Here is a towering example of modern American freewheeling public speaking. Bruce Sterling shares with us in a ramblingly insightful way all sorts of ideas and insights about technology and its impact on us.
This sort of thing would shrivel and die if you attempted to write it down in advance. He must have had a structure in mind and even some of the imagery too when he rose to speak at the SXSW2013 event. But the power of his speech comes from the sheer energy and improvisation he displays, building on his underlying confidence in himself and his ability to pour out thought-provoking ideas.
Thus when he gets to the nub of it, he start where all good US speeches start. With a story:
Walnut Canyon, an extremely Southwestern place. It happened to have a little civilization in it once, from about 1100 A.D. to maybe 1250 A.D. The most high-tech guys in the Southwest.
Now the interesting thing about these ancient cliff-dweller guys is that they were much, much more high tech than South By South West. Because if if you’re in Austin for South By: yeah it’s pretty high tech. But: it’s not absolutely the most high-tech place that anybody’s ever heard of, ever.
But if you’re in Walnut Canyon in 1150 A.D., these guys are totally amazing! They’ve got canals, stone buildings, and advanced ceramics. They were so far ahead of everybody they knew, that they are absolutely the smartest guys anybody has ever heard of.
They’re the pinnacle of human achievement. They’re the Stone-Age Stanford. They’re the MIT of black and white pottery. Now, of course they are not “high-tech” compared to us today. However, compared to everyone around them at the time, they are just amazingly progressive …
Their worst problem is actually their best advantage. They’ve got no water — but they hacked it. It’s a desert. There are tremendous droughts. So, in response, they just make these big ceramic pots and they fill them up with snow.They just hold on to it while everyone around them dies of thirst. They’ve got urban water tanks in their little cliff community. Whenever it rains, they just run out and top off all the jars. They’ve got Cloud Storage in there …
And links the doom of the Walnut Canyon people to the modern computer, making the point about how long incredibly successful things really last:
I don’t think I heard any speaker at any panel here ever use the term “PC.” Where are they? It’s just vanished like the word “Computer” in the name of “Apple Computer.”
Why does nobody talk about them? Because nobody wants them, that’s why. Imagine somebody brings you a personal desktop computer here at South By, they’re like bringing it in on a trolley.
“Look, this device is personal. It computes and it’s totally personal, just for you, and you alone. It doesn’t talk to the internet. No sociality. You can’t share any of the content with anybody. Because it’s just for you, it’s private. It’s yours. You can compute with it. Nobody will know! You can process text, and draw stuff, and do your accounts. It’s got a spreadsheet. No modem, no broadband, no Cloud, no Facebook, Google, Amazon, no wireless. This is a dream machine. Because it’s personal and it computes. And it sits on the desk. You personally compute with it. You can even write your own software for it. It faithfully executes all your commands.
So — if somebody tried to give you this device, this one I just made the pitch for, a genuinely Personal Computer, it’s just for you — Would you take it? Even for free? Would you even bend over and pick it up?
Isn’t it basically the cliff house in Walnut Canyon? Isn’t it the stone box?“Look, I have my own little stone box here in this canyon! I can grow my own beans and corn. I harvest some prickly pear. I’m super advanced here.”
I really think I’m going to outlive the personal computer. And why not? I outlived the fax machine. I did. I was alive when people thought it was amazing to have a fax machine. Now I’m alive, and people think it’s amazing to still have a fax machine …
So, farewell then books:
I recently wrote a new novel. Funniest novel I ever wrote. It’s an ebook, you can go and look for it if you want. It doesn’t make much difference if you do or you don’t. We just don’t live in a world where novels can be important in the way that novels used to be important.
Nobody reviews them. There are no paper periodicals that talk at great length about paper novels to people who spend their lives reading paper.
The bookstore chains have been disrupted. They are collapsing. I am a novelist. I myself don’t go into bookstores very much now. They have become archaic, depressing places. They are stone cliff houses. They are half abandoned.
If I don’t go in there, certainly my readers are not going to go in there. I know where the readers went. They’re all on the internet, or in social media, just like me.
Structure by contrast (Particular to General):
People like to say that musicians reacted badly to the digital revolution. They put a foot wrong. What really happened is that the digital revolution reduces everybody to the state of musicians. Everybody — not just us bohemian creatives, but the military, political parties, the anchor stores in retail malls, academics subjected to massive open online courses.
It’s the same thing over and over. Basically, the only ones making money are the ones that have big, legal stone castles surrounded with all kinds of regulatory thorns. Meaning: the sickness industry, the bank gangsters, and the military contractors. Gothic High-Tech …
I have seen disruption in music, literature, the arts, entertainment publishing, the fourth estate, the military, political parties, manufacturing — pretty much everywhere except finance, health, the law, and the prison/military industry. Which is why they’ve got all the money now and the rest of us are pretty much reduced to disrupted global peons.
Computers were really, truly disruptive. Mobile devices are so radically disruptive that they even disrupted computers. They’re a bigger deal then the dead bookstores. We’ve got guys who own cell phones in this world who can’t even read.
And I’m very intimate with this spectacle. I’m very keen on all its little ins and outs.
The thing that bugs me about your attitude toward it is that you don’t recognize its tragic dimension.
And so to the heart of the argument. About taking responsibility for ‘disruption’ and understanding what it means:
And then there’s this empty pretense that these innovations make the world “better.” This is a dangerous word. Like: “If we’re not making the world better, then why are we doing this at all?”
Now, I don’t want to claim that this attitude is hypocritical. Because when you say a thing like that at SouthBy: “Oh, we’re here to make the world better” — you haven’t even reached the level of hypocrisy. You’re stuck at the level of childish naivete.
The world has a tragic dimension. This world does not always get better. The world has deserts. Deserts aren’t better. People don’t always get better.
You personally: once you’re over middle-age, when you’re becoming elderly, you don’t get better everyday. When you are elderly, you are in metabolic decline. Every day you get worse. It’s the human condition. It’s a simple truth. It is fatuous to think that culture, or politics, or society, or technology always get better. It’s just not true …
“There’s an app to make that all better.” Okay, a billion apps have been sold. Where’s the betterness?
… You don’t have a better-o-meter. You can’t measure the length and breadth and duration of the “betterness.”
“Better” is a metaphysical value judgement. It’s not a scientific quality like mass or velocity. You can’t test it experimentally. We don’t know what’s “better.” We don’t even know what’s “worse.” Which is good. Every cloud has a silver lining.
Google doesn’t want to be “evil,” but they don’t have an evilometer. They don’t have an evil avoidance algorithm.
Ending with more startling imagery that takes the speech back to where it started – Walnut Canyon:
I think the first step, really the proper step, is to accept that our hands are not clean. We don’t just play and experiment: we kill.
When you disrupt the stone box, the stone box goes empty. It’s not merely irritated or disturbed, it’s dead. It’s dead media. It’s dead, it has been killed, and to be a phoenix you have to admit your complicity in the barbecue fire.
It’s your fire, it’s not somebody else’s. Yes, we killed the past. We didn’t pull the trigger on it directly, but it died for our benefit, it died through things we did.
Own up to that. Own up to that: yes, we burned it up. No one is historically innocent. Yes, we are carnivores at this barbecue. Yes, it died, we roasted it, we ate it. And the saving grace here is we eat what we kill.
Go on, eat it. No, don’t pretend to be the child bride in white lace who thinks that babies are found under the cabbages. You’re not that young, you’re twenty-six years old. You ought to be slaughtering the hog of the twentieth century, roasting it over a bonfire. Live up to it, come on.
To kill it and pretend that that was some kind of accident, that is shameful. To kill and eat it is fierce, but it’s honorable. Because you are taking the substance of the past and making it part of yourself. You are giving it new form and allowing it to take flight.
The past is ablaze, the sky is full of smoke, but the phoenix takes wing. The phoenix is a desert eagle. The phoenix is a bird of prey.
Wow. Nice work.