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<nettime> Bruce Sterling's Tomorrow Now, a goofy leftist view
McKenzie Wark on Mon, 27 Jan 2003 07:59:15 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Bruce Sterling's Tomorrow Now, a goofy leftist view


Bruce Sterling, Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next
Fifty Years, Random House, New York, 2002

Reviewed by McKenzie Wark <mw35 {AT} nyu.edu>


Bruce Sterling has been an intermittent presence on
Nettime almost since the beginning. He might have called
Nettimers "goofy leftists", and Nettimers might have
included him in their critique of the 'California Ideology',
but it has been a fruitful tension. In any case, he remains
the scene's most loveable Texan.

Sterling's new nonfiction book, Tomorrow Now,
presents a series of speculative essays in futurism. As
Sterling says, "the future is the largest of all possible
subjects." (xi) What's of interest is less the substance than
the mode of exploration that Sterling adopts. A key
insight is to follow the language, not the money. The
consensus hallucination of stock valuations, as many
learned rather bitterly, only gives you a homogenized
average of emergent delusions. Shifts in language, on the
other hand, reveal a virtual space, where a
heterogeneous cluster of possibilities may fester or grow.

Futurists are a compromised breed. Most of them work
for corporate, military or government contracts, and
their prognostications reflect their sponsors' interests.
Sterling presents himself as an independent contractor,
and hence free from these constraints. His self image as a
small business freebooter do color his perceptions. His is
also the voice of the American suburban white guy,
which while not without its charms, also leads to a certain
blindness, as we shall see. There's no insight without
blindness.

The years between 1989 and 2001 are for Sterling a "belle
époque." (44) After which came the fall. This book harks
back to the tone and language of that era. Compare the
writing of this book to a current issue of Wired and you
quickly notice what the latter now lacks. The great
transforming technologies of the past -- railway,
telegraphy, radio -- all started with booms, bubbles and
crashes, before settling down into long wave
transformative cycles. The belle époque was not all bull
dust masquerading as gold dust.

Using the giddy speculative language of his belle époque,
Sterling tackles genetic engineering with particular glee.
"Genetic engineering is the 21st century's own new
baby." (5) But grasping it, he points out, with require a
new language. Particular if, as Sterling thinks, the real
action is not cloned sheep or babies, but the industrial
use of single celled organisms. The prokaryotic cells of
bacteria are particularly suitable for re-engineering, as
"their DNA simply sprawls out amid their cytoplasmic
goop like snarled and knotted Slinkies." (16)

I've often thought it would be a good idea to create a
zoo that only held microscopic organisms. Perhaps it
could even exist on the net, where video stills could
show what's happening under the microscope every
other minute. As Sterling points out, most of life is single
celled. The industrial age could only deal with this world
through techniques -- and discourses -- of sterility.

Eduardo Kac's Alba rabbit, infused with a jellyfish gene
to make it glow in the dark, gets a mention here, but the
more interesting speculation concerns the application of
biotech to the microscopic, and the consequent change in
culture that would be required to grasp it. There's
something about the threat to the boundedness of
subjectivity posed by the micro-organism that is a barrier
to thought. After all, this is an era in which "a chronic
inability to talk about bodily fluids is killing huge numbers
of people." (20)

A clear sign of discursive failure is human stem cell
research, that new bugbear of the Christian right. As
Sterling says: "Human stem cells hover in a paradoxical
twilight zone, somewhere between personhood and
patentable hardware." (21) The problem for a
progressive discourse on such topics is that they tend to
draw on versions of the same humanism as the right.

The unlocking of DNA has the potential to shift the
whole process of creating phenotypes from genotypes
from the historical to the virtual. Suddenly, variation is
not just a product of biological history. The much larger
virtual space of possible organisms for which DNA can
encode becomes something that can be actualized. While
there are good reasons to be jumpy about what this may
mean for larger organisms, the real action, as Sterling
suggests, may be on an infinitesimal scale.

Repeating a strangely familiar phrase, Sterling suggests
that "You don't have roots; you have aerials." (64) And
so he wonders, what might constitute 'education' in an
era in which the aerial bypasses the Panoptic world of
the classroom. This is a time of "canon panic." (47) "The
internet has no curriculum, no moral values, and no
philosophy." (51)

This does seem to me a peculiarly American problem. It
has to do with the way higher education is used there as
a way of manufacturing elites. 'Liberal arts' literacy,
rooted in a European construct of a tradition, is an
expensive but essential component of ruling class style.
The struggle to re-engineer it to incorporate the interests
of non-white and non-American elites can be strangely
disconnected from the idea of overturning this elite
formation system in its entirety.

Here it may be instructive to look at relatively less
privatized education systems in the English-speaking
world. These tend to share with the US an anxiety about
transforming education to meet perceived changes in
function, but they tend to preserve a semblance of a
universal meritocratic goal of apportioning knowledge to
the whole citizenry. Which is one way of accounting for
why cultural studies became an almost dominant
humanities discourse in the UK or Australia, but not in
the US. One that could even be described as 'post-
canonical', if not for all that still struggling with issues of
representation, equity and difference.

Sterling grasps another node of the same conundrum
when he writes about everyday commodities, particularly
those known in the design world as 'blobjects'. Even the
humble toothbrush has shed its angles, and now looks
like a bit of "blown goo." (75)

Looking at a Motorola Startac or an Apple iMac, Sterling
notes in particular the anxious cramming of 'functionality'
into these kinds of blobjects, way beyond the point of
actual usefulness. As he notes, "function-as-baroque is
making symbolic promises to us and to other people,
ardent promises that we very much want to hear from
our toys, tools and appliances." (81)

His intuition is that what's comforting about baroque
functionality is that is provides the owner with a strange
sense of security. The minimally functional object belongs
to the world of the minimum wage slave, to work that
can be exported off-shore, or allotted to those who
couldn't afford the benefits of expensive training in the
'liberal arts'. It is not in Sterling's nature to really explore
the class dimension to change, but his ever perceptive
aerials pick up the signals of it anyway.

Nobody is quite sure what to call them yet: Things that
think, Peripheral Computing -- in part because nobody
really knows what these things are really for yet either.
Sterling identifies them as being of interest, not so much
because of what these things might do, but because of
the very problem of naming that they pose: "This kind of
disruption in the English language is like the rumblings of
a tectonic fault. The signs are good that something large,
expensive, and important will tear loose there." (93)

One small point in this book's favor is that Sterling spares
us a chapter on 911. It's not that he discounts the
problems of American empire: "The Americans are
focused on sea-lanes, pipelines, airstrips and oil
resources." (101) Rather it is that he does what an artist
would do when confronted by a blocked discourse,
feeding on itself like the post-911 discourse. He turns it
on an angle and finds a new field of similarity and
difference. A new language.

Borrowing a riff from Paul Virilio, he notes that the
Pentagon has transformed the battlefield into a
battlespace. It is now going to be very difficult to
confront it's forces at the level of what I would call
macro-vectoral war. The problem is the micro-vectoral.
As Alain Joxe might say, an empire only interested in
securing resources with macro-vectoral forces, which has
no interest in actually occupying or administering anyone
else's territory, is forever at the mercy of micro-vectoral
tactics.

Sterling gives three exemplary stories, from Turkey,
Chechnya and Serbia, of the micro-vectoral power of
"ethic terror mafias". They use cellphone as tools of
coordination. They use video, cassettes and the internet
as vectors of propaganda. Their money comes from
smuggling, drugs or from gullible believers in the
overdeveloped world. Their foot soldiers come from
'failed states'. Their ideologies may be religious or
nationalist, even occasionally communist. Their leaders
tend to be polyglot world travelers. Their motives may
start out from an experience of imperial repression, but
more often than not, the movement spawns a mafia. The
more opportunist soon figure out that "money will get
you guns more easily than guns will get you money."
(150)

Sterling's accounts of the careers of three media-mafia
micro-vectoral celebrities -- including Serbia's infamous
Arkan -- is refreshingly free from moralizing axis-of-evil
style cant. As he notes: "A cruise missile, when you think
of it, is a just a rich guy's truck bomb." (152) On the other
hand, his approach to the peaceful anti-globalization
movements tends to be rather more patronizing. It has
always seemed to me a characteristic of a certain kind of
American discourse, that when one can't invest a topic
with a sublime and transcendental aura, it has to be
considered beneath one's dignity. Technology survives
this test, in Sterling's writing. He is constantly flirting,
knowingly, with the 'technological sublime'. The messy
world of political compromise, of tactics and muddling
through, doesn't appeal.

One interesting observation pops out, however: "political
activism is struggling to delaminate itself from
government." (159) Perhaps that's the tension in anti-
globalization movements. They appeal for a new kind of
order that doesn't yet exist, and yet there's a desire to
be in opposition to something, even though it doesn't
quite exist either. Hence a lot more sovereignty is
attributed to the WTO than it actually has. This is not to
deny that the WTO has real effects, just that it is not
quite what its opponents require it, emotionally, to
represent.

Big Science, as Sterling notes, has moved somewhat from
the orbit of governmentality toward a regime of
intellectual property. I don't think he registers the full
extent of this shift. The privatizing of invention and
creation funded by the US federal government is one of
the great transformative acts of the late 20th century. It
created a whole extended class interest in the ownership,
not of land or capital, but of information.

Sterling's view on the intellectual property question are
shaped by his experience, as an independent contractor,
in the publishing world. He takes the novelist's position
as archetypal, when perhaps it is not. The book author is
now something of an anomaly, a sole creator named on
the title page. The collective authorship -- and ownership
-- of the audio-visual media conglomerates is perhaps
more typical now. It is not the creator,  but the
corporation that stands as the subjective bearer of the
objective value of information as property. "Somehow,
society has decided to commodify intellectual property,
to make vaporous rantings worth cold, hard money."
(223) But as to who, how and why, Sterling's journalistic
instincts abandon him.

More fruitful is his riff on Stewart Brand's famous, and
often incompletely quoted remark that "Information
wants to be free; information also wants to be
expensive." (227) One way to interpret that delphic
remark might be to think about the difference between
the virtual and the actual. As expression of the virtual,
information does indeed want to be free. It wants to
open up history, to abolish necessity. As an expression of
the actual, information finds itself trapped within the
commodity form, forced to yield only and ever the same
kind of value, exchange value. Or so a "goofy leftist"
Nettimer might think, at least.

Sterling offers a charming explanation of the key Nettime
concept that filtering is value. This is not an era short of
information. What has value is not the production of
information, but it's filtering, its anti-production.
Maintaining a useful tension between the virtual and the
actual, between information as free and information as
expensive, is a question of maintaining the tension
between copyright (or patent) as private property and as
-- eventual -- public good. American and European
judges and legislators are putting the emphasis ever more
heavily on the private property end of the equation,
trapping the virtual in the actual.

That the computer industries are now mature, self-
stabilizing and limiting monopolies is not lost on Sterling.
Intel, Dell and Microsoft have produced as dysfunctional
a digital world as one could possibly imagine, all the while
persuading us that this situation is somehow 'normal', if
not a natural expression of the technology itself. The
techno-centric view Sterling offers suited the belle-
époque more than our own, more morose times, not least
because it just got too hard to sustain the optimism about
technology when one saw what became of it.

"The strangest thing about my relationship to capitalism is
how close the business world has moved to science
fiction." (221) But perhaps this is not too surprising.
Sterling's science fiction has moved pretty close to
capitalism. It loses its edge when it makes of technology
something sublime and pure in and of itself, as if it
existed outside of its expression within the logic of
commodification. The ruling class needs to believe in
technology, having destroyed every other sacred figure
in the canon.

The last, and best, chapter takes on the environmental
constraint to the technological imagination. The problem
is elegantly described: "The greenhouse effect comes
from digging up fossils... Setting fire to long-extinct life-
forms is the human race's primary industrial enterprise."
(279) Left to its own devices, global warming is
"transforming the whole Earth into something like a grim
mining town in East Germany, only without frogs." (281)

In a rare nod to what lies beyond the threshold of the
overdeveloped world, Sterling notes that "It's the people
living close to the soil, under nearly natural subsistence
conditions, who are in great peril from the greenhouse
effect." (280) And quite right. But what's curious is the
siting of American experience in relation to only three
external realities across the whole of the book:
sweatshops, terrorists, greenhouse effect. The other
appears as threat, or threatened, or not at all.

The book ends with a riff on the posthuman and the
technological sublime, and returns to question of
language. Whenever Sterling touches on the problem of
language, the book does real work. As a science fiction
writer, Sterling is singularly equipped to grasp the fact
that the qualitative differences that the future throws up
cannot really be anticipated because they are outside of
the dominant codes of existing language. They can be
grasped, perhaps, with more peripheral idioms, but then
one hardly knows which to choose. Perhaps, as Kodwo
Ershun says, out bodies are dancing to the rhythms of
the future long before our minds catch up.

http://www.well.com/conf/mirrorshades

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http://subsol.c3.hu/subsol_2/contributors0/warktext.html
                   ... we no longer have roots, we have aerials ...
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