Bruce Sterling on media, design, fiction, and the future


In the 1980s, Bruce Sterling became a leader of the "cyberpunk" revolution—a literary movement that combined the artistic ambition of science fiction's 1960s New Wave with the hard-core speculation associated with Verne, Wells, Heinlein, and Clarke. Cyberpunk's chief theme was the way technologies evolve us even as we evolve them, and its influence can be seen in almost every science fiction writer of note today, from Ken MacLeod to Alastair Reynolds to Cory Doctorow.

Neuromancer author William Gibson may have been the best-known of the cyberpunks, but the movement's chief theorist and propagandist was Sterling, whose writing covered far more territory than that of his peers. Sterling's books from the period—Schismatrix, Islands in the Net, Crystal Express—range so widely in settings and characters that it's hard to talk about them collectively. What they have in common is their author's willingness to stare uncomfortable truths in the face. His 1989 story "We See Things Differently," for example, eerily predicted and captured the jihadic Islamism of the 9/11 era.

In the late '90s, Sterling launched another movement: the Viridian Greens. This one focused on how industrial design could be used to respond to global climate change. "Our society runs on fossil fuel," he wrote in an early manifesto. "We have a substance-abuse problem with carbon dioxide. This is a seemingly abstract issue now, but it's going to get very, very much livelier once we start having evacuation camps and dustbowls and so on. At that point, anyone who isn't talking about the Greenhouse Effect is going to seem very twentieth-century and extremely old-fashioned."

That proclamation in itself might sound old-fashioned—not entirely out of place in a Greenpeace pamphlet—but Sterling went on to classify his new cause as an art and design movement. He also gave it a built-in expiration date (2012). He named the movement the Viridian Greens because, as he puts it, "there's something electrical and unnatural about our tinge of green." Sterling's rhetoric is not the renunciatory language of back-to-the-land communal farmers or febrile eco-terrorists. We've made this problem, Sterling tells us, and now it's up to us to design our way out of it—not by denying ourselves modernity but by embracing a more intelligent version of it.

Sterling is no one-note activist. His mind buzzes with ideas about history, technology, art theory, politics, global cultural trends, and more. The best introduction to the scope of Sterling's interests is his recent non-fiction book Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years (Random House). The book is to typical futurist prognostications what jazz is to a symphony: Sterling riffs on what the present tells us about the world our grandchildren will inherit. But like all the best futurists, Sterling has his eyes set on the past as well. That may explain why, even as he describes the book as "an ambitious, sprawling effort in thundering futurist punditry," he frames it on a set piece from Shakespeare—"The Seven Ages of Man," from As You Like It. Perhaps surprisingly, the Shakespearean trope works rather well as a way of outlining the oncoming histories, comedies, and dramas we're staging for ourselves.

Contributing Editor Mike Godwin talked with Sterling last summer, in the sprawling house the author designed for himself and his family in Austin, Texas.

reason: Not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, you wrote a cri de coeur about how the attacks signified the end of a belle époque, during which the government is relatively technocratic, competent, and bland—providing basic services but otherwise uninteresting—and the rest of the world is peacefully progressing, partly as a function of technological advance. Are we going to see that kind of era again?

Bruce Sterling: It depends on who "we" are. For the U.S., the belle époque is over. It lost its steam under this tremendous necromantic thing that bin Laden pulled, and also it's over because this huge surge of energy that was in the dot-com world failed at the last mile. Socially, policy makers have made a series of choices very similar to what preceded the collapse into World War I. There's the same kind of massive gung-hoism for acts of violence and the same kind of irrationality. We're in a very dark time. It's dark enough that it cannot lift overnight.

reason: You were upbeat about the Internet bubble. You don't think it was based on irrational exuberance?

Sterling: I don't think it was an irrational exuberance. Some of it was irrational—clearly there was a lot of embezzlement going on, buddyism on Wall Street, your basic Enron shenanigans. But computation and ubiquitous sensors and ubiquitous communication offer the opportunity to reform the industrial base along cybernetic and post-industrial lines. Should that be allowed to happen, it will bring a lot of prosperity.

But I think we made really serious missteps in 2000 and 2001, and we've really turned our backs on a world that could have been pleasant, delight-ful, peaceful, and technocratic. Now we face a world that is religious, narrow-minded, fundamentalist, and violent.

reason: We're still seeing technological progress, at least in terms of tools. Some of us have DVD burners in our laptops, when not too long ago we couldn't imagine burning CDs. Content providers are freaking out about this because people are able to make their own product, or duplicate other people's product.

Sterling: I'm not really all that interested in what Hollywood does with its stuff. I mean, they're only the size of the porn industry. I think the real revolution is in industrial production. It's about manipulating factory processes, it's about mass customization, it's about a revolution in industry that gets the toxins out of the air and is more efficient by, say, a factor of four than what we had. When that happens we'll have a genuinely new world. Playing movies off handhelds, that's not really that big of a deal.

reason: Still, the content industries are significant enough to start the kind of moral panic you talk about in Tomorrow Now—moral panics that drive irrational social or governmental responses. Computers keep empowering people and keep surprising people with what they can do.

Sterling: Well, they used to surprise people. Now they alarm people. You can tell it's a moral panic when people start doing really dirty things that have no effect on what's going on. And that's a classic example—this culture war where you put out fake MP3s that have cursing on them.

reason: It was interesting that when Madonna started cir-culating ersatz MP3s to fool the file traders—MP3s that had her cursing at them for trying to trade her music without paying for it—people started sampling the cursing.

Sterling: Pop will eat itself. I predicted for a long time that the Internet would be a big, stinking deal when there was finally a pop song about it. Sure enough, Destiny's Child did a song that has a line about "some girl trashing me on the Internet." That's funny, but the thing that's peculiar about it is there was always a dark side. There was always the porn/mafia/drug dealer/pedophilia aspect—the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

reason: The flip side of the empowerment dream.

Sterling: We're empowering people we're afraid of, and we cannot handle the consequences of the social change, some of which are always dark. There is no silver lining without its cloud. It's a Woodstock-Altamont transformation. It's like, hey, we're going to play free music for everybody, including these PCP-demented Hell's Angels with pool cues.

reason: I miss the days when porn and computer crime were perceived to be the big threat, not copyright infringement. Those were more inherently interesting.

Sterling: I miss the teenage menace days: "Children shouldn't have these computers. They're burglar tools. They should be kept out of their hands, like rifles and alcohol. No underage people should control all these extremely dangerous mechanisms."

There are historical periods of license and historical periods of oppression. But the records would get lost. At the height of Victorianism, when woman are shrouding the table legs, you're not really confronted with your regency grandfather who was some drunken fuck wandering down streets accosting semi-nude hookers in his heyday.

The history of pornography is you'd find it in your uncle's stuff when you were cleaning up after he died and you'd burn it. People would just destroy it. "Omigod, he had all this indecent stuff!" And you'd kind of whisper about it later. But there were these cleansing fires. You could burn it and there were only so many copies. A privately printed edition of Autobiography of a Flea, or Fanny Hill. Now it's pig easy to go on the Internet and just grab the planet's most scabrous excesses—absolute debauchery—you lay it out there with the complete sterile access of a surgeon or a medical test. By what means do we repress this information? Any red-blooded guy with 80 megabytes of rancid porn on his hard disk can be a publisher on a CD-ROM in seconds.

reason: You map out Tomorrow Now according to Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man: the infant, the school–boy, the lover, the soldier, the judge, the elderly man, and the senile one. When you characterize the soldier age, you talk less about terrorists and terrorism than figures who are somewhere between warlords and criminals.

Sterling: They're terrorist anti-terrorists. The warlords have got it going on because they command the means of production. Bin Laden is a prophet. He's a cultist, and made this tremendous suicide gesture, which is not that far from the Heaven's Gate/Jonestown thing.

reason: The trick is making other people commit suicide for you.

Sterling: No, that's not even the trick. He's probably more powerful dead than he is alive at this point. My suspicion is that the guy is dead. But I expect to see him issuing tapes for the next 30 to 40 years.

He may have been dying. He may have done this thing as a kind of Gotterdammerung gesture. Hitler did that. The Japanese were very into that. Fanatical gestures capture the public's imagination, but they're just not as important to people's lives as massive economic arrangements. A guy like Arkan, the Serb counterterrorist with connections to the Yugoslav government, is in the business of destabilizing nation-states in order to route the entire productive capacity of his population through his own pockets.

reason: When I started the lover chapter, I said to myself, "There is going to be some sex in there," but there wasn't much. Instead you talk about people's relationship with objects.

Sterling: What I'm trying to talk about are aspects of the 21st century that are visibly different from what we already have. And I don't really think love is going to be that different. There's a fringe for people who like blowup dolls, but in point of fact there's very little going on there that hasn't been going on since the advent of the birth control pill.

What is different about the 21st century is the increasing intimacy of people with objects—not in a sexual way, but in a bodily way. People have implants, they have gizmos, all these little barnacles in their pockets that are attached to themselves. To which they are completely emotionally dependent.

reason: And drugs.

Sterling: More like performance-enhancement devices. And I found it more interesting and more significant to talk about an intimate relationship with prosthetics and gizmos than an intimate relationship between one human being and another.

reason: What personal relationships with gizmos are you in right now?

Sterling: Well, I send my wife a lot of e-mail, and I never really expected that to happen. She's upstairs on her computer, and I'm downstairs on my computer. And we have an increasingly e-mail-mediated relationship. She's sending me notes, she's forwarding me things from my own family. My uncle, who is sort of the family webmaster, is now a much more influential presence in my life, due to e-mail. This is not uncommon. We have certain family affairs that are now electronically organized. Like, how do we look after our dad? We have little rules about who is going to clean the cemetery. We have a Web site where everyone uploads pictures of the children. My cousin's second cousin's children's nephew's bride—I don't see these people except through electronic mediation. I wouldn't be seeing them otherwise.

reason: Instant messaging has taken more of that role. You have a sense of presence that's even more immediate than e-mail.

Sterling: My daughter's generation is more into that than I am. She's frequently chatting on her phone, doing role playing games with her closest friends who are a teenage gang wandering up and down the campus playing video games. Then they go home, as a teenage gang, to play role playing games, as a gang. They're the same people; it's just that they have different identities: the elf warrior and the dark gothic dwarf.

I'm very interested in those things, but the only game that commands my own attention is Web surfing. I spend huge amounts of time doing that.

reason: It never ceases to amaze me how much material is sort of spontaneously thrown up on the Web.

Sterling: I think that's an early response. You get this database toxicity. You go into a system like Lexis-Nexis and you put in a search word and get 60,000 hits, and you think, this is all the knowledge there is in the universe. But it's actually 10,000 references to six different things, and the actual story is something very few people know.

reason: I think there are some positive social changes happening as a result of this spontaneous database building and Web page building. There are more and more of us who reflexively look things up.

Sterling: There is a Google blindness. It's a kind of common wisdom generator, but it's not necessarily going to get you to the real story of what's actually going on.

reason: As today's children get older they're internalizing Boolean search logic, and they actually do show some discrimination and drill down to the useful information.

Sterling: It is a form of literacy that's really peculiar. Socrates used to talk about this: "The problem with writing is that no one memorizes the Iliad any more. You've got to just know all of it. And how can you call yourself an educated man if you cannot recite Book Three, not missing a single epithet?" He's got a point there.

It has a profound effect on literary composition. I've got Google up all the time. It gives you this veneer of command of the facts which you do not, in point of fact, have. It's extremely useful for novelists but somewhat dangerous if you're pretending to be a brain surgeon.

reason: One thing I notice about the progression of your novels is that the first ones were significantly different in time and space from where we are, and increasingly we bring things closer to the present day. Does that represent the same kind of shift in attention to the world that we see in your nonfiction writing?

Sterling: It's hard to say what is opportunism and what is very typical science fiction writer development. If you read Jules Verne, one of his first books is Paris in the Twentieth Century, which is far away in time and space and could not get published. Then there is Five Weeks in a Balloon, which is in Africa. Then he becomes a member of the Amiens City Council, and at that point all the technocratic brio and the incredible voyage leaks out of his work, and he starts writing these really quite dark political novels like Robur the Conqueror and Master of the World. Because the guy has actually come to an understanding of where the bodies are buried in the power structure. That's kind of overwhelming, and a departure from his earlier fantasies of technocratic prowess: I am Nemo; I will assemble a superelectric submarine.

It's similar to the mental progression of mathematicians. In their early 20s, they're whipping the four-color theorem, and then by the time they're 90, they're working on some tiny, obscure little movement ahead. It's really interesting to someone who's really interested in mathematics.

reason: Novelists don't quite follow that path.

Sterling: Novelists don't. But science fiction novelists do. Real novelists die in the arms of their fourth wife of cirrhosis of the liver at age 57, but science fiction writers are getting bestsellers by chewing over the supertrilogy of the trilogy's trilogy at age 82.

reason: Do you ever have a feeling of vertigo when you look around and see lot of things that seem science fictional that we didn't anticipate, or that we did anti-cipate but didn't expect would come true so soon?

Sterling: Or that they would be so banal. I have moments of future shock. I'm not invulnerable to that. What interests me is where ideas that are very novel to me become old-fashioned and even antiquated. But it doesn't quite shock me in the way that it once did. I didn't merely read the prognostications of my own epoch; I've been very interested in futuristic prognostications written in the 19th century. They're always off. No one can ever make it as banal as it is. If you're writing about the future, it's hard to write about things that will be omnipresent and boring and explain to your readers that they are novelties to you but boring to your characters.

reason: It's strange that not only are your idle musings on Usenet from 15 years ago still out there, but someone could actually confront you with them.

Sterling: That doesn't surprise me too much. I put it in this new book. There are certain things that, in middle age, become obvious to you. The best way to have a really great idea is to have a thousand ideas. The guy who has the thousand ideas will be valorized for idea 837 and for idea 732, but those were never the ones he treasured. What did Thomas Edison really spend a lot of time on? Trying to get rubber out of milkweeds. He devoted fantastic effort to this mad scheme.

There are offhand comments one makes, or little things that you do, that become catch phrases or stuff that people will stick as signature lines on the Internet. It's rarely the polished aphorism that you're sweating over.

reason: It's like what Derrida tells us: You produced this text, and then it's totally out of your control.

Sterling: I agree with that, and the reason I don't resent it is I have taken such liberties with other people's texts. I don't want to submit to any text control system that would conceivably protect my interests from others, when my interests are so freewheeling.

reason: Are we on the verge of post-humanity?

Sterling: I think we are on the verge of post-humanity, but I don't think it's going to look like what any Extropian thinks it's going to look like. At the end of my novel Holy Fire [Bantam, 1997], two post-humans meet. The woman is assessing her former husband and says he's a god. But he's not a god. He's a tommyknocker or a garden gnome. He's this thing which is no longer human and doesn't have human concerns.

There are methods of speculating about how this will play out, and some will have some traction, and some will be ideological or otherwise mistaken. The Extropian problem is thinking you can upload yourself into a computer and have this rapture of the nerds. It was a powerful fantasy of escaping the unbearable pressures of being human. And there are many unbearable pressures of being human. But you find that when you escape one of these things you generally bring all your baggage with you. We will escape some of the limits, but we will not escape into some pure electro-Platonic world any more than the Internet will turn out to be this pure electro-Platonic philosophers' realm.

reason: The Internet turned out to be a funhouse mirror in which everything is emphasized.

Sterling: It's also peculiarly carnal. In the early days of cyberspace, we were going to escape the meat. Well, there is more meat on the Internet than you can imagine. There are acres and acres of people just pointing cameras at their bodies.

reason: Blogging seems to have taken a place in the culture that used to be occupied by fanzines, and maybe by the science fiction magazines.

Sterling: It had its apotheosis in people like Cory Doctorow [author of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom] and other writers who really aren't that interested in the old paper world. Cory actually publishes stuff electronically, and blogging is his Weird Tales. He is of a generation sufficiently divorced from the old pulps that he's the dolphin among mesosaurs here.

reason: It seems strange to go to the newsstand and see the lone science fiction magazine.

Sterling: It's been anachronistic since World War II. These are the last surviving pulps. I love them dearly.

There's nothing holy about them. Like all forms of media, they are very dependent on their technological circumstances. The transformation comes when the people who understood what it was like die. I'm a transitional figure. I'm the very last generation that worked professionally on typewriters. William Gibson wrote his first book on a typewriter. I wrote two books on typewriters. I was taught to use slide rules in schools. Now it's like having a pet trilobite.

reason: Let's talk about the Viridian movement. You're obviously trying to take some dimension of environmentalism and take it in a new and different direction that isn't particularly anti-modern or anti-technological. And you've tried to frame your "Greens" as an art movement rather than as a political movement.

Sterling: I've always been extremely interested in art movements and political movements and social movements, the small gangs of intelligentsia and who reads whom. Professional musicians are into that too. I just got this new Starbucks album that the Rolling Stones put together. Keith Richards, of all people, talks about how he always wanted to know who the musicians he likes listen to. That's the sign of a true adept there. You want to trace back your spiritual ancestors.

That's what André Breton did, and that's what the pre-Raphaelites did. And they self-published to get the news out. The pre-Raphaelites had this fanzine called The Germ, and it went through four issues. And it always goes through four issues. That's the classic fanzine thing. The surrealists had this fanzine called The Minotaur, and it went through four issues. The cyberpunks had two fanzines—Cheap Truth and SF Eye. Cheap Truth went through 17 issues. But the issues were only one page long.

They're blogs now. And there are various other social software mechanisms. I'm doing a Viridian blog [] which is an electro version of a design magazine. I use it as a kind of social probe. It's an experiment for me, a way to give and get back at the same time. It's an organizational experiment. It's a private intelligence network.

reason: And the substance, the topic area, is what?

Sterling: The central topic is the greenhouse effect as a post-industrial design problem. It's not just about raising money for flood victims, which is one way to deal with the consequences. It's about thinking about how we got into this mess, making people realize the mess, and exploring mechanisms—technologies—by which we might conceivably get out.

reason: The traditional green approach, as distinct from the Viridian Green approach, is typically framed in negative terms: a "Thou shalt not" or "We must stop X."

Sterling: Traditional environmentalism is tied in with a human self-actualization movement, which says there are certain things we must renounce for moral reasons.

reason: You were not engaged by that?

Sterling: I'm extremely interested in that, actually, but it doesn't really get me anything. One of the things I introduced deliberately in the Viridian movement is Viridian hate objects. There are people who are our bête noirs, on whom we focus scorn and loathing, and of course they are the people who are most Viridian-like but on the other side. Like the Greening Earth Society, which is like six guys getting paid by coal companies. They sit in a hangar out by the Beltway making up lies. So they've got a better budget than us.

Sure, we hate Exxon because they're huge and they're everywhere. They are the worst of the oil majors, and plus they are involved in a lot of black propaganda activities. But the real people you want to hate from a Viridian perspective are the Greening Earth Society, because they are so much like us.

I singled out the Greening Earth Society as a psychological experiment in the manufacture of a social movement because I've noticed that other social movements hate heretics far more than they hate pagans. Pagans who have never heard the gospel—you should clothe them. You should send out missionaries. They just don't know. It's the people who do know, who have the opposite idea, whom you hate.

reason: Nowadays the political lines seem increasingly blurry, but there were periods in the 20th century when it seemed you could draw some lines.

Sterling: Right now, the Republicans are the party of reckless spending, and the Democrats are the party of responsibility and the balanced budget.

reason: Not many of us saw that coming.

Sterling: In the 17th century, the guys with short hair were the radicals and the guys with long hair were the royalists. The signifiers move, and the issues move from place to place, but there are certain psychological aspects to human social organization that—I wouldn't call them timeless, but they are commonalities.

I also like to experiment with them. I like to experiment with the media. I'd like to see what people can do with the Internet that they cannot do on paper. And there are certain things one can do that are not worth doing. Like I can set up a discussion group that's open to everybody! And that is not worth doing. It's sort of proven that it immediately turns into a cesspool because it's badly designed.

What I've got in Viridian lists are things like: How do I attract people's attention? How do I not attract too many people's attention? How do I attract interest groups and not alienate other interest groups? How do I move ideas from one interest group to another interest group?

reason: You did something clever by declaring yourself a pope-emperor of the Viridian Greens—simultaneously declaring yourself as a leader and putting an ironic distance between yourself and that role.

Sterling: "Pope" is from surrealism. For someone to call himself a pope is not a new thing.

reason: I know, but you're a pope-hyphenate. That's new.

Sterling: I'm a pope-emperor. That actually did not work out. The pope doesn't work without a college of cardinals. In the early days of Viridian lists I had that; I would declare people things and give them stars and asterisks and ranks. You can do that for 20 people, but you cannot do it for 3,000.

reason: I've been amused by the spectacle of Harlan Ellison ranting against bulletin boards because they say bad things about him.

Sterling: The guy has great skill in getting headlines when he thinks he needs them. I learned a lot from him, like how to organize a literary movement. You need some controversy. He had a Breton thing, in that he burns friend and foe alike. But he's always been very good at making enemies, and many of his enemies are the proper enemies to make. Spiro Agnew. How many other science fiction writers are upset at the vice president? Norman Spinrad's books were condemned in Parliament. How many other science fiction writers have ever been condemned by the powers that be in a parliamentary inquiry?

reason: You're envious.

Sterling: No, I'm not envious. I'm respectful. If I were envious I'd say, "How come I don't get as much money as Michael Moorcock?"

reason: But don't you want to be condemned in Parliament at least once?

Sterling: I want to testify to Congress, but I've done that. I think it's an improvement over being condemned in Parliament: to be a cyberpunk testifying in Congress. This guy is a science fiction writer, and he's here before our panel. You want to be in a situation where you can screw with their heads.

reason: One of the distressing insights of working in D.C. is the extent to which the panel of witnesses at a congressional hearing is a kind of theater. And whether it serves as input to anybody's thinking is highly questionable.

Sterling: It's not that Congress doesn't listen to science fiction writers. They shouldn't, really. They should have never listened to Newt Gingrich, that's for sure, and he's a science fiction writer.

Shelley said poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. The truth is that legislators are the unacknowledged poets of the world. They're going to remain unacknowledged. If you talk to anyone who is in power, they never think they have enough to get anything done. No one has ever said, "I have too much power; some of my power should be devolved." It's always, "I'm president, and the Senate is driving me nuts!"