The speaker interviews – Bruce Sterling

One of the names generating a lot of excitement for Webstock is that of Bruce Sterling. It’s his first trip to New Zealand and there’s already lots of interest in his presentation. We interviewed Bruce recently, with a little help from Nat Torkington in putting the questions together.

Webstock: Did you always want to be a writer?

Bruce: No. Now that I think about it, my supposed urges to “be something” were always based in everybody around me assuring me that I had to “be” in some profession. I’m sure glad I didn’t go into any of the lines of work that were recommended when I was a teenager.

Webstock: Have you been writing as long as you can remember?

Bruce: Not really, no. I don’t do a lot of writing for writing’s sake — I’ve never been much good as a diarist. I tend to write about specific topics I find of compelling interest.

Webstock: What were the first books you fell in love with, and why?

Bruce: I don’t want to sound contrarian here, but I don’t think that my deep long-term, abiding interest in encyclopedias and reference texts qualifies as “love.”

Webstock: Any advice for those of us raising kids in 2009? What should we be fostering in them, letting them do, exposing them to?

Bruce: Well, it’s certainly important to have children. And, no matter how anxious you feel about them, it’s also important to understand that they are human beings like you, and therefore more rugged than they look.

I think you should try to set your children a good example by involving them in your daily life. They always remember that much better than they remember any “lessons” or “exposures” or “quality time.”

Webstock: What cities most embody the future, and why?

Bruce: Well, no city ever embodies an absolute future, but there are cities in certain periods that clearly embody the trends driving that period.

It’s not a surprise to tell people that London, Paris, and New York are important now, and that things
are happening there now that will spread widely.

But I would also recommend a close look at Berlin, Baghdad, Mumbai, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco,
and Mexico City. Also Dubai and Shanghai. Dubai and Shanghai are kind of the comedy tag-team of futuristic cities.

Mind you, I don’t choose to live in any of those places. Basically, I live in Belgrade, Austin and Torino. These towns don’t seem to have much in common, but they’re all the same size and rather similar geographically. I wouldn’t call them great metropolises destined to dominate futurity, but they are three places that each somehow feel like a home to me.

Webstock: We’re losing the boundary between the online and the offline worlds as more devices are networked and become sensors or displays for the Internet. If you were product development king at Microgooglehoo or one of the three-inital Chinese hardware manufacturers, what would you be creating with this technology?

Bruce: Well, you’d have to be king, because if you build anything that out-thinks the demands of the next quarter, the shareholders will kill you.

Of course, now that the shareholders are jumping out of windows themselves, maybe you have a chance to innovate.

If I really had to choose here, I think I’d go for the Google philosophy: hire many smart people, give them some free time to build anything they want, and try to ramp up the successes. Throw a bowl of cheap spaghetti at the wall, and see whatever sticks.

Of course, business-school graduates will punish you for this sensible approach, because it shows a lack of serious devotion to core competencies, and lacks a unique value proposition. That’s why those poseurs should never run tech companies. In fact at this point I’m unsure what they SHOULD run; if they all retired to monasteries, our quality of life would likely boom.

If I have to focus on one line of tech development, I’d say green energy apps. That’s very hard work, but if we don’t get there, nothing else is going to matter much.

If you give me a second choice, cellphone banking for the Third World. In fact, any kind of democratized banking that isn’t like modern banking. Probably the best place to build such a thing is in an area that has never had any banks. Someplace poor, peaceful and honest. Okay, those three social qualities never go together; you can have two of ’em, but never all three in the same place. But there’s gotta be some good locale for a useful start-up like that… use Google Maps!

Webstock: Thanks Bruce! It’s going to be a pleasure to have you here in February.

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