American science fiction writer Bruce Sterling in discussion with Rachel Uwa talking malleability of humans, maker culture, and mousetraps
Hi Bruce, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions! I’m a fellow Texan–
No kidding? Wow.
so have to start off with a question about your beginnings– in what kinds of ways would you say growing up between Texas and India influenced your body of work over the years?
A lot of science fiction writers have early experiences of living in foreign cultures. It doesn’t have to be Texas and India as it was with me, it just has to be a situation where your standard cultural rule-book gets thrown out the window. That lived experience radically broadens the imagination.
Do you think you would have dreamed up these thought-provoking and fantastical ideas had you come from anywhere else?
Of course. There aren’t many Texan science fiction writers. I could have been an Indian guy who went to Texas and then wrote fantastic works within India.
Or I might have been “Bruno Argento,” a Turinese fantascienza writer.
A lot of science fiction writers have early experiences of living in foreign cultures…That lived experience radically broadens the imagination.
What percentage of us is us vs. the us that is a product of our environment?
The percentage doesn’t make much practical difference. You can just change environments. I’m writing this in Belgrade. I know Belgrade pretty well, it’s one of my homes, so I must some percent Belgrade guy by now, but so what?
Even individuals are more malleable than law and philosophy like to admit. The “you” that was seven years old is somewhat like the “you” that is 87, but not really. Could these various you’s, 7 and 87, even talk to each other?
In societies that aren’t Western and obsessed with individuality, it can be pretty common to abandon your supposed you-ness: marry a second husband, take religious vows, join an army, become a pilgrim, get promoted into the aristocracy and change your name to “Baron” something-else… If you go through some formal ritual and the people around you agree that it’s proper, then you don’t have to remain 100% you. It can be a big relief, actually. A blessing, even. Pope Francis, he wasn’t always Pope or Francis
Bruce Sterling at Casa Jasmina, a two-year experimental project intended to be the connected home of the future.
The “flow of data” thing is a big deal and a modern issue, but it’s not the only problem there is in the world.
As someone who has played a significant role in defining the cyberpunk movement, you clearly see the connection between technology and its impact on individual members of society. In your opinion what is the advantage of using tools such as world creation and narrative in exploring the promise of a ‘smart future’ and the power systems and networks that support them?
There are various advantages and disadvantages here, depending on what you want to achieve and what the situation seems to demand. In design fiction, it’s said that you want to deliberately use “diegetic prototypes” to “suspend disbelief about change.” That means you’re in a situation where somebody who matters has a starchy attitude like “I don’t get it, I don’t want to believe it, show me,” and you adroitly set up some theatrical situation that shows them what’s possible, and then they go, “Huh. Never thought of it that way.” Mission accomplished, the end.
That sounds pretty small and limited, but it can also be a similar yet more consequential situation where you say, “Hey investor. Why don’t you give me ten million dollars for my startup,” and he says “why,” and you say “check out this private demo reel we just made,” and he looks at this more or less fictional, provisional pitch that you have, and he says, “where do I send the cash”? Very similar “world creation narrative” skills there. It’s hard to operate in the design world without at least a few skills of this kind. You can design a better mouse-trap, but someone has to be persuaded to try to catch some mice.
Can individuals and collectives thrive in smaller networks or will we inevitably be at the mercy of those with more money and more control over the flow of data?
Well, that’s not how history actually works. It’s more like some of the smaller networks actually BECOME tomorrow’s giant merciless networks, like, say, Apple is now a thousand times scarier than the much older IBM is. Even an “inevitable” thing isn’t a permanent situation. Also, being “at the mercy” of something isn’t all it seems. Like, I’ve been “at the mercy” of various guys with atomic bombs during my entire lifespan. You too, but, you know, so what?
This is one of those “tragedy of the human condition” issues. It’s very human and tangle and literary, and lacks any clean design or engineering solution. It’s like being 17 and realizing that your Mom is a tyrant, and thinking, “Am I doomed to be tyrant like my Mom when I have the money and the control, and I’m also 47?” And then one day you really are 47, and you go into the sullen teenager’s room where she’s blasting some Skrillex and Grimes, and you’re like, “I hope I’m not a tyrant! Look darling I baked you some cookies,” and she eats the cookies and she scowls and is like, “Mom, you are.”
The “flow of data” thing is a big deal and a modern issue, but it’s not the only problem there is in the world. Like, try “flowing some data” at a religious fundamentalist some time. He doesn’t care. He’s got his ancient Scripture, that’s all the data he wants.
Students begin constructing their devices during the Fabricating Empathy program.
What Makers really want is collaborative networks
What do you think about ‘making’, in terms of crafting experiential scenarios and moments as a means of engaging an audience?
I’m quite the fan of Maker Culture, actually. It surprises me and is fun to watch. It’s not perfect, because nothing is. I notice that “makers” who move around industrial equipment without proper safety training tend to have scarred fingers. "Hardware is hard,“ and tech-shop machinery is not lightweight theatrical paste-board. People who come out of cyberculture tend to think that a blowtorch must have an undo button.
Makers do get audiences, but aren’t all that interested in entertaining audiences. What Makers really want is collaborative networks, fellow developers. Like: how do I persuade you to advance our joint open-source interests without actually hiring you? There’s a lot of political song-and-dance there. Yes, you certainly do have to “engage” them, but sometimes you wish you could just simply point a gun at them, or offer them cash, like governments and corporations do.
If people were sincere about “ethnic diversity,” they’d be keen on legal immigration for the 60 million refugees living in UN camps right now. But they certainly don’t want actual, statistical, world-scale “diversity.”
The world is large and diverse. How would the IoT movement and indeed any movement which desires to help shape future societies benefit from more gender and ethnic diversity?
Modern people really treasure this word “diversity,” but the practice there goes through historical vogues. Like, in the 1990s heyday of the Internet boom, digital globalization was beloved of most everybody. Now that Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and to some other extent Huawei, Xiaomi and Samsung have the old Internet sewn up into new social-media commercial silos, resurgent nationalism is re-appearing all over the planet.
If people were sincere about “ethnic diversity,” they’d be keen on legal immigration for the 60 million refugees living in UN camps right now. But they certainly don’t want actual, statistical, world-scale “diversity.” What they want is from “diversity” is the broadened stakeholder insights that allow corporations and governments to make more profitable investment decisions. That’s where the “benefit” is suppose to come from.
If you wanted actual, statistical diversity, then you’d find the weirdest, most extreme human beings in the world and put then onto your board of directors. Of course you’d go broke.
Bruce with his wife, serbian author, feminist, and film-maker, Jasmina Tesanovic, and Massimo Banzi, co-founder of Arduino company. Together these three along with Lorenzo Romagnoli are the team behind Casa Jasmina.
I realize that this cynical assessment of mine can hurt people’s feelings. Nobody likes to be told that their good intentions are actually self-serving. That’s why it’s so helpful to place yourself in situations where you yourself become the ethnic or gender minority. Instead of swanning around, parading your virtues, deliberately place yourself into the disadvantaged position. That’s truly educational and really broadens the outlook.
Like, being the male arm-candy at a meeting of ethnic feminists who don’t speak your language: that’s quite an enlightening experience for a Texan guy. After you’ve done that a dozen times (like I have) you realize why the pretty girlfriend in the hacker club generally doesn’t say much.
…it’s so helpful to place yourself in situations where you yourself become the ethnic or gender minority…That’s truly educational and really broadens the outlook.
As we find ourselves at the forefront of many new technological changes, I wonder, which character within your science fiction narratives you’ve felt most connected to and what advice would they give to both corporations and to individuals today?
Well, you know, I made those characters up. I don’t have the connection to any figure from fiction that I ever have to an actual human being. Corporations do in fact ask me for advice, but I rarely tell them to go read some novel. Generally I tell them, “You need to go talk to so-and-so,” that person being some actual expert who isn’t fictional and can genuinely expand their understanding, eye to eye.
Amateurs who read novels are often like, “Gee I didn’t identify with the lead character,” like it’s a failure that Ulysses in the Odyssey isn’t your best Snapchat pal. Emotionally connecting to the characters is not what literature is about. The “advice” in a Tolstoy novel isn’t a pep-talk for the present day. The “advice” is that war and peace are grand and vast and terrible, that those you love today can vanish tomorrow, that everything you depend on, and have always expected to be there, can perish in flames. And after all that grand mayhem – hundreds of pages of it – you’re not even dead! Maybe you even won. You might even personally benefit by a world-historical transformation. But the scope of human existence is colossal, and you, making your numbers for the next quarter, that’s rather tiny and meek. That’s why people will still know who Tolstoy was when your company’s name is long forgotten.
“Every day is a gift.”
Is it different from the advice you yourself would give? What is your advice?
The thing I most often tell myself, when I look in the mirror, is “Every day is a gift.” You can know about the past, you can even have some good guesses about what’s coming, but you can only be, within the day.
For more information and to apply to our upcoming program ‘Coming Soon’, Feb. 1-28, 2016, taking place at Casa Jasmina, Officine Arduino, and Fablab Torino, in Turin, Italy, visit our website: http://schoolofma.org
Holiday applications should be in by December 26.
Applications close January 1.
I missed the deadline, d’oh!