inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #0 of 146: Master of Ceremonies (jonl) Mon 6 Jan 20 09:08
    
Welcome to State of the World 2020, 21st century fruitcake edition.
We hope to find the tasty maraschinos in the fruitcake sludge that
surrounds the beginning of this new decade.  Switching metaphors, we
are approaching the Thundering Twenties ... thunder, rain, and
lightning flashing - right through the middle of it, we'll go
dashing, ignoring the heavy weather, the psychic storms, the
confusion boats steering wild. (h/t Roger Miller)

As always, Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky lead the conversation,
reliable narrators working without spin, at a time we're told (by
the anti-consigliere) that truth isn't truth. We'll be joined by
musician/composer Holly Herndon and philosopher and digital artist
Mat Dryhurst. Also various members of the WELL (our host platform),
and others who follow the conversation and email comments or
questions from time to time. (Send emails to inkwell-hosts at
well.com). 

Bruce is a science fiction author, speaker, sometimes design critic,
and culture hacker known for his many books, writings, and talks.
Jon is co-editor of the Plutopia News Network, writer,  and digital
culture maven. 

If by following this conversation you find synapses firing, if it
makes you get up and move, especially if you feel like dancing, then
we've done our job. Gloomy as the future appears right now, our best
way forward is in the Zimbabwean proverb: "If you can walk, you can
dance, if you can talk, you can sing."

The WELL is a seminal online community that has been around and
active for 35 years.  You can be part of ongoing conversations like
this one by joining the WELL: https://www.well.com/join/  - which
you might want to do if you're tired of the drive-by posting formats
of Facebook and Twitter and would rather be part of a real
community.

Onward we go, through the virtual fog...
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #1 of 146: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 20 01:45
    
MMXX, Year of the Rat!

I'm grateful for our WELL State of the World tradition.  Just
imagine if we lacked the heritage of our commentary here, and we had
to start yelling about the state of our planet's affairs,
flat-footed, from a cold start.

Anybody can spontaneously rant, but a ranting tradition is a
different, nobler, more meaningful matter. It's like making a new
friend, versus cherishing the dwindling number of your old, loyal,
trusted, old ones.   With an established tradition, you know who you
are and where you stand -- even if you're in Ibiza.

Which is where I am now, just like in  WELL SOTW 02018 and 02019.
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #2 of 146: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 20 01:45
    

Are there any major differences between my activities in Ibiza in
02018, and here in MMXX, the mystical dawn of a new decade?  Yeah,
sorta.  

I used to roam the streets of Ibiza as I normally roam streets of
any strange city, toting an efficient global-nomad shoulder-bag,
crammed with electronics and travel-survival knickknacks.  This year
I just carry a  floppy canvas grocery bag.

Admittedly, it's a tote-bag from the distant "Bangalore Literary
Festival," but nobody cares about branding.  If you carry groceries
around in a bag, nobody sees you.  Because obviously you must be
local.

  It's the foreigners and tourists who have those ergonomic,
airplane-centric, efficient bags. They don't slop around with cheap
canvas bags meant for onions.

     So what I'm sporting in Ibiza in MMXX is camouflage for our new
era of ethnonationalism and "overtourism," a term recently invented
in nearby Barcelona.  
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #3 of 146: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 20 01:46
    

    Torino, where I hang out rather more often, is boasting about
their tourism this year.  Their tourist racket is doing great. 
Huge, posh culture shows, hotels packed to capacity.  They figured
out how to chisel tourists in their municipal subway system, the
restaurants shovel "Il Food" into the foreign gourmets, so they're
doing fine.   Turin is still haunted by the Crisis of 2008, so signs
of lively popularity are welcome to them.   

     Barcelona and Ibiza, by contrast,  struggle to keep the jetset
at bay.  They don't build Trump Walls against the tourists, or
confine them in Xinjiang camps, or cut their connectivity
Kashmir-style -- but at basis it's the same phenomenon, just with a
different victim-class.

    I'm never here in Ibiza during the big "season," where the
foreign crowds get intense and obnoxious.   I come to Ibiza to work
on fiction.  I write here without much distraction, because there's
nothing going on in Ibiza this time of year except for road, wharf
and hotel repair.  Even New Years is muted: the native Ibizans don't
party much, because they get paid to do that.

        That's why, in Ibiza in MMXX, I  resemble an Ibiza
construction worker who is out buying some cabbage.  I wear gray
nylon cargo pants and blue-striped Pablo Picasso sailor shirts.  My
shoes look a little weird, but most blue-collar people in Ibiza have
some vague former-hippie cast to them.  Grocery checkout girls have
tattooed fingers, guys mending fishing nets have yin-yang figurines,
suburban gardens have Buddha shrines, that's who they are.  I don't
mind that about them.  I get it. I sympathize.

 Sympathy makes me dress as a guy who would never stay in an AirBnB
or hire an Uber.  These Silicon Valley unicorns have become the
class enemies of Barcelona.  Uber-using AirBnB lurkers are
recognized as potential hostiles.  
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #4 of 146: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 20 01:47
    

    Barcelona hates the twenty-teens digital vanguard just as much
as San Francisco does.  Any allure that globalized network-culture
once held is just  over; it's well past the "New Dark" and the
disbelieving malaise, and advanced into a subdued riot feeling.   

    Anything  that American technology tries to pull in Europe has
Trump's face stamped on it.  Everyone just assumes it's a lie, a
fraud, a subterfuge and a grift, and they're gonna get rooked, if
not murdered by drones.  So far, in response, they can riot or
strike -- in France, for over a year now -- but they can't
accomplish anything administratively, because the entire political
class and the oligarchs have all bought into it. 

    This is not exactly fascist oppression, but it's gone well
beyond mere discontent.  It's an advancing cultural sensibility,
like "New Dark 1.2," where everybody knows the lights have been
turned out, but nobody thinks they're gonna come back on, because
the guys at the fossil power plant want to make Darkness the
standard.
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #5 of 146: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 20 01:48
    


    People like to focus their attention on The Donald, because the
actual media is in abject collapse, so there's nothing but demagogic
social media and the right-wing TV machine, and The Donald is great
at that.  However, this sensibility I'm describing is not merely
American or Trumpian,  it really is the State of the World.  Other
nations have more advanced versions of it than Americans do.

    There used to be certain planetary regions and polities that
were markedly different from the rest, but in MMXX, even though
everybody claims they're antiglobal, sovereign and patriotic,
everybody's very the-same.

   The BRICS for instance, Brazil Russia India China South Africa,
it used to be modish to think that they were an emerging
ex-Third-World bloc  with radically different values, but they
aren't.  Brazil is Trumpistan with a Trump who is less sleepy and
more predatory. 

     Russia is anti-global but pro-oligarch -- they're the only
nation-state that has tamed their rich people, because their spies
eat them.  
 
      India is doing its level best to become China, with a
Trumpistan strongman leader.  India is slavishly following the new
Xinjiang model of naming, numbering, surveilling and confining the
Muslims in vast regions of imposed Internet darkness.  They're also
sending out fascist squadrons of club-wielding Party operatives to
beat up college students.  India is polarizing fast, between the
majority-ethnic ultra-nationalists and everyone else who doesn't
want to get stepped on.  Not a particularly Indian situation.  It's
a state of the world situation with some Indian characteristics.

     South Africa is going sideways, it's just a mess and has no
solutions to offer anybody.

     Britain seems plausibly different because they've engaged in
the most extreme act of frantic self-harm, but they seem to simply
have the high-grade fever version of the some low-grade global
disease that everybody else also has.  I hope to get into some of
Boris Johnson's activities later, because BoJo interests me a lot;
he's a rare version of a political writer who is actually weirder,
and makes up weirder stuff, than most science fiction writers.  Hey,
they elected him.  Whatever noisome slurry that BoJo dishes out in
their Oliver Twist bowls, they were begging for it. 

     I used to closely follow Estonia and Dubai, because they were
small, fast-moving countries, deliberately futuristic and keenly
aware of their own outlier weirdness.  Here in MMXX, I needn't
bother.  Estonia has caught the ethnonational disease, so, instead
of lathering-on their sleek high-tech virtuality, they whine about
foreign immigrants and their precious Estonian-ness.  The autocrat
sheik of Dubai had a sex scandal, and his Vanguard of Happiness got
sour in a hurry when a defector concubine scampered out of the
harem.  It's bad.  It's  not "chop up dissidents with chainsaws"
bad, but it's not good.
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #6 of 146: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 20 01:49
    

     It's strange that there's so much unanimity in this new
worldwide sensibility.  Russia and the USA have never been so much
alike as nations and peoples, ever.  When American Republicans say
they prefer Putin to Democrats, that sounds weird, but Democrats
would probably prefer Putin to Trump.

    China is sort of exotic and different, at least they claim they
have exotic and inscrutable "Chinese Characteristics," but they've
got the huge septic sore of Hong Kong, and all they can do about is
deceive themselves and lie to everybody else.  Xinjiang, the Chinese
high-tech AI solution to Muslim belt-bombs, is so direly unpleasant
that the Han majority, eager merchants who should be flooding out
along the New Silk Road to conquer the planet's Eurasian commerce,
are packing up and leaving Xinjiang.  The normal people are too
disgusted to sell anything.  They can't stand the everyday ugliness.


    In response to these self-made disorders, Xi Jianping, who is an
engineer and used to have some grasp of measurable reality, decides
to re-write both the Koran and the Bible, so as to align these
foreign texts with state-approved Xi Jianping Thought.   Okay, I'm a
novelist with  vague postmodern tendencies, so I wouldn't mind
rewriting the Bible myself.   But really -- you could ask Sun Tzu --
what is the end-game of a politician attacking ancient scripture? 
Could there be any political gesture more blatantly phony,
egomaniacal, self-parodic?  Even Trump doesn't re-write the damn
Bible, he just co-opts all the televangelists.
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #7 of 146: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 20 01:50
    


Also, while all this deceit, mummery, hucksterism and hubristic
fooforaw goes on, mainstream cultural assumptions are quietly
disappearing.  Mainstream consumer capitalism is dying, fast and
silent and for good, like its shopping malls.  There aren't any
"consumers," there are just oligarchs and the rabble.

 There's not a lot that's brand-new in MMXX, but under cover of the
smog, old institutions and assumptions are  disappearing. You can't
just say, "let's go back and do it the old way," because there is
nothing left to be old-fashioned with.  The conservatives  have
destroyed everything they wanted to conserve.  The liberals have
nothing much to be liberal with or about, except gay sex and
marijuana.

   The Republican Party used to be keen on the cultural bedrock of
family values, balancing the budget, nitpicking the Constitution,
global imperialism, military valor, arming the populace...
right-wing, but American right-wing.  In MMXX the Republicans are a 
basic ethnonational party; they're quite like Russians, Hungarians
or Serbs,  hicks who will put up with anything as long as it coddles
their identity issues.  

    Of course they lie about that, but since they're lying about
religion and race, which everybody always lies about, they figure
they've got a mighty fortress there.  It's not all that mighty.  The
Confederacy lost.  Even the Nazis and the Soviets lost.
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #8 of 146: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 20 01:52
    

    It's just not the Republican apparatchiks who have abandoned all
previous moral convictions for a mess of pottage -- all the US
population is like that.  The Americans used to be self-assured,
mobile, visionary, inventive; now they're hunkered-down, dogmatic,
disinterested in any consensus; they're 100% American-Dream-Free.  

    The American life expectancy is in decline: they can't keep
death at bay.  The American health care system is so astonishingly
bad that black Americans escaped being murdered with opioids,
because the racist American sickness-industry refused to prescribe
them any of the pills.  This is the domestic narcotic biz version of
voter suppression.  That is an unhealthy polity.
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #9 of 146: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 20 01:52
    

     The Russians, by contrast, have learned to drink less vodka. 
Their birthrate has even popped up a little.  Physically, they're
improving, and I'm glad at that news  Yes, the Russians are
diligently waging all kinds of asymmetrical warfare, they have built
their own domestic Splinternet to subvert, repel and destroy the
Internet,  and they will pitch any dreadful thing over their
firewall from nerve-gas to barrel-bombs, but I feel happier about
them.   They scared me, because I thought  they would die en masse
of sheer disillusionment,  hapless spite,  weltschmerz and morbid
despair.

    Probably the Russians will manage.  They're a great nation which
is not suicidal.  Their fearless leader will dump the wife of the
children for a sexy gymnast, but they aren't kamikazes, and they
don't need belt-bombs. The Russians in MMXX are Putin-Czarist hick
fundies whose ultra-illusory worldview make literally no sense,  and
deliberately so, but at least they're not dead on their feet.  Even
a dopey GRU assassin from the backwoods of Siberia is less scary
than a hollow-eyed zombie.
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #10 of 146: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 20 01:53
    

     So in MMXX, we're in a world situation that claims to be
post-global and post-Internet and post world-trade, where everybody
wants to take back control, be great again, assure sovereign
cyberspace, set tariffs, jail immigrant tots, beat up ethnic
minorities, nurture billionaires, ignore science, and reduce
education to assure that there are fewer brainy chicks -- but in
practice, there's no big difference among the players.  They ALL do
that.  There's next to no genuine cultural variety.  They all use
the same hardware, slogans and techniques.

      Also, there's no technological innovation in MMXX. Innovation
and invention are out of style.  The closest we've got to innovation
is "capital moating," where you start some allegedly technical
company to screw around with, say, hotels or taxis, and throw so
many billions at the project that businessmen are awed.  That's
financially innovative -- sort of -- it's like the space-aviation
biz staying aloft by angling subsidies.  That's not Moore's Law,
there's nothing amazingly great that is busting out of the garage to
set Google-Apple-Facebook-Amazon-Microsoft on their ear.  There is
no wonderment, because there is no reason to wonder.

    The  fix is in. The Industry has consolidated.  Best of the year
lists from tech journalists have been replaced by lists of the worst
things happening in tech.   For the first time in my life, it's
getting hard to find any genuine technical novelty. 
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #11 of 146: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 7 Jan 20 01:53
    

     Unless, that is, you play Holly Herndon records -- not that
Holly makes "records" out of fossil-fueled vinyl, for that would be
antique.  However, I stream a lot of mp3s off the laptop into the
Ibiza stereo here, and whenever I play Holly Herndon, that's when my
wife stops whatever she's doing and demands "What is that?  Where
did that come from?"

    In her most recent effort, "Proto," it came from Dr Herndon's
deep-learner Artificial Intelligence that was trained to sing in
chorus with human beings, and that is some chorus.  We anticipate
that Dr Herndon and her Significant Technical Associate, Matt
Dryhurst, will join our chorus here in the State of the World.  They
may be on tour, or DJing, but whatever happens to musicians will
happen to everybody.   
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #12 of 146: Lena via lendie (lendie) Tue 7 Jan 20 06:14
    
What can one say after that bit of cheer but Happy New Year and
Happy New Decade!
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #13 of 146: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 7 Jan 20 06:45
    
We're into overtourism ourselves, lately. Not the royal we, but my
longtime spouse/partner Marsha and I. She's plugged into an array of
travel networks, and planning trips has become her full-time
preoccupation. Even as we travel, she's planning the next few trips.


We spent some time in Miami Beach recently, a shiny place with
creative spunk, great food, wild clothes, a graffiti aesthetic, hot
cars buzzing the streets. All I could think was how it would all be
under water in a decade. It felt haunted, in a way. When you live
there, do you think about this inevitable future disaster? A few
years ago we visited the Washington coast, destined someday to be
wiped out by a tidal wave when the Cascadia subduction zone slips.
We discussed the potential disaster with a woman working in a
restaurant, and I mentioned evac signs and safety plans. She said
there's no way we can escape when it hits. The safety plan is mostly
to help children sleep at night, apparently. A park ranger told us
she'd been living with the possibility all her life, yet she
remains. She'd shaved her head, as if for frictionless escape.
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #14 of 146: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 7 Jan 20 06:46
    
Human extinction seems inevitable, at least on one level, but on
another level we just keep living, moving, working, making,
ruminating, traveling, entertaining, eating, sleeping, dumping  - we
don't think about the inevitability of extinction any more than we
think of our very specific, inevitable individual demise, in my case
not many years away.
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #15 of 146: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 7 Jan 20 06:47
    
On New Years' Eve MMXX we made the short trip downtown, where we
stayed the night.  We were downtown for the big Esther's Follies
NYEve show, missing the fireworks, perhaps making some of our own.
We toasted the transition with the reliably energetic, wildly funny
Esther's troupe, including magician Ray Anderson, whose talent was
to disappear grimness and woe. If only he could extend his magic....
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #16 of 146: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 7 Jan 20 06:47
    
Walking to the hotel, we saw diverse revelers crowding the streets,
lined up for pizza and beer, waving transparent balloons, dancing,
spinning, drunk with the moment.  Outside the hotel, we saw a young
girl in a deep blue party dress and wobbly heels, unable to stand,
sitting in a puddle of ... some liquid, I won't assume. Thinking to
myself, I hope that's not an omen.  In the elevator, we ride with a
twenty-something man wearing a bow tie and a blank drunken stare.
Friendly, but barely able to string a sentence. Through the glass
elevator as we ride up, we see sequined dresses and tuxedoes.  For
them, is it a night to remember, or a hope to forget?
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #17 of 146: Bruce Umbaugh (bumbaugh) Tue 7 Jan 20 09:44
    
Whatever happens to musicians ....

So, yeah. What's happening to musicians next that we can expect to
come for the rest of us? What does streaming look like, for
instance, in other lines of work?
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #18 of 146: Alan Fletcher (af) Tue 7 Jan 20 11:11
    
Is it just me .. or is that the most depressing State of the World
introduction we've ever had?
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #19 of 146: Administrivia (jonl) Tue 7 Jan 20 12:07
    
Short link for the public view of this conversation is
http://bit.ly/sotw-2020 - please feel free to share far and wide.
Suggested hashtag: #sotw-2020

If you're not a member of the WELL, and you want to make a comment
or ask a question, you have two options:
1) Join the WELL and add directly to the conversation, or
2) Send your comment or question via email to inkwell-hosts at
well.com.

If you want to join the WELL, here's the link:
https://www.well.com/join/
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #20 of 146: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 7 Jan 20 12:08
    
<af> It's not just you!
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #21 of 146: Lena via lendie (lendie) Tue 7 Jan 20 12:35
    
See #12
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #22 of 146: Alan Fletcher (af) Tue 7 Jan 20 12:47
    
Ah ... but <12> still implies some optimism for the year and decade.
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #23 of 146: Matthew McClure (mmc) Tue 7 Jan 20 13:02
    
Looking for green shoots in a bleak landscape.

There may not be much consumer innovation, but battery technology
seems to be screaming along - lithium-sulphur, Ryden dual carbon,
etc.: http://bit.ly/2s4LE9N has a breezy non-technical overview.

And Mark Z. Jacobson at Stanford offers some hope with his analysis
that we could provide 100% of energy requirements without fossil
fuels.

And Chris Anderson and TED and doing Countdown,
https://countdown.ted.com/, so the word may spread a little.
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #24 of 146: Matthew McClure (mmc) Tue 7 Jan 20 13:03
    
Oops. "and doing Countdown" would read more sensibly if I'd typed
"are doing Countdown".
  
inkwell.vue.507 : State of the World 2020: Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky
permalink #25 of 146: redraw Gantt charts in his head (nanlev) Tue 7 Jan 20 14:06
    
Mark Jacobson's analysis is problematic, and overlooks some
real-world issues with renewables, but it's good to see someone
pushing that envelope to its farthest reaches. 
  

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