Tag Archives: Bruce Sterling

rocket from the crypto / two dead letters

Chairman Bruce appears to be repubbing longreads from the now defunct Beyond The Beyond blog. This is a weird experience for me—distinctly atemporal, to use the man’s own term—because I recall reading this stuff at the time. And so it’s familiar and just-like-yesterday, but also so alienated and impossibly historical… I mean, I can’t recall the last time I saw anyone so much as mention the New Aesthetic, but I certainly remember a time when it seemed like everyone was talking about it. (That feeling of atemporal synchronicity is being compounded, no doubt, by my having been going through some of my own published material from the same period over the last couple of weeks… with the added irony that said act of retrospection was to the end of writing a chapter about Sterling for an academic collection.)

TL;DR—middle-age is a headfuck. I kind of understand why my parents went so weird in their forties, now… though I’m not sure I yet forgive the particular direction in which they went weird. And they didn’t even have the internet!

Anyway, the essay in question is the Chairman’s response to the New Aesthetic panel at the 2012 SXSW, and the bit I’m clipping is less about the New Aesthetic than a side-swipe at AI that reads just as true (and just as likely to be ignored) today:

… this is the older generation’s crippling hangup with their alleged “thinking machines.” When computers first shoved their way into analog reality, they came surrounded by a host of poetic metaphors. Cybernetic devices were clearly much more than mere motors and engines, so they were anthropomorphized and described as having “thought,” “memory,” and nowadays “sight” and “hearing.” Those metaphors are deceptive. These are the mental chains of the old aesthetic, these are the iron bars of oppression we cannot see.

Modern creatives who want to work in good faith will have to fully disengage from the older generation’s mythos of phantoms, and masterfully grasp the genuine nature of their own creative tools and platforms. Otherwise, they will lack comprehension and command of what they are doing and creating, and they will remain reduced to the freak-show position of most twentieth century tech art. That’s what is at stake.

Computers don’t and can’t make sound aesthetic judgements. Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence. They lack taste. They lack ethics. They just don’t have any. Tossing in more software and interactivity, so that they’re even jumpier and more apparently lively, that doesn’t help.

It’s not their fault. They are not moral actors and they are incapable of faults. It’s our fault for pretending otherwise, for fooling ourselves, for projecting our own qualities onto phenomena that we built, that are very interesting to us, but not at all like us. We can’t give them those qualities of ours, no matter how hard we try.

Pretending otherwise is like making Super Mario the best man at your wedding. No matter how much time you spend with dear old Super Mario, he is going to disappoint in that role you chose for him. You need to let Super Mario be super in the ways that Mario is actually more-or-less super. Those are plentiful. And getting more so. These are the parts that require attention, while the AI mythos must be let go.

AI is the original suitcase word; indeed, it’s a term that Minsky came up with to describe the way the goal of “AI” kept drifting, and coming up with the term and identifying the problem didn’t get him anywhere nearer to solving it. I was writing a report on AI last year in a freelance capacity (for a foundation in a location whose commitment to the Californian Ideology is in some ways even greater than that of California itself, despite—or perhaps because of—its considerable geographical, historical and sociopolitical distance from California), and tried to make this point, drawing on the tsunami of critiques of AI-as-concept and AI-as-business-practice that have emerged since then, both within the academy and without… but, well, yeah.

I guess we just have to conclude that the sort of person who decides to make Super Mario their best man is not the sort of person who’s going to take it well when you point out that Super Mario is a sprite… no one wants to be the first to concede the emperor is naked, particularly not when they’ve stripped off in order to join the parade. Nonetheless, given the residual enthusiasm for peddling that particular brand of Kool-Aid which still persists among the big global consultancies, the McKinseys and their ilk, there’s probably a few more years in business models offering “Super Mario solutions” before smarter, faster-moving players start focussing on practical applications without the pseudo-religious wrapper. Or, I dunno, maybe not? Seems like people will believe whatever the hell makes them feel like a winner these days, and the very unfalsifiable nebulousness of “AI” might make it all but bulletproof for that very reason. Every era has its snake-oils.

dead media beat

Thanks to Jay Springett and Uncle Warren for alerting me to the sunsetting of Bruce Sterling’s old Beyond the Beyond blog at Wired, which I only stopped following because Wired yanked the RSS on it some time ago—this despite its being perhaps the most influential thing they ever published, or ever will publish. Jay’s accompanying note said “end of an era”, and I appreciate the sentiment, though it’s not quite true: that era ended a long time ago (probably before the RSS feed for BtB was killed off, in truth).

But it’s certainly a marker in time for those of us of a certain generation. BtB had not been running for long before I first elbowed my way onto the waggon-trails of blogging, and was certainly one of my first regular follows; at that time I knew Sterling only as some guy who’d co-written a book with William Gibson that I’d never gotten round to reading, and I followed BtB more due to the lingering influence of Wired, which I’d been picking up in dead-tree format on and off since 1990, having been hipped to the existence of this utopian thing called “the internet” while still a callow public schoolboy by, of all the possible vectors of that infection, the band Jesus Jones.

(“Info-freako / there is no limit to what I want to know…” Y’know, I’ve only just realised how much that song now seems terrifyingly prophetic of socnet doomscrolling. But man, Jesus Jones. Heck of a thing to list as fundamentally formative of your life, but there it is.)

Anyway, as an unrepentant fan of Sterling, and as someone who is on the hook to write a chapter about the Chairman for an academic book later in the year, and also as someone who still keeps a blog in the full understanding that it’s an online journal in which I think out loud about stuff for my own satisfaction, please enjoy this recursively self-referential selection of snips from Sterling’s BtB swansong, interleavened with navel-gazing retro-reflections of my own. You’re welcome.

I keep a lot of paper notebooks in my writerly practice. I’m not a diarist, but I’ve been known to write long screeds for an audience of one, meaning myself. That unpaid, unseen writing work has been some critically important writing for me — although I commonly destroy it. You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them.

It’s the writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought that seems to helps me. That’s what I did with this blog; if I blogged something for “Beyond the Beyond,” then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head. Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use.

That resonates a lot—though I should be honest enough to admit that my own blogging was at that point an exercise of almost pure self-aggrandizement, and attempt to push myself into the world of words that came with a byline and (so I hoped) a paycheque. As I’ve remarked before, with no small amount of rue (and a degree of guilt), it was that very landrush, by myself and many others, that not only toxified the landscape of blogging beyond any hope of remediation, but which also did so much to drive down the cost of hiring a writer, as we all squabbled over gigs for the bargain price of “exposure”. And I, to be clear, have ended up being one of the lucky ones: I exposed myself enough (and gained enough facility with writing and thinking in public) that I could trade it up and turn it into a ticket into academia.

(Though that was perhaps something of a frypan->fire move; not like things are particularly stable here in the groves, either. But you’d better believe I recognise the significant chunk of luck that I stirred in to alchemise that decade of hustle; while others came out of the blogging landrush far better than I, many came out far worse. And many more never even knew it was happening. It was easy to assume that the blogosphere was coterminous with the world—a foretaste, perhaps, of the walled-in-town-square weltanschauung of the socnets.)

Sterling makes a point further down about how the writing or talking that people will pay you for and the writing or talking that actually goes out into the world and makes a mark rarely overlap significantly, and also notes that both the now-defunct blog and Cheap Truth, both of whose readership was probably far smaller than his book sales, have been far more impactful on those smaller audiences than the books were on theirs. The moral I take away from that observation is that it’s wise to do what interests you, even if there’s no pay in it, even if it eats up the spare time you have around the stuff that actually pays the bills, because it’s the fascination you find in those things that really turns people on—fewer people, turned on more intensely, seems to be what really makes a lasting mark in the long run.

(Perhaps I’m just seeking a retrospective justification for my enduring instinct for taking on tasks that don’t really align as closely with the trajectory of my day-job as they should do… but that is also an instinct that I developed by blogging, and it has served me well so far. For example, one of the papers I wrote during my doctoral studies, and almost entirely unrelated to my thesis in any obvious or substantive way, has already been cited by far more people than will ever read my thesis, and was instrumental in getting me where I am today. It’s also, perhaps not at all coincidentally, a far less compromised piece of work, to which I point people regularly, and with pride; by contrast, when people ask about my thesis, I tend to do pretty much everything short of demanding that they don’t read it.)

A blog evaporates through bit-rot. Yet even creative work which is abandoned and seen by no one is often useful exercise. One explores, one adventures by finding “new ground” that often just isn’t worth it; it’s arid and lunar ground, there’s nothing to farm, but unless you venture beyond and explore, you will never know that. Often, it’s the determined act of writing it down that allows one to realize the true sterility of a silly idea; that’s how the failure gets registered in memory; “oh yes, I tried that, there’s nothing there.”

Or: maybe there is nothing there yet. Or: it may be ‘nothing’ for me in particular, but great for you. “Nothing” comes in many different flavors.

Part of the glory of this swansong piece is that, as Sterling notes, it’s not at all like the material he used to blog. It’s more like a coda to the long succession of speaking gigs he’s done over the years, particularly the SXSW ones: full of sarcasm, sincere musings, shameless self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation sat side-by-side without any sense of contradiction or self-doubt. I’ve been saying for a long time now that I don’t have heroes any more, having learned that a hero is a bit like Chekov’s gun: to put someone on a pedestal is to assure that the time will come when they tumble off it. But I nonetheless remain hugely inspired by Sterling’s confidence in his own instincts, his restless gadfly nomadism; his life’s work seems to be one long Deleuzian line-of-flight in which security was long ago traded for the freedom to follow the thoughts and ideas and opportunities wherever they lead. And he knows it, too, even if he likely wouldn’t put it in those terms:

Even if I couldn’t package the things I knew in any way that any publisher would ever find viable, I simply knew things most people didn’t know. That feat was good in itself. “Real artists ship,” and yes, they do have to ship something, or else they’re not artists. But they don’t have to ship everything they know. That’s because they’re artists, and they’re not a shipping service.

[…]

I knew from the beginning that my weblog would surely cease some day, and I frequently warned readers that “blogs,” the “internet,” desktop computers, browser software and so forth, were all passing phenomena. They were indeed period artifacts, some with the lifespan of hamsters. The content of my blog “rotted” quickly too, since most things I talked about, or linked to, are long gone.

I always understood that, but I hopped right into the ditch anyhow. I appreciated, and I even savored, the risks; I knew that, for a guy who theoretically was a professional novelist, I was spreading myself thin, acting the dilettante, and commonly sticking my nose into scenes and situations that were none of my business. Often, I had little to offer, too, other than some quip and a link. But that was my good fortune; I chose the bohemian downsides, the life of archaic niches and avant-garde clutter; I preferred the dead factory and the palace attic. They were kind to me, for that was my milieu.

There is something of Kafka’s hunger artist to Sterling, too, with all the light and shade that implies—that’s what makes his work interesting to me, but I think it’s also what draws me to his personal character, too. I’ve remarked before that Sterling’s fictional characters are avatars for ideas, a mixture of types and tropes, perhaps closer to the characters of theatre than of literature: they’re loud (even, perhaps particularly, the ones who seem to be quiet), and—crucially—aware of their own status as characters in a fiction, if not always in that knowingly-and-showingly way that we tend to think of as the archetypal signature of the postmodern. I now find myself thinking that the most memorable of Sterling’s characters is Sterling himself, and that all the others are just fragments or facets thereof.

(I really hope someone has scraped and archived BtB for posterity, or even just for the purposes of research… though I suspect it’s maybe not amenable to a tool like wget, as it’s a CMS rather than true filetree? If anyone knows how it might be done and would be willing to tell me how—or perhaps to do the work for a fee—drop me a line, yeah? I know Sterling’s OK with this blog decaying into bit-rot, but I’m enough of a creation of the academy that I hate the thought of it not becoming a part of his “papers”. As a document of a period of history in the not-exactly-a-place that is/was “the internet”, it’s probably peerless.)

  • Sterling, B. (2020, May 17). Farewell to Beyond the Beyond. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from https://www.wired.com/beyond-the-beyond/2020/05/farewell-beyond-beyond/

a cranky aspiration

Chairman Bruce on AI ethics at LARB:

In the hermetic world of AI ethics, it’s a given that self-driven cars will kill fewer people than we humans do. Why believe that? There’s no evidence for it. It’s merely a cranky aspiration. Life is cheap on traffic-choked American roads — that social bargain is already a hundred years old. If self-driven vehicles doubled the road-fatality rate, and yet cut shipping costs by 90 percent, of course those cars would be deployed.

The language of Smart City is always Global Business English

… the cities of the future won’t be “smart,” or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won’t have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.

Whenever that’s done right, it will increase the soft power of the more alert and ambitious towns and make the mayors look more electable. When it’s done wrong, it’ll much resemble the ragged downsides of the previous waves of urban innovation, such as railways, electrification, freeways, and oil pipelines. There will also be a host of boozy side effects and toxic blowback that even the wisest urban planner could never possibly expect.

Chairman Bruce at The Atlantic.

Tomorrow composts today

*The “better future” thing is jam-tomorrow and jam-yesterday talk, so it tends to become the enemy of jam today. You’re better off reading history, and realizing that public aspirations that do seem great, and that even meet with tremendous innovative success, can change the tenor of society and easily become curses a generation later. Not because they were ever bad ideas or bad things to aspire to or do, but because that’s the nature of historical causality. Tomorrow composts today.

*Also, huge, apparently dispiriting disasters can burn off the ground for profound new growth, so the glum and morbid bad-future notion is just as false and silly as this kind of socially-engineered forced-optimism.

 

[…]

*This is not a counsel of despair. It’s atemporality, it’s like an agnosticism. People don’t really require any “better future” per se. Nobody ever receives such a thing. There’s no possibly utopian arrangement which is better for everybody, since society is composed of radically disparate elements with orthogonal needs. People can’t even permanently content their own personal selves. If a guy longs for an X-Prize and wins it, he doesn’t stay permanently happy. A guy with that personality type is gonna look around in near-desperation for something else to radically over-achieve.

Chairman Bruce.