Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2005

#1 of 11: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 01 Jan 2005 (07:29 AM) Ice caps are melting, the US was slammed by a succession of major hurricanes this year, the U.S. is struggling with a painful war in Iraq... where do we start? And how did you get a gig teaching industrial design? #2 of 11: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Sun 02 Jan 2005 (07:17 AM) Well, for two years I've been trying to write a science fiction novel about "ubiquitous computation." However, I'm now so close to my material that, when I went to lecture about it, I got asked to join the faculty of a design school. It's not like I get tenure, mind you. I'm merely guest-artist for a year, or, as they like to put it at my new alma mater, Art Center College of Design, I'm "Provocateur-in-Residence." But I get a salary, and, more to the point, I get to play in the prototype lab. I could have said, "No, I've got to finish sci-fi novel number umpteen here," but, gee whiz, if they're asking, why not go? ACCD is one of the world's most-famed design schools, and justly so. I was flattered. I was in residence for a couple of weeks at Cranbrook School of Design back in the early 90s, and I wrote the outline and proposal for my novel HOLY FIRE there. That turned out to be one of my better books. So, y'know, I'll do it. What the hey. What's the worst that can happen, right? The entire coast of Southern California being wiped out in a giant Pacific tsunami, that would be about "the worst," right? And what's that got to do with me doing some lively futuristic dabbling at a cool art college in Pasadena? Nothing, right? It's all upside! You know what the problem is with "ubiquitous computation"? It took me two years to figure this out, but first, it isn't "ubiquitous," and second, it isn't "computation." Now all I have to do is go back to the concrete and rebar of my sci-fi novel and start over. In the meantime, I wrote some short stories. They're a departure for me. They're breaking the mold -- to the extent that I ever had a mold. Here's one: #3 of 11: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 02 Jan 2005 (12:20 PM) That's great; "A Bug's Life" on steroids (with a few pheromones thrown in)... Is ubiquitous computing dead? Or did we just apply the wrong label? I always thought there would be more devices embedded in the environment, but assigning addresses to many devices seemed challenging, and there was the issue of power supply. And I still hear a lot of buzz about nanotechnology. Is the book just shelved for a bit, or are you blowing it off and waiting for a blast from the muse? #4 of 11: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Mon 03 Jan 2005 (02:16 AM) *Well, I do hope to work on the book this year. After all, I'm under contract to do it. Never having been a teacher, I naively don't know how grueling teaching is, but it's not like they made me head of the department. *It's a really profound notion, "ubiquitous computation," but I think it's badly formulated, because it implies this smooth layer of magic wireless fudge that's uniform everywhere, and it also suggests that number-crunching on heavy iron is the main thing that gets done with that capacity. I believe "Internet of Things" is a somewhat better way to put it, because here we get to think with some proper wariness of a phenomenon that's hugely powerful and transformative, but also screwed-up, corrupt, invasive, patchy and dangerous - - in other words, we start thinking about it as if it were a real technology. My novel is about people who understand this and live with it on a daily basis, in various subcultures and situations, so, once I've figured out the conceptual core of it, I'm hoping it comes along fairly briskly. I'm assuming I can stop myself from making lamps. #5 of 11: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 03 Jan 2005 (03:34 PM) What are your educational objectives for the design class? #6 of 11: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 03 Jan 2005 (08:32 PM) (Note: Bruce reminds me that he's traveling tomorrow, therefore might be silent for a bit.) #7 of 11: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 04 Jan 2005 (12:06 AM) I don't board the plane till 2. It'll be interesting to see if I can do this while hopping through planetary airports in puddles of credit-card wi-fi. My so-called "classes" are gonna be a series of futurist labs where we ponder big flashy near-term tech trends and speculate about what designers ought to do to exploit them. My educational objectives are to learn something myself. In design schools, people do projects and actually design stuff, so presumably I'll be sitting in at a lot of "crit sessions." If you've never been in one of these, they're kinda like psychoanalysis, but for objects. As a further fillip, I'm officially part of the ACCD photography department, which, at least, ought to give me an excuse to buy a decent digital camera. For some reason, my blog, "Beyond the Beyond," has grown ever more thick with snapshots. Last week, I stuck some video in it. It's lousy video, but hey -- I'm Mr Multimedia now, look out, #8 of 11: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 04 Jan 2005 (04:48 AM) Getting to the state of the world (which is increasingly well -dcoumented by amateur video these days), we've just had an epic disaster of another kind in Southeast Asia, and earlier in the year the US coast was slammed by a succession of intense hurricanes, and we'll probably see more catastrophic weather as a result of climate change. What are your thoughts about the social and political impact of catastrophic disruptions? How much battering will our essential systems (electrical power, water and food distribution, etc.) take? #9 of 11: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 04 Jan 2005 (04:59 AM) As a reference for that last question, here's an interesting op-ed by Simon Winchester, the author of "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883": "Given these cascades of disasters past and present, one can only wonder: might there be some kind of butterfly effect, latent and deadly, lying out in the seismic world? There is of course no hard scientific truth - no firm certainty that a rupture on a tectonic boundary in the western Pacific (in Honshu, say) can lead directly to a break in a boundary in the eastern Pacific (in Parkfield), or another in the eastern Indian ocean (off Sumatra, say). But anecdotally, as this year has so tragically shown, there is evidence aplenty." #10 of 11: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 04 Jan 2005 (08:24 AM) In Zurich, slurping email off wifi, boarding for Paris.... #11 of 11: Gail Williams (gail) Tue 04 Jan 2005 (10:22 AM) Wildly hopping about! Jon, as a former geology student, (whether that makes me more or less credible), I had a strong take on that quote. While Bruce circles the planet, I'll go out on a limb and say that regions can have relatively quiet times and then wake up again, but overall the patterns take place on such a long time frame that most patterns we can perceive in our lives are more likely coincidence. Now perhaps we can get others who know more than I on this subject to read that article and comment on it.