Krystian Woznicki on Mon, 17 Jun 2002 03:02:05 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Bruce Sterling Interview

Inside the Military-Entertainment Complex
Bruce Sterling Interview

by Krystian Woznicki

Set in Istanbul, [1]Bruce Sterling's most recent novel [2]Zeitgeist
(2000) outlines a wicked scenario: the world is being conquered by G7,
a girl group that plays cheap sampled pop and sells tons of merchandise
product, oil-tanker-style. Against this backdrop of "popular
geo-politics" a great deal of discourse is afforded to the so called
"war for the soul of the next century." A culture war that is to be
taken "inside the homes, and heads, and hearts, of the fundamentalists"
as soon as the region's distribution infrastructure and its contents
are entirely in the hand of the G7 management.

"Of course, you can be a soldier, and also be a great entertainer",
admits the novel's anti-hero Leggy Starlitz. His pitch sounds familiar?
Well, what the protagonists in "Zeitgeist" discuss among themselves as
the military-entertainment complex foreshadowed contemporary phenomena
such as "foreign diplomacy as marketing" (the current Undersecretary of
State for Public Diplomacy is a former Ogilvy & Mather chief and tries
to rebrand USA and sell democracy to hostile Musilms across the world),
"war journalism as reality-TV soap opera" (networks like ABC supply
personal stories of soldiers in Afghanistan, the Philippines and
beyond, in Sitcom format, directly from the front) and "imperialism as
entertainment" (a consulting agency like Pearlfisher advises clients
including Virigin, F1, or MGM studios to take over an entire island in
order to create "Virgin Territory", an adult-only war-themepark).

In an early attempt to comment upon the world after 9/11 Sterling
sketched apocalyptic combat choreographies like Gulf War III and Cold
War II for pop-science journalists, scientists and engineers who hang
out on John Brockman's EDGE website. As Sterling explains "it's the
sort of thing we "virtual intelligentsia" types like to discuss when
normal people aren't looking." Now they are looking and wonder how the
acclaimed Sci-Fi writer gauges the new world order.

Krystian Woznicki: What's left for Sci-Fi-writers to do after 9/11?

Bruce Sterling: Well, they didn't lack for topics after
Hiroshima. Why should 9/11 slow them down? I know it got a lot of
press, but it's just a few large buildings and aircraft, it's not like
D-Day and the Seige of Berlin.

Krystian Woznicki: But isn't it more than just two towers and buildings?
We see the globe caught up in a new type of world war.

Bruce Sterling: We indeed see the globe caught up in a "new kind
of world war," but what kind is it? Veterans of World War One and Two
would have to shake their heads at a "war" where people die in fives,
dozens or hundreds rather than millions. We may yet work our way up to
some serious shooting war, or maybe some acts of urban genocide
committed with rogue nuclear weapons. But if that were the case, why
would we call that "9/11"? If Washington disappeared in a mushroom
cloud, we'd give that huge event a different name.

Krystian Woznicki: What about phrases like "September 11th is now!" or the
that everything that currently happens, is - in the view of the Pentagon -
legitimate because of 9/11?

Bruce Sterling: Well, I've been in the Pentagon, and there's not
unanimous sentiment in there. The Pentagon is not a monolithic entity,
it's a bunch of different military services and established industrial
interests quarreling over tactics and funding. It's a disturbed,
scrambling, doubtful, rather feverish time for them. Somebody crashed
into the Pentagon and they're busy rebuilding the wreckage. People in
the Pentagon had colleagues killed and maimed by bin Laden. They're
trying to find bin Laden and kill him and his cult. Naturally they
consider that a legitimate thing to do, but they're having mixed
success at the job. They're busily re-thinking a lot of their cherished
doctrines. Nothing concentrates the military mind like getting shot at.
If bin Laden is in fact publicly killed, then the US military will find
itself standing around with its hands in its pockets, wondering what's
supposed to come next.

Krystian Woznicki: In your most recent contribution to Wired magazine
(April 2002 ) you have an answer at hand: Astro Cop takes over, that is:
Space technology based US military world domination, in the course of which
peace is sold as war. In order to make this rhetoric(al shift) palpable, could
you briefly explain how "peace as war" materializes?

Bruce Sterling: Well, humans are very aggressive and scrappy, and
go to war at the drop of a hat. However, a standard land war is no
longer going to work as it is no longer technically possible. There are
no fronts, the commanding headquarters of generals can be smashed
instantly and are number-one targets, supply lines can be interdicted
at will, trans-border invasions by organized national armies are
heavily disapproved by large coalitions of nations. War as Napoleon
knew it just not possible any more. However, we're very unlikely to
accept or recognize "world peace" even when we get it. Therefore,
events that Queen Victoria would recognize as outrages, frontier
skirmishes or minor popular rebellions will be reclassified as "war."
And so will major atrocities such as biological warfare and
surreptitious nuclear explosions. They used to be seen as insane or
unthinkable acts of madmen. But if they take place they'll be called
"war" too. And there will still be no conventional war.

Krystian Woznicki: It is quite interesting how you intermingle journalism (
[3]Peace is War) with Science Fiction ( [4]Star Tech). What is the agenda
behind that? Do you intend to blur the borders between the two or extend our
notion of the respective catergories?

Bruce Sterling: I like to get paid for doing basic research, so
it's pleasant to write some nonfiction about it. Those categories don't
bother me much, I don't need to "blur" them. The boundary between
writing for the Internet and off the Internet, that's pretty
challenging, though. There a lot of my work is noncommercial and for
small or at least unpredictable audiences. Still, I like to think of it
as some of my best work -- or at least, my most characteristic.

Inside the military-entertainment complex

Krystian Woznicki: It seems that you are not only writing about the
military-entertainment complex but are also part of it. How would you
define your position as a writer against this backdrop: "Parasitic", as
the Japanese perhaps would call it?

Bruce Sterling: Yes, of course I'm an entertainer in the
military-entertainment complex. I'm very clearly a major agent of
American cultural imperialism -- I've even been sent to Italy by the US
Information Agency. I've written about cops, about soldiers, I've even
met real, live people from the FBI and CIA. And I wouldn't describe
that "position" as "parasitic." I'd describe that experience as
"edifying." I don't merely write from a critical intellectual distance.
I actually live around here.

Krystian Woznicki: What was the Italy-mission all about?

Bruce Sterling: Oh, that was such a long time ago... Last week I
was in Italy hanging out with Linux freeware activists in a college
event sponsored by a dance club that's run by some kind of anarchist
dive... With Communists, and feminists, and hackers, and the media, and
professors of Latin American literature, and radio personalities, and
solemn guys with piercings who hate Berlusconi... And man, the food was
great. We were all drinking heavily, and the local soccer club won and
the population went nuts and ran into the streets.... I haven't had
that good a time in ages. Since September 11, really. I just felt so
happy, it was like the sun came out of the clouds for me. I love Italy.

Krystian Woznicki: Let us talk about your readers: Hackers, digerati, media
philosophers, etc. Of course also teens/students with Anthrax T-Shirts
who are into the funky language and the "fucked up" scenarios. They
probably lack any critical/intellectual distance to what you call the
military-entertainment complex. They are hooked on that stuff, as they
feel that this is now, that this is the beat that shakes the planet.
They consume books like "Zeitgeist" along with movies like "Strange
Days" and games like Counterstrike.

Bruce Sterling: Hey, I was once a student in a punk T-Shirt
hooked on fucked-up scenarios. That's how I became the esteemed
cultural figure that I am today. Young people may not be real worldly,
but they're untroubled by the ballast of dead concepts and they think
really fast. They've got plenty of time to develop
"critical/intellectual distance," not that they much like doing it.

Krystian Woznicki: What's your "thesis" on the mode of consumption in the
military-entertainment complex?

Bruce Sterling: Well, the intellectual-property crisis is going
into the trenches right now. A lack of a workable means of cultural
consumption has killed off the Internet boom and lost AOL Time Warner
$54 billion dollars in just one quarter. It's a big, ugly, stinking
deal, with extremely high stakes, in which there are no heroes. Even
the smartest people make some of the worst and stupidest blunders. I've
been watching this squalid debacle build up for decades on end, and I
have to say at this moment I feel worse about it than I ever have. It's

Krystian Woznicki: A report on luxury, which has been conducted by
[5]Pearlfisher shortly before and after 9/11 and aims at counselling major
brands in a time of global recession, suggests one homogenous class of
consumers and the democratization of luxury.

Bruce Sterling: That sounds to me like it's more a symptom of
increasing class and income differentiation. The ultra-rich may be
feeding roses and champagne to their racehorses, but that doesn't mean
we're on the brink of an apocalypse. We might be on the brink of an
apocalypse if, instead of poor people with suicide bombs killing middle
class guys, middle-class people with suicide bombs started killing rich
guys. I've heard people speculate that the growing American vogue for
murder-suicides in the workplace has a certain tinge of this.

Krystian Woznicki: On the basis of the aforementioned "analysis" the
Pearlfisher report outlines imaginary products, among them "Virgin Territory"
- the themepark for war-games and extreme-sports, which somehow echoes
the reality in some of your stories.

Bruce Sterling: My idea of an amusement park story is getting
adventurers to go tour environmental disaster areas. After all, if the
entire Great Barrier Reef gets killed, which seems like an extremely
lively possibility, what are you going to do with all that rotting
limestone? The Chernobyl "wilderness" - disappearing glaciers - trees
growing on dead skyscrapers in Detroit - in the Viridian movement we
spend a lot of time and energy describing and studying these things.

Krystian Woznicki:The "greening of the US military" comes to mind, a phase in
the 90s, during which the army basically lost its job and started to take care
of environmental problems, engaging upon missions like [6]Endangered
species. Ironically, the military's surveillence apparatus was being
revamped as an ecological-warning sytem among other things. Do you see
these two complexes converging: the military-entertainment complex and
the environmentalism of your [7]Viridian project?

Bruce Sterling: Well, if politics and business fail us, of course
the military will be called in. In the developing world, the massive
and repeated ecological disasters are quite commonly met by the
military. If disasters get bad enough, they certainly become
national-security threats and the National Guard is called in. If the
National Guard never goes home because the weather never gets any
better, that's a scenario we Viridians like to call "Khaki Green." It's
by no means a pleasant prospect, but what else is there? I once saw the
82nd Airborne doing rescue and psychological operations in the wreckage
of Hurricane Andrew. I respect their dedication, and the population was
thrilled to see them.

Tracing Leggy Starlitz

Krystian Woznicki: What was the starting point for the "Zeitgeist" novel?

Bruce Sterling: As you likely know, "Zeitgeist" is part of a
continuing series of stories involving an iconic figure who travels to
peculiar yet illuminating corners of contemporary society. So that's
the general starting point: what would a guy like Leggy Starlitz find
of interest at the moment? At this hour, I feel quite sure that he's in
Dubai. It would be corny to be in Afghanistan or the West Bank.
Lebanon, too easy. Bombay, too full of itself. Dubai, just about right.
Not too hot, not too cold, just close enough to the blazing fires of
geo-political context; close enough to warm your greedy hands.

Krystian Woznicki: Any perspectives on the "military-entertainment
dust-up" in contemporary Dubai?

Bruce Sterling: Yeah. Dubai seems to be the primary area in which
Al Qaeda and its allies within India launder their money through the
hawala system. Dubai is thriving. I'm especially interested in Dubai's
connection to the Bombay criminal underworld. Most zealots with guns
gravitate toward organized crime, because it's a lot easier to have
money and buy gunmen than it is to have gunmen and get money. It's
going to be really interesting to see what the heroin market does in
the next two years or so. One thing you can be pretty sure of:
the Afghan peasants who grow poppies won't get rich. The money will
end up in places like Dubai.

Krystian Woznicki: What's also very interesting about Dubai, is that it has
recently been promoted as the "portal" of the United Arab Emirates. Take a
project like the [8]Dubai Media City: at the crossroads of the Middle
East, Africa and South Asia, Dubai Media City is being described as the
region's media hub: "It has been established by the Dubai Technology,
e-commerce and Media Free Zone Authority to provide an infrastructure
and environment that enable media-related enterprises to operate
globally out of Dubai. Today the Dubai Media City is the place where
every kind of media business, including broadcasting, publishing,
advertising, public relations, research, music, and post-production

Bruce Sterling: I'm pleased to have you tell me that about Dubai.
It's confirming my intuition about the place. I may have to go there
myself. Probably not anytime soon, though. My travel plans are pretty
well booked up for the season.

Krystian Woznicki: Starlitz used to make his hands dirty in black market
operations in rural Azerbaijan ("Hollywood Kremlin", 1990), he helped radical
feminist pro choice phone phreak activists to smuggle a French deveoped
abortion pill through a Japanese female rock band in Salt Lake City
("Are You For 86?", 1992) and he tried to launch the first
Internet-based money laundry while plotting a revolution on Finland's
Aland Islands ("The Littlest Jackal", 1996). What kind of job would
this guy do in Dubai?

Bruce Sterling: Obviously, broadcasting, publishing, advertising,
public relations, research, music, and post-production. At least,
that's what he would claim to be doing.

Krystian Woznicki: Would Starlitz be managing G7 in Dubai, too?

Bruce Sterling: No, no, he would never repeat himself in such a
banal way. I'm sure he would involve himself in some entirely new scam.
Like [9], for instance, where you can buy the costumes right
off the backs of Bollywood actresses. The cool thing about baazee is
that it's global e-commerce, it sells the physical rags of the glamour
right off the shooting sets to fans with hard currency in Europe and
the USA. The Bollywood distribution system is so corrupt that they have
trouble making money off movies. So they sell shoes that an actress
stepped in. If they turned up the amps some, maybe they could sell the
actresses. A set of Bollywood actresses are coming through Dallas soon
in a live tour; I'd pay a lot to see them, but alas, I'm fully booked




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