Words for Webstock – Bruce Sterling

Words for Webstock is a series of articles from past Webstock speakers we’ve commissioned for your enjoyment. This first Words for Webstock article is by Bruce Sterling.

Like a lot of science fiction writers, I love grand futuristic schemes. A grand scheme of this kind answers the simple question “What’s the future all about?”

We science fiction writers naturally prefer the future to be about one big thing. That’s easy to describe, understand and sell to a publisher. “My new book’s about a Martian invasion. They’re super-scientific and highly evolved, but they forgot about simple old germs.”

You page through WAR OF THE WORLDS, and the dramatic tension has you on the edge of your seat. You never pause to ask HG Wells any modern, Webstock-geek questions about the situation he portrays.

For instance: “Did the Martians rehearse this launch with a beta-pre-release to work the bugs out?” (Obviously not). “How do the Martians plan to monetize their expensive interplanetary invasion? Where does their mesh- network of world-smashing tripods store the backups for their data? Do those tripods have any urban-mapping services so they know which human cities to fry first? Are those open-source heat-rays, or are they fully-patented heat rays?”

We unthinkingly shelve those issues, because a Martian invasion is so high-concept. We just don’t go there, mentally. The Martians are burning up everything! Go for it! We accept this because it’s the future.

However, now consider the past. Ask the big question: “What was the past all about?”

That ought to be easy, right? It already happened, so we don’t have to make anything up. Let’s consider the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). The big story back then? The English invade France, and they burn up everything including Joan of Arc. The population of France gets cut by two thirds. It’s much worse than a Martian invasion because it lasts much longer, and the epidemics kill off the humans.

The complexities are deep and they ramble on endlessly. The guys living “the Hundred Years War” had no idea they were in one. Four generations of “war” isn’t a “war,” it’s a lifestyle. And by now everybody’s forgotten all about it.

So: what does this have to do with Webstock? Well, let’s consider some consensus notions for the future of glamorous Webland. I totally dote on these, for a host of good reason. There are zillions of ’em, stuff like mobile robots, 3d printers, online video, locative tech, quantum computing, social networks. With an almighty effort, maybe we can concentrate on five.

The Cloud! Web Squared! The Internet of Screens! The Internet of Things! Augmented Reality!

Any serious futurist willing to log the hours typing could write a decent book about any of these topics. I already wrote a nonfiction book about #4 there, and my new novel has got oodles of #5. I’m a major fan of number two, while number one is a fogbank of hype that could overwhelm anything. Number five is adorable. A science fiction writer who can’t like Augmented Reality is, seriously, dead inside. You like science fiction but you don’t like Augmented Reality? Come on, you must have lost the will to live!

I can cheerily talk, write, blog and tweet all day about 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. And I do. But there’s a troubling aspect to this effort, because although it’s easy to talk about grand ideas in an abstract way, there is no practical way to pull these grand concepts apart in the real world.

We’re not going to get a future Cloud World as somehow opposed to a future Augmented Reality World. It can’t happen. The ideas can be clearly distinguished, but ideas about technology, labels for technology, predictions and suppositions about technology, they don’t map onto actual real-world technology. Human culture doesn’t work like a logical argument. Distinguishing and describing 1,2,3,4 and 5 is like trying to staple and saw melting ice-cubes.

Here’s what it sounds like: 1+2+3+4+5. When it’s not futuristic. When it’s normal. When it’s banal.

She poured a coffee, then touched the breakfast table. “Where are my shoes?” “Your sister borrowed them.” “Again? Where is Susan?” “She’s downtown now.” “Susan! Why did you swipe my favorite shoes again?” “Look at this dress.” “Oooh, that dress is darling.” “It would look even better on you.” “You’re right. Get it for me. You can’t have it.” “Trade you for these shoes.” “Let me check that with Henry. Yeah, okay.” Karen had another sip of fair-trade coffee. It tasted weird, but it was still hot.

They’re all in that paragraph. All five. They’re phantom far-out notions gobbled up by the real world. They packed in there so deep that nobody notices them. So, yes, I can write about it. It’s just: it doesn’t look futuristic. It looks way too real.

Why isn’t it grand? Why isn’t it as fantastically grand as the spectrum of all possibility? Well, why isn’t today grand? Why didn’t we wake up this morning in direct confrontation with the entirety of past and future? The present day is the only day we’re ever given.

Bruce Sterling spoke at Webstock 09. He blogs at Beyond the Beyond.

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