The Visionary Tells Us Where It's At
For going on 25 years now, Austin resident and speculative fiction author Bruce Sterling has kept his eye not only on the pulse of Austin's dotcom-driven economy but also on the digital revolution at large. His books, from 1977's Involution Ocean to 1992's breakthrough nonfiction book, The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier, to more recent works such as 1997's Holy Fire, cumulatively read like a how-to guide to societal and personal evolution. A futurist in the classic sense of the word, the post-cyberpunk Sterling -- married, with children, and solar panels topping his Hyde Park house -- has watched Austin transform itself from a sleepy little college town riding an oil boom, then bust, into Silicon Valley Lite. His predictions for the future of Austin are mixed -- we may all be wearing respirators before long, but he's genuinely jazzed to be at the heart, or at least the midriff, of the digital revolution.
"We've got the tiger by the tail here," he says. "There are downsides to any technological transformation, of course. Somebody's always going to be the loser, you know? It's never an unalloyed good, but this computer industry we're creating is a better industry than the traditional Texan industries of oil and cattle. Cattle ruin the landscape, basically -- they overgraze and then damage the land. Oil is an extractive industry, and there's only so much of it, and then it's highly pollutive. If we've got to do something to earn our keep in the world then we ought to be doing this. At least its growth rates are very high and the environmental effects are relatively benign."
While much of Austin focuses on the enormous wealth being generated by the flurry of Congress Avenue dotcom startups and breakout Web sensations such as Living.com, Garden.com (and perhaps, down the road, Living in a Garden.com), Sterling already hears alarm bells ringing if Austin fails to heed lessons learned the hard way from our California brethren.
"We've got to watch it so that we don't end up like Silicon Valley. The major difficulty there is that the working class and the people who just sort of manage the urban infrastructure have been squeezed out; they literally can't find a place to live. The police can't live there, firemen can't live there, vital people who are necessary to keeping a city alive can no longer afford to live within city limits. That's a kind of hardening of the arteries of a city. Too much fat around the heart. You can't have an actual city if the citizens of the city are driven outside of it. When that happens you've effectively ruined yourself. You still have to have a pizza delivery guy. But where the hell does he live?"
As for the occasionally violently changing face of the new tech-and-Web-based economy, Sterling envisions an Internet where we're "going to see corporations weaving their nervous systems together and forming the sort of instant, direct Dell-style model that we're just beginning to see now." This vaguely disturbing notion of giant, faceless corporations working together to interlace their marketing tendrils across the Web -- and thusly across the global consumer base -- is, well, vaguely disturbing, but Sterling says get used to it: "This is what the new economy is really all about: a new method of digitally sweeping over huge areas of data and establishing these weird kind of friction-free markets."
And as for the Austin we know and love, Sterling, whose office sports its own air-filtration unit, says breathing is one major hurdle we've got to grapple with. Rush hour gridlock isn't the only thing that's choking our city. "There's not really one simple thing that we're going to be able to do as a matter of city policy to outguess [Austin's air pollution problem]. The best thing we can do is assure our quality of life. We've got to get the EPA off our backs. They're going to shut down all our highways and justly so: The place stinks, literally. That's the one, true loss that we've suffered. Sure, we have sprawled out -- the city's much larger -- but there's also much more variety, and it's become much more sophisticated. The real hell of it is that we smell, and our children are breathing all this foul air and now the feds are on our case and we deserve it. That's something you can't hide from, you can't finesse it, you can't zone it away, and you can't bribe people not to breathe. The air is bad, man. You can see it. Go up to Mt. Bonnel and look at the skyline. It's orange! I mean, this is burnt-orange town, but it doesn't mean that every sunset ought to be that color."
Austin's real-world growth snafus aside, Sterling is quick to point out that all the Internet hullabaloo is nothing new, or at least he's found a suitable, though unlikely, precedent: the railroad boom of the 19th century. "It's true," he says. "You can go back and look at the way the railroads were built and see they were just as crooked and just as weird as Internet companies are today. There were huge booms and crashes and bubbles and barons and swindlers back then, too. The thing was -- and this holds true for now, as well -- that once the dust settled and the United States was actually webbed together with railroads, the benefits were so huge that it didn't matter that these guys were involved in all these stock rip-offs and whatnot. The country was genuinely transformed and radically different. That's exactly what's happening now.
"I'm just really pleased and interested to have something so lively and immediate going on where I can study it," says a giddy Sterling, whose voice still chirrups like a adenoidal kid when he begins discussing his favorite subject -- the future -- and, more locally, the future of Austin. "I know some of the movers and shakers in the industry, I'm close to it, I can watch this stuff unfold, it's just really cool. If you're into techno change, if you're into the impact of technology on society, Austin is just a great place to be, and this is great time to be here."