The SXSW Interactive Featured Session Feature: Closing Speaker Bruce Sterling

Written by Hugh Forrest | February 5, 2014

Bruce Sterling returns to SXSW Interactive on Tuesday, March 11

Featured Sessions at the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival showcase some of the world’s most innovative thinkers. Today’s installment of the Featured Session Feature focuses on author / critical thinker / futurist / essayist Bruce Sterling. His ever-popular “Closing Remarks” are scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, March 11 at 5:00 pm.

Today's edition of the Featured Session Feature is written by Jon Lebkowsky. Read more of Lebkowsky's insights at Weblogsky.

In a discussion of his book Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years in 2003, Bruce Sterling said "...every once in a while it's a good idea to knock the moss and algae off your received wisdom. I knew a long time ago that when the turn of the millennium came around I would be a middle-aged guy. I promised myself I would take some time off then and try to re-educate myself so I wouldn't THINK SO MUCH like a middle-aged guy. Unfortunately, I can't make myself think like a young guy, because I know too much and I've lost so much physical vitality, but on the other hand, after writing this book Tomorrow Now, I think about the future like a middle-aged guy who is VERY, VERY ENGAGED"

Since the millennium turned the breakneck curve, Sterling's life has been an ongoing experiment in world blogging, culture hacking, design fiction, and idea spinning.

His first career was as an author of science fiction, which at its best is a literature of ideas and a culture of orthogonal thinking, a fiction of what-if scenarios that appeal to the imagination and encourage the visionary. Intelligent, inquisitive, forward-thinking kids of the mid to late 20th century were drawn to the speculative and often fantastic narratives of this literary subgenre, which bled into popular culture so that, by the dawn of the 21st century, its tropes were appearing in mainstream culture and even in high culture.

Sterling spun off from the world of science fiction and became something different and something more than a teller of tales. He started writing nonfiction and journalistic pieces, an early example being his book The Hacker Crackdown, an account of the hacker subculture of the early 1990s and the law enforcement response to the presumed hacker "menace." This book defined a moment when, via computer networks, science fiction started having real world applications. The cyberpunk literary subgenre he helped define was leaking into real-world narrative.

In the two decades since The Hacker Crackdown was written, the Internet has facilitated a world of advanced emerging technologies that invite re-visioning of frameworks for culture and society, and Bruce has become a new kind of artisan-philosopher, applying a creativity originally informed by science fiction to a persistent re-imagining of the world. He lives in both Europe and the U.S.A., travels the world extensively, is broadly connected via cyberspace, and therefore has a global perspective and reach.

Over the past couple of decades he's been hacking the consensus narrative by instigating and catalyzing loosely organized projects and movements.

A review of these projects show his trail through the zeitgeist.

Cheap Truth

Sterling (using the pseudonym "Vincent Omniaveritas") was editor of Cheap Truth, a hardcopy one-sheet 'zine also published electronically on Austin-based SMOF ("Secret Masters of Fandom" - a BBS for avid science fiction fans in the Austin area, which was an enclave of weirdness even then). Critical of the "stagnant state of popular science fiction," the zine was the house organ for a group of sci-fi dissidents that fed into the dark and dis-enchanted Cyberpunk literary sub-genre. Cyberpunk was a skeptical postmodern argument with traditional science fiction depicting a "high tech low life" future culture in a world ruled by corporate elites. Cyberpunk became a movement of sorts as Internet mainstreaming began. Some early Internet adopters saw themselves through lenses informed by cyberpunk fiction, and Sterling became their spokesperson via impressively smart, cynical talks at events like the Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy (CFP) and SXSW Interactive. Sterling also edited the silicon-savvy definitive cyberpunk anthology, Mirrorshades.

The Dead Media Project

In 1995, collaborating with fellow science fiction author Richard Kadrey, Sterling instigated the Dead Media Project, beginning with a manifesto followed by a series of notes. The manifesto articulated the need for "a book about the failures of media, the collapses of media, the supercessions of media, the strangulations of media, a book detailing all the freakish and hideous media mistakes that we should know enough now not to repeat, a book about media that have died on the barbed wire of technological advance, media that didn't make it, martyred media, dead media." He invited his readers to write the book, professing a lack of time and disinclination to do it himself, but he followed with the set of notes as a base for the potential project of writing the proposed Dead Media Handbook. The notes were circulated to an email list managed by FidoNet creator Tom Jennings.

Viridian Design

A few years later, having done research for a book called Heavy Weather about "people who hack tornadoes," Sterling began to see the potential threat of global cataclysmic climate change, and started considering how best to sound the alarm and instigate action. The environmental movement was a dismal crowd with few victories, so "new and radical approaches [were] in order."

"With business hopeless and government stymied," he wrote, "we are basically left with cultural activism. The tools at hand are art, design, engineering, and basic science: human artifice, cultural and technical innovation." He launched the Viridian Design Movement with a framework similar to the Dead Media Project, a manifesto followed by a series of Viridian notes. This culture hack had a nine year run and could be seen as successful to the extent that it brought designers, futurists, and forward-thinkers into the climate change conversation. Several adherents became the Viridian curia, which spun off new ideas (like the Worldchanging website) in all forward directions.

The WELL

Sterling has long been a member of the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), the seminal online conferencing system that was the virtual stomping ground for many early digital culturistas, including staff and contributors for Boing Boing, Mondo 2000, and Wired Magazine. Interaction on the WELL led Mitch Kapor and John Perry Barlow to meet and found the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Sterling cohosted a Mirrorshades Forum with this author, using it as one of the first weblogs, similar to his current Beyond the Beyond blog hosted by Wired. The WELL is also the platform for an annual Sterling State of the World conversation. The 14th edition of the State of the World was just completed. In it, Sterling described "an extraordinary atmosphere of sullen, baffled evil" in world affairs. Topics this year ranged from NSA surveillance to the state of science fiction to Django Rheinhardt to life in Serbia.

Design Fiction

Design Fiction and diegetic prototyping. Sterling's growing interest in design has led him to design school fellowships, and an interest in critical design and design fiction. He advocates diegetic prototyping, "an approach to design that speculates about new ideas through prototyping and storytelling." In an interview with Slate, he defined design fiction as "the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change. The important word there is diegetic. It means you’re thinking very seriously about potential objects and services and trying to get people to concentrate on those rather than entire worlds or political trends or geopolitical strategies. It’s not a kind of fiction. It's a kind of design. It tells worlds rather than stories."

Spimes

Around 2004, after giving some thought to the concept of an "Internet of things," Sterling conceived a neologism, "spime," for the "things" on the Internet: objects that are networked and tracked through space and time. In 2005, he wrote a book, Shaping Things, with more about spimes, computer enhanced design, digital fabrication, and sustainable cradle to cradle DIY production. The book catalyzed thinking about future design and production processes. Nonfiction imagined as science fiction.

New Aesthetic

Having attended James Bridle’s session at SXSW Interactive 2012 covering what Bridle called “the New Aesthetic” Sterling started thinking about this idea of an emerging visual language mediating the physical and virtual aspects of the world, calling the New Aesthetic a “theory object” and a “shareable concept.” He wrote an essay (http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/04/an-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic/) about the New Aesthetic that was a critique and a call to arms. “When I left the room at the SXSW ‘New Aesthetic’ panel …. I left with the conviction that something profound had been touched. Touched, although not yet grasped. I’d suggest getting right after it.”

There’s a lot more, quite a rich vein, really, but the idea here is to give you a sense of the Sterling vortex that’s about to strike SXSW again. The SXSW Interactive closing speech is another Sterling project, an annual genius rant and deep slice through the mythos du jour, a carving away of assumptions from ideas so the real meat is left, all the fat gone.

What to expect from these Closing Remarks? Sterling is always hard to predict. But, whet your appetite for March 2014 with this short taste of insight from Sterling's incredible end-of-the-event presentation at SXSW Interactive 2013.

“How can we get past the wow factor [in technology]? How can we really inquire with this? How can we treat this with moral seriousness? I think the first step, really the proper step, is to accept that our hands are not clean. We don’t just play and experiment: we kill. To kill it and pretend that that was some kind of accident, that is shameful. To kill and eat it is fierce, but it’s honorable. Because you are taking the substance of the past and making it part of yourself. You are giving it new form and allowing it to take flight. The past is ablaze, the sky is full of smoke, but the phoenix takes wing. The phoenix is a desert eagle. The phoenix is a bird of prey.”

Register now to be part of the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival and to attend the “Bruce Sterling Closing Remarks” session on Tuesday, March 11 at 5:00 pm. For the full picture of all sessions and evening events at the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival, visit the day-by-day schedule. Also, learn more about the best of the best programming for the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival by visiting the new Recommendations page.

Photo of Bruce Sterling at SXSW 2013 by Debbie Finley.