SXSW 2006 Panel: Bruce Sterling / The State of the World

Saturday, March 18, 2006

SXSW Page about this panel

[Introductions. Talk about the lack of a Bruce Sterling party this year.]

Bruce Sterling: This is the most innovative year since the beginning of the web. There’s blood in the water — Google’s buying. Bubble 2.0. It’s gratifying to see what’s happening now. Commons-based peer production is getting legs. Something I was complaining about for years. Flickr is not a copy of anything else. Wikipedia is not a knock-off of anything else. Without historical president. Websites that turn themselves into platforms rather than site — it’s hard to explain the significance. Major development. Net community is no longer hanging on the coattail of Gates. That monopolistic era — Windows Live. After ten years of trying to build the MSN brand? It amazes me to see the burst of creativity considering the times.

We’re looking at tiny little groups of people trying to wire/unwire the town on their lonesome selves. I encourage you to help them. But why are towns having to do this? Only in the US do dying phone cos lobby the government like Indian casinos.

I’m spending a lot of my time in Europe this year. See America from the outside, now. I look at the spread of wireless and broadband. I’ve got broadband in Serbia for $20/mo. And it works. The people in Washington have forgotten how to build — too busy monetizing. Like the USSR. Turning the USA into a banana republic with rockets. Technically backward.

The reality-based community is polite and easy to push around — but payback’s a bitch. I should know. I’m a sci-fi writer.

Plug some books:

- Visionary in Residence. Audacious and freaky stuff. Not Harry Potter.

I was always very interested in global issues. Now I’m married to a Serbian feminist peacenik dissident I met with computers. In Belgrade. Now I know what went wrong in Yugoslavia. […] You can learn a lot by studying global trends. Serbia has one of the most dysfunctional societies on the planet. Burying Milosevic this week. I have a ringside seat. It’s not a permanent move. I live out of my laptop, now. And so do many of my colleagues. Cory Doctorow, for example. A world of diaspora and globalization. […] Nobody notices I’ve left Austin? I no longer need to be a resident of any particular city. Nothing enters or leaves Belgrade. I don’t even do permanent. National borders are like speed-bumps.

And I can see that it’s depressing here in America. An empire that lacks any base except oil, real estate speculation, and blood. A nation at war. And we even look different physically. Fat. Hugely and scarily fat. Swollen up as if poisoned and about to pop. The dollar is low against the Euro?

Do you really believe that Adam and Eve rode to church on Sunday on the back of dinosaurs? Objective reality? Creationism? […] It’s an intellectual calamity — the shame is hard to bear.

It’s useful to be living in the extreme unique case. “The Balkans have so much future they have to export it to other people.” Slovenia? It’s a dull, conventional place. Like Iowa. Because they’re way into Serbian truthiness there. And forgive them some of that.

We’re seeing frantic collisions of fundamentalist delusion with reality. […]

Where are war criminals of Srbrenitza[sp]? Religious asylum. Writing plays. Put on stage. Like Vaclaw Havel with a machine gun.

This is a culture war. We’ve got the disorder. And when it’s order, you don’t get to say “I proudly served.” Because it’s a war on the pride. On morale. Everybody lives in shadow. Always covert. Fake. Trumped up. No history because it’s been compartmentalized. Official denials. Star chambers. Not accidents. The stuff of the disorder. Secrecy. And no end to it. Even the victor is despised and distrusted.

We’re on a slider bar between the unthinkable and the unimaginable. And there are ways out of this situation. Except we haven’t invented the words for them yet. the smoke is building, but the exit sign is illegible. [Warren Ellis quote.] […]

Unimaginable does not mean catastrophic. China and India are the healthiest success stories — unimaginable by Mao or Ghandi. And those are grim societies in their own ways. Go there. Look around. Barren, strip-mined, polluted messes. And yet they’re booming. It’s the people. Lots of people.

A word I’ve never mentioned in public is Austin in public: Spime. In 2004 I spoke at Siggraph about spime. Then I did a book. A weird and innovative book. Look at it just for the graphic design. It’ll shock and annoy you, which you need to have done to you. Because you’re a philistine and have no taste.

Spime. It’s not a word. It’s a tag! A theory-object.

What does it mean? What the popular consensus says it means. Like “cyberspace.” Gibson’s “cyberspace” is a consensual hallucination. We don’t have any of that. But the word already has a period flavor to it.

The spime elevator pitch: A speculative, imaginary object different from everyday objects.

- Interactive chip on it, labeled with a unique ID. A tag that you can mark and sort, rank and shuffle. - Local positioning systems to sort where things are. Google Maps. - Powerful search engine so you can find out things about it. Auto-Googling object. - Cradle-to-cradle recycling. More sustainable. You can break it down and use the junk. Taggable, sortable garbage. - 3D virtual models of objects. Virtually designed. CAD/CAM. Scanned. Present before it becomes physical. - Rapidly prototyped. Fabject. Blobject. They’re making them out of metal, now, and have it clang right on the ground.

Alex Steffan is about the release a world-changing book.

If objects had these features, then people would truly interact with them. And it’s truly hard to describe. And it’s easier to think about with a name. So. Spime.

Internalizes the previous industrial order.

You look at something on the web, and every once in a while it becomes a physical object.

An internet of things. Not data. Objects. So we can engage with physical objects much better. It’s a civilizational step forward. We do it because of the way it will feel.

Advantage: No longer inventory my possessions inside my own head. Inventory voodoo done by a host of machines. I no longer bother to remember where things are or how to get them. I ask. I’m told. With instant, real-time accuracy. I Google my shoes in the morning. And my relationship to objects seems much simpler, more immediate.

That was my job as visionary-in-residence at the Art Center. And I wrote that. But I’m not a permanent design professor. Small book. Really big topic. Too big for one thinker. Needs distributed intelligence. The people must buy into it.

So I wanted my word to be Googleable. You’ll find a company called Spime and Frank Black of the Pixies using the word for something else. It’s a new word. But also a new tag. A word in the semantic web is a theory object — a whole cloud of associated commentary and data. Passed around and linked to. A platform for development. And this is different from language. It’s changing my life as a writer, public speaker, etc. The 20th century could not speak in this way. […] As if the coffeehouse chatter at the surrealist cafe had been frozen into linkage and FAQs. The people who read newspapers and TV and don’t engage in this? Those are legacy people.

So I’m trying to write a novel this year because that’s part of my job description. But what is a novel under these circumstances? Dropping lit matches into the wet bog of language. And most go out because they deserve to go out. And the ones that catch fire become unrecognizable. Because of the trackback. They turn on their creator like Frankenstein’s monster. […]

We’re going to have to become the change we want to see. Make no decision out of fear. The decline does not hold indefinitely. Because the people tire of the fraud, evil, and the negative impact on their lives.

The great American novel is over. We need a regional novel about the planet Earth. And the inspiration will be found in human resilience.

I’m not a sentimentalist. The people are not always blameless when they have bad leaders. Milosevic. Would kidnap the best man at his wedding, kill him, and have him secretly buried. And then talk the guy up. “I miss him every day.” The guy was a serpent. But the people love him. Some of them still love him. The best organized political party consider this guy a martyr. Posters on the street of this guy. He looks like an injured muppet. He was a product of that society that preferred to live on a locked closet and feed on their own illusions. Proud of their own wildness. And they’re holy, too. And this is kind of an upward trend. Churches going up all over Serbia.

Evil has a face today. The person who resents you because you don’t buy into the parochial crap of his ethnic group. And it puts people into a panic stampede that could stop us for decades. The key to it for now: Historical perspective. Time passes. You come to yourself. The voodoo curse? Faith-based bullshit! Coming apart in public! The old anvil laughs at the many broken hammers.

Serbia has a small language, so they still have poets. Like right-wing pundit bloggers.

When you can comprehend poetry, it means your heart is not broken.


They read poetry in public. And people listen. And weep aloud.

They’re not Europe because they don’t deserve it. But they’re not dead. Have a lot of heart. Construction cranes all over the place. Better goods. Graffiti it going away. New, full, good restaurants. Even the pirates of media and sanctions-breaking are in retreat. They’re a basketcase that’s about the break up even more. Montenegro wants to leave with every reason. Belgrade wants to split up. But they’re a people of resilience. And when the comeback comes, they’ll know how to go with it.

1937. Long time ago. Depression. Rising fascism. WWII at the door. People couldn’t get venture capital.

[Carl Sandberg quote.] “The people will live on…” [Long section. Very emotional moment. Standing. Applause.]

Excellent Synopsis!

Posted Thu, March 23, 2006, 9:55pm EST by Sean Harton

But if anybody wants to check out the whole thing:

Posted Thu, March 23, 2006, 9:58pm EST by Sean Harton

I just spent a few hours painstakingly transcribing it, and posted it at .
It was a ferociously good speech, and while the podcast (available on really brings his delivery to life, for whoever lacks the patience or the bandwidth for that option, my transcript is word-for-word.

great notes!

Posted Tue, April 4, 2006, 9:29pm EST by Kim-Leigh

Hey Josh

Didn't get to say goodbye and thanks properly for everything at SXSW this year but just found your notes on the internets and i must say they're a hell of a lot more useful mine!

Cheers again
k-l x

Plan II

Posted Wed, April 19, 2006, 11:44am EST by Elaine

Very tempted to put 5 for "what's 2 + 2?" This is Elaine Wang, an accepted Plan II person for 2006 freshman. I wanted to ask you some questions about it? If that is okay. Feel free to email me, thanks.