​Bruce Sterling: “You can have a steam revolution without swallowing a steam engine”

Strelka Press is just about to publish the essay of one of the most renowned cyberpunk novelists, the Wired Magazine editor and the author of Schismatrix and The Difference Engine — Bruce Sterling. Strelka.com met the writer to drag the jeopardy of the Internet of Things to light, to learn why modern electronic gizmos are not the technological advance themselves and why augmented reality is fairly likely to become our future.

It is your third time in Moscow, what interests you here the most?

I have always been interested in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, so I ended up many times in Belgrade. So I guess I’m something of a slavophile. You know, if you’re an American, it’s always very interesting to find there’s other continental super powerful white guys and, you know, there’s a lot of commonalities in two societies, a kind of inverses of one another. It’s always very interesting to get to know the Soviet industrial design; and as a science fiction writer I have always quite liked Russian science fiction. This time I also came as a fiction editor for MIT Technology Review. I’m looking for a Russian science fiction writer to commission a story for the 2015 issue. There are Russian writers who are pretty well known now in the West, for instance Victor Pelevin. It’s a magazine for engineers, scientists, programmers, so I need a serious critical piece of work.

I know that during one of your visits you met one of the Strugatsky brothers.

Yes, with Boris. He was older than me, was of the older generation, so our talk resembled more to this guru-acolyte patter, rather than to a interviewee-interviewer interaction. He talked like a pure Russian litterateur ‒ very metaphysically, especially from the Western perspective. I was touched by it; and it was a guy who not only became a frontline player of the genre but also he became a wise science fiction writer.

Tell us about the ‘Internet of Things’ essay. Some say our gadgets are likely to knock us of perch, others claim it to be our future. What do you think about it?

Well, I’ve got lots of opinions about it. I mean I wrote a book about it many years ago called ‘Shaping Things’. I was a resident of the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena and I was dispute about who would be able to write a more visionary book — a science fiction writer or a designer. You know, I wrote a book which was very visionary, very ahead of the curve. I was very speculative and it was about ubiquitous computing. Then it was called ubiquitous computing systems and now it is the concept of the Internet of Things. But my suspicion is that it will be again called ubiquitous computing eventually, this revolution has another revolution inbuilt like a Matryoshka doll. First we talk about computation and smaller technologies, then we call it the Internet of Things, and it becomes circle-wise. In 2004 Xerox PARC laboratory had an abortive attempt to develop a technology which is now used by venture capitalists and huge companies like Google. We witness the omnipresent automation. How far can technologies go? Can we prognosticate our future?

Lately we spoke to Dean Johnson about the same topic. His idea was that we are moving to technologies that will be put inside of us and that we are already standing just on this border. A bracelet will not be enough, implantation will be needed. What is your opinion?

I think it’s a very crude idea. A life cycle of a gadget is a year or two, and a few years later you are to ablate it for an update. No implantation is needed to follow your health indicators. There are special apps for it now, and you can only guess what will be invented in the future. Imagine a doorway that scans your when I walk through it. Putting chips in your body is like the idea of putting a steam engine in your body. You can have a steam revolution without swallowing a steam engine. Now, I think that there will be a lot of interventions in people’s bodies but I think that they’re going to be mostly biotechnological. Inject this stuff, drink this, you know. It’s very likely that they will have to do with modified probiotics.

‘The Internet of Things is going to be modish for 15 years’

What about the Internet of Things, I have spent a lot of time watching it; and it’s like something that I’ve been trying to steer clear of for a long time describing it in my books. You find it strange to see when things move from the world of science fiction to a kind of accomplished technological fact, they go through the phase change ‒ the language changes as well as people’s attitude towards these innovations. I’m not really an Internet of Things evangelist, I don’t think it’s particularly good. But I don’t make those value judgments generally. My core opinion about the Internet of Things is that it’s temporary. It’s gonna be modish for probably 15 years.

Bruce Sterling: The epic battle for an Internet of things (lecture)
Bruce Sterling: The epic battle for an Internet of things (lecture)

Why is it so?

It has been 20 years since people started speaking about ubiquitous computing. The idea came from Xerox Park lab in the early 1990s. So you see this very typical arc of technological development ‒ the question mark, the rising star, the cash cow, the dead dog. Whatever it is that people do, it’s going to get disrupted. So the Internet has already been killed by portable devices and wireless networks, and the Internet of the 1990s with thick wires and cables has been shot off the desk. Yes, the mobiles Internet is extremely popular today, but it will not last as long as railroads or broadcast television do. We’re on the way to the Smartdust (a general term for systems of many tiny microelectromechanical elements that can exchange signals and act like one system), but we’ve got this silent film phase, in the very beginning. In due course instead of sitting around asking “Okay, where do I wanna put sensors on? Maybe my wrist… Maybe my shoes or how about my glasses?”, people will ask at least “Okay, who’s gonna put things on you? Is somebody snooping over the signals? How many people are watching this room right now?”

So you think all these innovation technologies are not the real progress?

It’s a development which is inherent in the nature of the technology. I don’t like using this term ‘progress’, because I think it prejudices discussion. It’s like saying a ‘smart city’ — being a smart city is obviously better than being a dumb city. So, it’s camouflaging what’s really happening in terms of the epic struggle which is about to ensue and it doesn’t help you to think about it that way. Smart under whose circumstances? Where is the money gain? Where’s the power gain? Who’s famous for this? Where did the prosperity gain? These are useful questions to ask.

‘You know, cyberpunk is like 11 guys and one woman who sort of like trade letters, literally letters with one another and have some kind of generational sensibility’

Are we moving to the “High tech. Low life” concept of cyberpunk?

Well, sort of. I don’t like this term, cause it’s kind of a literary cultural imperialism. Cyberpunk is like 11 guys and one woman who sort of like trade letters, literally letters with one another and have some kind of generational sensibility. So I cannot claim to foresee everything that was going to happen, that’s not true. I get a lot of noise from people in the industry now. It’s like they read some book of mine in 1985 and now they’re like the chief technical officer of three initial corporations. They often invite me for numerous conferences and lectures, for instance South by Southwest Interactive (the festival in Austen). Every year I go there and speak. There used to be a hundred guys in Austin and now there are 40 000 people. There is this enormous digital culture interest, it’s just the nature of a particular societal change people want to discuss.

Although you have a critical approach to the Internet of Things, as far as I know you are extremely interested in augmented reality. Why is it more appealing to you?

Yeah, I’m super-interested in that. I mention it in my science fiction. And I befriended a lot of people in that line of work. It’s a very small industry. It’s not huge like the Internet things. It’s sort of like a cartooning business, special effect industry and gaming: three-dimensional computer generated graphics overlaid on an instrumented space.

Bruce Sterling: The epic battle for an Internet of things (lecture)
Bruce Sterling: The epic battle for an Internet of things (lecture)
Bruce Sterling: The epic battle for an Internet of things (lecture)

To me augmentation is the affordance of ubiquitous computing. If you have computing everywhere, you are to have graphic symbolism put on top of it everywhere. Otherwise you won’t be able to know what’s going on. If I put tiny invisible computers everywhere, how do I know they’ll there? You will need augments everywhere.

In one of your first interview in Russia in 1997 you said that TV was going to die before books. Does it mean that books will die?

It’s very difficult to kill books because even if you have the Dark Age and everybody is illiterate which already happened, a lot of manuscripts survived. But even books on pretty bad paper can last 400 years if they are dry. But what does go away sometimes is literary culture. Genres and writing skills die. Norwegian drama disappeared with Ibsen and Bjørn Bjørnson. There is no one to write epic poems. However, I know a writer from Turin, Giuseppe Calicchio. I just saw his new book, picked it up and I realised it was an epic poem. I couldn’t believe it! In the US that is unheard of. There were great poets in the US history, for example Henry Longfellow. We have them now too, but if you ask an American to name a US poet, I doubt one person in a thousand can name him or her. So, it’s not that books die but modes of expression die. And that can be very punishing. I mean it’s a cultural loss.

Photos: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institutute

Originally published at strelka.com on September 16, 2014.