Life, The Internet, and Everything: An Interview with Bruce Sterling

Cite as: “Life, The Internet, and Everything,” KEStudies Vol. 2 (2008).

Life, the Internet and Everything: An Interview with Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling is a prolific and versatile visionary, writer and polemicist. Twice a winner of the prestigious Hugo Award for Science Fiction, and the inspiration for the Dead Media Project, the Viridian Design Movement and many other ideas and projects, Sterling is an original, entertaining and influential observer and reporter of the knowledge ecology. In March 2008, KES interviewed Mr. Sterling.

KES: Your books and articles explore, among many things, technology and politics, and we are naturally interested in the relationship between the two. But we are also intrigued by other areas you have explored, including the relationship between technology and religion, or technology and the family. Our first question concerns religion and technology. How do you see the Internet changing religions?

Bruce Sterling: Well, we haven’t seen an “Internet religion” yet in the manner that “televangelism” was so innovative in the 1980s. I like to think that this is because Internet users are more sophisticated than TV consumers, but I doubt it.

I question whether the Net will change anyone’s theological convictions, but it does empower diasporas rather drastically. Presumably this means that we will end up with a “flat world” with big fruitcake lumps of zealots in it. Mosques in the Arctic, Christian fundamentalists in western China, Omaha Buddhists, that sort of thing.

It’ll be interesting to see if we get geolocative, Google-mapped super-churches that can out-draw small neighborhood churches — the Wal-Mart Big Box Store model of American Christianity.

Long Tail theory would predict that tiny cults will thrive. If you’re the world’s last five Zoroastrians, at least you can friend each other on MySpace.

KES: The term intellectual property rights is used to describe a host of rights, privileges and ownership claims on creativity, invention and investments in knowledge. There is lobbying by corporate interests to expand and enforce these claims, and a social movement to scale them back. There are also attempts to replace systems of exclusive rights with other rewards, such as the use of cash prizes for successful drug developers, or systems of remunerating authors and performers for work that are freely copied and shared on the Internet — in short, to separate the reward to the creative communities from the control over access to the work or invention. How do you see this debate playing out?

Bruce Sterling: I see it as long, ugly, and increasingly criminal and/or coercive. Nothing that’s framed as “corporate interests” versus “social movements” will ever be resolved. That may have been a proper description twenty years ago, but nowadays it’s mayhem: RIAA and MPAA vigilantes, rootkits, organized pirates, P2P networks, all kinds of secretive barbed-wire smuggled into the hardware…it’s become sinister. The major players, the change drivers that are really shaping that landscape, are antisocial and outside the law.

We’re getting the kind of property rights regime that we deserve: it looks like Somalia, like Baghdad, like the pirate factories of Shenzhen; it’s conspiratorial and cruel. IP law enforcement looks like Guantanamo; the majesty of the law is in tatters.

Yet people still imagine there’s some kind of cool hacker handwave here — like the US Supreme Court can fix it all with a court case. That’s like imagining that heroin leaves Afghanistan because, you know, the Koran likely doesn’t approve of that.

I heard a refugee say recently that chaos is the worst kind of oppression because there is nothing to resist. It’s not a matter of, say, heroic freeware resistance to corporate oppression anymore. I think if these two supposedly potent groups sat down at a conference table and worked these IP issues out in all good will, they’d have a very steep climb just rebuilding the IP structures that have been methodically wrecked since the ’80s.

They should both both staring aghast at Moore’s Law, at the Chris Anderson “drive toward free,” at the amount of digital “property” that’s just plain outmoded and useless — everything on HD-DVD, for instance — at IP that is vanishing because rights are too complex to track, at global criminality, at new forms of “managed democracy” and new kinds of Internet firewalls…At massive drone-bot networks run by organized crime that are the new ISPs for black globalization…

It’s like they’re living in a G-7 dream-world. They think it’s about the “debate.” It’s about the fait accompli, fellas. And both of you, Davos corporate and Porto Alegre social, are not the ones whose accomplishments are mattering.

KES: We would like to focus a bit on the last part of the previous question, concerning efforts to “separate the reward to the creative communities from the control over access to the work or invention.” You seem to be expressing deep skepticism over the current intellectual property regime being realistic or sustainable, particularly with regard to digital works.

Bruce Sterling: The “creative communities”? Nobody rewards the “creative communities,” unless you’re referring to the Soviet Writers Union. Rewards for creativity tend to have a power-law distribution — a few wealthy stars and a horde of cranky zealots.

KES: But isn’t the core of the problem related to the large divergence between the cost of copying a work and the value associated with access to the work?

Bruce Sterling: Cory Doctorow would likely argue that it’s about the accelerating cost divergence — from a fraction of a cent for a song to a fraction of a cent for a million songs.

KES: Does that difference in part create incentives for illegal and even antisocial actions?

Bruce Sterling: Well, of course it creates incentives, but it also destroys them; P2P networks have pretty much put the plasticware pirates right out of business.

KES: And, along this same line of thought, wouldn’t a reward that is independent of the power to control making a copy be a way forward? To make this more concrete, a sixteen year-old child can easily copy 32 gigabytes of recorded music for a friend in a few minutes. A $30 copy of scholarly research from Nature can easily be distributed on a listserve or web page. In the area of medicine, it is possible to manufacture a $4 heart disease drug for less than 1 cent. The active ingredients for a $100,000 cancer drug can be manufactured for less than $1. The legal and technical efforts to stop the copying or distribution of inexpensive copies of such goods are both challenging, and to the degree that they work, raise concerns regarding privacy, access, and the control of information. But if the rewards to creative and inventive communities are not linked to the monopoly or control over the copying of the work or invention, and instead provide a business model to reward products based upon use (such as S.2210, the Medical Innovation Prize Fund, or various proposals for remunerating authors and performers for works shared on peer-to-peer networks), is it possible to invest less (financially, politically and emotionally) in the war to enforce exclusive rights?

Bruce Sterling: Well, that has a certain surface plausibility, but so did dongles and Sony Betamax.

You tend to get the rewards that you incentivize, so I’d be guessing that the primary output of this system is sucking up to lucrative awards committees. Why don’t I just lobby them to declare my me-too cold medicine to be the greatest thing since penicillin? We can make the “creative communities” the same insider cabal as the almighty “reward-distribution communities” and then we don’t have to lift a finger.

This proposal is rather familiar to me from literary work in languages other than English. They don’t have much market-clout, since the audience is small, so the culture-minister invents a coterie of nationalist literateurs and rewards them with prizes and tenure.

People wonder why these ultranational books aren’t real popular. That’s because they don’t need any truck with a mass audience of anybody outside the state’s borders. Culture apparatchiks aren’t entertainers.

Still, these systems do persist because the alternative would be complete collapse with nothing published in Danish or Slovenian at all. I’m not an expert on medical policy, but I’d be guessing that the “orphan drug” problem has a lot of parallels here.

KES: The various “alternative reward” proposals recently proposed tend to be very closely tied to the particular problem they are trying to solve. In the area of recorded music shared through peer-to-peer networks, the most common and conventional proposal is to freely allow file sharing in return for money (the amount is almost an afterthought to some, but quite important to others) to be distributed to authors and recording artists, on the basis of estimated downloads – not unlike the way some northern European governments remunerate publishers for the copying of scholarly works at universities. A lot of people think this would work for recorded music, but they are less confident it would work for other types of copyright-protected works, like literature, or movies. Suppose you were told that novels and movies would no longer have effective protection from peer-to-peer file sharing, and Bruce Sterling was asked to design the system of alternative rewards? How would you respond?

Bruce Sterling: I’d optimize my system for the preservation and distribution of creative works beyond the lifespan of the author. Since most people are dead, most really good works are by dead people. A system that doesn’t incentivize this is failing the arts.

I’d say ten years, then pop that creative work into the public domain. If it somehow still continues to sell, give the creator some kind of life-support stipend and a prestige reward, like, say, a knighthood with a medal and a ribbon he or she can wear in public.

Most movie directors wear themselves out trying to raise money for movies and end up starting vineyards or something to launder the cash-spike from their hits. That always seemed like a lame system to me; if you make a hundred million dollars, have the state divvy it up into five twenty-million dollar, tax-free chunks and guarantee the director the right to make five movies even if four of them bomb.

Also, artists need health care. Everybody does, but artists tend to be afflicted and bipolar, so they need more than others. The occasional trip to the dry-out clinic ought to be considered a normal operating cost of the creative industries.

KES: A different approach, proposed by a group of artists in workshops in New York and Banff, would have individuals pay money to competing intermediaries, which would distribute money to artists, in whichever manner that the consumers thought worked the best. This was in part designed to address the power-law distribution issue you raised earlier (then called the Britney effect), but also to allow for much more freedom in terms of how the public might want to support art. For example, in the area of music, some listeners might want to reward the backup musicians or artists whose works were covered by the more famous artists. And, at least in theory, consumers could avoid intermediaries that were brain-dead or corrupt. Would consumers do a better or worse job than publishers and conventional collection societies in rewarding artists?

Bruce Sterling: I dunno. You’ve left the critics and the intelligentsia out of the equation here. This system is great for Dickens and Harry Potter and doom for J.G. Ballard and Franz Kafka. How do we establish a canon of the classics? Moby Dick wasn’t recognized as a major work until the 1920s.

Also, how do I get my hands on a copy of the poems of Emily Dickinson here? She’s dead, so she can’t be “rewarded,” and she doesn’t have a vast eager crowd of “consumers.” Writers in minority languages also get shortchanged here.

KES: In recent years there has been a vast expansion of access to knowledge, in nearly every area. Normally, this is thought of as a positive development, but there are exceptions, such as losses of privacy, or the proliferation of know-how to make weapons. How serious are the risks that we will know too much?

Bruce Sterling: I’m unconvinced that access to data equates to “knowledge.” I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that we suffer from a cult of the amateur, but, thanks to search engines, this is the golden age of the dilettante. It’s easy to imagine that we know more than we do.

Diplomats, scientists, foreign correspondents, television stringers, they all complain that their enterprises are in sharp decline, that we have an irrational Internet echo chamber instead of original investigation by trained professionals. Having lived in Serbia, where even Serbians clearly don’t know what’s going on, I’m inclined to put some credence in this. There are failed states all over the planet, and vast slums and shanty-towns in which things of great consequence are going on about which the Internet knows practically nothing.

I also worry about the academy complaining that electronic sources of knowledge are inherently fragile, unfixed and unstable. We may have vast digital knowledge, but we have no archival method of storing digital information that is stable in the long term. This is risky.

One would think that bankers would be well advised to know where their money is, but the rise of sophisticated financial instruments has made the markets more opaque, not better known. We can multiply complexity much faster than we can increase our understanding of the consequences. This is seriously risky.

Public exposure of private sexual behavior is radically politically destabilizing. Lower barriers-to-entry for the spreading of political gossip have made slander and tittle-tattle impossible to control. The USA has never recovered from the huge damage done during the Clinton impeachment, and former Governor Spitzer is now ruing the day that he made banking investigations and wiretapping of prostitution rings so easy for his colleagues in law enforcement. Why do we know such prurient things? How can we stop ourselves from knowing them, even if we want to?

KES: The Internet has been described by some as new type of library, with much of the content available freely to everyone who can connect. The rise of organized communities on the Internet, and the availability of increasingly useful audiovisual services being delivered over the Internet, raises questions about the future of universities. How do you see the role of elite universities in a world where lectures can be delivered over the Internet, and students can form their own networks to discuss topics?

Bruce Sterling: Well, I’d believe that the Internet was a “new type of library” when somebody showed me a library riddled with every booming variety of piracy, porn, fraud, spam and organized crime. There “might” be a library somewhere half as freakishly disordered as the Internet — I’m guessing the mortar-blasted halls of Mogadishu Technical University.

The role of elite universities isn’t just to give kids access to knowledge and data; their role is to produce elites. People don’t go to college in order to get an ISO certification; they go there to network with their own generation — to get married, even. A modern society without universities would be very unstable and socially alien.

If we produce an elite class of genius autodidacts who are entirely self-educated on the Internet and who have never been socialized, then elite universities are in for it. Yet practically every institution in human society would be turned upside-down by a revolution that deep; we’d have no colleges, no schools of any kind. Shortly after that, no professions. Everybody would be their own Buckminster Fuller. All that was solid would melt into air.

The Internet surely has aspects that are like a “library,” but it’s also called a “superhighway,” a “cyberspace,” a “net,” a “grid,” a “cloud” — the military thinks it’s a battlespace, politicians think it’s a campaign stop, entertainers think it’s a theater, merchants think it’s a mall. Academics think it’s an academy, with a little more historical justice than those other johnny-come-latelies. But it isn’t an academy substitute, any more than digital targeting is a substitute for boots on the ground.

The Internet’s “library” aspect isn’t “new” — it is old. I kinda doubt that “the Internet” can remain the Internet much longer. The word “Internet” is a metaphor. It used to mean “systems linked by TCP/IP” but even that technical definition doesn’t hold any more. Nowadays we’ve got linked cellphones saturating the planet so thoroughly that they’re owned by people who can’t even read.

“The Internet” isn’t stable enough to replace stable institutions — if you think it’s a library, have you tried using “archie” lately? Universities are still growing ivy while there are vast chunks of yesterday’s Internet already deader than Hammurabi. If you think “the Internet” is tomorrow’s institution, you are hitching your wagon to a cloud.

KES: The term “the Internet” does cover a lot of ground, and yes, there is plenty of both beautiful and disturbing activity. To the degree that libraries of works, or information about those works, are available in digital formats, it changes the audiences for those works, including less elite and less resourced populations.

The Internet is full of tensions between cultures of abundance and access, and those of scarcity and exclusion. So too between small-scale, decentralized organizations and communities, and huge brands that enjoy enormous market shares.

One feature of “elite” universities today is the fact that access to the institutions is quite limited. That may have all sorts of the consequences that you refer to, such as providing a mechanism for a social class preserving arranged marriages, and other reasons why the leadership of elite institutions may prefer a variety of exclusionary policies. But as the audiovisual, interactive and collaborative tools improve on the Internet, the possibility of much broader access to lectures and learning experiences grows. It is not obvious how this plays out. Does Harvard leverage it’s “brand” and become a leading global supplier of learning, culture and socialization to a much wider global population?

Bruce Sterling: I don’t expect Harvard to vaporize, and I’m betting its distinguished alums would be a tad distressed to see the alma mater construed as a “brand” and a “global supplier” of anything.

When you graduate from Harvard, you want to be able to tell people that you’ve done time at Harvard, not that you were socialized over the Internet in an ever-expanding digital learning culture. Where’s the cachet? Where’s the posh Harvard accent? Where’s the varsity sweater? And where is your valuable network of fellow classmates?

KES: Do talented and famous faculty hire agents and negotiate with competing aggregators of courses?

One might well see a glut of “faculty” seeking the safety of an academic career if creatives go poorly compensated under that panoply of post-IP schemes we were describing earlier. I myself have been known to teach, and Lord knows I never planned that. Universities aren’t keenly rationalized toward maximum commercial productivity. They’re supposed to be providing some rounding, polishing and broadening to the dewy and naive. They’re not intellectual labor-camps.

KES: Will legal and illegal access movements make it difficult to monetize and ration learning?

Bruce Sterling: I doubt that the stuff that’s monetized and rationed at colleges and universities is “learning.” Besides, the traditional role of the academy is to see to it that society’s highly-learned are NOT monetized, so that one can enjoy, say, professors of ancient Assyrian and string theorists. Not “commercial.” “Academic.” You have academies so you can have academic things.

Of course, one can claim that these worthless longhairs ought to be scrubbed from the system because there’s no immediate cash IP payoff; some of these guys are even annoying fanatics who try to FORCE people to have some “access” to their academic learning. They’ll even pay to get published. A difficult theoretical matter there — “intellectual property” that’s literally worse than useless! Perhaps it should all be burned!

KES: Do the elite institutions retain their traditional roles, much the same way that live performances of string quartets and operas have endured for affluent audiences?

Bruce Sterling: I’m not sure that the class argument you seem to be making here advances the debate much. Universities are a lot older than Marx. Their “traditional role” includes the extremely useful aspect of getting troublesome young people out of their parents’ homes. Where does this handy function go in a flat world where we’re all in dull, gray Internet correspondence courses?

A generation of students in a school is like an army encampment, with specialized buildings, food, housing… bars, nightclubs, retail outlets…Would it make sense to claim that an army is “like a string quartet or an opera” for affluent audiences?

Obviously the affluent do have armies (because they’re expensive), but re-casting armies as “global violence providers” while spreading military knowledge via a website is problematic. That’s possible, of course — because that’s what Al Qaeda does — but a vaporous, widely-distributed entity like Al Qaeda has a hard time governing. An army is supposed to be the sinew of the nation-state; scattered global guerrillas are highly destabilizing and create failed states. An education system that doesn’t civilize is like an army that doesn’t bring order.

A college is supposed to civilize the young. If you remove those functions merely in order to pump ones and zeros at student eyeballs, you are going to lose a lot of valuable cultural capital. An educated citizen is not a friction-free technocratic philistine myrmidon with an ISO rating. Those guys exist, don’t get me wrong, but they bear the relationship to education that the Ron Paul campaign had to political reality.

KES: Our final question concerns global warming, a topic you explore in part though the Viridian Design Movement. What is the role of the artist in changing the trend?

Bruce Sterling: Well, one would naturally think that the artist’s role is as the avant-garde of early warning. But once society’s in a climate crisis — and we’re in one — the proper role of an artist will change. Not so much those bleak prognostications — too obvious to anybody — as the need to give wounded people a reason to live.

A society in crisis needs to be told about ways out of that crisis, not about the gravity of their situation. So the artists who are worth anything in a climate crisis won’t be subversive critics. They’ll be morale boosters.

That’s a role that’s quite alien to my own mordant temperament, which is why I stopped agitating in Viridian Design Movement. It’s just done; it’s over.

In a rather similar way, I don’t talk very much about “cyberpunk” any more — we now have a world of cyberfinanciers, cybergenerals, cyberpoliticians — to blither on about the shattering impact of cyberness in 2008 is overkill. When the trend’s changed, you need to know when to stop.

The role of an artist isn’t always to be an artist. They say that those who worship the Muses end up running the Museums. Similarly, all futurists are doomed to become historians. The avant-garde becomes the gray eminences…As a culturatus, you can change a trend, but you’re also part of the trend. People become the trend they want to see. People are historical figures, they personify the passage of time.

I’m still a creative artist, but when adults half my age call me a “guru” nowadays, they’re not kidding about it. They don’t see some capering 1980s radical literary agitator, they see a gray-haired, professorial character, someone with a track record.

When I was young I tried hard to rally other young people. I’m not young now, but I seek out my students because I learn from them. I try to give them useful access to tools and ideas. I try not to impose my own dated notions on them. I don’t scold them for differing from my dated expectations; I’m not judgmental or dogmatic. I like to think that I help them, so maybe I do shape future trends a bit in that vicarious way; but I don’t do it for their sake. I’m doing it for the sake of other artists, many dead now and very dated figures who generously helped me when I myself was young.

No one fully master a trend because no one can outguess futurity or physically defeat the passage of time. Still, you can win a moral victory over time by paying a moral debt forward.

And lo, an artists’ debts to his forebears are many indeed. If an artist doesn’t know that, he may be very trendy, but he’s not much of an artist.

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