Bruce Sterling urges us not to panic, just yet


My favorite part about the SXSW festival comes at the end. For three decades now the science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling has been giving some of the most insightful (and funny) speeches on the state of technology and society. In some sense this year’s closing remarks were no different, and in others they represented something very new.

What made this year’s speech different was that politics has taken such a weird turn, like something out of dystopian science-fiction that Sterling, having mastered the craft, felt obliged to anchor our sense of reality. He did this, however, only after trying to come to grips with exactly why had gotten so weird that the writers of The Simpsons seemed to be in possession of a crystal ball.

A read on events Sterling finds somewhat compelling is that put forward by Clay Shirky who claims that the age of social media has shattered something political science geeks call the Overton window.  The Overton window is essentially the boundary of politically acceptable discourse as defined by political elites. Sterling points out that in the age of broadcast television that boundary was easy to control, but with the balkanization of media- first with cable TV and then the Internet (and I would add talk radio) that border has eroded.

Here’s the conservative, David French’s, view on what Donald Trump himself has done to the Overton window:

Then along came Donald Trump. On key issues, he didn’t just move the Overton Window, he smashed it, scattered the shards, and rolled over them with a steamroller. On issues like immigration, national security, and even the manner of political debate itself, there’s no window left. Registration of Muslims? On the table. Bans on Muslims entering the country? On the table. Mass deportation? On the table. Walling off our southern border at Mexico’s expense? On the table. The current GOP front-runner is advocating policies that represent the mirror-image extremism to the Left’s race and identity-soaked politics.

All this certainly resembles what Moisés Naím has described as the end of power where traditional institutions and elites have lost control over events largely as a result of a democratized communication environment. Or, as Sterling himself put it in his speech the political parties have been:

“Balkanized by demagogues who brought in their own megaphones”.  

Sterling thinks it’s clear that the new technology and media landscape is a contributing factor of the current dystopian ambiance. The world has tended to take some very strange turns during the rise to dominance of new forms of media and new forms of economy, and maybe this is one of the those moments where old media and tech is supplanted by the new in the form of the “Big five” Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Facebook and Microsoft. Sterling thinks the academic Shoshana Zuboff is onto something when she describes this new order as surveillance capitalism an economic order based on turning the private lives of individuals into a saleable commodity.

Sterling is clearly worried about this but is also certain that the illusion of techno-libertarianism behind something like Bitcoin isn’t the solution. Some alternative technological order can’t solve our problems, but if it can’t solve them then perhaps technology itself isn’t the primary source of our problems in the first place.

Evidence that technology alone, or the coming into being of surveillance capitalism, isn’t to blame can be seen in the global nature of the current political crisis. The same, and indeed incomparably worse, problems exemplified by the rise of Trump in the US are apparent almost everywhere. Middle Eastern states have collapsed, an anti-immigrant anti-globalization right is on the rise across Europe, Great Britain is threatening to exit the EU further weakening that institution with dissolution. Venezuela is on the verge of collapse, nationalist tensions continue to roil Asia, the global economy continues to suffer the injuries from the financial crisis even as economic policies become increasingly unorthodox. A much more environmentally and politically unstable world looms.

Yet Sterling points out that there’s one people that seem particularly calm through this whole affair and do not seem generally to be panicked by the bizarre turn politics has taken in the US. The Italians see in Trump America’s version of their own Silvio Berlusconi. If politics in the US follows the Berlusconi model after a Trump victory (however unlikely), then though we may be in for a very seedy political period it will not necessarily be a dangerous or chaotic one.

As for myself I am not as sanguine as Sterling about the idea of a president Trump given that he will have at his disposal the most powerful military and survelillance apparatus on the planet. Francis Fukuyama who also pointed the resemblance between Trump and Berlusconi thinks Trump’s flirtation with violence is much more troubling.

Nevertheless, Sterling certainly is right when he points out that, in light of historical precedents- say the 1960’s- the level of political violence we have seen in 2016 is nothing to panic over. Nor is society in any way in a state of collapse – the lights are still on, food is still available, we are not entering some survivalist scenario- for the moment.

While events elsewhere may continue to take the world in a dystopian direction as a result of state and institutional collapse, the dystopia the US will most likely enter will be much less of the type found in science-fiction novels. It is one where the US is governed by a gentrified political elite which clings to its own power and the status quo while Americans remain distracted by the “glass lozenges” of their smart phones. Where mass surveillance isn’t scary a la Minority Report because it isn’t all that effective, or as Sterling puts it:

“Is there anybody with a drone over their head who is actually doing what the guys with the drones want?”

It’s a world where everything is failing but nothing has truly and completely failed where we have plenty to be unhappy about but also no reason in particular to panic.



The Ubiquitous Conflict between Past and Future

Materia and Dynamism of a Cyclist by Boccioni

Perhaps one of the best ways to get a grip on our thoughts about the future is to look at the future as seen in the eyes of the past. This is not supposed to be a Zen koan to cause the reader’s mind to ground to a screeching halt, but a serious suggestion. Looking at how the past saw the future might reveal some things we might not easily see with our nose so close to the glass of contemporary visions of it. A good place to look, I think, would be the artistic and cultural movement of the early 20th century that went under the name of Futurism.

Futurism, was a European movement found especially in Italy but also elsewhere, that took as its focus radical visions of a technologically transformed human future. Futurists were deeply attracted to the dynamic aspects of technology. They loved speed and skyscrapers and the age of the machine. They also hated the past and embraced violence two seemingly unrelated orientations that I think may in fact fit hand in glove.

The best document to understand Futurism is its first: F.T. Marinetti’s The Futurist Manifesto.  Here is Marinetti on the Futurist’s stance towards the cultural legacy of the past that also gives some indication of the movement’s positive outlook towards violence:

Let the good incendiaries with charred fingers come! Here they are! Heap up the fire to the shelves of the libraries! Divert the canals to flood the cellars of the museums! Let the glorious canvases swim ashore! Take the picks and hammers! Undermine the foundation of venerable towns!


Given what I think is probably the common modern view that technology, at least in its non-military form, is a benign force that makes human lives better, where better also means less violent, and that technology in the early 21st century is used as often to do things such as digitally scan and make globally available an ancient manuscript such as The Dead Sea Scrolls  as to destroy the past, one might ask what gives with Futurism?

Within the context of early 1900s Italy, both Futurisms’ praise of violence and its hatred for the accumulated historical legacy makes some sense. Italy was both a relatively new country having only been established in 1861, and compared to its much more modernized neighbors a backward one. At the same time the sheer weight of the past of pre-unification Italy stretching back to the Etruscans followed by the Romans followed by the age of great Italian city-states such as Florence, not to mention the long history as the seat of the Roman church, was overwhelming.

Italy was a country with too much history, something felt to be holding back its modernization, and the Futurist’s  hatred of history and their embrace of violence were dual symptoms of the desire to clear the deck so that modernity could take hold. What we find with Futurism is an acute awareness that the past may be the enemy of the future and an acknowledgement, indeed a full embrace, of the disruptive nature of technology, that technology upends and destroys old social forms and ways of doing things.

We might think such a conflict between past and future is itself a thing of the past, but I think this would be mistaken. At bottom much of the current debates around the question of what the human (or post-human) future should look like are really debates between those who value the past and wish to preserve it and those who want to escape this past and create the world anew.

Bio-conservatives might be thought of as those who hope to preserve evolved human nature and or the evolved biosphere in intact in the face of potentially transformative technology. Transhumanists might be thought of as holding the middle position in the debate between past and future wanting to preserve in varying degrees some aspects of evolved humanity while embracing some new characteristics that they hope technology will soon make widely available. Singularitarians are found on the far end of the future side of the past vs future spectrum, not merely embracing but pursuing the creation of a brand new evolutionary kingdom in an equally new substrate- silicon.

You also find an awareness of this conflict between past and future in the most seeming disparate of thinkers. On the future as destroyer of the past side of the ledger you have a recent mesmerizing speech at the SXSW Conference by the science-fiction author, Bruce Sterling. Part of the point Sterling seems to be making in this multifaceted talk is that technologists need to acknowledge that technology does not always produce the better, just the different. Technology upends the old and creates a new order and we should both lament the loss of what we have destroyed and embrace our role in having been a party to the destruction of the legacy of the past.

On the past as immovable anchor that prevents us from realizing not just the future but the present side of the ledger we have the architect Rem Koolhaas who designed such modern wonders as the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing. Koolhaas thinks the past is currently winning in the fight against the future. He is troubled by the increase in the area human being have declared “preserved”, that is off-limits to human development. This area is surprisingly huge, Koolhaas, claims it is comparable to the space of the entire country of India.

In a hypothetical plan to deal with the “crisis” of historic preservation in Beijing Koolhaas proposed mapping a grid over the city with areas to be preserved and those where development was unconstrained established at random. Koolhaas thinks that the process should be random to avoid cultural fights over what should be preserved and what should not, which end up reflecting the current realities of power more than any “real” historical significance. A version of “history is written by the victors”. But the very randomness of the process not only leaves me at least with the impression of being both historically illiterate and somewhat crazy, it is based, I think, on a distorted picture of the very facts of preservation themselves.

Koolhaas combines the area preserved for historic reasons with those preserved for natural ones. Thus, his numbers would include the vast amounts of space countries have set and hope to set aside as natural preserves. It’s not quite clear to me that these are areas that most human beings would really want to live in anyway, so it remains uncertain whether the fact that these areas prohibited from being developed indeed somehow hold back development in the aggregate. Koolhaas thinks we need a “theory” of preservation as a guide to what we should preserve and what we should allow to be preserved in the name of something new.  A theory suggests that the conflict between past and future is something that can or should be resolved, yet I do not think resolution is the goal we should seek.  To my lights what is really required is a discussion and a debate that acknowledges what we are in fact really arguing about. What we are arguing about is how much we should preserve the past vs how much we should allow the past to be destroyed in the name of the future.

What seems to me a new development, something that sets us off from the early 20th century Futurism with which this post began, is that technology, rather than by default being the force that destroys the past and gives rise to the future as was seen in Sterling’s speech is becoming neutral in the conflict between past and future. You can see some of this new neutrality not only in efforts to use technology to preserve and spread engagement with the past as was seen in the creation of a digital version of The Dead Sea Scrolls, you can see it in the current project of the eternal outsider, Stewart Brand, which hopes to bring back into existence extinct species such as the Passenger Pigeon through a combination of reverse genetic engineering and breeding.

For de-extinct species to be viable in the wild will probably require the resurrection of ecosystems and co-dependent species that have also been gone for quite some time such as Chestnut forests for the Passenger Pigeon. Thus, what is not in the present and in front of us- the future- in Brand’s vision will be the lost past. We are probably likely to see more of this past/future neutrality of technology going forward and therefore might do well to stop assuming that technological advancement of necessity lead to the victory of the new.

Because we can never fully determine whether we have not at least secondarily been responsible for a species extinction does that mean we should never allow another species to go extinct, if we can prevent it? This would constitute not an old world, but in fact a very new one, a world in which evolution does not occur, at least the type of evolution in large creatures that leads to extinction. When combined with the aim of ending human biological death this world has a strong resemblance to the mythical Garden of Eden, perhaps something that should call the goal itself into question. Are we merely trying to realize these deeply held religious ideas that are so enmeshed  in our thought patterns they have become invisible?

Advances in synthetic biology could lead as Freeman Dyson believes to life itself soon becoming part- software part- art with brand new species invented with the ease and frequency that new software is written or songs composed today. Or, it could lead to projects to reverse the damage humankind has done to the world and return it to the state of the pre-human past such as those of Brand. Perhaps the two can live side by side perhaps not. Yet, what does seem clear is that the choice of one takes time and talent away from the other. Time spent resurrecting the Passenger Pigeon or any other extinct species is time and intellectual capacity spent inventing species never seen.

Once one begins seeing technological advancement as neutral in the contest between the past and future a number of aspirations that seem futuristic because of their technological dependence become perhaps less so.  A world where people live “forever” seems like a very futuristic vision, but if one assumes that this will require less people being born it is perhaps the ultimate victory of the old vs the new. We might tend to think that genetic engineering will be used to “advance” humankind, but might it not be seen as an alternative to more radical versions of the future, cyborg-technologies or AI, that, unlike genetic engineering go beyond merely reaching biological potential that human beings have had since they emerged on the African savanna long ago?

There is no lasting solution to the conflict of past vs future nor is it a condition we should in someway lament. Rather, it is merely a reflection of our nature as creatures in time.If we do not hold onto at least something from our past, and that includes both our individual and collective past, we become creatures or societies without identity. At the same time, if we put all of our efforts into preserving what was and never attempt the new we are in a sense already dead frozen in amber inside a world of what was. The sooner we acknowledge this conflict is at the root of many of our debates the more likely we are to come up with goals to shoot for that neither aim to destroy the deep legacy of the past, both human and biological, nor prevent us from ever crossing into the frontier of the new.