
the five Portraits of Dorian Gray.  
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #4 of 196: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Mon 6 Jan 14 04:58
Google was going wild in early 2013, they were like android demigods. 
Now Google is, all of a sudden, presto, Russia.  Google is a
surveillance secret-police empire with spy binoculars on their faces.
Sergey Brin's pet Moonshots are just a lame prestige show.  

It's sad, really.  Larry and Sergei used to be the Not-Evil Guys, they
empowered the users and won their instinctive trust.  Now, if Snowden
entered the boardroom of Google, Larry and Sergei would shriek in
falsetto like the Wicked Witches of the West and melt into two puddles
of black wax.

That doesn't make Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Amazon any better
than Google -- Facebook in particular, oh my God -- but it's the first
time that these new titans of American industry have really looked
genuinely ugly.  Just, nasty. Because they're rich and powerful, but
they're also narcs.  They're creeps and snoops.  They're police

They were kinda tricked into it -- but everybody knows it, and their
unwillingness to face up the stark embarrassment is an act of tacit
consent. The Brazilians, Germans, French, Italians, Russians, the
Chinese ten times over, everybody, they all know.  It takes a while for
that kind of damage to the reputation to sink in, but it will.

They're not done, or anything -- the Stacks didn't get the witch-hunt
pitchfork, like Huawei did -- but they'll never again be the
fresh-faced cowboys of the Electronic Frontier.  They're cattle barons
now, and Silicon Valley stinks of their manure.  Gold rushes finish
ugly, in California.  

There's gonna be a way out of this -- before Apple showed up, in the
1950s and 1960s, the US population was terrified of "computers." 
Computers were considered inhuman, Orwellian instruments of folding,
spindling, and mutilation.  Computers have always had a dark side of
spying and encryption, ever since Alan Turing.  Geeks kind of like
spooks, actually, since they're both keen on obscure forms of technical
power.  But now we've got major-league geek spooks, and politicians
who roll over for 'em.  Not good. 

I'm guessing that some genius will find the reality-distortion field
and turn that around again, but not during 2014. We're in for a year
when the Global Village is Spook Country.
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #5 of 196: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Mon 6 Jan 14 05:00
I happen to be in Belgrade again -- I'll be here a few more days -- 
and things certainly have gone swimmingly for the current Serbian
government.  I don't know anyone anywhere who expected the "Radikalni"
to do so well, once in power.   Who would have thought that a political
party called "Radicals" would actually be radicals?

The Radikalni do genuinely radical things, by local standards. They
make people pay taxes.  They inspect  things.  They punish corruption. 
They negotiate with former enemies, sign treaties and build
infrastructure.  They feed the living and they bury the dead, and boy
do they ever win elections.  

I've never before been in a Serbia with an actual government running
it. I mean, Serbia is basically a small ethnic chunk from a
not-very-big failed state of the 1990s.  The region didn't much seem to
need a national government at all, as far as I could see.  

But the Radikalni are like some long-postponed 1989 new-broom thing
happening. They've become a newfangled national regime.  It's like they
know how to run a country, even.

It's not like the Radikalni are nice 89er hippie liberation guys or
anything, but I've never seen Serbia in such a state of public
contentment and apparent stability.  It's truly startling. 

This development gives me the conviction that pessimism is public
affairs is just a kind of arrogance.  It's just flat-out impossible to
know what people may be capable of, and even Mr Scrooge, that cramped
and miserable man who was one bent, splintered mass of crooked-timber,
can wake up one fine Christmas morning, mystically transformed into
whatever the hell Mr Scrooge was after that.

They may even join the EU, Serbia.  And then what?  I've always been
quite interested in Serbia, but now I'm interested in it for whole sets
of new reasons.
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #6 of 196: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 6 Jan 14 05:48

On the ground in the USA, it's surprising how blasé (outside EFFish
geekdom) has been the response to NSA surveillance and new maps of the
panopticon, slightly revealed by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. It's not
that we don't want or even expect privacy.  It's more like a state of
shock, the reality of growing persistent domestic surveillance is
somehow distant an unreal. It's like we're watching the Man from
U.N.C.L.E., the bad acts are bad video, some sort of fiction imposed by
deus ex Tom Clancy.  We have the same response to the careful
dismantling of government and whole sections of the former middle class
- it's a film by Frank Capra, or maybe Judd Apatow.  A cheesy bit of
cinema that will somehow resolve itself, credits will eventually roll,
we'll step out of the fantasy and into the light of day, and everything
will be fine, just fine. But what we're watching is not cinema, but a
maleficent YouTube video gone viral, shot by rabid weasels with an
infected Android, looping constantly like Einstein's definition of
insanity. We've dozed off watching it, fallen into nested dream states
fed by networks of fantasy, no clear way to consciousness.  

Another way to see it: slammed by a firehose of information, it's hard
to know anything, to be other than intellectually numb and detached
from any sense of broad existential danger.
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #7 of 196: Brady Lea (brady) Mon 6 Jan 14 10:10

(A quick hello and thank you to you, Bruce & Jon, for doing this topic
again. And welcome, readers!)
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #8 of 196: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Mon 6 Jan 14 11:01
*Oh, I don't worry about the alleged slow response.  Look what I was
saying twelve years ago.  Same social problem, just different brand
names and bandwidth speeds.

*The NSA is older than the computer business.  It's older than I am,
even.  Espionage is the second-oldest profession.
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #9 of 196: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Mon 6 Jan 14 11:17

*I did some cyber-political writing in 2013.  I have the feeling that
I should do more of this, but I'm of two minds about it.  Political
causes I'm keen on don't generally thrive.  Why am I dabbling in this? 
Just because politics are bad?  They're always bad someplace.  

*I'm kind of in the mood to nick on back to Saint Petersburg and
interview Pussy Riot -- because, hey, my Slavic punk-rock spouse would
dearly love to go -- but is that stunt, even if doable, actually WORTH
IT??  Don't Masha and Nadya and the hard-bitten dudes from the "War
Group" have enough arty trouble already?  It's easy to turn on the
hot-water tap with a gesture like that, but, well….

*Also, despite my better impulses, I just can't get over feeling sorry
for the NSA.  I've run into NSA people on a number of occasions.  They
were always entirely polite and kind to me; I got the impression that
they somehow perceived me as one of their own.  They are my readers,
those high-IQ spook geeks, and well, I can sense this is a tragedy for
them.  It's worse for them, it's lots worse, than Assange was for the
US State Department.  

And what's next, for heaven's sake?  It's not like this process is
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #10 of 196: Eric Mankin (stet) Mon 6 Jan 14 11:50
Lot's to do in St. P. besides interview Pussy Riot. And the Baltic
states are a quick & fun drive south, full of interesting sociology.
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #11 of 196: Roland Legrand (roland) Mon 6 Jan 14 12:12
Couldn't there be some cyberpunkish understanding of what the
NSA-spooks are doing? We're exponentially increasing the power of
individuals and small groups to do great things - we all have extremely
powerful computers in our pockets, the ability to tap into worldwide
communication networks, we can launch biotech labs at relatively little
cost, launch drones, engage in genetic engineering, and I guess soon
also run nanotech experiments. 
While all this can end up in useful or at least fun new products,
services and entertainment, it could also be used to commit acts of
mass-destruction. So the authorities realize that each and everyone of
us could do increasingly horrific things, and so the surveillance of
each and everyone of us seems logical. What follows is a depressing
competition of individuals, good and bad alike, to escape surveillance
using all those wonderful new toys (tor, bitcoin etc) and the state
trying to keep up, corrupting the venerable Stacks along the way. 
Of course it is shocking what Snowden and his friends expose, and how
the authorities in Western democracies organize a man hunt to stop the
leaks. But then again, at least as depressing is the realization that
mass-surveillance could be the logical outcome of our dream of the
ever-increasing empowerment of the individual. 
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #12 of 196: bill braasch (bbraasch) Mon 6 Jan 14 12:37
the 'super empowered angry man' with a ghostbusters job.
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #13 of 196: Gary Gach (ggg) Mon 6 Jan 14 12:45
Welcome back, Bruce. Maybe i the course of the conference we might
touch upon chasm (ever widening? ever thus?) within general InfoSphere.
 For instance, consider chemtrails ... & global warming.  At one end
of this spectrum, an irrational, if not incomprehensible scenario
(what? who? why?) of chemtrails, & at the other end the fairly
credible, yet likewise contested phenomenon of climate change. 

Maybe in the middle we might plunk Fukushima down on the table: 
    1) a threat to life as we know it on the west coast of North
America, of numerous orders of magnitude of danger, not being reported
(IE covered up) by mainstream media
    2) a magnet for sensationalism, bad data, & absurd conspiracy

Without a circle of friends -- such as the Well -- trying to get a
handle on what's going on may be impossible for any individual who
wishes to dis-inter-mediate from official channels -- except for
trained researchers, journos, futurists, etc
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #14 of 196: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 6 Jan 14 14:37
We know too much (broadly) and we don't know enough (detail), and that
odd quirk of knowing invites us to speculate - about chemtrails, which
may be ordinary contrails but could also be a spew of unknown,
potentially sinister origin.  Or Fukushima: knowing that radioactive
water is flowing from that shattered facility, it's easy enough to
believe something like this: 

I tend to think the real threat to life as we know it is life as we
know it. Maybe we should find another way of knowing? That's something
a circle of friends could consider. Maybe we'll find something new.
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #15 of 196: Morgan Rowe-Morris (rowemorris) Mon 6 Jan 14 14:45
I don't know that it requires a new way of knowing, but it's clear
that we're doing a really horrible job of educating on how to
discriminate between good data and bad. In a lot of ways that's the key
element of succesful research in the digital age.

For an example of someplace to start looking at the issues involved in
teaching the skills needed to deal with the issues arising from
overwhelming access to unfiltered and often unverifiable data check out
the ALA's digital citizenship project.
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #16 of 196: Eric Mankin (stet) Mon 6 Jan 14 17:13
What does seem to have become complicated in exploding terasets of
teradata is provenance. Lots of analyze, better and better tools to
analyze it, but it's all ones and zeros without tattoos or fingerprints
or backstory. And that's not even assuming someone is trying to

Analysis has always been a huge challenge for even smart analysts. But
the provenance issue has previously been clearer. Now, more and more,
it's there. I know some people doing big data for science at least are
working on providing provenance.

But it seems there's a lot to do. 
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #17 of 196: Worried Pig (oink) Mon 6 Jan 14 18:02
As we know, Der Spiegel released some notes taken from the NSA's
so-called Catalog of goodies. Here's a link to Jacob Applebaum's speech
which explains some of the inter relationships amongst Catalog items,
and puts them into context. It's chilling in places.

the transcriptors did a good job in that there are two versions of his
speech - a written transcript for the skim-readers, and the video
version for the full flavour, dark humour etc. (just over an hour)
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #18 of 196: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 6 Jan 14 20:33
Re. surveillance, here's something from my 2013 top ten culture blasts
post (more at

"In 2013 our level of trust was low and declining. We especially don’t
trust governments and corporations with our data because we’re so
increasingly aware of the potential for, if not the fact of, abuse. To
some extent concerns are legitimate, and to some extent they emerge
from a culture of paranoia that has evolved in the wake of mass media
and network technology, which have had several relevant effects:
greater awareness of abuses when they happen, feeding into myriad
fictional surveillance and pursuit fantasies, and more recently the
emergence of a social media panopticon. But the Snowden revelations
make paranoia feel pretty rational."

Andrew Leonard had a good Salon post on "How to defeat Big Brother"

"Edward Snowden, whether one considers him a traitor or a hero,
indisputably put the issue of government spying on the national table,
and provoked a conversation that seems likely to have real political
consequences. He used the technology available to him to turn the
camera back on the watchers. It’s a model we should be following in
every domain. Let’s turn a closer eye on our employers and our content
providers and our advertisers."
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #19 of 196: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 14 03:40
This year, I happen to be the fiction editor for the 2014
all-science-fiction issue of MIT's  "Technology Review."

I've already lined up a cluster of my favorite fellow-travellers for
the effort, and I'm trying to encourage them to write some science
fiction stories that actually *review technology.*  

Just, like, a literary confrontation with the emergent techno
facts-on-the-ground -- and that's getting harder to do, I think.  It's
not because technology is moving faster, or that we're approaching a
Singularity or anything.   Mind you, that's an excellent sci-fi idea,
"Singularity," it was great of Vernor Vinge to come up with that
concept, everybody knows what it is now, the Singularity, even
long-haired duck hunters in backwoods Louisiana know what a Singularity
is.   It's cool and rare when science-fictional thinking becomes
genuinely popular.

But that's not why it's harder to write science fiction about
technology.   Technology's not moving all that fast in 2014; tech is
simply drifting toward the money, really.  It's hard  to write fiction
about technology because the structure of language is mutating.  Also,
the demographics for printed fiction have collapsed.  So, who is
science fiction talking to?  Why aren't those readers doing something
besides reading science fiction?

Writing popular science reportage is harder now, too,  in a  similar
way.  Who are you talking to, really?  How do you know the nature of
your audience, which is viral, on a network?  How can you frame
difficult, arcane matters in a clear way to these unknown, distant

And why is this news about science even "reporting" -- why aren't you
a blogger, or an activist, or an industry booster; why is this a
"science news story," why isn't it an app, or a Kickstarter?  Why is
this "journalism"?  Isn't journalism a weirdly old-fashioned, visibly
decaying thing to do nowadays, with businesses that can't support
themselves, with methods of production and methods of distribution that
are clearly dwindling away?  How can it be "news" when everything
supporting it is old and rotten?  Reading self-conscious contemporary
"journalism" is like listening to Woodie Guthrie singing to the
Wobblies off the caboose of a train.

Then there's that mutation problem, of literary language and the new
electronic vernaculars.  I consider this a major cultural difficult. 
For instance, nobody has ever invented a novelistic way to capture SMS
messages, which are the way real people basically talk nowadays.  We've
got dialogue conventions that work on a page, but we don't have any
SMS conventions.   They're inelegant.  The result is that literary
language loses vitality.   It's out of touch with the digital
vernacular of popular speech.  

Worse yet, that vernacular itself has become de-stabilized, so even if
you somehow create a situation were people do geekspeak at each other,
they're geekspeaking with the hardware and software of, say, 2009. 
When, oh my goodness, Snapchat was completely unheard of.

So fiction is losing its ability to marinate itself in the tenor of
the times, and to create a cultural sensibility, to be the credible
witness or social guide to "the way things are now."  "The way things
are now" are no longer what pages and paragraphs are about.  Literary
communication is a subset of communication, and communication is in

Science fiction is a literature about the way things *aren't,*  which
sounds ideal for the situation in some ways.  But science fiction
suffers in a society that scorns the authority of science, a society
with a weak, irrelevant realm of belles-lettres.  It's like being a
cutting-edge video artist when people are smashing vacuum-tube TVs with
hammers in the streets.
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #20 of 196: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 14 03:41
So I'm doing my best to edit this  TECHNOLOGY REVIEW mag, and I'd even
like my fiction issue to be quite "state of the world" in approach; no
comforting adventure tales about marrying vampires, keen though we are
on that mythic prospect, in our modern day.  

However, I don't have a solution to the problem of the kind of science
fiction I'd like to see; if I did, I'd likely be writing it instead of
editing it.

Maybe somebody else has this figured out better than me.  Maybe you're
not a science fiction writer at all, maybe you're, like, eighteen or
something, so to you this is all stunningly obvious.  If so, I'd love
to publish your entirely up to date and relevant, clued-in story, or
"text," or whatever the fuck it is, and I'll give you a couple of
thousand dollars, too.  Because I've got an editorial budget; it's the
clue that I lack.

If people I've never heard refuse to send me what I need, then, well
I'll try to persuade some other people I already know to do it.  Or to
write, well, whatever,  For instance, I really wish I could publish a
Brian Aldiss story in TECHNOLOGY REVIEW.  Anything by him would do, I
guess.  He's 88 years old now, Brian, but in my opinion he's the
greatest science fiction critic ever.  

There were better critics who wrote about science fiction, but Brian
Aldiss is a science fiction practitioner who was able to see that
creative milieu from the inside out.  He understood it in a
sympathetic, intimate, yet clear-eyed and honest way.

There were some painful lessons for me in what Aldiss had to say about
science fiction; for instance, he once wrote that no science fiction
novel has ever been a great novel.  I was upset about that when I first
read it, as I naturally wanted to object, "Hey, wait a minute, what
about this awesome mind-bending space opera that I've already read five
times," but Aldiss was right.  

Science fiction novels aren't great novels, not because the writers
are no good, because science fiction novels don't do the right thing to
become great novels.   If Aldiss wasn't right, then you, the WELL
reader, wouldn't be here; you'd be off in a book-lined campus studio
listening to a seminar on the "State of World Literature 2014," and
you'd be thrilled by it, too, because that would be what culture was

I can imagine a world where that would be true, but it sure isn't true
of this one.  Meanwhile, Brian doesn't read a lot of science fiction
at the age of 88; he reads Tolstoy.  Brian reads Tolstoy *critically,*
mind you, but he reads Tolstoy.   I totally get it about that.  I find
it comforting.   Maybe it has to be that way.   I'm a '77 punk-music
type, but I'm typing this while listening to Django Reinhart.  I can
listen to Django Reinhart for hours, nowadays.  I've got big digitized
iTune heaps of Monsieur Django, just plonking away on his timeless
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #21 of 196: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 7 Jan 14 07:49

* nobody has ever invented a novelistic way to capture SMS messages

That's like saying nobody's invented a novelistic way to capture
conversation - I don't think of SMS as special or radically new, just
another form of verbal communication.  I see it as asynchronous
telephony. I've read fiction that effectively incorporates SMS
messaging - e.g. Stephen King's _Doctor Sleep_, a recent popular

Seems to me that there's no dearth of good writing or interesting
ideas. I haven't read a lot of science fiction lately, but I hear that
the emerging SF authors eschew far future speculations and space opera,
and focus more on explorations of consciousness. Maybe you could look
for fiction about "consciousness technologies," a term Paco Nathan
used, and possibly coined,  in the early 90s.
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #22 of 196: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 7 Jan 14 07:51
An aside about content...

There's confusion about writing and other forms of media, because with
social media public channels have emerged, proliferated, and filled
with blobs of content that, pre-Internet, were private or at least
contained within smaller circles of friends and acquaintances. 

Now there's a deluge of media, and our attention is challenged, where
do we focus, where do we find quality media? 

We still have professional writing and other media vetted by editors
or similar, maybe we call them content strategists, but the content
they oversee and distribute is mixed with (sometimes well done,
sometimes not) amateur media, cloaked marketing messages, and the
ineluctable cycles of noise. 

I find that, when I avoid social media (which is not often), my focus
improves; I feel less fragmented and "smarter."  As someone who has
evangelized for the Internet we have today, a proponent of social media
and freedom to connect, I'm finding the down side, and others are
finding it, too. I think that explains why professional media is
finding an audience again, even an audience that's willing to scale a
pay wall to get at content that's professionally produced.
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #23 of 196: Gail Williams (gail) Tue 7 Jan 14 08:37
The recognition of a widespread need to/fear of unplugging seems like
the biggest cultural/technical change over my lifetime. 

Thinking about Django Reinhart reminds me that his music was radical
and not timeless when it was first played.  Earlier, edgy radical
artists organized "Societe Anonyme Cooperative des Artistes Peintres,
Sculpteurs, Graveurs" -- sounds like something contemporary except for
the graveurs -- and now impressionism is accessible, in some contexts
cliched and sentimental.    

For all these shocking punk-rebellion moments, in all those popular
forms, the emotional impact of the break from the past soon gets lost,
except as a footnote.  Art works can become timeless-feeling partly
because it's so easy to break history into a couple of simple chunks,
roughly "these days," "not so long ago," and the "timeless" past. 

Shakespeare's major works are great, but reading or staging them
requires a lot of footnotes, mostly about the language of the time. 
I think allowing for footnotes makes great speculative fiction work
that could endure and be accessible highly possible. If there is ever
consensus on what is great, that is.  Maybe -- I hope -- we are just
waiting for the great SF work to be written?  
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #24 of 196: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 7 Jan 14 08:52
    <scribbled by jonl Tue 7 Jan 14 08:53>
inkwell.vue.473 : Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky: State of the World 2014
permalink #25 of 196: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 7 Jan 14 08:54
Tweet from @soycamo: "people in the US are too impoverished and
overworked to care that they're being spied on..."


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