“You can only live in the future”: an Interview with Bruce Sterling

Blogging about new technologies, we have the chance of glimpsing a lot of “possible futures” through the new gadgets and inventions we discover everyday. But in some way this is a fragmented vision, pieces of an uncertain world to come. Not many people dare to describe “possible futures” as a whole, with a proper sense. And less people even dare to point out the things that, presenting themselves as “The Future”, are not more than the last funny gadget of the season… Bruce Sterling is really an exception: sci-fi writer, lecturer, blogger, contributor to relevant media as Wired (his farsighted Beyond the Beyond posts were memorable), professor and “visionary in residence”, he is most of all an extremely discerning wise man, capable of understanding the lights and shadows of the future where we are heading towards. When we had the chance of interviewing him, he completely captivated us, not just for the lucidity of his ideas, but for the intensity of his speech, and the profound, naked truth of his vision of technology, humanity and the future.

P.N. You said that we should design futures… but how to see these new futures? Actually, you are an expert on that…

B.S. An expert? Well, sort of. Usually I do two things: I write fiction and I research what’s going on. So the two kind of play one with another, to try to find the grain up the material what seems to be happening. Then you kind of exaggerate it and take the ranges that seems that might go. So, commonly I like to write fiction about an specific scenario, but when I’m thinking about things I usually split them up in the future as quandrums because I think it helps quite a lot. So, let’s say you are worried about high-speed access and privacy, you just have four future worlds: one that has low speed access and low privacy; low speed access but high privacy; high speed access and high privacy; or high speed access but no privacy. And then you can break up the people who would like to be at one quandrum or the other, and the situations where it’s going to happen: sometimes it enables you to figure out where and what scenario would be set.

P.N. So in some way it is all about context: there is not a single setting to place an specific idea, but several problems in different contexts that lead to different possible stories.

B.S. You get brought down in the sort of large abstract issues… It is like where’s the actual harm on that there’s not privacy. If you actually ask who has no privacy you get a kind of a better situation, a better hand on the situation. For instance, a baby can die from privacy. Babies really have to be watched all the time: they are naked, they don’t go to the toilet, they scream all the time… It’s not like “let them have their dignity”, because you know they are not autonomous actors. A baby can’t speak, can’t make adult decisions, he needs to be under surveillance, he needs an adult literally within arms reach. And elderly people don’t need privacy either, they need dignity but they don’t really need privacy, because they could fall over, they can hurt themselves, they need help under certain situations, maybe they need that someone bring them food, they feel isolated because they have lost a lot of their friends, or don’t get out very much… Ok, so they want to be seen, and maybe even looked at, but what they don’t want is to be spied upon or marked.

Bruce Sterling showing new futuristic materials
Bruce Sterling showing a 3D printed material

P.N. So you think that when we speak about privacy we are talking about problems which maybe do not even exist?

B.S. No,no! They exist, but it helps to manifest them in life experiences, in real world situations. You can write a novel about a person who has stripped privacy or you can write a long brief about the history of privacy within the various legal systems. Ok, they are both useful, but there are situations where the law briefs are not: it is not enough to say “I think you have done something wrong” on an abstract plain, all you need is the public drama where you come in and confront people with the person to witness and the person who claims to be injured. Then you have like two teams of people where the jury appears and it is like a little theater that goes on. It’s like what seems to be the problem with the privacy, for instance: “Well, you know, my wife took embarrassing photos and she’s humiliating me…” That’s like a better way to know about the issue as opposed to lay sitting and threading just about the word “privacy”.

P.N. So you agree that “privacy” is an issue…

B.S. Well, here there was a panel about Internet of Things and the issue of “privacy” came up, but I think that it is not really useful, because it is not a real problem. The problem of surveillance is very severe in an IoT situation, the question of who watches who, and who has the storage of the data is very important, but to ask such a broad question really doesn’t advance the debate very much. It would have been better if they asked a more sharpen question like “Do you trust Android systems anymore, knowing that Google has been compromised with the N.S.A.?” That would have been a really good kind of question!

P.N. Some questions come from fear…

B.S. No, this one comes from the genuine risk in life! (laughs) Well, you know I’m a novelist, I’m keen at the tragic dimension of life. Just for the fact you have a lot of gadgets and they work very well doesn’t mean you are gonna be happy… Yes, you need to be aware that there is a crashing sorrow when you parents die: Apple doesn’t bring them back from the grave. Even if your mother won’t die on the Internet, she will be dead. There could be a lot of IoT things around her bedroom, but she died. She could be in an intensive care on the hospital, thousands of gadgets, all kinds of plugs… but she died! And you are gonna cry just as much!

P.N. Yes, we know that technologies are playing to be God, and perhaps it’s not just to avoid not only the pain of a mother dying, but to avoid her death…

B.S. I guess. But what bothers me is when there is a level of discussion about the way people live and mortality is not included, there’s just something fad about it. It is like saying “What sort of a lifestyle should a consumer have?” in front of someone whose mother has just dead.
Let’s put it differently: what should we do with do with Barcelona as a smart city. Barcelona was bombed during the Spanish civil war, people were executed… Barcelona is an historical reality, and it can happen an earthquake, it can spread an epidemic here… Look what had happen in Barcelona in the past, is not like it has always been perfect here! You should be aware that you that to have a lot of expert gadgets is not gonna make Barcelona not being Barcelona.

P.N. Suggestion: For more Sterling’s thoughts about Barcelona and smart cities, don’t miss his brilliant talk at Fab10 on July 2014.

P.N. Not a cheering future prospect…

B.S. You can only live in the future, you can’t live in yesterday. The question is what kind of ideological stands we have towards this kind of new things in the world and the persistent things in the world. Generally they tend to turn into one another. For instance, Google was like a super advanced company at the time, and they are now pretty much like an standard of an American corporation. It’s like Microsoft, are they becoming old-fashioned? Will the Internet go away someday? Well, they will get old and the will get away, so when you look at a thing like this what you see is not “The Future”, it is just something that exist in a particular historical period. I don’t think I’m looking at it in a particularly sceptic way, but it is wrong to put as a super important matter if I should buy Windows 3.0: you did and it was useful for about 24 months, then it was superseded by 3.1, and if you have seen 3.0 and a floppy disk and the crowd, you won’t bend over and pick it up! Most of things that people are talking about have even shorter lifespans that them.

P.N. In fact you have a research line about dead technologies, the <<Dead Media Project>>

B.S. Even the live ones are waiting to die. Some have long lives and others don’t. Some have lingering traces like Fukushima or fracking, or chemicals and the like. Changes and social habit: we built the cities for cars… Adam Greenfield is a very prominent theorist and kind of guru of the IoT and ubiquitous computing spaces, and he said several years ago that mobile devices would change cities more than cars did. When I heard that I said “What a very visionary thing to say, I don’t believe that!”, but now as time has past I think that he might be right. The only reason that they are not changing that faster is that the cities are actually built so formally around cars that it is almost impossible to do an escape, to knock the town down in order to get rid of the wreckage of cars. And even if cars where all illegal you still have these divisions between neighborhoods, and these gigantic structures… But probably we won’t have mobiles for as long as we have had cars, even if they are very powerful devices and they really are changing cities.

P.N. In your opinion, which technology has been the longest one, the one that has really made the world as it is?

B.S. Fire. It’s pre-human, you know. There was fire before there were human beings.

P.N. But then you are talking about a natural element…

B.S. No, I’m talking about people burning stuff. People gathering fuel, cooking, keeping animals at bay, melting stuff… Combustion, you know: combustion and fossil fuels. Fire is actually really amazing to me. There are pretty good arguments about conscience being changed by human use of fire and in the pre-historic era. Apparently our pre-human ancestors were already doing it. So it is probably a million and a half years old, that’s a lot of time of wild fire damage… That’s burning a lot of stuff! People are keen on burning stuff, they really like it. My guess is that we have evolved to co-exist with fire: we are not scared about it, when most animals are. When an baby human being sees fire he goes to put his little hand in there, but you don’t see kittens playing with fire.

P.N. Talking about nature elements… You developed a project called Viridian, focused on how technologies can improve environment issues.

B.S. Yes, sort of. At the time there was not much discussion about digital green design and I though that probably it was a lot of room in that space. Now people are tired of that common place… I did that for about ten years and I thought it was becoming old-fashioned. There was a mailing list and a lot of the questions were answered in the tragic way: as like “Are we gonna be able to reverse the green house effect before there is a catastrophe?” and the answer is “No”. And “Are we gonna be able to design our way out of that problem” and the answer is “Probably not”.

P.N. So you think there’s no way to revert this.

B.S. In some way yes, it depends on what you mean. Most of the species that are going extinct, are going to be extinct for ever. I don’t know, Barcelona can be under water. I can imagine situations where you go out like in Antartica, reduce the size of the seas so Barcelona goes back from the water, but I don’t think that it will be like a fun thing. It’s not like “Barcelona is back!”, but “Barcelona was under the sea, and it’s not gonna be the same town”. Like Lisbon: an earthquake knocked at it absolutely flat, killed like a third of the population… Ok, you go to Lisbon now, and there is a Lisbon. People get used to it. Eventually the worst thing happens. It’s getting in a metaphysical question. The Universe is unbelievably cruel, we shouldn’t have existed in the first place. You could think “There’s a lot of galaxies, lots of other worlds, what’s particularly special about us?”. There was a period of several million years when there was no sun. Universe is like 13 billion years old, the sun has like 4,5 billion years old… So we’ve been like a billion years being around and we have given up a planet. We can be blown up tomorrow and it will be like other 12 billion years. I guess you can be really worried about that! There are people who probably despair at that, they would probably turn into religion…

P.N. As a writer, I guess there’s some kind of believing in creation, or there’s no need of that?

B.S. When I was a little kid, I didn’t write very much. I didn’t started to write a lot until I was like thirteen or fourteen… I read a lot of stuff and I was very curious as I little boy, but I was just fine not writing. And it’s not like I get up every morning and write every day or it was like an obsessive fixation. A lot of my writing is not to be read by other people, it’s just stuff, notebooks, or things that I write for myself. Even my blog it’s like a notebook, It’s just me figuring out what’s going on, so it’s just an open notebook growing. I’ve written letters and manifestos. I think that most of my most influential writings are non-commercial writing, just stuff that wasn’t really something that I sold to a publisher making a big deal about me being an author. I even think that probably some of my most influential interventions have not been things that I wrote down but just things that I told. It took me I while to realize that, but as I get older I would meet people who would say “You told me to go or do this or that and the other and it was true, it was really interesting, and I’ve done that and that…” , they don’t come to me and say “I read your second novel and I decided to change”. That doesn’t happen. When I comes to someone saying “I saw you speaking about this and that and I took some notes and I decided to change my major at school”, that’s probably a rather profound influence on people and it’s more like a serial influence, like being a teacher. And it is kind of dismissed, I think. I used to be super impressed by writers too and I came to realize that they are what they are…

P.N. Well, they are human beings…

B.S. Some of them!

PostDigital Node

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