Bruce Sterling, one of the first cyberpunk authors to receive mainstream attention, is no stranger to radical tech. With titles ranging from The Hacker Crackdown to The Difference Engine to Schismatrix to Distraction, his pertinent social commentary and visionary ideas have remained influential to this day. His critically acclaimed work has won several Hugo Awards. When I saw that he was following us on Twitter, I knew that I had to ask him for an interview.
Rachel Haywire: Throughout your various writings, you have made some predictions that have turned out to be true, both on the Internet and in the flesh. Do you think you are able to foresee the future, or do you have more of a knack for predicting trends based on present experiences? Maybe a combination of both?
Bruce Sterling: It’s simpler than that. There is no absolute “future.” There isn’t any boss in charge with a stopwatch who can keep accurate track of the so-called future and the so-called past.
If I’m already sick of Facebook, and I “predict” to you that “some day you’ll get sick of Facebook,” and later you do get sick of Facebook, then I have told you your “future.” That is it. If you didn’t know about it now, and it hits you later, then that is your “future.” When you finally catch on, that’s when I become the futurist who predicted that you would get sick of Facebook.
It’s not Facebook’s fault. There were plenty of big bandwagons before Facebook, and they got just as sickening in the long run. It’s too late for me to predict to you that “you’ll get sick of MySpace.” Everybody’s already sick of MySpace, so that would be “predicting the past.” I try to avoid that mistake. That is the knack of it.
Wanna see me do that live, right now? The climate’s getting hotter. You don’t believe that trend yet, because you ignore the facts on thermometers for reasons of your own. But the future will get lots, lots hotter. Some day you’ll be amazed at my insight.
The Difference Engine, which you wrote with William Gibson, is often considered to be a quintessential book for the steampunk genre. How do you feel about the whole steampunk thing? Is it blatantly silly, or is there something real going on over there?
Same issue — there aren’t any absolutes. The British always thought steampunk was blatantly silly, but steampunk’s pretty lively now in Brazil, France and Poland. They’ll get tired of steampunk some time, and maybe somebody else will discover it later.
Underground culture gets mainstreamed by the straights. I can show you a pretty good example of a “steampunk” lamp that’s been tamed-down for mass consumers. I’m walking past this thing in the Milan Furniture Fair this month, I’m like, “Oh yeah, mass market steampunk lamp.” CLICK! Have a look.
This process doesn’t bother me. History does that, that’s what history is. Sure, I was there when “steampunk” was on the ground floor back-when, but we stole all that stuff from the Victorian era. Steampunk is like the definition of public-domain appropriation.
What is your life like these days? Have you been working on any new books recently? Projects?
The wife and I helped build an open-source house inside a Fab Lab in Italy. It’s called “Casa Jasmina” after my wife Jasmina, because a Maker Movement house was her idea.
The latest project is to put our favorite Italian electronic art fair, “Share Festival,” inside the house. We like electronic and new-media art, and we think it should be featured in homes. I write in Italy, and I even publish in Italy, but industrial design in Italy is a big deal. So I’m way into that. It’s what’s happening around here.
In Schismatrix, you created a world in which various different social classes and clans reigned, almost like a spacepunk Dune. Would you say that you notice similar tribes and hierarchies in our current society? How much of this book was based on your real life experiences?
Well, I don’t live in outer space. I read plenty of space operas, but they always have these goofy pulp-thiller dynamics, like giant weapons of planetary mass destruction and Star Wars sword-fights. You ever hear of any American Delta Force guy in some lame sword fight with some ISIS guy with a scimitar? It’s total pulp baloney. We Americans kill enemies with the technology that we actually use: wiretaps, handguns, and drones.
In Schismatrix, people act like that. They have a Cold War. They do a lot of bitter semi-covert Cold War struggles, and then their Cold War goes away, because, well, eventually wars do. Then something else happens.
I live in Belgrade. The Americans blew the hell out of Belgrade in the 1990s. I also live in Turin. The Americans blew the hell out of Turin in the 1940s. Nobody says a word about it when I go out for groceries. The tribes and the hierarchies, they get old-fashioned, and they just plain pack it in. Stuff like that doesn’t happen in most space-opera thrillers, but in that particular book, it does.
What do you think of the Darknet? Do you think most people will leave the Internet as we know it today for more decentralized, underground, and private forms of communication?
Nope, the blackhat scene is always riddled with informants. The only thing a Darknet guy likes better than darknetting is ratting somebody else out. All hackers aspire to an upgrade to spook. Hackers have no shut-your-mouth “omerta,” so whenever they get arrested they’ll brag to the authorities for 72 hours straight. They’ll even draw helpful little flowcharts for the cops.
Do you use Bitcoin? Do you think there a future in alternative currency?
Bitcoin is for suckers. Anybody who gets serious and commits to Bitcoin gets ripped off to the last degree, MtGox style. People have been trying to use alternative currencies ever since there were any currencies, so of course alternative currency has some future. The visionaries won’t give it up any more than their ancestors gave up wampum and Green Stamps.
There might be some kind of mainstream future for the blockchain, but it eats up so much computational electricity that it might not ever pay to use it.
Normal “fiat” currencies don’t last forever either. In Belgrade they’ve had, like, ten or twelve in the last hundred years.
What was your reaction to the Wikileaks revelations via Julian Assange?
Assange is a political extremist, but when the straights started freaking out about him, he took on martyr status really fast and deployed it effectively. You don’t have to be good-hearted to be an effective politician. Assange is an operator. The planet’s jails are full of would-be Assange’s and he’s not in one. So I give him credit.
However, I give more credit to Birgitta Jonsdottir. She’s much less alienatingly weird and hostile than Assange, and can actually win elections as a public politician. I would loan Birgitta my house keys, and she can crash on my couch any day, but I wouldn’t send Assange out of the Ecuadorian Embassy for a pack of cigarettes. He’s a crank.
As for the documents actually revealed in Wikileaks, they’re embarrassing, but not all that surprising. All diplomats talk and act like that. Ambassadors lie, scheme and double-deal because that’s what they’re paid for. They look squeaky-clean compared to the likes of JTRIG and TAO in the Snowden documents.
How do you feel about the government using drones for military purposes? Is there a drone war coming up? What do you think about drones in general?
There are already drone wars. Drones are technically cute, but militarily drones suck as instruments of state power. There are killer drones all over the place now, but nobody under a drone does what the drone owners want them to do. Drones don’t create any effective world order, because spy gizmos in the sky don’t enforce military domination and a monopoly of armed force. Drones are basically land mines with wings.
Is there a certain way that define politically? Do you think that the censorship of free speech and political correctness has gone too far on the Left?
There’s always somebody in any political movement who goes too far. The Left and the Right will never enforce their idea of propriety on their opponents. They can troll and embarrass each other by highlighting each other’s lunatics, but that nitpicking doesn’t win public policy debates.
With that said, I’ve lived in former Comintern countries, so I know what militant leftist political correctness actually does in reality. It’s got nothing to do with SJW’s sobbing over transgender rights and everything to do with having your door kicked in with KGB jackboots at four in the morning.
The American Left is way into “de-platforming” now, but the real deal is when the Leninist Red Terror shows up in White Czarville and drops eighty guys at once off some big wooden platform with hemp nooses around their necks. So all the keyboard-tapping, penny-ante troll stuff — I’ve been to Srebrenica, okay? Eight thousand men and boys liquidated by machine guns by a militia in a derelict chemical plant. They’re in graves.
Not because they were Communists — because they’d all BEEN Communists. They’d been really correct and multiethnic and meek for forty years, and then Mr Correctness, Marshal Tito, dropped dead. So Mr Personality Cult didn’t correct them anymore, and they were so used to toeing the boss’s ideological line that they didn’t know how to live together.
The Left is always gonna be “correct,” it’s who they are, were, and will be, but when the Right starts getting into the very same pitch: “I’m Conservative, You’re a RINO,” and “Gasp: you used that fatal a-word ‘Amnesty,'” it shows that the vice is contagious.
I’m a ’70s punk. I’m into samizdat, free information, and knowing things you’re not supposed to know. I loathe censorship. I like the lunatics right out in the open where I can keep an eye on ’em.
Is there anything else that you would like to say to the readers of Trigger Warning?
Well, Trigger Warning, I pay attention to you, but I’m not your pal. I do know where you’re coming from. I know plenty about the pals in other countries that you don’t yet know you have.