Bruce Sterling & William Gibson
Speeches At National Academy Of Science
Thu 13 May 93 09:02 Literary Freeware -- Not for Commercial Use Speeches by
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling National Academy of Sciences Convocation on
Technology and Education Washington D. C., May 10, 1993
Hello ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for having the two of us here and giving
us a license to dream in public.
The future is unwritten. There are best-case scenarios. There are worst-case
scenarios. Both of them are great fun to write about if you're a science fiction
novelist, but neither of them ever happen in the real world. What happens in the
real world is always a sideways-case scenario.
World-changing marvels to us, are only wallpaper to our children.
Cyberspace is the funhouse mirror of our own society. Cyberspace reflects our
values and our faults, sometimes in terrifying exaggeration. Cyberspace is a
mirror you can edit. It's a mirror you can fold into packets and send across
continents at the speed of light. It's a mirror you can share with other people,
a place where you can discover community. But it's also a mirror in the classic
sense of smoke-and-mirrors -- a place where you might be robbed or cheated or
decieved, a place where you can be promised a rainbow but given a mouthful of
I know something important about cyberspace. It doesn't matter who you are today
-- if you don't show up in that mirror in the next century, you're just not
going to matter very much. Our kids matter. They matter a lot. Our kids have to
show up in the mirror.
Today, we have certain primitive media for kids. Movies, television, videos. In
terms of their sensory intensity, these are like roller-coaster rides. Kids love
roller coasters, for natural reasons. But roller coasters only go around and
around in circles. Kids need media that they can go places with. They need the
virtual equivalent of a kid's bicycle. Training wheels for cyberspace. Simple,
easy machines. Self-propelled. And free. Kids need places where they can talk to
each other, talk back and forth naturally. They need media that they can
fingerpaint with, where they can jump up and down and breathe hard, where they
don't have to worry about Mr. Science showing up in his mandarin white labcoat
to scold them for doing things not in the rulebook. Kids need a medium of their
own. A medium that does not involve a determined attempt by cynical adult
merchandisers to wrench the last nickel and quarter from their small vulnerable
That would be a lovely scenario. I don't really expect that, though. On the
contrary, in the future I expect the commercial sector to target little children
with their full enormous range of on-line demographic databases and privacy
-shattering customer-service profiles. These people will be armed and ready and
lavishly financed and there every day, peering at our children through a
cyberspace one-way mirror. Am I naive to expect better from the networks in our
schools? I hope not. I trust not. Because schools are supposed to be educating
our children, civilizing our children, not auctioning them off to the highest
We need to make some conscious decisions to reinvent our information technology
as if the future mattered. As if our children were human beings, human citizens,
not raw blobs of potential revenue-generating machinery. We have an opportunity
to create media that would match the splendid ambitions of Franklin with his
public libraries and his mail system, and Jefferson and Madison with their
determination to arm democracy with the power knowledge gives. We could offer
children, yes even poor children in poor districts, a real opportunity to
control the screen, for once.
You don't have to worry much about the hardware. The hardware is ephemeral. The
glass boxes should no longer impress you. We've shipped our images inside glass
boxes for fifty years, but that's a historical accident, a relic. The glass
boxes that we recognize as computers won't last much longer. Already the boxes
are becoming flat screens. In the future, computers will mutate beyond
recognition. Computers won't be intimidating, wire-festooned, high-rise bit
-factories swallowing your entire desk. They will tuck under your arm, into your
valise, into your kid's backpack. After that, they'll fit onto your face, plug
into your ear. And after that -- they'll simply melt. They'll become fabric.
What does a computer really need? Not glass boxes - -- it needs thread -- power
wiring, glass fiber-optic, cellular antennas, microcircuitry. These are woven
things. Fabric and air and electrons and light. Magic handkerchiefs with instant
global access. You'll wear them around your neck. You'll make tents from them if
you want. They will be everywhere, throwaway. Like denim. Like paper. Like a
This is coming a lot faster than anyone realizes. There's a revolution in global
telephony coming that will have such brutal, industry-crushing speed and power
that it will make even the computer industry blanch. Analog is dying everywhere.
Everyone with wire and antenna is going into the business of moving bits.
You are the schools. You too need to move bits, but you need to move them to
your own purposes. You need to look deep into the mirror of cyberspace, and you
need to recognize your own face there. Not the face you're told that you need.
Your own face. Your undistorted face. You can't out-tech the techies. You can't
out-glamorize Hollywood. That's not your life, that's not your values, that's
not your purpose. You're not supposed to pump colored images against the
eyeballs of our children, or download data into their skulls. You are supposed
to pass the torch of culture to the coming generation. If you don't do that, who
will? If you don't prevail for the sake of our children, who will?
It can be done! It can be done if you keep your wits about you and you're not
hypnotized by smoke and mirrors. The computer revolution, the media revolution,
is not going to stop during the lifetime of anyone in this room. There are
innovations coming, and coming *fast,* that will make the hottest tech
exposition you see here seem as quaint as gaslamps and Victorian magic-lanterns.
Every machine you see here will be trucked out and buried in a landfill, and
never spoken of again, within a dozen years. That so-called cutting-edge
hardware here will crumble just the way old fax- paper crumbles. The values are
what matters. The values are the only things that last, the only things that
*can* last. Hack the hardware, not the Constitution. Hold on tight to what
matters, and just hack the rest.
I used to think that cyberspace was fifty years away. What I thought was fifty
years away, was only ten years away. And what I thought was ten years away -- it
was already here. I just wasn't aware of it yet.
Let me give you a truly lovely, joyful example of the sideways-case scenario.
The Internet. The Internet we make so much of today -- the global Internet which
has helped scholars so much, where free speech is flourishing as never before in
history -- the Internet was a Cold War military project. It was designed for
purposes of military communication in a United States devastated by a Soviet
nuclear strike. Originally, the Internet was a post-apocalypse command grid.
And look at it now. No one really planned it this way. Its users made the
Internet that way, because they had the courage to use the network to support
their own values, to bend the technology to their own purposes. To serve their
own liberty. Their own convenience, their own amusement, even their own idle
pleasure. When I look at the Internet - - - that paragon of cyberspace today -
- I see something astounding and delightful. It's as if some grim fallout
shelter had burst open and a full-scale Mardi Gras parade had come out. Ladies
and gentlemen, I take such enormous pleasure in this that it's hard to remain
properly skeptical. I hope that in some small way I can help you to share my
deep joy and pleasure in the potential of networks, my joy and pleasure in the
fact that the future is unwritten.
Mr. Sterling and I have been invited here to dream in public. Dreaming in public
is an important part of our job description, as science writers, but there are
bad dreams as well as good dreams. We're dreamers, you see, but we're also
realists, of a sort.
Realistically speaking, I look at the proposals being made here and I marvel. A
system that in some cases isn't able to teach basic evolution, a system
bedevilled by the religious agendas of textbook censors, now proposes to throw
itself open to a barrage of ultrahighbandwidth information from a world of
Serbian race-hatred, Moslem fundamentalism, and Chinese Mao Zedong thought. A
system that has managed to remain largely unchanged since the 19th Century now
proposes to jack in, bravely bringing itself on-line in an attempt to meet the
challenges of the 21st. I applaud your courage in this. I see green shoots
attempting to break through the sterilized earth.
I believe that the national adventure you now propose is of quite extraordinary
importance. Historians of the future -- provided good dreams prevail -- will
view this as having been far more crucial to the survival of democracy in the
United States than rural electrification or the space program.
But many of America's bad dreams, our sorriest future scenarios, stem from a
single and terrible fact: there currently exists in this nation a vast and
disenfranchised underclass, drawn, most shamefully, along racial lines, and
permanent feature of the American landscape.
What you propose here, ladies and gentlemen, may well represent nothing less
than this nation's last and best hope of providing something like a level socio
-economic playing field for a true majority of its citizens. In that light, let
me make three modest proposals.
In my own best-case scenario, every elementary and high school teacher in the
United States of America will have unlimited and absolutely cost-free
professional access to long-distance telephone service. The provision of this
service could be made, by law, a basic operation requirement for all telephone
companies. Of course, this would also apply to cable television.
By the same token, every teacher in every American public school will be
provided, by the manufacturer, on demand, and at no cost, with copies of any
piece of software whatever -- assuming that said software's manufacturer would
wish their product to be commercially available in the United States.
What would this really cost us, as a society? Nothing. It would only mean a so
-called loss of potential revenue for some of the planet's fattest and best-fed
corporations. In bringing computer and network literacy to the teachers of our
children, it would pay for itself in wonderful and wonderfully unimaginable
ways. Where is the R&D support for teaching? Where is the tech support for our
children's teachers? Why shouldn't we give our teachers a license to obtain
software, all software, any software, for nothing?
Does anyone demand a licensing fee, each time a child is taught the alphabet?
Any corporation that genuinely wishes to invest in this country's future should
step forward now and offer services and software. Having thrived under
democracy, in a free market, the time has come for these corporations to
demonstrate an enlightened self-interest, by acting to assure the survival of
democracy and the free market -- and incidentally, by assuring that virtually
the entire populace of the United States will become computer-literate potential
consumers within a single generation.
Stop devouring your children's future in order to meet your next quarterly
report. My third and final proposal has to do more directly with the levelling
of that playing field. I propose that neither of my two previous proposals
should apply in any way to private education.