Saturday, July 08, 2006

BRUCE STERLING Author, Cyber-green

[The real star of this broadcast is Bruce. To hear excerpts from his speeches, including a new interview from May 2006, click the title above. Or download it from Program is 29 minutes long, 27 Mb MP3.]

[Intro clips][SWX2005_10_UnimaginableVsUnthinkable_BTS.wav]

We're going to take a whirl-wind tour of a whirl-wind: one Michael Bruce Sterling. He's a science-fiction writer, working visionary, and cyber-green activist. Along the way, we'll encounter the Planet of the Dumps, green design, SPIMES, total tracking of everything. Oh yeah, and the mega-threat of climate change.

This is Alex Smith from Radio Ecoshock. Along with the usual collection of quick audio clips, you'll have to put up with my reading a few Sterling quotes. He's a writer, after all.

His science fiction career started at the University of Texas.

In the 1980's, Sterling was a founder of the cyber-punk genre. He's sold millions of books since his first novel "Schismatrix." The 1986 anthology of cyberpunk edited by Sterling, titled "Mirrorshades," is still a classic. He also co-wrote, with William Gibson, the 1990 "steampunk" novel "The Difference Engine." His first non-fiction novel was "The Hacker Crackdown," which followed the U.S. Secret Service raids on a Texas game-maker.

Since then, Sterling has become a widely published journalist, including his column in Wired magazine. He's a popular speaker at conventions.

As the future unravels before us, Sterling interprets new technology and culture warping. He founded an online community called Viridian - which promotes neo-green design and high tech solutions. We'll also hear about his later publication, "Shaping Things," published by MIT Press.

And none of this captures the real Bruce Sterling. He's a very un-assuming man in person. His life is a travel schedule, a laptop exploration of cyber-space, some mind-blowing, and beer. His richer inner mind really pours out in his books and speeches. He offers things, and dictates nothing.


Back in the early 1990's, Bruce Sterling became personally concerned about climate change, and published a novel about it in 1995, called "Heavy Weather." Set in his home state of Texas, the survivors of heat, drought, and drug resistant diseases, set out tracking the violent storms that depopulated the region by 2031. The future comes early doesn't it? As we all know, Heavy Weather is already appearing.

More and more, Sterling is a magnet, and stimulant, for green solutions blogging, like and Tree Hugger. There is an urgency to his green cyber-activism.

For example, back in 1999, Sterling told the Industrial Designers Society of America national conference:

"'Nature' is over. The twentieth century did it in. There's not a liter of seawater anywhere without its share of PCB and DDT. An altered climate will reshuffle the ecological deck for every creature that breathes. You can't escape industrialism, and hide from the sky. It's over. From now on, "Nature" is under surveillance, and on life-support. Face up to it. A 21st century avant-garde has to deal with those consequences, and thrive in that world."

These threats are multi-dimensional.

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Billions of humans, all over the world, are leaving the country-side to live in cities. It is one of the most startling developments of the new century.

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Rural living was self-contained, but city dwellers must haul in vast quantities of food and resources - while trucking out equally vast piles of waste.

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The real solution to waste, Sterling suggests, is to design it out of the system. We can use biologically degradable materials to replace toxic synthetic ones. We can reduce the mass of everything we use - light vehicles, lighter buildings. And we can make sure everything is re-used, or recycled in some way. All this starts in the original designs pouring out of computers across the world.


Here is Sterling speaking at the SWX 2005 conference:

[long clip of three basic solutions - bio-design, solid products, total tracking][SWX2005_8_AnInternetOfThings.wav ]

So Sterling's original idea, adding to a mix of solutions, is the possibility of identifying and tracking all products, so their final destination is not the dump, but re-use, stripping for new production, or composting for bio-mass. The original design includes ecologically sane disposal.

In order to express his concept, Sterling introduces a new word: spime. The word is a contraction of "space" and "time". The Spime is a type of object predicted from a trajectory of past objects. I'm going to quote from Sterling's awards speech at the techie SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles in August 2004:

"These classes of objects are called, in order of their historical appearance, Artifacts, Machines, Products, and Gizmos.

The lines between Artifacts, Machines, Products and Gizmos aren't mechanical. They're historical. The differences between them are found in the material cultures they make possible. The kind of society they produce, and the kind of human being that is necessary to make them, and use them.

Artifacts are made and used by hunter-gatherers, and subsistence farmers.

Machines are made and used by customers, in an industrial society.

Products are made and used by consumers in a military-industrial complex.

While Gizmos are made and used by end-users, in whatever today is -- a 'New World Disorder,' a 'Terrorism-Entertainment Complex,' our own brief interregnum."

[end quote]

The Gizmo isn't completely determined by the manufacturer. It's a device that has many different functions built in. Perhaps telephone, Net connection, huge memory, video, recording, and computational abilities. It does whatever the end-user makes it do. Nobody can predict exactly what it does.

Beyond Gizmos, the next type of object doesn't exist yet, so it needs a name, and Sterling calls it a SPIME. These new objects have their own identity, history, and place in the universe of searchable things. If you own a SPIME, you could Google it for the manual, and many other details, including it's service information, all it's parts, what they are made of, how to dispose of them, and basically everything that can be known about it.

Once we know a lot more, and things become even more complex and user determined, these SPIMES could be rewarding but difficult for the user. So tricky, we become spime "wranglers" in Sterling's terminology. When you acquire something, you also acquire the user group, the culture, of all the other people experimenting - and coping - with that object.

Picture a computing car that also does laundry, pays bills, entertains, feeds energy into your house, and listens to your problems. What is it? Well, that's up to you. There are so many possibilities that continuing education is required to use it.

Sterling says we consumers have been purposefully left in the dark about our products, other than the dream-like data of advertising. Knowledge about our possessions is proprietary to the manufacturer, we are told. So we don't know what is in them, or how toxic they might be. The spime is the opposite of that. And that is part of the new solution that Bruce Sterling offers, for the problem of toxicity and waste in or society. You will know what's in it, where it came from. The end re-use, or biologically safe disposal, will be designed right into this object, before it is ever made.

As we've heard, total-tracking of all products would require a minor social revolution. Many libertarians are horrified at the ugly possibilities, when everyone knows where everything goes, and who uses what.

But aren't we already well on our way? Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, demands RFID radio tracking chips in every product they sell. Supermarkets use price incentives and shopping cards to track all our purchases. Basically, almost all products are already followed by computers, from factory production, through shipping to the stores, to your credit or in-store card. The only thing we don't track, says Sterling, is the disposal. You, or your city, can just keep burying the remnants of these toxic toys somewhere out in the countryside.


Why not admit that products have a cyber-identity, living in computers, and follow the process all the way to their grave?

As a cyber-punk writer, Sterling is all too aware of the potential for abuse in all this tracking. He foresees wrangling with, quote:

"* spime spam, pushiness, abuse of customers, intrusion
* spying and eavesdropping capabilities
* brooms that bellow ads, mops that demand money
* subtle software faults that make even a simple shovel unusable
* security flaws, hacking, theft, fraud, malware, vandalism and pranking
* Industrial hazards: spime kitchens that fry the unwary, spime cars that follow outdated software maps and drive right off broken bridges
* technological lock-in, wicked monopolists, corrupt regimes in on the take
* And just plain ugliness: tacky, goofy, tasteless, cheesy, lethal, vulgar, dirty, worthless, obscene, impractical, and dangerous spimes."

But what is the alternative? Can we continue to pretend that Earth is a vast waste land, where we can dump all the waste of 10 billion consumers? And we're not talking about those unseen places, where we truck endless streams of toxic junk. We're talking about our own blood and lungs, where daily pollution settles into disease.


Again, at SIGGRAPH, Sterling says:

"It's painful. But we need to understand that our bloodstreams are our dumping grounds. So are our lungs and our livers. If we could visualize that, if we knew and could prove what had gone wrong inside of ourselves, if we could put a digital medical imaging screen on our bellies, our lungs and our livers, and make those invisible problems visible, then everything would become different. If that knowledge was attached to every object in our possession, the objects that were killing us would vanish quickly."

He continues:

"We are filling the atmosphere, and the seas, and the surface of the planet, and our own bodies, with our industrial emissions and our dead junk. In a world with 6.3 billion people, trending toward 10 billion, there is no "Away" left in which we can throw our dead objects. Our material culture is not sustainable. Its resources are not renewable. We cannot turn our entire planet's crust into obsolete objects. We need to locate valuable objects that are dead, and fold them back into the product stream. In order to do this, we need to know where they are, and what happened to them. We need to document the life cycles of objects.

In practice, this is going to mean tagging and historicizing everything....

It's possible to live in a cleaner way. We live in debris and detritus because of our ignorance. That ignorance is no longer technically necessary. Those who know, know. Instead, our problem is becoming obscurantism, which is a deliberate hiding of the facts, by vested interests who know they are injuring us. Such acts of evil must be combated.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant."


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The senior threat, for Sterling, and for all of us, is rapid destabilization of the planet, due to man-made greenhouse gases.

[Long clip: BPicTV_HowToFightClimateChange.wav]

Climate change appeared in the background of several of Sterling's science fiction books, including "Islands in the Net" and "Involution Ocean." But the burning post-carbon world stars in his 1994 book "Heavy Weather" - which continues to sell well.

At the turn of the new century, Sterling came out with the Viridian Manifesto or>, and his personal eco discussion list, focusing on green design. The website says the design philosophy is to "create irresistible demand for a global atmosphere upgrade."

As a cyber-activist, Bruce Sterling is pasted all over the Net. In addition to his own discussion list, his science fiction fans, the futurists, and designers all have Sterling discussion groups. He's also involved with a number of the most popular green blogs, including his co-conspirator Alex Steffen at

There Sterling proclaims, quote:

"The planet IS an ark.

Where do you propose to hide or construct such a thing? There's no place to hide from the sky.

This might be a great time to make backups of your data and scatter 'em all over the planet. If you're in Tornado Alley it wouldn't kill you to clean out the storm shelter. But there's no particular safe haven where one is sure to go untroubled by weather. People went to Florida because they liked the weather. Los Angeles has great weather and it's very imperiled. Everybody and everywhere is at risk. Trent Lott lost his house, and the oil industry took a major hit from Katrina. I've personally seen a minor hurricane rip limbs from trees in the White House lawn."

At times, he isn't sure he wants George Bush to act on global warming, because Bush poisons everything he touches. Just imagine the new security state, with nuclear prisons, Bush would demand to fight climate change! We need to act at every other level, instead. Yet, one of his most recent articles bouncing around the Net is titled "Suicide by Pseudoscience" - how the Bushites have used Stalin-like ideology to kill off scientific reports on climate change.

Back in 1999, before Al Gore made a movie, speaking before a convention of Industrial Designers, Sterling recalls the 600 people in that city who died of heat in July, 1995. He reminds his tech-savvy audience all their cool gear is still powered by carbon-belching coal. And when it comes to heat, they ain't seen nothing yet. He tells them:

"People have tremendous powers of denial. We're living in denial right now, in 1999. As a society. As a civilization. It's all about puff-puff-puff. Beep beep. Honk honk. And never mind the consequences."

Then, he says, by 2005 civil liberties will be lost in a form of neo-Stalinism. Ha! Obviously, that could never happen in America!

One of his later novels, "Distraction," weaves in the themes of the Viridian movement. Again set in post-global warming America, the main character, (there are no heroes in a Sterling novel,) - worries his way through new strategies, and models of power, in the chaos of climate-wracked culture.

And yet, despite writing about a wrecked eco-sphere, Sterling says:

"I'm an optimist. And I'm the hard kind of optimist, because I'm a post-pessimist. I think the Greenhouse Effect is the central problem our civilization has right now. We don't face the problem, but we sure as hell have it.

It's not that big a problem. Not compared to the nuclear arms race, or the military industrial complex, or the population explosion, or fascism, or communism, or other 20th century crises that we don't fuss about much any more, because they're old hat. The Greenhouse Effect isn't a dramatic problem, like playing Russian roulette with hydrogen bombs. The Greenhouse Effect is a chronic problem, like cigarettes."

[clip you have to fight Greenhouse gases all the time]

He still thinks that intelligent humans can somehow use 21st century technology, to save the planet from the old machinery of Rockefeller oil, Edison power, and Ford cars.

In an article written for the Sierra Club, Sterling describes this way out:

"The first and most sensible technology is one that does its work, and then eventually rots and goes away by itself. Its core materials and processes are biodegradable, so it's self-recycling. Writer Janine Benyus talks about "biomimetic" technologies; architect William McDonough describes "cradle to cradle" production systems. This means harnessing the same biochemical means of production that built the natural world, and using them to create industries, cities, products, everything.

It means the industrial use of new materials with the sturdy, no-nonsense qualities of spider silk, mussel glue, coral, seashell, horn, bone, and timber. It means room-temperature industrial assembly without toxics: no foundries, no pesticides, no mercury. When an object made by these processes is abandoned or worn out, it becomes part of the biosphere."

All this is to be supplemented with the new cybernetic products, the spimes, which are mostly data, with very little mass required. After all, we already buy the idea of the product, as much as the thing itself.

His hope:

"If we handle the huge transition correctly, it will be worth cheering. In 50 years, nature will be less oppressed, culture will be wiser, government will take new and improved forms, industrial systems will be more efficient and capable, and business will be less like a rigged casino. Purveyors of art, fashion, and design will see what went on nowadays and bust a gut laughing in derision. Our children and grandchildren will get up in the morning, look at the news, and instead of flinching in terror, they will see the edifying spectacle of the world's brightest people transparently solving the world's worst problems. This sounds utopian, but it could soon be everyday life."

This report is from Radio Ecoshock, the Net's only all-environment radio station, available free at You can read the text for this broadcast, with some links, in our newsblog at [you are reading that blog right now]

There is no copyright, use this freely.

Bruce Sterling audio clips came from his excellent speech at SWX2005, available on the Net, and from a new interview on Check that out for sure.

You've been listening to Radio Ecoshock, the Net's only all-environment radio station, free, at

[final clip of Sterling: SWX2005_9_InventOurWayOut.wav 3.6 sec]