Interview With Sci-Fi Author Bruce Sterling About Enslaved Machines, Bob Dylan, And Cyberwarfare

Bruce Sterling, if you don't know, is a sci-fi author. Along with William Gibson it's generally acknowledged that he invented the subgenre of sci-fi known as steampunk with the 1990 novel The Difference Engine.

But along with being a novelist he's also known for his essays, like his 2012 one on the 21st century art style of the New Aesthetic and his 2014 The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things. The latter a fascinating look at the idea of connected homes and devices that sees it as a power struggle for our data among the "Big Five" technology companies—Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google. It's digital only, but it's definitely worth your time to go download it and have a read.

He's also a speaker (see TED Talk vid above), runs a blog for Wired called Beyond the Beyond, is a journalist, art critic, catalogue-er of dead media, and inventor of neologisms like "buckyjunk", "spime", and "slipstream."

A few years ago (sometime in 2011) I interviewed Sterling over Skype for a VICE column. Below is the unedited (apart from grammar and spelling) version of that conversation which I felt was worth publishing in full.

Because even though its five years old (and even though I come across as a halfwit), Sterling makes some interesting and relevant points about cyberwarfare, terrorism, climate change, Steve Jobs, enslaved machines, and macOS updates. And we discuss Bob Dylan too who, you know, is a Nobel Poet Laureate now.

Authorization requested from Kevin Holmes: Please add me as a contact

Authorization granted to Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling: Yo.

Kevin Holmes: Hey, you OK to have a quick Skype chat now then?

Bruce Sterling: Why not?

Kevin Holmes: OK cool. So what have you been up to today then?

Bruce Sterling: Minding damaged computers, mostly.

Kevin Holmes: Really? What happened to them?

Bruce Sterling: They aged.

Kevin Holmes: What do you use, a Mac?

Bruce Sterling: Three of 'em.

Kevin Holmes: Do you tend to hold onto technology until it's on its last legs, or are you a throwaway kind of person?

Bruce Sterling: Neither one, really—I'm an "endure until the opportunity-cost becomes unbearable" design-theorist type. I've also been putting up with a lot of "technological excise" from the wife's brand-new Mac Air and its daffy new operating system. I'm the system administrator of last resort for the hardware menagerie.

Kevin Holmes: Yeah, I don't have the new operating system for Mac yet, but have heard about it. Where you can scroll through applications. It sounds ok, but something else to get used to I suppose.

Bruce Sterling: Where you can ATTEMPT to scroll through applications, anyway. It works a lot better than the very iffy touchscreen on my Android, which is saturated with augmented-reality apps.

Kevin Holmes: I bet you have a lot. How many?

Bruce Sterling: I couldn't tell you, as my teenager was "reorganizing" them yesterday, she being the prototypical "digital native" type. When one spends all day fighting screens it becomes impossible to produce anything; it's like a confiscatory tax of one's space and time: "technological excise."

Kevin Holmes: But it may just be we're not accustomed to it. Talking of digital natives, toddlers now have an instinct to work their way around an iPhone or whatever. It will be interesting to see what kind of devices they'll be designing when they grow up. As a design-theorist that must excite you? Or not?

Bruce Sterling: Well, I wouldn't call it "exciting" exactly, but that kind of technosocial interplay is my major theme as an artist. I'm not a frothing enthusiast about it, but I really appreciate the oddities of interaction. "Digital natives" aren't any more or less interesting to me than, say, "mass production natives" or "electricity natives."

Kevin Holmes: But it's exciting because it's new I suppose.

Bruce Sterling: Well, it's newsworthy because it's new. By definition, really. I'd have to say that I find the kit of Otzi the Bronze Age Iceman to be really "exciting." It's a rare find, that kind of insight into the quotidian life of a vanished technological culture. Tutankhamen's tomb loot is similarly great. Not the glamorized sarcophagi but stuff like his boomerangs, musical instruments, walking sticks.

Kevin Holmes: The everyday stuff. So you think 3000 years from now our descendants might be saying the same for all our gadgets? Or do you think the capacity to store data digitally means we'll never have that sense of mystery with out distant past, because it'll all be online, and catalogued in blogs, Facebook update, etc.

Bruce Sterling: I hope you're not under the illusion that Facebook updates will be around in 3000 years. Go find some Friendster updates.

Kevin Holmes: Well, it'll be stored somewhere digitally is what I mean. Facebook will be a thing of history, but you'll be able to access it.

Bruce Sterling: I'm reading through lists of papers on early Augmented Reality experiments and I can assure you that a lot of this stuff is already profoundly mysterious. You couldn't reproduced these unique, period, laboratory set-ups even for billions of dollars. It's just gone: the hardware, the boutique software, the displays, the drivers, the bench-built goggle and gloves...No, Facebook will not be accessible in 3000 years. I find it hard to believe it'll be accessible in thirty years. It'll be like accessing "World of Warcraft" as it existed in 1995. There's no there there.

Kevin Holmes: If it's cached, then we can maybe access it. But maybe not 3000 years from now. With regards the early AR stuff, what year are you talking about? What time period?

Bruce Sterling: Oh, late 80s, 90s. It depends on the definition. There's an awesome Ivan Sutherland head-mounted display, the "Sword of Damocles," from 1968 that's the techno spiritual ancestor of all this stuff. The 1960s is truly a long time ago, now. A lot of their period technology has just fallen off the edge of a cliff. Room-sized vacuum-tube computers... Space rockets... Anything Soviet, basically...By the way, we don't have any digital "caches" that can last 3000 years. We don't have any that can last even 50 years. There are no "caches" for digital data. There's only "migration" from one storage format to another one.

Ivan Sutherland's The Sword of Damocles

Kevin Holmes: OK, I was wrong in that regard then. So in 3000 years time, what do you think their version of archeology will be? Will there be a digital archeology?

Bruce Sterling: They'll have archeology, but I don't think it'll be "digital" any more than we have an "electrical archaeology."

Kevin Holmes: But what about the virtual world, accessing that. The world of the internet and whatever that evolves into?

Bruce Sterling: What about it? Go check out what's left of Usenet or the Arpanet. Those were "virtual worlds." In fact they were MORE "virtual" than the one we've got, which is rapidly evolving into something like "geolocative cloud world." Virtual worlds are complicated and hard to maintain. So people don't. It's cheaper to rip out the pieces and graft in new ones and call that inevitable progress. It's as frail as the banking system. In some sense it IS the banking system, they're all period artifacts created with the same underlying logic.

Kevin Holmes: Do you think that technology has become irredeemably corporate? Back when cyberpunk was first around, publications like Mondo 2000 were about, and the future seemed like it was in the hands of the counterculture. Now it seems it's in the hands of large corporations, as is everything. What happened?

Bruce Sterling: No, I don't think that, mostly because I pay so much attention to stuff like espionage technology, criminal technology, and military technology. Also, lab-based R&D technology and archaic technology are not "irredeemably corporate" because neither of them are worth any money. I actually worry about "large corporations." This awesome idea that struck Nokia and H-P... it's like they have a death-wish. Exxon-Mobil has planetary murder in its heart. It's "irredeemable," sure, but the earth under Exxon-Mobil's Texan headquarters is cracking with the heat. How could that go on? What will be left of them? Also, once the "future is in your hands" and you're "counterculture," you just become culture. You can't have it both ways. It's like trying to be a teenager when you're the parent of a teenager; it's impractical and unseemly.

Kevin Holmes: Sure. what do you think can be done about companies like Exxon-Mobil then? Fucking up the planet with no governments willing to stop them. In 50 years time when climate change becomes even more apparent, will that change the views of these large corporations?

Bruce Sterling: They're not gonna last fifty years. Besides, there's very little practical difference between energy infrastructures and governments. Governments and countercultures aren't gonna stop climate change. It already changed. We'll see a different culture, a Greenhouse culture. Lots of them, probably.

Kevin Holmes: What do you mean by "greenhouse culture"? Could you elaborate? Do you mean people becoming more self sufficient? Or people just not caring?

Bruce Sterling: Well, events in the climate crisis are outpacing any organized response, so we'll see a lot of unorganized response. God only knows what that looks like. Very favela-like and emergent, I'd be guessing. And, just, freakish. Like nothing seen historically, because the atmosphere has never changes like this in recorded history. It's "a slider bar between the unthinkable and the unimaginable," as I've been known to quip.

Kevin Holmes: So you think it'll be devastating for humanity, like the scientist James Lovelock postulates, where 80% of humans will perish by 2100 AD. and where the remaining breeding humans will be in the arctic, as the climate there changes and becomes more liveable for humans?

Bruce Sterling: Well, devastation is always a distinct possibility even at the best of times. I've spent my entire lifetime with vast hordes of nuclear missiles ready to launch. It's already devastating for some fraction of humanity. It always has been. Thinking in apocalyptic absolutes like that just confuses people. Lovelock is an elderly man, he thinks about his own death. Wells was the same way, at the end. It's human nature.

Kevin Holmes: Can technology help? Or how about space migration? I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on the space shuttle program ending?

Bruce Sterling: Well, the Greenhouse Effect is "technology." It's all "technology." What else do we have? There isn't any pristine "nature," I mean, not on this planet's surface. Texas is covered with "nature reserves" but they no longer look anything like they did even ten years ago. There's just no water, the climate changed.

To ask "can technology help" is kind of a non-starter; it's like saying "can language help." It helped a lot to have oil fuels, electricity and mass production, but Ford Edison and Rockefeller are the grandfathers of the Greenhouse Effect. Stuff "helps" for a while and then the longer-term consequences show up and you have to deal with that factually. If you can do that, great, if you slide into denial because you're financially, economically and politically frozen, your civilization is toast. As for space colonization, people can't survive out there. It's radioactive and without gravity the human body decays. You might as well go "colonize" a nuclear waste site while dangling upside down by your heels; it's just not gonna happen.

Kevin Holmes: So you think we're never going to colonise space?

Bruce Sterling: Well, "never" is a long time and the word "we" is a bit dodgy, too. We're not gonna do it with contemporary medical technology or contemporary launch technology. We can't yet colonize the sea-floor, and it's a lot closer and more environmentally friendly.
It's not impossible in principle, it's just extremely challenging in ways that were poorly understood before we gave it a try. Frankly, we're gonna be very busy "colonizing" the ruins of mass-industrial analog stuff that just doesn't work any more. That's the 21st-century's native frontier.

Kevin Holmes: You started a Dead Media Project—in a consumerist society how long do you think the life cycle of technology is before something goes from being new, to old, to appreciated as a relic or part of history?

Bruce Sterling: Well, that depends on the area of consumerist technology that's under question. An ergonomic chair will commonly hang on for twenty or thirty years, whereas the contemporary smartphone scene is best described as a "bloodbath." For Nokia's entire product line to be considered "obsolete" by consumers around the world in a matter of weeks, just because of some ill-timed remark by the CEO... that's weird. That's like the way pop music used to behave.

Kevin Holmes: Maybe smartphones are the new rock and roll. What do you make of Steve Jobs resignation? Do you think it's the end of a era or is that just a load of crap?

Bruce Sterling: Well, Steve is a great American business titan like Ford, Rockefeller and Edison. I know he's been ill a long time, and he must have taken a turn for the worse or he would never have stepped down. He personally defines an "era," no matter what happens to his company and its products. I would suggest that Steve and his products in fact did radically change the character of music. Digital music culture is radically different from analog music culture. The music scene led the way there, and when you look at the social and economic and artistic effects there, it is very disquieting.

Kevin Holmes: People say that about the music industry, that Apple changed it. And they did, but before that wasn't it down to torrenting and illegal filesharing? Didn't they change it first?

Bruce Sterling: Apple tends to suck up all the legendry in its own direction but music would have transformed anyway. The means of musical production have changed. Distribution and consumption, too, but once the means of production go, it all goes. Music nowadays is like a horseless carriage that still wants to groom and shelter a horse.

Kevin Holmes: Do you listen to much music?

Bruce Sterling: Yeah, I do. I'm from a musical town. I've always been interested in music as an aspect of culture. I travel a lot and I make a point of listening to local music wherever I go. It's a key to the zeitgeist, truly.

Kevin Holmes: What sort of stuff are you listening to at the moment?

Bruce Sterling: Texas blues music, new Brian Eno, German techno, anything on the "Ghostly" label. When I actually want to "listen to" music, as opposed to mulling over it like a culturalogue, I'm commonly playing Duke Ellington.

Kevin Holmes: I'm a Bob Dylan fan myself.

Bruce Sterling: It's refreshing to listen to a musician who just knows what he's doing and gets on with it, for decades. He's kind of a one-man musical universe, Ellington. Dylan is better than people admit. I appreciate his not dropping dead young like so many of his compeers.

Kevin Holmes: He's terrible live now, but everyone still goes to see him. It's hilarious. He's butchering his classics, all people want to do is sing-along. But no he won't have it.

Bruce Sterling: It's great that a common-or-garden Jewish kid from Minnesota can transform himself so profoundly. Most anybody can blunder into becoming a pop-star, but surviving it is another matter. There's something touching and encouraging about Dylan's story; it's like he went through all the lights, bleeps and bumpers and he's still the same steel pinball.

Kevin Holmes: I totally agree and now he's turned into this grizzly old timer that he pretended to be when he was 21. He's completed the cycle.

Bruce Sterling: I also imagine that most American folklore field-recording guys would protest that Dylan butchered everybody else's classics. People have whined about the guy's magpie tendencies since he went electric at the folk festival. What is the point? It's like imagining that Mick Jagger actually gets carried upstairs in honky-tonks by Cajun queens. I wouldn't make some major point of his authenticity or integrity, but it's great to see that he's got dignity.


Kevin Holmes: Dylan's always been about wearing whatever mask was appropriate. The cultural purists get angry, but they take themselves too seriously. Can I ask what you think about Lulzsec and Anonymous, the hacktivist groups? You've written a history on hacking, do you see them as natural heirs to hacking's past?

Bruce Sterling: You could probably make an argument that American culture wears appropriated masks by its nature. Walt Whitman becomes "Walt Whitman," Samuel Clemens becomes "Mark Twain," Allen Ginsberg becomes "Allen Ginsberg," they're great American artists, why complain?
"Lulzsec" and "Anonymous" have certainly got that mask-wearing thing down to a fine art.

Kevin Holmes: Haha, yes I'd say.

Bruce Sterling: I don't have to pay a lot of attention to them as they tend to spill into my datastreams as a matter of course. Hippies like them because they get along without an apparent budget, but the "natural heirs of hacking" are probably modern cybercriminals and cyberwarriors, not teenage enthusiasts. These are the crews who have the money and the state behind them.

Kevin Holmes: So are the cyberwarriors the people who work for governments to sabotage cyberspace? Like china hacking Google? It seems quite sinister.

Bruce Sterling: It's indeed very sinister. It was sinister when law-enforcement people were speculating about it twenty years ago. It's a situation where a historical perspective is really useful. Because it's mayhem. It's the digital shadow of the terror-war world. There's something romantic and fantastic about the scale of modern cyberwar. It's truly like a dark sci-fi novel, it's like '80s cyberpunk at its most provocative. It's like visionary noir.

Kevin Holmes: It totally is.

Bruce Sterling: There's always been an undercurrent of espionage activity and criminal activity, but there's never been a global mechanism by which it could spread with such speed and fluidity... the lack of any rule-of-law online has really fertilized this behavior. It pays a lot to do it and the upside is huge and the downside is minimal. It's like our period's version of the Fascist Fifth Column or Red Subversion, one of those obscurantist phenomena where, oh-gosh, your neighbor might be one; they're under the bed; they are in your desk, your laptop; they're in your phone.

And every day there's a crazy torrent of spam bellowing off vast networks of captured, enslaved machines. It's Gibsonian, truly. It's weirder than Gibson because he was too artsy to describe it in the sordid, crooked, quotidian way that it actually occurred.

Kevin Holmes: Yeah, they're definitely some of those sci-fi ideas that have come true, which like you said makes it exciting, even if it is criminal behaviour.

Bruce Sterling: Well, I used to write about computer crime as a recorder, and although some young men find computer crime really exciting, the real story there is quite melancholy. It's liking thinking drugs are exciting; taking stimulants is exciting, but when you think about a human life distorted by the cheating grip of some abused medication, it's sad and banal. Even a heroic dissident who successfully overthrows an oppressive regime has a sadness to his career, I've come to understand. It's like, why was all that necessary in the first place? Living under tyranny is like suffocating in a miasma.

Kevin Holmes: What do you think about China, and Ai Weiwei’s comments that Beijing is a city of violence?

Bruce Sterling: Most every hacktivist carries on as if they're convinced that life is unbearable and any means of rebellion is justified; that's a common teenage attitude because for them it's an existential truth, but they don’t have to bear that torment long; they grow up. Whereas to be a political extremist consumed by a thirst for justice you're extremely unlikely to get, that's a melancholy fate for a human being. It shrivels people.

Kevin Holmes: So hactivists are depressed people?

Bruce Sterling: Well, no, because activists aren't extremists or even law-breakers. Political activity is invigorating, if you have a victory condition in mind: "this must be done, let's do it," and it gets done and it's part of real life, well, that's life. The people who concern me are the ones who seem to court their own defeat...sometimes it's depressing that they're NOT depressed, that they're so tireless. I think of all those bright-eyed youngsters strapping on their belt-bombs and waltzing into a mosque full of civilians with a song on their lips. They're by far the most effective political actors of our era, they've changed everything. There are just so many of them. I wonder if even one of them ever thought they were doing the wrong thing. They're not depressed guys; you can check out their martyr videos, obviously they feel great about it. Their existence has meaning. The universe strongly approves.

Kevin Holmes: It is terrifying to see. But what causes that type of behavior? Brainwashing? A belief that they truly are going on to a better world? Or just ideals, but just different ones from ours? The anniversary of 9/11's coming up and we're still in Afghanistan and Iraq. Osama's dead, but the belief continues.

Bruce Sterling: They marvel just as much that we don't get it.

Kevin Holmes: Well this is it. Our governments are terrorizing people to.

Bruce Sterling: I don't feel particularly frightened, frankly. I mean, not by gestures of that kind. I never knew anybody who wasn't a Moslem who thought that this tactic was genuinely scary. Nobody has ever said, "please stop blowing yourself up in crowds, you've scared us too much, we're afraid of you, we'll do whatever you want." Even people absolutely tormented by waves of suicide bombers have never told them to take over and govern. Also, truly scary governments are nothing like contemporary G-8 governments. They lack the muscular ferocity of an oppressive regime. It's more like the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. "Gothic High-Tech."

Kevin Holmes: But what about governments like China? it saddens me how oppressive they are, but because of their economic power they get away with it.

Bruce Sterling: It might be fair to say that, as poverty increases, more people are routinely oppressed by government in the way that government always oppresses marginal populations. More and more of us are marginalized. Middle-class Americans aren't used to the official treatment doled out to blacks and Native Americans, but it's always been there, and once you sink into that rank you get a lot of that. Not from the CIA but from petty functionaries like the county sheriff.

The Chinese are thrilled by their government. This is probably the best and kindest and most humane Chinese government since the T'ang Dynasty. If you're in Tibet or Xinjiang you're not too thrilled by the oppression, and if you're Ai Weiwei you can see right through it, but by their standards they're doing great. And they don't like to fret about other people's standards. Being Chinese they properly consider themselves the standard.

Kevin Holmes: But they have farmers in the countryside who are being silenced, it can't be so great for them.

Bruce Sterling: Farmers in the Texan countryside can't even grow crops this year, and they have near-zero capacity to confront the climate-change disaster that's causing their distress. Chinese farmers want to go to cities and stop being farmers. That's a near-universal aspiration these days. I'm not saying things are great in China, they're just great by the standards of China. A Chinese farmer is of the global peon class. They're treated like raw material. For millennia. I'm afraid we're gonna have to wind this up; I gotta go to the local Chinese grocery for some Chinese food, presently...

Kevin Holmes: OK. Can I just ask one last question?

Bruce Sterling: I think I can find one with my Chinese-made iPhone...

Kevin Holmes: In your China-made clothes...

Bruce Sterling: Sure, sure, come back later if you have to, I'm here all month...
They're a great civilization, we're probably lucky that they were never much into overseas exploration.

Keiichi Matsuda's vision of an AR-saturated future Hyper-Reality

Kevin Holmes: Yeah, I don't doubt that. So, one last question for today. You're a futurist and AR enthusiast. What ways would you like to see AR developed? And what ways do you think it'll be developed?

Bruce Sterling: Well, that's quite a broad and wide question... what I like to see, versus what is actually going to happen, those scenarios rarely overlap much... "Augmented Reality" is a kind of visionary catchphrase for a grab-bag of different techniques. It's not just one thing; it's a cluster of things that center around the idea of "registration," of getting special-effects to appear in real three-dimensional spaces.

You've got the "reality," and then you've got the "augment," and somehow you've got to nail this "augie" or "floatie" into a space where people can mess with it in real-time. And we can sorta-kinda do that now, but, you know, why? Everybody who sees it goes WOW—sometimes they even need some psychological counseling—but 45 seconds later they're like "what's it good for?"

And large segments of it probably are not "good for" anything critical—it's like asking what a rabbit in a hat is good for. The rabbit came out of the hat! Wow! That doesn't make it a hat factory or a rabbit farm.

Kevin Holmes: So you think it's not that useful, even if we integrate it into architectural spaces?

Bruce Sterling: Now, as a futurist, you can posit some ideas—like, what would live, interactive, rock-solid, centimeter-scale "registration" look like? Well, you'd be in a computation-saturated space where the primary modes of interaction would be looking at stuff, pointing at stuff, and talking at stuff that wasn't "really there." No keyboard, no camera, no files, no desktops—none of those visibly apparent anyway. You're in a live cloud, an Alan Kay world, a ubicomp with an augmented sensory front-end.

Maybe it's your "house," your "office," but how would those architectural distinctions hold up? A situation like that would rank with electricity or plumbing or mass transit, it would change our experience of the world.

Well, I'd point out that "reality" isn't "useful." If you demand that reality be useful you get stuck in a narrow instrumentalism. It's like asking if Lolcats are "useful" or if traffic jams are "useful." As time passes the world doesn't get more "useful." It's more a question of technical capacity and price-points—if stuff gets cheap enough and fast enough, people forget all about "useful."
Any PC or smartphone has hundreds of "uses" you'll never "use"—the question is, how does the future differ when you get a smartphone and it's just always there? Then imagine thousands of cloudy smartphones that have just sorta dissipated into the walls, the streets...

"Augmented Reality" is metaphysical. It's part of a metaphysical argument about what computation is. Is computation an "Artificial Intelligence", is the simulation in the machine a "real" place in a metaphysical sense? Is it one "reality" you can "mix" on equal terms with our space-time reality? These are very 1960 ideas. It's just that nobody had the technical capacity to do it back then, whereas now we can pull a stunt like that with a bubble-gum card. So what gives?

It's not a major industry and may never become one, but it's an amazing thing to watch...It's very typical of contemporary computation, because it was never a business or anything but a lab curiosity until three years ago. It's just very "now," with all that implies for good or ill.

Kevin Holmes: Sure, but it is has a potential for many things, as you've mentioned and is amazing to see, and it excites people. But I suppose time will tell how successful it is.

Bruce Sterling: I think it's likely to break up as a conceptual category; pieces that are "successful" will be normalized and they won't be called "augments" of "reality" any more. Some potentials will spread widely, others will become quaint period artifacts. The most important parts are not necessarily the most exciting parts. Still, I'd like to be able to name and number the pieces. And I'd like to see justice done for the pioneers.

Kevin Holmes: Well hopefully they'll get their credit.

Bruce Sterling: No, they won't get their credit, but one can make an effort to see that genuinely interested parties can drill through the obscurities. All histories are "retrodictions." Walter Benjamin's Angel of History is the only being that could possibly keep proper tabs of debits and credits. Something's always lost, just by being summarized and narrated. But that's no cause for despair, otherwise it's like refusing to have children because you know you won't understand them. OF COURSE you don't understand them. That's the victory condition, that's why they're human and not hand-carved wooden figurines.

Kevin Holmes: Well, let's end it there for now then. Thanks so much for chatting to me, it's been a real pleasure.

Bruce Sterling: Well, good luck with that... and now back to that nagging problem with the Mail application. See you around!

Kevin Holmes: Hope you get the mail app sorted. Thanks again!