“User-Centric” by Bruce Sterling (1999)

This story dates from 1999. It was the first story I wrote where all the characters — although they’re obviously in a science fiction story — seem to know a whole lot about industrial design.

*”User-Centric” was originally published in “Designfax,” an industrial-design trade magazine. There’s a ton of ubiquitous-computing and Internet of Things riffing in here.

The term “design fiction” hadn’t been invented yet, but I had it figured out that specialized design jargon had some fictional potential.


by Bruce Sterling

From: Team Coordinator
To: “Design Team” (the Engineer, the Graphic Designer, 
the Legal Expert, the Marketer, the Programmer, the 
Social Anthropologist, and the Team Coordinator) 
Subject: New Product Brainstorming Session

Another new product launch. Well, we all know what 
that means. Nobody ever said that they’re easy. But I 
do believe the seven of us — given our unique backgrounds 
and our proven skills — are just the people to turn 
things around for this company.

Things aren’t as bad as the last quarterly report 
makes them look. There are bright spots there. 
Despite what the shareholders may think, we’ve definitely 
bottomed out from that ultrasonic cleanser debacle. 
Sales in muscle-gel apps remain strong.

Plus, the buzz on our new product category just 
couldn’t be hotter. People across our industry agree 
that locator tag microtechnology is a killer app in the 
intelligent-environment market. MEMS tech is finally out 
of the lab and bursting into the marketplace, and our 
cross-licenses and patents look very solid. As for the 
development budget — well, this is the biggest new-
product budget I’ve seen in eight years with this company.

My point is — we have *got* to get away from our 
old-fashioned emphasis on “technology for tech’s sake.” 
That approach is killing us in the modern marketplace. 
Yes, of course MEMS locator chips are a “hot, sweet” 
technology — and yes, “If you build it, they will come.” 
Our problem is, we do build it, and they do come, but 
they *give all the money to somebody else.*

We can’t live on our reputation as a cutting-edge 
engineering outfit. Design awards just don’t pay the 
bills. That’s not what our shareholders want, and it’s 
not what the new management wants. No matter how we may 
grumble, this company has got to be competitive in the 
real world. That means that it’s all about Return-On-
Investment. It’s about meeting consumer demand, and 
generating serious revenue. That means it’s *not* 
centered on the wonder-gizmo any more. It’s centered on 
broadening and deepening our relationship with the end-

So let’s not start with the product qua product. For 
the time being, forget the sheet-metal chassis, and the 
injection-molded plastic shell. We’re not going to do 
it that way, this time.

It’s not about selling the user a cardboard box with a 
sexy label and some hardware that’s shrinkwrapped in styro 
blocks. Forget that tired commodity approach. We need to 
get into service and support, where the big money is, in 
today’s highly networked Experience Economy. Our product 
is not a “commodity” any more, and the consumer is not a 
“user.” The product is *a point of entry for the buyer 
into a long-term, rewarding relationship.*

So what we require here, people, is *a story.* That 
story has got to be a *human* story. It has to be a 
user-centric story — it’s got to center on the user 
himself. It’s all about the consumer. The guy who’s 
opening his wallet and paying up. The guy who’s the 
basic stakeholder in our product line.

In fact, I don’t even want to hear that old-
fashioned word “user” any more. I want us to put that 
mindset completely behind us. I want this character, this 
so-called “user,” to be a *real person* with some * real 
human needs.* I want to know *who he is,* and *what 
we’re doing for him,* and *why he’s giving us money.*

So we’ve got to know what he needs, what he wants. 
What he longs for, what he hopes for, what he’s scared of. 
All about him.

If we understand him and his motivations, then we 
also understand our product. I want to know what we can 
do for this guy in his real life. How can we mold his 
thinking? How do we persuade him to engage with the 
product? What useful design role do we have in his world?

So I want this Team to brainstorm this new story. 
Don’t be shy — come right out with whatever works for 
you, no matter how wild it might seem at first.

There’ll be plenty of time for us to be critical 
later in the process. The point now is to get the story 
rolling, to break the concept open for the Team. We have 
the funding. We’ve got the talent and experience. We just 
need the confidence to push our imagination into new 
creative spaces. So let’s all just pitch right in, shall 
we? Let’s roll with it, let’s do it!

From: Product Engineer
To: Design Team
Subject: Re: New Product Brainstorming Session

FYI, User specs: Classic early adapter type. Male. 
Technically proficient. 18–35 age demographic. NAFTA/ 
Europe. Owns lots of trackable, high-value-added, mobile 
hardware products: sporting goods, laptops, bicycles, 
luggage, possibly several cars.

From: The Marketer
To: Design Team
Subject: user specs

I just read the Engineer’s email, and gee whiz, 
people. That is dullsville. That is marketing poison. 
Do you have any idea how burned out the Male-Early-Adapter 
thing is in today’s competitive environment? These guys 
have got digital toothbrushes now. They’re nerd-burned, 
they’ve been consumer-carpet-bombed! There’s nothing left 
of their demographic! They’re hiding in blacked-out 
closets hoping their shoes will stop paging their belt 

Nerds can’t push this product into the high-volume 
category that we need for a breakeven. We need a 
*house-keeping technology.* I mean ultra-high volume, in 
the realm of soaps, mops, brooms, scrubbing brushes, latex 
gloves, lightbulbs. An impulse buy, but high-margin and 
all over the place.

From: The Programmer
To: Design Team
Subject: (no subject)

I can’t believe I agree with the Marketer:: 
But really, I’d rather be dipped in crumbs and deep-
Than grind out code for some lamer chip::
That tells you where your lawnmower is.:: 
I mean, if you don’t know by now:: 
Know what I’m saying here?::
I mean, how stupid are people out there supposed to be?::
Don’t answer that.:: 

From: the social anthropologist
To: Design Team
Subject: creating our narrative model of reality

People, forgive me for this, but I don’t think you 
quite grasp what Fred, our esteemed Team Leader, is 
suggesting to us approach-wise. We need a solid story 
before we consider the specs on the technical MacGuffin. 
A story just works better that way.

So: we need a compelling character. In fact, I 
feel that we need *two* characters. One for the early-
adoption contingent who appreciates technical sweetness, 
and the other who is our potential mass-market household 
user. To put a human face on them right away, I would 
suggest we call them “Al” and “Zelda.”

“Al” is a young man with disposable income who lives 
in a rather complex household. (Perhaps he inherited it.) 
Al’s not really at ease with his situation as it stands — 
all those heirlooms, antiques, expensive furniture, 
kitchenware, lawn-care devices — it’s all just a little 
out of his control. Given Al’s modern education, Al 
sees a laptop or desktop as his natural means of control 
over a complex situation. Al wants his things together 
and neat, and accessible, and searchable, and orderly — 
just the way they are on his computer screen.

But what Al really needs is an understanding, 
experienced, high-tech housekeeper. That’s where “Zelda” 
comes into the story. Zelda’s in today’s 65+ demographic, 
elderly but very vigorous, with some life-extension health 
issues. Zelda has smart pill-bottles that remind her 
of all her times and her dosages. She’s got cognitive 
blood-brain inhalers, and smart orthopedic shoes. Zelda 
wears the customary, elder-demographic, biomaintenance 
wrist-monitor. So I see Zelda as very up-to-speed with 
biomedical tech — so that her innate late-adapter 
conservatism has a weak spot that we might exploit.

Is this approach working for the Team?

From: Team Coordinator
To: Design Team
Subject: Now We’re Talking!

The Social Anthropologist is with the story here! 
Right, that’s just what we want: *specificity.* We’re 
building a technology designed for “Al” and “Zelda.” Our 
Team has got to *understand* these two characters — who 
are they, what do they need? How can we exceed their 
consumer expectations, make them go “Wow”?

And one other little thing — I’m not the “Team 
Leader”. I mean, it’s nice of Susan to say that, but my 
proper title is “Coordinator,” and the new CEO insists on 
that across all teams and divisions.

From: The Graphic Designer
To: Design Team
Subject: I’m telling the story

Okay, well, maybe it’s just me, but I’m getting a 
kind of vibe from this guy “Albert.” I’m thinking he’s 
maybe, like, a hunter? Because I see him as, like, 
outdoors a lot? More than you’d think for a geek, anyway. 

From: The Engineer
To: Design Team
Subject: Story Time

Okay, I can play that way, too. “Albert Huddleston.” 
He’s, like, the quiet type, good with his hands. Not a 
big talker. Doesn’t read much. Not, like, a ladies’ 
man. But he’s great at home repair. He’s got the big 
house and he’s out in the big yard a lot of the time, with 
big trees, maybe a garden. A deer rifle wouldn’t scare 
him. He could tie trout flies, if he was in the mood.

From: The Marketer
To: Design Team
Subject: the consumables within Al’s demographic

Lathes, paintbrushes, ladders, plumbing tools. A bow saw, 
an extendable pruner. Closet full of high-performance 
extreme-sports equipment that Al used in college and can’t 
bear to get rid of.

From: The Graphic Designer
To: Design Team
Subject: What is Albert really like?

So he’s, like, maybe, a Cognition-Science major with a 
minor in environmental issues?

From: The Marketer
To: Design Team
Subject: Re: What is Albert really like?

Albert’s not smart enough to be a “cognition science 

From: The Legal Expert
To: Design Team
Subject: so-called Cognition Science

In a lot of schools, “Cognition Science” is just the 
Philosophy Department in drag.

From: Team Coordinator
To: Design Team
Subject: Brainstorming

It’s great to see you pitching in, Legal Expert, but 
let’s not get too critical while the big, loose ideas are 
still flowing.

From: Legal Expert
To: Design Team
Subject: Critical Legal Implications

Well, excuse me for living. Forgive me for pointing 
out the obvious, but there are massive legal issues with 
this proposed technology. We’re talking about embedding 
hundreds of fingernail-sized radio-chirping MEMS chips 
that emit real-time data on the location and the condition 
of everything you own. That’s a potential Orwell 
situation. It could violate every digital-privacy statute 
on the books.

Let’s just suppose, hypothetically, that you walk 
out with some guy’s chip-infested fountain pen. You don’t 
even know the thing has been bugged. So if the 
plaintiff’s got enough bandwidth and big enough receivers, 
he can map you and all your movements, for as long as you 
carry the thing.

There are huge corporate-responsibility issues 
here. Those legal issues have to come first in the design 
process. It just isn’t prudent to tack on anti-
liability safeguards, somewhere down at the far end of the 
assembly line.

From: The Engineer
To: Design Team
Subject: correction

We don’t use “assembly lines.” Those went out with the 
twentieth century.

From: The Marketer
To: Design Team
Subject: getting sued

Wait a minute. Isn’t product-liability exactly 
what blew us out of the water with the ultrasonic 

From: the social anthropologist
To: Design Team
Subject: the issues we face together as a group

There are plenty of major issues here, no one’s 
denying that. In terms of the story though — I’m very 
intrigued by the Legal Expert’s suggestions. I mean — 
there seems to be an unexamined assumption here that a 
household control technology is necessarily “private.” 
But what if it’s just the opposite?

If Al has the location and condition of all his 
possessions cybernetically tracked and tagged in real 
time, maybe Al is freed from *worrying about all his 
stuff.* Why should Al fret about his possessions any 
more? We’ve made them permanently safe. For instance, 
why shouldn’t Al loan the lawnmower to his neighbor? 
Al’s neighbor can’t lose the lawnmower, he can’t sell it, 
he can’t steal it, because Al’s embedded MEMS monitors 
just won’t allow that behavior.

So now Al can be *far more generous* to his neighbor. 
Instead of being miserly and geeky — “labelling 
everything he possesses,” obsessed with possessiveness and 
privacy — Al turns out to be an open-handed, open-
hearted, very popular guy. Al probably doesn’t even have 
locks on his doors any more. Al doesn’t need locks! 
Everything Al has is automatically theft-proof — thanks 
to us.

I see Al throwing big house parties. Al is 
fearlessly showing off his home and his possessions. 
Everything that was once a personal burden to Al becomes 
a benefit to the neighborhood community. What was once 
Al’s weakness and anxiety is now a source of emotional 
strength and community esteem for Al.

From: Team Coordinator
To: Design Team
Subject: Wow

Right! That’s it. That’s what we’re looking for. 
That’s the “Wow” factor.

From: the Graphic Designer
To: Design Team
Subject: Re: Wow

Okay! So here’s how Al meets Zelda. Cause she’s , 
like, living next door? And there’s, like, a bunch of 
Al’s dinner plates in her house, kind of “borrowed?” And 
somebody breaks a plate, and there’s an immediate screen 
prompt, and Al rushes over, and there’s Zelda. She 
dropped a plate and broke it.

From: the Legal Expert
To: Design Team
Subject: domestic disputes

Someone *threw* a plate at Zelda. Zelda owns the 
home next door, and her son and daughter-in-law are living 
in it. But Zelda’s sold the home, because she needs to 
finance her rejuvenation treatments. It’s a basic cross-
generational equity issue. Happens all the time nowadays, 
with the boom in life-extension.

Granny Zelda comes home from the clinic looking 35. 
She’s mortgaged all the family wealth, and now the next 
generation can’t afford to have kids. The daughter-in-law 
is freaked because the mother-in-law suddenly looks better 
than she does. The family has a soap-opera eruption of 
passion, resentment and greed. This kind of thing makes 
a child-custody case look like a traffic ticket.

From: The Engineer
To: Design Team
Subject: implications

Great. So listen. Zelda sells her house and moves 
in with Al next door. Al is a nice guy, he’s generous, 
he’s rescuing her from her family soap-opera. Now Zelda 
brings in all her own stuff into Al’s house, too. Sixty 
years’ worth of Zelda’s tschochkes.

But that’s not a problem at all. Thanks to us. 
Because Al and Zelda are getting everything out of her 
packing boxes, and tagging it all with our MEMS tags. 
Their household possessions are all mixed up physically — 
and yet they’re totally separate, virtually. Thanks to 
MEMS tags, unskilled labor can come into the house with a 
handheld tracker, and separate and re-pack everything in a 
few hours, tops. Al and Zelda never lose track of who 
belongs to what — that’s a benefit we’re supplying. Al 
and Zelda can live together in a new kind of way.

From: the Graphic Designer
To: Design Team
Subject: A&Z living together

Okay, so Zelda’s in the house doing some cooking, 
right? Now Al can get to that yardwork he’s been putting 
off. There’s like squirrels and raccoons and out there in 
the yard, and they’re getting in the attic? Only now Al’s 
got some cybernetic live-traps, like the MuscleGel MistNet 
(TM) from our Outdoor Products Division. Al catches the 
raccoon, and he plants a MEMS chip *under the animal’s 
skin.* Now he always knows where the raccoon is! It’s 
like, Al hears this spooky noise in the attic, he goes up 
in the attic with his handheld, it’s like, “Okay Rocky, I 
know it’s you! And I know exactly where you’re hiding, 
too. Get the hell out of my insulation.”

From: the Legal Expert
To: Design Team
Subject: tagging raccoons

That’s very interesting. If Al really does track and 
catalog a raccoon, that makes the raccoon a property 
improvement. If Al ever wants to sell the house, he’s 
got a market advantage. After all, Al’s property comes 
with big trees, that’s obvious, that’s a given — but now 
it also comes with a legally verifiable raccoon.

From: the Engineer
To: Design Team
Subject: squirrels

They’re no longer vermin. The squirrels in the 
trees, I mean. They’re a wholly-owned property asset.

From: Team Coordinator
To: Design Team
Subject: This Is Real Progress, People

I’m with this approach! See, we never would have 
thought of the raccoon angle if we’d concentrated on the 
product as a product. But *of course* Al is moving his 
control-chips out of the house, into his lawn, and 
eventually into the whole neighborhood. Raccoons wander 
around all the time. So do domestic dogs and cats. But 
that’s not a bug in our tracking technology — that’s a 
feature. Al’s cat has got a MEMS tag on its collar. Al 
can tag every cat’s collar in the whole neighborhood, and 
run it as a neighborhood service off his web-page. When 
you’re calling Kitty in for supper, you just email Kitty’s 

From: the Programmer
To: Design Team
Subject: (no subject)

I am so with this!::
I got eight cats myself::
I want this product!::
I can smell the future here!::
And it smells like a winner!!::

From: the Engineer
To: Design Team
Subject: current chip technology

That subcutaneous ID chip is a proven technology. 
They’ve been doing that for lab rats for years now. I 
could have a patent-free working model out of our 
Sunnyvale fab plant in 48 hours, tops.

The only problem Al faces is repeater technology, so 
he can cover the neighborhood with his radio locators. 
But a repeater net is a system administration issue. 
That’s a classic, tie-in, service-provision opportunity. 
We’re talking some long-term contracts here, and a big 
buyer lock-in factor.

From: the Marketer
To: Design Team
Subject: buyer lock-in factor

That is hot! Of course! It’s about consumer 
stickiness through market-segmentation upgrades. You’ve 
got the bottom-level, introductory, Household-Only tagging 
model. Then the mid-level Neighborhood model. Then, on 
to the Gold and Platinum service levels, with 24 hour tech 
support! Al can saturate the whole suburb. Maybe even 
the whole city! It’s totally open-ended. We can supply 
as many tags and as much monitoring and connectivity as 
the guy is willing to pay for. The only limit is the size 
of his wallet!

From: Team Coordinator
To: the Social Anthropologist
Subject: *****Private message*****

Susan, look at ’em go! I can’t believe the story-
telling approach works so well. Last week they were 
hanging around the lab with long faces, preparing their 
resumes and emailing head-hunters.

To: the Team Coordinator
From: the social anthropologist
Subject: Re: *****Private message*****

Fred, people have been telling each other stories since we 
were hominids around campfires in Africa. It’s a very 
basic human cognition thing, really.

From: Team Coordinator
To: the Social Anthropologist
Subject: ****Private Message Again****

We’re gonna have a hit, Susan. I can feel it. I need 
a drink after all this, don’t you? Let’s go out and 
celebrate. On my tab, okay? We’ll make a night of it.

From: the social anthropologist
To: the Team Coordinator
Subject: our relationship

Fred, I’m not going to deny that there was chemistry 
between us. But I really have to question whether that’s 
appropriate business behavior.

From: Team Coordinator
To: the Social Anthropologist
Subject: ****Private Message****

We’re grown-ups, Susan. We’ve both been around the 
block a few times. Come on, you don’t have to be this 

From: the social anthropologist
To: Team Coordinator
Re: ****private message****

Fred, it’s not like this upsets me professionally — I 
mean, not in that oh-so-proper way. I’m a trained 
anthropologist. They train us to understand how societies 
work — not how to make people happy. I’m being very 
objective about this situation. I don’t hold it against 
you. I know that I’m relationship poison, Fred. I’ve 
never made a man happy in my whole life.

From: Team Coordinator 
To: the Social Anthropologist
Subject: ****Very Private Message***

Please don’t be that way, Susan. That “you and me” 
business, I mean. I thought we’d progressed past that by 
now. We could just have a friendly cocktail down at Les 
Deux Magots. This story isn’t about “you and me.”

From: the social anthropologist
To: the Team Coordinator
Subject: Your Unacceptable Answer

Then whose story is it, Fred? If this isn’t our story, 
then whose story is it?


Albert’s mouth was dry. His head was swimming. He 
really had to knock it off with those cognition enhancers 
 — especially after 8 PM. The smart drugs had been a 
major help in college — all those French philosophy 
texts, my God, Kant 301, that wasn’t the kind of text 
that a guy could breeze through without serious 
neurochemical assistance — but he’d overdone it. Now he 
ate the pills just to keep up with the dyslexia syndrome -
- and the pills made him so, well, *verbal.* Lots of 
voices inside the head. Voices in the darkness. Bits and 
pieces arguing. Weird debates. He had a headfull of 
yakking chemical drama.

Another ripping snore came out of Hazel. Hazel had 
the shape of a zaftig 1940s swimsuit model, and the ear-
nose-and-throat lining of a 67-year-old crone. And what 
the hell was it with those hundred-year-old F. Scott 
Fitzgerald novels? Those pink ballet slippers. And the 
insistence on calling herself “Zelda.”

Huddleston pulled himself quietly out of the bed. 
He lurched into the master bathroom, which alertly 
switched itself on as he entered. His hair was snow-
white, his face a road-map of hard wear. The epidermal 
mask was tearing loose a bit, down at the shaving line at 
the base of his neck. He was a 25-year-old man who went 
out on hot dates with his own roommate. He posed as 
Zelda’s fictional “seventy-year-old escort.” When they 
were out in clubs and restaurants, he always passed as 
Zelda’s sugar-daddy.

That was the way the two of them had finally clicked 
as a couple, somehow. The way to make the relationship 
work out. Al had become a stranger in his own life. 
Al now knew straight-out, intimately, what it really 
meant to be old. AL knew how to pass for old. Because 
his girlfriend was old. He watched forms of media that 
were demographically targeted for old people, with their 
deafened ears, cloudy eyes, permanent dyspepsia and 
fading grip-strength. Al was technologically jet-lagged 
out of the entire normal human aging process. He could 
visit “his seventies” the way somebody else might buy a 
ticket and visit “France.”

Getting Hazel, or rather “Zelda,” to come across in 
the bedroom — the term “ambivalence” didn’t begin to 
capture his feelings on that subject. It was all about 
fingernail-on-glass sexual tension and weird time-
travelling flirtation mannerisms. There was something 
so irreparable about it. It was a massive transgressive 
rupture in the primal fabric of human relationships.

Not “love.” A different arrangement. A romance 
with no historical precedent, all beta pre-release, an 
early-adapter thing, all shakeout, with a million bugs and 
periodic crashes. It wasn’t love, it was “evol.” It was 
“elvo.” Albert was in elvo with the curvaceous bright-
eyed babe who had once been the kindly senior citizen next 

At least he wasn’t like his Dad. Stone dead of 
overwork on the stairsteps of his mansion, in a monster 
house with a monster coronary. And with three dead 
marriages: Mom One, Mom Two and Mom Three. Mom One had 
the kid and the child support. Mom Two got the first 
house and the alimony. Mom Three was still trying to 
break the will.

How in hell had life become like this? thought 
Huddleston in a loud interior voice, as he ritually peeled 
dead pseudoskin from a mirrored face that, even in the 
dope-etched neural midnight of his posthuman soul, looked 
harmless and perfectly trustworthy. He couldn’t lie to 
himself about it — because he was a philosophy major, he 
formally despised all forms of cheesiness and phoniness. 
He was here because he enjoyed it. Because it was working 
out for him. Because it met his needs. He’d been a 
confused kid with emotional issues, but he was so 
*together* now.

He had to give Zelda all due credit — the woman was 
a positive genius at home economics. A household 
maintenance whiz. Zelda was totally down with Al’s 
ambitious tagging project. Everything in its place with a 
place for everything. Every single shelf and windowsill 
was spic and span. Al and Zelda would leaf through design 
catalogs together, in taut little moments of genuine 

Zelda was enthralled with the new decor scheme. 
Zelda clung to her household makeover projects like a 
drowning woman grabbing life-rings. Al had to admit it: 
she’d been totally right about the stark necessity for new 
curtains. The lamp thing — Zelda had amazing taste in 
lamps. You couldn’t ask for a better garden-party 
hostess: the canapes, the Japanese lacquer trays, crystal 
swizzle sticks, stackable designer porch chairs, Chateau 
Neuf de Pape, stuff Al had never heard of, stuff he 
wouldn’t have learned about for fifty years. Such great, 
cool stuff.

Zelda was his high-maintenance girl. A fixer-
upper. Like a part-time wife, sort of kind of, but 
requiring extensive repair work. A good-looking gal with 
a brand new wardrobe, whose calcium-depleted skeletal 
system was slowly unhinging and required a lots of hands-
on footrubs and devoted spinal adjustment. It was a 
shame about her sterility thing. But let’s face it, who 
needed children? Zelda had children. She couldn’t 
stand ‘em.

What Al really wanted — what he’d give absolutely 
anything for — was somebody, something, somewhere, 
somehow, who would give him a genuine *grip.* To become 
a fully realized, fully authentic human being. He had 
this private vision, a true philosophy almost: Albert 
“Owl” Huddleston, as a truly decent person. Honest, 
helpful, forthright, moral. A modern philosopher. A 
friend to mankind. It was that Gesamtkunstwerk thing. No 
loose ends at all. No ragged bleeding bits. The Total 
Work of Design.

Completely *put together,* Al thought, carefully 
flushing his face down the toilet. A stranger in his 
own life, maybe, sure, granted, but so what, so were most 
people — even a lame antimaterialist like Henry Thoreau 
knew that much. A tad dyslexic, didn’t read all that 
much, stutters a little when he forgets his 
neuroceuticals, listens to books on tape about Italian 
design theory, maybe a tad obsessive-compulsive about the 
seven-hundred dollar broom, and the ultra-high-tech mop 
with the chemical taggant system that Displays Household 
Germs in Real Time © (TM)… But so what.

So what. So what is the real story here? Is Al a 
totally together guy, on top and in charge, cleverly 
shaping his own destiny through a wise choice of tools, 
concepts, and approaches? Or is Al a soulless figment 
of a hyperactive market, pieced together like a shattered 
mirror from a million little impacts of brute consumerism? 
Is Al his own man entire, or is Al a piece of flotsam in 
the churning surf of techno-revolution? Probably both 
and neither. With the gratifying knowledge that it’s All 
Completely Temporary Anyway ©. Technological Innovation 
Is An Activity, Not An Achievement (TM) (SM). Living On 
The Edge Is Never Comfortable (R).

What if the story wasn’t about design after all? 
What if it wasn’t about your physical engagement with the 
manufactured world, your civilized niche in historical 
development, your mastery of consumer trends, your studied 
elevation of your own good taste, and your hands-on 
struggle with a universe of distributed, pervasive and 
ubiquitous smart objects, that are choreographed in 
invisible, dynamic, interactive systems. All based, with 
fiendish computer-assisted human cleverness, in lightness, 
dematerialization, brutally rapid product cycles, steady 
iterative improvement, renewability, and fantastic access 
and abundance. What if all of that was at best a 
passing thing. A by-blow. A techie spin-off. A phase. 
What if the story was all about this, instead: What if 
you tried your level best to be a real-life, fully true 
human being, and it just plain couldn’t work? It wasn’t 
even possible. Period.

Zelda stirred and opened her glamorous eyes. “Is 
everything clean?”

“Is it all put away?”


“Did you have another nightmare?”
 “Uh. No. Sure. Kinda. Don’t call them ‘nightmares,’ 
okay? I just thought I’d… you know…. boot up and 
check out the neighborhood.”

Zelda sat up in bed, tugging at the printed satin 
sheet. “There are no more solutions,” Zelda said. “You 
know that, don’t you? There are no happy endings. 
Because there are no endings. There are only ways to 

Like what you read? Give Bruce Sterling a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.