Talking To The Future Humans - Bruce Sterling
Sep 21 2011
Talking to the Future Humans is a new column in which we speak to the people who have shaped and continue to shape the future, or at least ideas surrounding the future. It is the mindchild of Kevin Holmes, Managing Editor for The Creators Project.
That guy up there hiding behind the big stone is Bruce Sterling, a sci-fi novelist, futurist, design-theorist, and one of the defining authors of cyberpunk. He's coined neologisms like "buckyjunk", "spime", and "slipstream", was writing about augmented reality way before it became a reality, and currently holds the title of "Visionary in Residence" at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
He's also credited with having invented steampunk alongside William Gibson, which is news to me, because I always thought Will Smith was the godfather of that. All things considered, I think Bruce retains sufficient qualifications to have a conversation with me about the future and technology and all that kind of stuff.
VICE: Hey Bruce. What've you been up to today?
Bruce Sterling: Minding damaged computers, mostly.
Damaged how? What happened to them?
Do you tend to hold onto technology until it's on its last legs, or are you a 'use it then lose it' kind of guy?
Neither, really. I'm an 'endure until the opportunity cost becomes unbearable' design-theorist type.
What does that mean in practical terms?
I've been putting up with a lot of "technological excise" from the wife's brand new Mac Air and its daffy new operating system recently. I'm the system administrator of last resort for the hardware menagerie.
When one spends all day fighting screens, it becomes impossible to produce anything; it's like a confiscatory tax of one's space and time. It's something that I refer to as "technological excise."
Technology is a pain in the ass. What kind of technology is exciting you at the moment?
I'd have to say that I find the kit of Otzi the Bronze Age Iceman to be really "exciting". It's a rare find, that kind of insight into quotidian life of a vanished technological culture. Tutankhamun's tomb loot is similarly great. Not the glamourised sarcophagi, but stuff like his boomerangs, musical instruments, walking sticks.
Do you find older technology holds more mystery?
I'm reading through lists of papers on early Augmented Reality (AR) experiments and I can assure you that a lot of this stuff is already profoundly mysterious. You couldn't reproduce these unique, period, laboratory set-ups even for billions o dollars. It's just gone: the hardware, the boutique software, the displays, the drivers, the bench-built goggle and gloves...
What sort of period does the technology you're talking about come from?
Oh, late 80s, 90s. It depends on the definition. There's an awesome Ivan Sutherland head-mounted display, the "Sword of Damocles", from 1968 that's the techno spiritual ancestor of all this stuff.
But the 1960s is truly a long time ago, now. A lot of their period technology has just fallen off the edge of a cliff. Room-sized vacuum-tube computers... space rockets... anything Soviet, basically.
What do you think about LulzSec and Anonymous, the hacktivist groups? You've written a history of hacking* – do you see them as natural heirs to hacking's past?
I don't have to pay a lot of attention to them, as they tend to spill into my datastreams as a matter of course. Hippies like them because they get along without an apparent budget, but the "natural heirs of hacking" are probably modern cybercriminals and cyberwarriors, not teenage enthusiasts. These are the crews who have the money and the state behind them.
Seems quite sinister, Bruce.
It's indeed very sinister. It was sinister when law-enforcement people were speculating about it 20 years ago. It's a situation where a historical perspective is really useful. Because it's mayhem. It's the digital shadow of the terror-war world. There's something romantic and fantastic about the scale of modern cyberwar. It's truly like a dark sci-fi novel, it's like 80s cyberpunk at its most provocative. It's like visionary noir.
So do you think the internet is making it easier for these types of criminal to exist?
There's always been an undercurrent of espionage activity and criminal activity, but there's never been a global mechanism by which it could spread with such speed and fluidity. The lack of any rule-of-law online has really fertilised this behaviour. It pays a lot to do it and the upside is huge and the downside is minimal. It's like our period's version of the Fascist Fifth Column or Red Subversion.
Like clandestine organisations that try to undermine a government from within?
It's like one of those obscurantist phenomena where, oh gosh, your neighbour might be one; they're under the bed; they are in your desk, your laptop; they're in your phone.
And every day there's a crazy torrent of spam bellowing off vast networks of captured, enslaved machines... it's Gibsonian, truly. It's weirder than Gibson, actually, because he was too artsy to describe it in the sordid, crooked, quotidian way that it actually occurred.
Yeah sure, William Gibson’s work certainly looks at the negative impact technology can have on humanity, how it can be used for material gain. I suppose these cyber criminals are doing just that. There are definitely some of those sci-fi ideas that have come true, which, like you said, makes hacking kind of exciting, even if it is criminal behaviour.
Well, I used to write about computer crime as a recorder, and although some young men find computer crime really exciting, the real story there is quite melancholy... it's like thinking drugs are exciting; taking stimulants is exciting, but when you think about a human life distorted by the cheating grip of some abused medication, it's sad and banal. Even a heroic dissident who successfully overthrows an oppressive regime has a sadness to his career, I've come to understand... it's like, why was all that necessary in the first place? Living under tyranny is like suffocating in a miasma.
You’re saying they don’t do it for excitement?
Most every hacktivist carries on as if they're convinced that life is unbearable and any means of rebellion is justified; that's a common teenage attitude because for them it's an existential truth, but they don’t have to bear that torment long; they grow up. Whereas to be a political extremist consumed by a thirst for justice that you're extremely unlikely to get, that's a melancholy fate for a human being. It shrivels people.
Let’s talk about augmented reality, as it seems to be everywhere these days. It’s basically an invasion of the virtual realm into physical space, where the real world and computer generated data merge. You're a futurist and augmented reality enthusiast. How would you like to see AR developed? And in what ways do you think it will be developed?
Well, that's quite a broad and wide question... what I like to see, versus what is actually going to happen, those scenarios rarely overlap much. "Augmented reality" is a kind of visionary catch-phrase for a grab-bag of different techniques. It's not just one thing; it's a cluster of things that centre around the idea of "registration", of getting special-effects to appear in real three-dimensional spaces. You've got the "reality", and then you've got the "augment", and somehow you've got to nail this "augie" or "floatie" into a space where people can mess with it in real-time. And we can sorta-kinda do that now, but, you know, why? Everybody who sees it goes WOW – sometimes they even need some psychological counselling – but 45 seconds later, they're like, "what's it good for?"
And large segments of it probably are not "good for" anything critical – it's like asking what a rabbit in a hat is good for. The rabbit came out of the hat! Wow! That doesn't make it a hat factory or a rabbit farm.
So you’re saying that it’s like the emperor’s new clothes? That we don’t need it?
When it becomes interesting is when you look at it as a futurist. You can posit some ideas – like, what would live, interactive, rock-solid, centimetre-scale "registration" look like?
By "registration" you mean where if we wore something like an AR contact lens, then AR would get to a level where it could be sophisticated enough to replace, or at least mimic, physical objects?
Well, you'd be in a computation-saturated space where the primary modes of interaction would be looking at stuff, pointing at stuff, and talking at stuff that wasn't "really there." No keyboard, no camera, no files, no desktops – none of those visibly apparent, anyway. You're in a live cloud, an Alan Kay world, a ubicomp with an augmented sensory front-end.
So, we could be in an empty room, surrounded by virtual artefacts replacing the physical versions that we have now?
Maybe it's your "house" or your "office", but how would those architectural distinctions hold up? A situation like that would rank with electricity or plumbing or mass transit; it would change our experience of the world.
Do you think some people might claim it isn’t useful, even if we integrate it into architectural spaces?
Well, I'd point out that "reality" isn't "useful". If you demand that reality be useful you get stuck in a narrow instrumentalism. It's like asking if Lolcats are "useful" or if traffic jams are "useful". As time passes the world doesn't get more "useful". It's more a question of technical capacity and price-points – if stuff gets cheap enough and fast enough, people forget all about "useful".
Any PC or smartphone has hundreds of "uses" you'll never "use" – the question is, how does the future differ when you get a smartphone and it's just always there? Then imagine thousands of cloudy smartphones that have just sorta dissipated into the walls, the streets.
We’d no longer live just in physical spaces, but instead would inhabit hybrid realms of the virtual and the real, where a room’s appearance could change at the push of a button. Like a kind of holodeck.
"Augmented Reality" is metaphysical. It's part of a metaphysical argument about what computation is. Is computation an "Artificial Intelligence"? Is the simulation in the machine a "real" place in a metaphysical sense? Is it one "reality" you can "mix" on equal terms with our space-time reality? These are very 1960 ideas. It's just that nobody had the technical capacity to do it back then, whereas now we can pull a stunt like that with a bubble-gum card. So what gives? It's not a major industry and may never become one, but it's an amazing thing to watch... It's very typical of contemporary computation, because it was never a business or anything but a lab curiosity until three years ago. It's just very "now", with all that implies for good or ill. It certainly has the potential to be used for many things. But I suppose time will tell how successful it is.
So I suppose it comes down to how we interpret these virtual spaces that technology creates.
I think it's likely to break up as a conceptual category; pieces that are "successful" will be normalised and they won't be called "augments" of "reality" any more. Some potentials will spread widely, others will become quaint period artefacts. The most important parts are not necessarily the most exciting parts. Still, I'd like to be able to name and number the pieces. And I'd like to see justice done for the pioneers.
Well, hopefully they'll get their credit.
No, they won't get their credit, but one can make an effort to see that genuinely interested parties can drill through the obscurities. All histories are "retrodictions". Walter Benjamin's Angel of History is the only being that could possibly keep proper tabs of debits and credits. Something's always lost, just by being summarised and narrated. But that's no cause for despair, otherwise, it's like refusing to have children because you know you won't understand them. OF COURSE you don't understand them. That's the victory condition, that's why they're human and not hand-carved wooden figurines.
Okay, let's end it there for now. Thanks for chatting to me, Bruce.
Good luck with that... and now back to that nagging problem with the Mac Mail application. See you around!
Check out Bruce Sterling's blog, Beyond the Beyond.