Immaculate Perception

Author and Visionary Bruce Sterling

Perhaps more than any other writer these days, Bruce Sterling takes the abstract ideas and arcane politics of the Internet, the World Wide Web, and other technological breakthroughs, and makes sense of them.
Futurist, author, journalist, husband, father, and new home owner Bruce Sterling has been a Chronicle and Austin favorite for some time now and he's not very likely to fall from our good graces if he keeps going at his current astonishing pace. His 10th book, Holy Fire (Bantam/Spectra $22.95 hard) arrived last October to immediate accolades, he's deep in the throes of his long-running Dead Media Project, and, as usual, his considered opinions on all things technological are rampant, insightful, and genuinely thought-provoking.

Now in his forties, Sterling has been an Austin resident for "maybe 23 years," attending the University of Texas (where he received his degree in journalism) and eventually moving on to write and publish speculative/science fiction, beginning with the novel Involution Ocean way back in 1977. Since then he's co-authored the acclaimed novel The Difference Engine with William Gibson, edited the definitive cyberpunk anthology, Mirrorshades (1986), written the only non-fiction book thus far to accurately and painlessly explain the world of computer hackers and their ilk (The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier, 1992), and authored reams of text on everything from Nevada's Burning Man Festival to op-ed pieces for The New York Times. Did I mention he has kids, too?

Perhaps more than any other writer out there these days, Bruce Sterling is able to take the abstract ideas and arcane politics of the Internet, the World Wide Web, and all the other rapidly expanding technological breakthroughs that currently surround (and threaten to engulf) us all, and have them make some sort of sense.

I met with Sterling at his newly constructed home just south of Hyde Park proper recently, and after making my way through the colorful mounds of kid toys that threatened to engulf the living room (and, seemingly, everywhere else... major Dad points!), we settled in for an office chat on everything from his writing to Apple computer's downward spiral, and from America Online's continuing flat-rate brouhaha to Kevin Mitnick: super jerk. Enjoy the ride.

Austin Chronicle: Your latest book, Holy Fire, deals with the notion of future America as a gerontocracy. Seeing as how the life expectancy is rising by leaps and bounds these days, and there are more and more senior citizens staying active longer, just how prescient do you think the book's premise is?

Bruce Sterling: It's basically just a scenario, and I've written many different kinds. I've never thought that there was one rigid road to the future. I'm not a 19th-century believer in, you know, dialectical materialist roads to a single, glowing future for mankind. I think, basically, that history is chaos. There's enormous sensitivity to initial conditions. So the book is really just speculation. It's a mind game, you know? What would happen under these circumstances, you know? It's a meditation on the aging process and why and how youth is wasted on the young, and what society would look like if youth were taken by people who didn't have it, you know? If youth became a commodity, what would society look like? What kind of society would be interested in that kind of activity and what effects would it have on people? I'm not saying that this is the only possible way that such a society could exist, it's just a way to provoke the reader into really imagining it, or trying to carry extrapolation into the fabric of everyday life.

AC: Now that you're older do you ever feel that youth was wasted on you?

BS: Nope. I actually had a very good time as a young person. I started writing very young, which is sadly not the case very much anymore -- it used to be that science fiction really was a young person's genre and a lot of the people who wrote it were very young -- they would break into the field in their teens. But nowadays there's a lot more money in it and the readership is much more sophisticated and much older, so you're seeing people coming to the field now in their mid-thirties and late thirties and that sort of thing. I feel there's a definite downside to that: You really are missing a lot of the spirit and the inventiveness of youth. Young people are now a distinct minority and they're really very put-upon. They don't have cheap and easy ways to establish themselves, and it's difficult for them to make their voices heard outside of small and relatively confined areas. As somebody who spent most of their youth really fighting the gerontocracy in my field, I think, if anything, for younger people coming along now, they face even steeper odds than I did. And I feel very concerned about that.

AC: Holy Fire is your 10th book, not counting the Mirrorshades anthology. Speaking for myself, it seems far and away your best work to date, and not only from a science fiction aspect, but also just more... emotionally resonant. Did you get a similar reaction from fans and the critical press? Or is it just me?

BS: No, the response to Holy Fire was very good. People called me out of the blue, I got a lot of
e-mail about it. People are claiming that this is my best work. I've read reviews where people say things like, "I wept aloud when I finished this book," you know?

It's a trippy thing, because this is not the world's most significant literary form, but I really do think that I've pretty well got my chops down in science fiction now, I can really do it, and I'm at the top of my form. I'm in this situation now where I've created this schtick, and I've got space to work in it, I have a decent office now, I have tremendous contacts and great material. The only thing I don't have enough of is time. And I think pretty much anybody in their forties will start to complain about that. It's sort of a race now between me and my obligations, and over the longer term, me and my mortality. Like, "How much can I get done before it really starts to give out?" I think I can get quite a bit down, actually.

The future isn't a stage set, or something to project your unexamined desires against. The future is history which hasn't occurred yet. In order to do good scenario plotting and to think seriously as a futurist, you have to think historically.
AC: Do you think you'll consciously know when your literary faculties start to atrophy?

BS: Yeah. I occasionally look back over some of my older stuff, and I believe the day will come when I look back at something I've written and I'll realize that I'll never be that good again. The character of my work has changed quite a bit, too. I don't think that will stop me from working, though. You can still do things that are interesting, they just might not be your best.

Science fiction authors do tend to go on and on. It's not uncommon for them to have best sellers in their eighties.

AC: Ray Bradbury...

BS: Bradbury, right. Asimov was writing to the very end. He had tubes in him and there he was completing that final manuscript. Heinlein became an absolutely logorrheic guy in his last years. The guy would not shut up.

Maybe I'll have the good grace to can it when I realize the time has come, I don't know.

AC: Do you plan on doing any more non-fiction work along the lines of The Hacker Crackdown?

BS: Well, I might. I'm kind of working on a thing now, a long-term project called "The Dead Media Project," which might turn into a non-fiction media studies book.

Basically I'm interested in extinct forms of communication, you know? I've been interested for a long time in things like virtual reality,
CD-ROMs, the World Wide Web, novel electronic means of communication, but it struck me early on that they weren't going to last, they were all very temporary media. So, I got into this discussion with my friend Richard Kadrey -- he did a book called Covert Culture Sourcebook and he's a big, longtime Wired magazine writer, Whole Earth Review guy, one of the coolest human beings on the left coast. In any case, he and I launched this joint project to just catalogue all extinct forms of media. We were sitting there at his kitchen table trying to compile a list and we came up with about eight and now I have a list that's 10 pages long of extinct forms of media.

AC: What is it about dead media that interests you so much?

BS: Well, it's like, let's say the Apple Macintosh. My feeling is the Apple's not long for this world. I think it's going to go the way of the Atari, basically. But think of the enormous amount of human ingenuity that was invested into these boxes. I mean, all those hypercard stacks, all this Apple-specific software, expensive shrink-wrapped things in jewel cases that whole teams of multimedia guys were laboring on, and so forth. Not only are they out of date, but they're also technically inaccesible. They're not merely forgotten, they're buried. And I find this to be a very sinister development and something that requires close looking after.

AC: So do you think the new Macintosh clone systems -- Power Computing up in Round Rock, UMAX, and so on -- will be unable to save Apple's hide?

BS: I wouldn't call myself a major league expert on this subject, but I wouldn't go buying a new Macintosh system. That's not what I'm doing.

AC: What?! You're switching to PC? Heaven forfend! I know you work on a Mac now...

The question is: Am I drifting closer to reality or is reality drifting harder after me? And then the trump question is: What is reality?
BS: I've got three of 'em, but yeah, I'm gonna switch to PC. But I don't believe that the PC in its current form will last that long either.

AC: So what do you think is going to emerge from the wreckage?

BS: I think [the computer industry] is going to be very unstable, because instability is built into the system. This is where Gates and his running buddies are, this is where the whole Wintel scene is actually making its money. It's a planned obsolescence riff. Everything is destroyed in order to sell it to the consumer base again, see? It's not doing the program that counts, it's release 1.0, release 2.0, release 3.0. Each one of them taking an additional chunk out of your financial hide. That's the whole structure of the industry, and it's sort of the mark of Cain for electronic arts.

It's like "link-rot" on the World Wide Web, right? Guys will sit there and they'll be surfing for Christ knows how many goddamn hours and they'll compile this enormous mess of hot links, and if you leave the thing alone for three months, half of it dies, you know? The machines change their names...

So anyway, getting back to the Dead Media Project.... I'm going to try and write a book eventually that'll sort of be my contribution to scholarship and it's going to attempt to explain how it is that this works, you know? What the nature of media evolution is, and in order to do that it has to examine the fossil record.

This is something I do as sort of a left-hand thing to keep my hand in. I run a mailing list named Dead Media Project, and if you want to join it you just send me e-mail. I've got about 300 people on the list now, and I just set down bits of research and, you know, bibliographies, and things that might keep people up to speed. I've been doing it about a year and a half now. I'm figuring give it about five years, because it's a very big topic, you know? It's going to require some very serious thought to get it straight. And, of course, in the meantime it's good material. There's something inherently interesting about dead media.

I've always felt for a long time that the future is history. The future isn't a stage set, or something to project your unexamined desires against. The future is history which hasn't occurred yet, so in order to really be able to do good scenario plotting and to be able to think seriously as a futurist, you have to be able to think historically.

AC: Have you found many of your earlier cyberpunk fictions bearing the fruit of reality, so to speak?

BS: Yeah, well you know, it used to take a long time for people to get up to speed on that, but I've noticed that reality tends to snap a little faster now. I'm not as totally ahead of my time as I used to be. There's a recent issue of Time magazine in which Holy Fire is cited as something you might want to read in order to keep up with [advances in the scientific prevention of aging]. The reason this happens is that I'm now well-enough known that I actually know people who work for Time magazine, right? Twenty years ago it didn't matter, so now the question is: Am I drifting closer to reality or is reality drifting harder after me? And then the trump question is: What is reality [laughing]?

AC: Uh-oh. I better go run and get some more blank tape. I don't think I've got anywhere near enough to record that line of thought....

BS: Nobody does... nobody does. Not even close. There isn't really some Mandarin somewhere in the Trilateral Commission who has this all figured out. It's anybody's best guess.

AC: Does it surprise you how much the Net has grown in the last couple of years? And while I'm at it, you're the futurist, any ideas on where it's going?

BS: I've very big ideas on that. It's one of the major schemes I have. I really feel that for my generation in science fiction, the Web is our spaceship. For Jules Verne it was hot air balloons, for Arthur Clarke it was manned spacecraft, and for us it's definitely media and telecommunications. But that doesn't mean that something else won't come along later.

When it gets as hot as it does now, this is a sign that society is actually integrating this thing. It's rapidly becoming less and less science-fictional. I would expect the same thing is going to happen to the Web as what happened to the space program. People don't think that much about it anymore. It's like, why don't we go back to the moon and stuff like that?

But you know, there's still a space station up there and a woman just set a record for being in space, and the stuff that we're not aware of is the enormous influence that unmanned satellites have on us. They're sort of the least romantic of the whole technology, because, you know, they don't utter slogans, they don't wave flags. But things like the Global Positioning System, where you have this web of military satellites that can tell where you are on the planet's surface at any given time? And now FedEx and civilian people are moving into this and you can buy it and put it on your motorboat for like $800 and never get lost again? Combine that with CD-ROM street maps and you can literally navigate from the sky. That's the actual technology. That's the steak rather than the sizzle, you see?

The Web is going to be like that. It's going to be something that people depend on. They're going to be immersed in it, and they're going to get bored by it. Because the really happening thing will be something else, probably biotechnology. It's when you become bored by a new technology that it can actually move into your underwear drawer, you know? You no longer have to talk it up, or hype it, because it's just there.

To watch this happening close-up is a really amazing post-modern spectacle. I feel very privileged to be close to this thing. It's a fun time to be into this if you're into the impact of technology on society. I really think that this particular set of historical circumstances will be studied for a hundred, two hundred years. People are going to be looking back at this period and saying, "Oh, this was just like the industrial revolution only more interesting." They'll be watching. For guys who are into this, this is like where it's at.

AC: Any thoughts on the recent disasters at lovable old America Online? They seem to be in a real bind after that brilliant "flat rate" strategy....

BS: You know, I actually met that guy once. [American Online president] Steve Case? I met him at this gig Esther Dysen threw, so I was there chatting him up, you know, and he says, "Yeah, we think of the Internet as being sort of like our farm teams. If you're out there on the Internet and you're doing something interesting, we can recruit you and we'll give you real money for it!" Well, I just looked at him and I thought, I can't believe this character's hubris. He really thinks he's more important than the Internet, and he really did. But he's been dragged by the nose, month by month, away from that statement, until now you can say "What is AOL?"

Well, it's a way to get onto the Internet for a flat rate. I mean, who the heck gets on AOL for the sake of the stuff on AOL? Nobody. So he's no longer a content provider, he's turned himself into an internet service provider. And unfortunately he's not a very good one, because he's got eight million people and that's just too big. People can't get on. People are logging on to the thing and just staying on for weeks at a time -- they're never logging off, they're dedicating a phone line to it and they're sitting there surfing for 19 bucks a month, flat rate.

As for Case, he's a clever guy, and like most of the people in his industry, he's pretty ductile and very good at quietly scrapping everything he said last Wednesday and then reinventing himself overnight. People like him have to live in an atmosphere of permanent technological revolution. I hope he's happy with what money he's made, though, because that guy's got a tough row to hoe. I feel sorry for anybody who's gotten involved with his enterprise thinking they're going to put their kids through college by being an AOL sys-op. No, you're not. Sorry. It's like joining The Children's Crusade.

AC: Do you think this common idea of "PC in every pot" is actually going to come to fruition? And do you think it might create an even greater divide between the haves and have-nots? Or do you think it will create one giant, global, happy, fuzzy, friendly family?

BS: Well, we're never going to be giant, global, happy, fuzzy, and friendly, because even families that live in the same house aren't happy and fuzzy. There's always going to be the woman who throws her boyfriend off the cliff in a fit of pique, you know? I'm certainly not a utopian in that aspect.

Will it split the haves and have-nots? Sort of, but, you know, that have-ism there is real weird. Money and information are not the same thing, and information and power are not the same thing, and knowledge and power are not the same thing, you know? If they were, then obviously librarians would be rulers of the universe. But they're just not.

People often say that programmers will be enormously powerful because they'll be able to control the means of information. I don't really see that either. I think that programmers in particular have an enormously tough row to hoe. These guys are like "buy and burn" guys. They're literally bought and burned. You take them out of school at 23 and you run them through 80-hour weeks for five years and then you discard them. That's what life is like in Silicon Valley. I know a lot of people in the industry, and the divorce rates are huge, the substance abuse problems are huge, the level of workaholism in that industry is brutal. I mean, is Bill Gates in command of his destiny? I don't think he is. These guys are like whitewater kayakers: The casualty rate is very high. If you're a "have" for five years, and it costs you three divorces and a cocaine addiction, what's the point?

And I don't think a ceaseless stream of information really helps you that much. It's like, "My wife's leaving me. Think I'll log onto alt-dot-support and that'll help me!" No, it won't. Log onto your wife! Go over there and talk to the woman, for chrissakes!

So, it's more complex than that. It's a difficult matter. I think that some societies will adjust to it better than others. The U.S. is doing surprisingly well, actually.

Chronicle: What's your definition of state-supported information warfare?

Sterling: Hackers in uniform. With Pentagon-sized budgets.
AC: You really think so?

BS: Oh yeah. Considering how powerful the technology is and how fractious American society can be on occasion, it wouldn't have surprised me 10 years ago to see massive criminal use of this technology. And if you talk to people at the FBI, they're absolutely panicked about the idea of their four horsemen -- drug dealers, child pornographers, terrorists, and organized crime -- all using modems to conspire against us. That's why they want sweeping wiretap powers. They're up there on their pedestal claiming that the wolf is at the door and this is going to turn our society into a series of criminal mobs.

I don't really see that at all. On the contrary, the crime rate's been crashing over the past couple of years. New York is as safe now as it was in the Fifties. Things just aren't that bad. They're kind of boring in some senses, but whatever it is that we're doing doesn't seem to be doing us that much harm.

AC: What about developing nations and, oh, evil micropowers?

BS: Right. I would worry about somewhat closed societies, you know? Societies that are racial tinderboxes or so. I mean, not that ours isn't, but when it comes to Yugoslavia, we're not even in their league. I think there is the possibility of a toxic reaction to computerized communications in those types of societies, and I watch this with great interest. I think we've managed to sort of metabolize this here in the U.S., but then we invented it and it's our kind of schtick.

AC: What about homegrown hacker terrorism? We've already had some Neanderthal with a fondness for fertilizer blow up a sizable chunk of Oklahoma City -- do you think we have anything to fear from computer-literate goons like, say, [hacker] Kevin Mitnick?

BS: Kevin was not a nice guy. I've got it in for that character. He lost me three days of e-mail once, and I never did anything to him.

AC: Explain?

BS: He was in the WELL, which is my service provider. It's a Bulletin Board System in San Francisco where I spend a lot of my time. He was stealing all this hot shit and storing it on the Web, and they had to go in and shut everything down and look at all this guy's little trap doors and figure out what he'd done and how many people he'd spied on. That's always been a big thrill for him, you know? So I lost a lot of mail because the system was down for three days because Kevin had been wandering around in there being Mr. Super Hacker. That was like eight-thousand people who were inconvenienced by this cat's private personality cult. It's just not a responsible or decent thing to do.

But, getting back to the question, in terms of hacker terrorism, I don't take it at all seriously just because they don't have anything together. What I really worry about is state-supported information warfare. And I think that's a genuine possibility.

AC: What's your definition of state-supported information warfare?

BS: Hackers in uniform. With Pentagon-sized budgets.

You can take somebody, and train him, and program him, and make him swear an oath of allegiance, and then put him in uniform and give him a base and all the computers he wants and you tell him, you know, "sic 'em!" If he's a full-scale professional with friends in the spook underworld and the NSA and the rest of it... these guys could do tremendous harm. Not necessarily to us. I'd be worried a lot more if I were an enemy of the United States. I mean, if I were sitting around trying to get something done on my web server in Bhagdad right now, I'd worry plenty. But what goes around comes around.

If you try to use the Internet -- or telecommunications in general -- as a battlefield, it will become militarized. There's a distinct possibility of some kind of digital arms race breaking out. I consider that a real menace because it's done by people with means, motive, and opportunity.

AC: Do you see that happening in time?

BS: Oh yeah. InfoWar is very sexy right now. It's still mostly in the hands of visionary cranks, but there are people in the military who are very bright, especially in the modern American military.

These aren't your Colonel Blimp types; I've met some of these guys and there are no flies on these characters. They're committed military professionals from the scariest military organizations. The scariest and the most powerful that the world has ever seen. The American military has always been powerful, but we can hand people their ass in four days now, you know? If it was a question of destroying somebody's infrastructure without ever being seen, we could tear places like Bhagdad and Bhazra apart like a cook deboning a chicken.

If you look at it historically, military power always follows industrial power: If you have railroads, you have military railroads. If you have cars, you have tanks. If you have aircraft, you have massed airpower. If you have computers and multimedia, you have information warfare. It's the nature of the line of technological development, and it's a matter of some concern I think.

AC: Right. Now that we're all thoroughly terrified, maybe I should ask you what you're working on currently.

BS: I'm working on another novel. I kind of made up my mind that I should try and write more science fiction. It's what I enjoy most, and having done other stuff for a while, it's really gratifying to get back to that. The book I'm working on now is about a mid-21st century political advisor.

AC: James Carville by way of The Jetsons? Probably not, huh?

BS: Well, yeah, he's something of a Carville figure, actually. It concerns the guy's weird romance with a neurobiologist. It's all about the intimate relationship of knowledge and power: I don't think knowledge is power, but I like to think that sometimes knowledge and power have sex. And strange things are born of this union. They're not the same, but they're married. Well, they're not even married -- they're having an illicit affair. So that's the schtick, and I'm enjoying myself enormously. I really am.

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