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Sci-Fi guru Bruce Sterling gazes at enriched reality

COMMENT PRINT ARTICLE
PHOTO: Margus Ansu / Postimees

Last week, thinker and writer Bruce Sterling visited the Prima Vista literature festival, in Tartu. Not numerous are the people, able to boast being linked to births of new literary genres. Sterling and Cyberpunk being almost synonymous.

On May 8th, BBC Future published a rather pessimistic view of yours, on megacity life in 2050. We’re talking in Tartu, with its University and slightly over 100,000 locals. How is it going to be here, in 2050? Or… will it still be here, in 2015?

I do not believe a town aged over a thousand years is about to disappear. The more so that Tartu has been erased time and time again – and still alive. Belgrade, where I have lived for a long time, has been erased for 19 times. But cities rise again, if they have a favourable geographical location. People want to live in such places. Judging by this, I think Tartu will be alive and well, in 2025.

I like small communities (like Estonia – edit.) and I spend the majority of my time in towns like Tartu. Austin, Belgrade, Torino – mind you, these are all university-cities at riversides, like Tartu. I believe that in my home town, Austin, there’s still a university in a 100 years’ time – not guaranteed, however. Universities are bombarded by the same social forces that attack journalism, music business or any other forms of cultural expression.

These forces being…?

In the USA, the academic environment is affected by something called Massive Online Recorded Courses. Internet use to educate people harms the universities’ interests. The question arises: why gather young people into some kinds of buildings, if we might as well send them the lectures electronically and provide assessments that same way? The youth might stay in their homes and still end up being engineers. There is economical logic in this, the digital logic. In a way, Estonia is a trail blazer here, having e-elections and all. If you can vote at home, why go to the university building to get a degree? And then: why a degree? Why not start working via Internet and see if anybody’s willing to pay for your skills?

A boy of 13, I happened to read a Soviet science fiction story, on 23rd century, with people using a «watch-radio», whereby they were able to contact people all over the planet. Well, we both have these in our pockets, today. I feel the sci-fi writers sometimes prophecy quire accurately – on the possibilities to be opened up by technology. But not on how these technological possibilities alter our culture and behaviour.

Inventing things, it is naturally easier to delve into a gadget or technology – than into society at large. Social trends are harder to predict. But the scientific fiction writers aren’t overly worried about that. Nobody has punished us for the future – once it arrives – fifers from what we foretold! We have the liberty to invent whatever we like. Many of us are scientist and engineers ourselves. Thus, we write about stuff we are working at.

Take books, for instance: if I hand my books out to be read, free of charge, it is impossible to predict what the public will love and what they will despise and forget. And if I am unable to even predict the future of my own books, how might I be able to foresee something like the effect on means of communications on society? And people really don’t expect that from us, anyway.

But when, at the beginning of the 1980ies, you and he likeminded laid the foundation to cyberpunk as a genre, you did think about the effect of information network on human life? And, you seem to have been right.

Yes, but only up to a certain time. Read the early 80ies cyberpunk stories and you’ll see the world of the late 90ies. But not much of today’s world – for the stories are outdated, by now. Jules Verne has a lot to write about submarines, but now it is all outdated for we have a much better underwater technology. However, a science fiction writer may tackle metaphysical matters, like the time machine issue. Physics say this is impossible, but you can still read tales on time travel and think on the issues that arise from that.

A cool new gadget: Google Glass (GG). Would technology like that be available for anyone, would you use it? And if so, then how?

Oh, I love that! I tried the GG in Berlin, in April. So I’m one of the few in Europe to have used this. It’s like a video game, from the 90ies. Before your eyes, at about an arm’s length, there is something resembling the screen of an old time game console. Quite big, but not with the resolution required to read a text, for instance. Mostly pictures are displayed, so it’s basically like Instagram, mounted to your face. On the screen, there runs a string of pictures; with the touch pad in the spectacle frame, you can browse pictures sent by friends. You can’t read books with this, can’t do table calculations.  There is no keypad, needed for serious computer work. GG has a camera, allowing also to shoot video clips of a couple of seconds, and to share these. Like Vine, somewhat. It is not an Orwellian machine, recording nonstop. The battery wouldn’t last, anyhow. A toy, rather. Very lightweight, very fragile, costing $1,500. Probably, it could be produced for $150.

Maybe, in a few years, I would have my GG glasses on, our talks reaching the Postimees website, in real time – or whatever platforms they would use in journalism, then.

I don’t believe GG will be in everyday use. Rather, there will be a film glued to real glasses, for instance. On which, data can be displayed.

GG is a transit, a crossover technology: even if it should prove popular, the success will not last long. It was some of the freaky ideas of Sergey Brin’s. Look at him now: an ambitions Russian emigrant in America, heaps and heaps of money, not a clue what to do with it. The same as this self-driving car. Which works better than many would imagine, actually. GG, however, is in the freak-out category, like the asteroid mines – in a word – things only a bona fide sci-fi fan would do. Sergey is a very witty, influential, rich guy. Sergey may do whatever Sergey wants.

Reminds me of Tony Stark.

Exactly. And Sergey does resemble Steve Jobs, a lot. Like his Russian cousin. Having engineering ambitions, wants to be counted amongst world’s leading engineers. Not enough for him to be the millionaire co-founder of Google, who worked of a couple of algorithms while at Stanford. Sees himself as Gustav Eiffel.

Another Apple creator, Steve Wozniack, told Eesti Ekspress not long ago that all these smart gadgets never make us happy, rather producing stress. In his words, we are not happier that a peasant 200 years ago.

That’s classic Woz. He has believed that for a long time and I think he stressed a lot when Apple made him a millionaire. Wozniack is a timid and sensitive guy, more than anything he loves to teach 5-graders at basic school. He sees happiness in children and in helping others, so he probably expressed his feelings. I’m a writer and writers take al lot of interest in happiness and misery. In my opinion, it is true that machines don’t make people happier. That’s never their task. But they won’t make you unhappy, either. This, when Woz said machines produce stress in him, he might have been a bit insincere. He was one of the main architects of a world like this! So maybe there’s a bit of moral regret in his words.

So you have no such problems with gadgets?

I’ve seen them come and seen them die, not impressed anymore. The most sophisticated, advanced devices live about as long as mice. Even it is the cutting edge, they never live long: three years, five maybe. In this bag, I have a computer… but I’m not emotionally attached to it, haven’t nicknamed it etc. I know it’ll die sooner or later, and then I’ll throw it away. I admire them, but in the same way one may admire a beautiful dog, or bird. A hen! Oh what a wonderful hen! But we are far from equal; the hen will not even talk. An interesting creature, otherwise. Worthy to live, but then again… we eat them. The same applies to gadgets, technology. This was the view to technology, taught to me by industrial design. I don’t relate to technology with the same passion as in my youth, anymore. For I have a better understanding of what is going on.

OK, we were talking about hardware. But what about software? Google may know what I want, better than myself: what I like to listen, read, what kind of a knife I like to carry in my pocket. Scary?

I think there are five organisations in the world that we should be spooked about: Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon. All are American, all were created at the same time, approximately, all share the Silicon Valley ideology. For a long while, these were just nice hobbies; then, over a short period of time, they grew to be global economic powers. Today, information technology companies are as influential as nuclear, oil, coal or steel industries. This is no reason to be scared of software, it won’t bite you. What matters is who uses the software, and how. In USA, for instance, we have arrived at a place where social media determines the outcome of presidential elections.

Scary… and very cyberpunk, also.

Well, forgive me, but nuclear energy is scary, also. Real scary. And, from its inception, steel industry has been interwoven with arms production. No way may we look at these mighty data processing companies the same way as in 1982, when they were small and cute. Now they are big and mighty, led by grown-up influential guys. And we should be worried for them, just like the Russian gas pipe in the Baltic Sea. Well, I don’t live here, so why should I care? But it is foolishness to think the pipeline is for gas only. It is for power, economy, military and diplomatic influence… And that matters!

What do you think about machines gaining self consciousness, singularity? In the latest sci-fi, that’s a hot topic.

I’m a sceptic. I don’t believe it will ever happen. I count it an idea developed by science fiction writers. Like time travel or a robot that looks exactly like your wife. That makes for an exciting story, but will never be true.

Name a few influential contemporary science fiction writers, please.

I a great fan of the Canadian Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross from England. (Mr Stross to visit the Tallinn literature festival Head Read, at the end of this May – edit.). Both are former programmers and thus deeply acquainted with the digital world. As it happens, the best science fiction authors are not just book writers. Younger people are heavily active in Internet, are linked with websites, design, creating cartoons, etc. For a young person with lively imagination, it is very easy to express himself in various media.

But sci-fi movies? What would be a must for every sci-fi fan?

I’m not the movies type, really. But I really like Aelita: Queen of Mars (USSR, 1924). As an artist, Aleksandra Ekster did a tremendous job. An excellent example of «extraterrestrial» cinema. Very well thought through, and no other movie even slightly resembling it. Stanislaw Lem used the term «spearhead of cognition» and I think Aelita can be compared to that, indeed. This is no modern Hollywood stuff, special effects and all.

Secondly, though many would not think so, but Satyricon by Frederico Fellini is a science fiction movie. He kept saying: «I’d love to do a science fiction movie, played out in the past!» I think that’s the spiritual attitude, in the world of Satyricon, that I really value in science fiction movies. It’s highly visionary, quite disturbing. Authentic and unearthly, at the same time.

Play video games?

No. But I’m intrigued by augmented reality. Well, that’s one of these stupid technological toys and I quite understand why sci-fi writers like it. I also have written quite a lot, on that subject. Google Glass, too, being an example of augmented reality. Today, lots of compound reality applications are offered for mobile devices. I myself am interested in 3D projections – that could be a new and fun cinema-like kind of media.

What I also like with augmented reality is that most of the people involved in that know who I am. They are a lot younger than myself, and they have read my stuff. For them, I’m like a prophet of compound reality. Some sunny day, compound reality will come to be, in all reality. But then, it will be packaged in some kind of a wider context. For 30 years, people have been dealing with enriched reality, and in the following 30 years, remarkable breakthroughs are surely in the coming. If I don’t die too early, I’ll probably see compound reality. And I’m eager to try it – here I haven’t any metaphysical fears.

What are you happy doing?

I’m a futurist and a writer. In that context, I like to watch the time flow. I’m also an artist and that would not mean that I’m supposed to be happy. Usually, you are happy retrospectively. Happiness has to do with big breakthroughs and changes. Like when a child is born: when it happens, it’s so stressful and dangerous, all kinds of trouble. Only later one may say: I was really happy, that was a wonderful day.

I’m happy when I see something happen that links the past and the future, into a continuity. I view history as a river passing by. I enjoy being and participating in time-space.

Bruce Sterling (born 1954)

An American science fiction writer, journalist, visionary, and futurist.

The anthology Mirrorshades, edited by Mr Sterling, defined a new genre of science fiction in the 1980ies: cyberpunk.

Recommended reading:

•    Mirrorshades (editor)

•    The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier (documentary narrative)

•    Skismaatriks + (in Estonian, publishing house Fantaasia, 2008)

•    Islands in the Net

•    Difference Engine (with William Gibson)

•    Blog column Beyond the Beyond, at the technology journal Wired web site Cyberpunk – a sub genre of postmodern science fiction, where anarchist hacker culture is pitted against global power of mega corporation.

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