Bruce Sterling at SXSW 2013


State of the World 2013: read the conversation

Bruce Sterling and I (with substantial contributions from others) conversed online for two weeks about the state of the world, as we do every year; that talk ended yesterday, but is archive for your perusal:

State of the World 2013

Here’s my concluding post, in response to a post by Gail Williams on war as metaphor and war as hard reality:

Gail, your post makes me think about the perception of (or,
trendier, optics for) war post WWII, sanitized by the many postwar
films and accounts. Those who knew better kept quiet. Meanwhile those
of us who grew up in the 50s were deluded; we played war games, it was
fun. Vietnam taught us better, or I should say, taught us bitter.
Bitter disillusionment.

Drone war reduces risk but, arguably, increases the probability of
collateral damage. In fact, in war all damage could be characterized as
collateral damage, as powerful elders, safely away from the front,
send the young and innocent, true believers, into battle.

Hopefully by now many more of us, a majority, understand that war is a
nightmare to be avoided. And the war metaphor doesn’t serve us all
that well.

We won’t end rape by declaring war on it. We’ll end rape through
education, cultivation of sensitivity and empathy, rethinking the
meaning of gender difference.

We won’t end poverty by declaring war on it, or by throwing money at
it. We’ll end poverty by caring about it.

We won’t end drug problems by declaring war on drugs. We’ll end drug
problems by understanding why and how drugs become a problem, by
treating addiction as a very human issue, maybe a disease, not a crime.


Are computers intelligent?

Bruce Sterling with Alan Turing bot at the Turing Centenary Symposium

At Reality Augmented Blog, I recently posted a Storify of my live tweets from Bruce Sterling’s talk at the Turing Centenary Symposium at the University of Texas. Bruce talked about Turing’s investigation into “whether or not it is possible for machinery to show intelligent behaviour” and the Turing test, which is supposed to determine how well a computer at least seems to be intelligent by human standards. To consider this question, you might think you’d have to define thinking (cognition, consciousness, etc.), but instead of taking on that difficult task, Turing changes the question from “Do machines think?” to “Can machines do what we (as thinking entities) can do?” That’s really a different question, less metaphysical and more about comparing manifestations of thinking than comparing processes of thinking.

Bruce noted in his talk an aspect of the Turing test that doesn’t get much attention: it was originally about gender. In his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Turing described the game as “played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman.” He goes on to say

We now ask the question, “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, “Can machines think?”

So as Bruce notes, the actual Turing test is for a machine with a woman’s sensibility. The gist of his talk reminded me of conversations I’ve had with transgendered Sandy Stone, who spent years studying identity hacking online and off. I brought up the question of a man deciding to appear online as a woman, and how real that transformation can be. If you’re a man and decide to be a woman (or vice versa), you can’t quite make the authentic switch, because gender entails years of cultural and behavioral conditioning. If you’ve been contextualized as a male, you don’t become female by changing your name, your voice, your dress, even your body.

In the context of the conversations with Sandy, the subtext always seemed to be about liberation from the trappings of gender – you don’t have to be “a man” or “a woman,” you can just be you. But this has relevance, not just in terms of gender switching, but with any attempt at transformation. And it has implications for the discussion of machine intelligence. Machines can’t “become human” or be like humans, because they have no experience as humans, and you can’t program the embodied human experience.

In the context of the conversations with Sandy, the subtext always seemed to be about liberation from the trappings of gender – you don’t have to be “a man” or “a woman,” you can just be you. But this has relevance, not just in terms of gender switching, but with any attempt at transformation. And it has implications for the discussion of machine intelligence. Machines can’t “become human” or be like humans, because they have no experience as humans, and you can’t program the embodied human experience. You also can’t program “consciousness” – puny humans aren’t even clear what consciousness is, and we know that things like “consciousness” and “awareness” and “thinking” can be quite subjective and hard to quantify. So when we talk about “artificial intelligence” or “machine intelligence,” that word “intelligence” can be misleading. It’s not about making a machine like a human, it’s about seeing how well a machine can simulate the human. The Turing test is really about how clever we are at programming a bot that does heuristics well and can “learn” to hold its own in a human conversation. It’s interesting to bring gender into it – to simulate the human, a bot would be one or the other.

Scene from Metropolis: Rotwang and his robot in female form Rotwang and his lost-love simulation[/caption]Bruce: “Why not ask ‘can a computational system be a woman?'” This made me think of Rotwang’s remaking of Hel in Metropolis, and how she’s repurposed as a simulation of Maria… a robot designed to simulate the female form. Is she a mechano-electronic woman? Or just a bag o’ bytes? More compelling, I think, is the concept of the cyborg, originally described as a biological entity that’s manufactured and has some machine components. More recently, we’ve come to think of cyborgs as “ordinary” humans augmented by digital or other technology – e.g. anyone with a smart phone or a computer could be considered a cyborg. My colleague Amber Case writes about “cyborg anthropology,” acknowledging that synergies within human-machine interaction are transformative, and require new methods and fields in the study of humanity. I think cyborgization is more interesting and more real than the Kurzweil sense of “artificial intelligence” (machines “smarter” than humans that become self-aware – Hal 9000 is a mythical beast; computers may be capable of processes that seem intelligent, but back to Bruce’s point, computers are not anything like humans.)

Turing himself said “the idea behind digital computers may be explained by saying that these machines are intended to carry out any operations which could be done by a human computer.” On the other hand, Gurdjieff said “man such as we know him, is a machine.” A very complicated machine, he noted elsewhere.

My point in all this is that humans are not machines and machines won’t become human. We’re confused on that point, likely because of a larger metaphysical confusion, a confusion about who and what we are, our place in the universe, and the nature of the various human analogs, similar but different processes, that we see in the egosystem. (That’s not a misspelling…)

Bruce Sterling: “I fear posterity will condemn us for being too clever, for failing to speak about the obvious in an immediate lucid way. We need a new aesthetic with a strong metaphysics. How we get there, I don’t know.”


Bruce Sterling at SXSW Interactive 2012

After introducing Bruce I dove into Twitter and live tweeted his talk. People told me afterward that they thought it was too cheerful – see what you think from these short bursts (I was typing faster than I could think.) Comments encouraged.


SXSW 3/13/2012

I’ve been running around SXSW having meetings, taking notes, taking photos. Might take some time to summarize. Haven’t had time to sit still, attend to sessions, blog and tweet, and that seems to be true of various Old Hands who are here to meet specific conversations, have particular conversations, slicing the conference according to need and aspiration. For instance, I met with the brilliant and focused Amber Case to discuss cyborganics more generally and our new blog, Reality Augmented in particular. More about that in a later post.

Today, the last day of Interactive, I caught only a couple of sessions, one on Buddhism and the Internet, the other Jennifer Pahlka’s inspiring keynote about the potential for better government through digital technology. Shortly I’m introducing Bruce Sterling for his closing talk, which I’ll no doubt be tweeting live.

I used to do some live blogging and posting at these events, which is easier to do if you’re not local (which makes you a host, after all). I’m thinking it’s better to digest and sort things out before writing.

Also I’ll be holding forth about SXSW on the WELL starting March 15.


Bruce Sterling talk at ATX Hackerspace

I shot this video of Bruce at an EFF-Austin-sponsored event February 25 at ATX Hackespace. We were rallying the troops. “You will not have the Internet that you had 20 years ago, that’s not possible. But you don’t have to roll over at the site of bluster from the Internet’s increasingly desperate enemies…”


State of the World 2012

Bruce Sterling and I are holding forth in our annual State of the World conversation on the WELL. Here’s the short url for access: If you have questions or comments for us, and you’re not a member of the WELL, just send them to inkwell at

It’s a pretty juicy year for this sort of thing; we’ll have some apocalyptic fun surveying the wreckage. (If you happen to be Lester Brown, and have practicing global prognostication much longer than we have, we especially welcome your comments.)


Gothic High Tech

New short story collection from Bruce Sterling.

“He’s the legendary Cyberpunk Guru. He roams our postmodern planet, from the polychrome tinsel of Los Angeles to the chicken-fried cyberculture of Austin… From the heretical Communist slums of gritty Belgrade to the Gothic industrial castles of artsy Torino… always whipping that slider-bar between the unthinkable and the unimaginable.

“He’s a Californian design visionary. He’s an European electronic-art curator. He’s a Swiss professor of media philosophy. He’s a Prophet of Augmented Reality, even. He’s an author, journalist, editor, critic, theorist, futurist, and blogger. Obviously he’s pretty much anything that he can get his hands on.

“And he never stops typing. This sixth collection of his fantastic stories is a comic arsenal of dark euphoria. It’s even weirder, harsher and more twisted than the scary decade that inspired it. Boy, that’s saying something.”


Bruce Sterling: Augmented Reality and “Dead Drops”

Bruce Sterling’s been “Visionary in Residence” again this summer at the Pasadena Art Center, where he’s been in cyborg mode, focusing on augmented reality, or reality augmented and mediated by computer-generated sensory input. Bruce has developed an application that runs on the Layar platform, called Dead Drops, inspired by the work of German media artist Aram Bartholl, which per Sterling is “all about hidden data revealed in real-world, three-dimensional spaces.” A Dead Drop is

an anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space. USB flash drives are embedded into walls, buildings and curbs accessable to anybody in public space. Everyone is invited to drop or find files on a dead drop. Plug your laptop to a wall, house or pole to share your favorite files and data. Each dead drop is installed empty except a readme.txt file explaining the project.

It’s sorta like geocaching, where the cache is digital, and anybody who finds the drop can add to it. The application Bruce has developed is for finding and mapping the drops.


A note about “network neutrality”

This is something I posted in the “state of the world” conversation with Bruce Sterling on the WELL…

I give talks on the history and future of media, and on the history, evolution, and history of the Internet. I gave the talk this week to a small group gathered for lunch in a coworking space here in Austin, and after hearing the talk a technologist I know, Gray Abbott, suggested that I say more about the coming balkanization of the network as the most likely scenario. The Internet is a network of networks that depends on cooperative peering agreements – I carry your traffic and you carry mine. The high speed Internet is increasingly dependent on the networks of big providers, the telcos or cable companies like AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, Time Warner, and Comcast. They all see the substantial value supported by their networks and want to extract more of it for themselves. They talk about the high cost of bandwidth as a rationale for charging more for services – or metering services – but I think the real issue is value. When you see Google and Facebook and Netflix making bundles of money using your pipes, you want a cut. And if you’ve also tried to get into the business of providing content, it’s bothersome to see your network carrying other competing content services, including guerilla media distribution via BitTorrent.

However higher costs could become a barrier. The value of the Internet is a network effect – it’s more valuable as more people use it to do more things; cost as a barrier to entry could reduce participation and diminish the Internet’s value. Killing the golden goose, so to speak. Low cost barriers also stimulate innovation. If I want to create a television series, aside from production costs, I also have to find a broadcast or cable network that will carry it – I have to get permission, in effect, because broadcast and cable channels are relatively scarce and relatively expensive to get into. Larry Lessig pointed out, in his review of The Social Network, the real story of Mark Zuckerberg – that he could build Facebook from nothing without asking anybody’s permission.

“Network neutrality” is about limiting restrictions on use and access,not necessarily about controlling cost, though it might mitigate against “toll roads” on the information superhighway. According to the Wikipedia article on net neutrality, “if a given user pays for a certain level of Internet access, and another user pays for the same level of access, then the two users should be able to connect to each other at the subscribed level of access.” That doesn’t really suggest a low cost of entry, and even with “neutral” networks (or, as we prefer to say these days, an Open Internet), the overall cost of access could increase, or there could be metering that would contain some sorts of activities, like video transmissions. Right now I have unmetered or flat rate access, so I could watch all the Netflix and Hulu I want without additional cost.

Time Warner or AT&T U-verse customers are dropping the cable television services because they can download all the programs they want via the Internet service from the same company. I can imagine companies looking at stats – more and more customers dropping the service, more and more bandwidth dedicated to streaming and BitTorrent. It’s no wonder these companies are feeling cranky, and it’s no wonder they’re talking about finding ways to charge more money. But this is what their customers want.

This isn’t really about the Internet as an information service or a platform for sharing and collaboration. This is about the Internet as a channel for media, an alternative to cable television. One fear many of us have had is that big network companies will push that interpretation. “It’s time for the Internet to grow up, we want to make a real network with real quality of service, we want to make it more like our cable networks.” Which are more tightly controlled, of course, and carry only the content the providers agree to carry.


“American soft power is vanishing”

Bruce Sterling and I are well into our annual State of the World conversation over on the WELL. Bruce, who’s traveled the world all his life and has been in unique situations (like his travels through Russia and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain), truly thinks globally, whereas I’m virtually global (via the Internet) though not as well-traveled. I tend to write from a U.S. perspective, which means less these days… sez Bruce,

Back in the 90s, when I was travelling in Europe, I used to get a lot of eager queries about the USA. What’s new over there, what are you doing with your lives and your riches and your technology, why is your government like that? This was considered a matter of urgency, and most Europeans I met, who were naturally from techie, artsy and literary circles, held views of America that were surprisingly like contemporary paranoid Tea Party views. They had interestingly wacky private theologies about the Pentagon, the CIA, Wall Street, the malignant military-industrial complex and so forth… Not that they ever bothered to find out much about the factual operation of these bodies. Stilll, they were sure that the USA really mattered.

Nowadays, the Europeans are just not all that concerned about Yankees. They don’t ask; they’re incurious about America, they are blase’. Being an American in Europe now is rather like being a Canadian, and it’s trending toward being a Brazilian.

American soft power is vanishing. Foreigners are much less interested in American television, movies, pop music… America once had a tremendous hammerlock on those expensive channels of distribution, but those old analog megaphones don’t matter half as much in today’s network society.

The USA has become a big banana republic; in other words, it’s come to behave like other countries quite normally behave. The upside is that we don’t get blamed for what happens; the downside is, nothing much happens. Decay and denial. Gothic High Tech.


Sterling on Assange

Bruce Sterling’s analysis of Wikileaks is long, engaging, and depressing.

The cables that Assange leaked have, to date, generally revealed rather eloquent, linguistically gifted American functionaries with a keen sensitivity to the feelings of aliens. So it’s no wonder they were of dwindling relevance and their political masters paid no attention to their counsels. You don’t have to be a citizen of this wracked and threadbare superpower — (you might, for instance, be from New Zealand) — in order to sense the pervasive melancholy of an empire in decline. There’s a House of Usher feeling there. Too many prematurely buried bodies…. This knotty situation is not gonna “blow over,” because it’s been building since 1993 and maybe even 1947. “Transparency” and “discretion” are virtues, but they are virtues that clash. The international order and the global Internet are not best pals. They never were, and now that’s obvious.

Read the whole piece and ponder how we’ve been falling into decline and denial simultaneously so many years. Wikileaks is like a stiff wind against a house of cards. Let’s hope for a better deal next shuffle.


This is a busy week

I’ve been interacting with this year’s SXSW schedule, noticing how much programming there is, and how many speakers I don’t know, which is actually pretty great. In the world of social media, we’ve learned how many more great voices there are in the world than we can ever hope to track, so many more of them given the opportunity to reach some kind of following or audience as the barriers to publishing fall away. So much of my information life lately has been exploring to find the various pockets of compelling intelligence within the crowd. SXSW Interactive facilitates that by creating a way to crowdsource the schedule – actual attendees vote on panel suggestions. There’s down sides, if course – people game the system, and you get panels and presentations on compelling subjects by presenters that are inexperienced, or were smarter in their proposal than in their delivery. But overall it’s a great thing, and of course there’s also quite a bit happening on the periphery of the event.

Where am I speaking?

Tuesday night, actually not part of SXSW but a good lead-in, EFF-Austin and Plutopia Productions are sponsoring an event – a panel on the twentieth anniversary of the Secret Service raid at Steve Jackson Games, part of the “hacker crackdown.” I’ll be moderating a panel featuring Steve, Bruce Sterling, and attorney Pete Kennedy (who argued the case). The event, at Independence Brewing, is sold out, but we’ll hopefully be streaming, or at least have video online after the fact.

The day before SXSW starts, March 11, I’ll be giving a talk at “Sharing, Exchanging, Social Health,” an event that takes advantage of the presence in town of many participatory medicine/social health advocates, and gives them a place to hang out. It’s an unconference seeded with a few programmed talks.

With my Plutopia Productions colleagues, I’ll be introducing Plutopia 2010 on Monday the 15th. Gates open at 7pm at the Mexican American Cultural Center. Plutopia is a defining SXSW Interactive event, this year focusing on “The Science of Music,” and featuring Bruce Sterling, DJ Spooky, DJ Strangevibe, Black Pig Liberation Front, Xiao He. The schedule is here. We’ll also have the Edible Austin Food Fest featuring local food and distillers.

Tuesday, David Armistead has asked me to join his core conversation at SXSW Interactive, “Can Social Media Save Business So Business Can Save the Planet?” Here’s a description:

In the era of GM-like businesses, now just past, opaque layers of hierarchy were used to control the flow of information to create an effective coordination of action. But new communications and information technology, including the new social media, now drop the costs of coordination so low business has to adopt them to stay competitive. Except – these technologies drastically flatten the organization and flood everything with radical new transparency, and many firms resist these kinds of changes.

John Motloch from Ball State University will also join us. Should be a lively and worldchanging discussion.

Finally, at the end of the day Tuesday, I’m introducing Bruce Sterling’s talk. I don’t think either one of us has any idea what we’re going to say at this point, but Bruce’s talk is always a highlight of the event.


State of the World

Time for the 11th annual Bruce Sterling/Jon Lebkowsky State of the World conversation on the WELL. This year we have a lot to talk about, the world’s off-center and wobbly. We’re off to a good start…

Basically we’ve got an emergent, market-driven global financial system that was all about a faith-based market fundamentalism. It was deprived of oversight for three good reasons (a) it rapidly brought prosperity to billions (b) under globalization, money is inherently global while governance is inherently local (c) complete regulatory capture of the system — nobody but bankers understands how to bank. There’s no caste of regulators left anywhere who have the clout or even the knowledge to do anything usefully stabilizing. No, not even if you give them guns, lawyers, money and back issues of DAS KAPITAL.

Too big to fail. So, what can you do? Cross your fingers, basically. Make some reassuring noises. Cheerlead instead of reforming the infrastructure. And pawn what’s left of the credibility of government.

Twenty years ago, it seemed like this situation might lead to shareholder power, a kind of pension-fund ownership society. It kind of did, for a while. But over a longer term, the poor engineering told on the rickety, fungus-like structure of finance. The wealth and the executive capacity drifted into the hands of moguls. Not governments, big institutions, megacorporations, multinationals, but moguls, weird eccentrics, like Russian moguls. Madoff figures, Enron. Nobody was left to look. Even if they did look, all they could possibly see in Madoff and Enron was a genius, highly charitable head of the NASDAQ and the world’s most nimble and innovative energy company. It’s like looking at your SUV and seeing drowning polar bears. Just a minority viewpoint.