Sterling and Lebkowsky on why the world is in a state of WTF

As is tradition, Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky have kickstarted the new year by discussing the current state of the world. This year's edition is as insightful and acerbic as ever, touching upon such topics as the NSA, the emergence of "android demigod" Google, and why it's so hard to write scifi these days.

Scifi author Bruce Sterling and social commentator Jon Lebkowsky's State of the World 2014 appears at The Well, and it's the 15th time they've done this. The email-threaded conversation is currently underway and should last a few weeks. I strongly suggest that you read the whole thing, but I've clipped a few highlights:

Lebkowsky on the changing marketplace:

Bruce made a related point last year, as he came up with the concept of "stacks":

"In 2012 it made less and less sense to talk about 'the Internet,' 'the PC business,' 'telephones,' 'Silicon Valley,' or 'the media,' and much more sense to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. These big five American vertically organized silos are re-making the world in their image. "

This is pretty well-established theology at this point, but I think we're still in a transition with attendant confusion. These stacks and related businesses are all about media and marketing, and they require massive cycles of content, not so much as product but as fuel for the engines of commerce. So the pipes are full of information, but it's less reliable than ever - we're missing the intermediary vetting within the cycle, everybody's running just to stay in the race. And where media is amplified by a proliferation of content - channels and sources - there's more room for media manipulation, political propaganda and commercial marketing messages are embedded, often indistinguishably, in the signal and the noise.

Given all this, and implications that will emerge as we talk over the next couple of weeks, I'd say the current state of the world is *W*T*F*.

Sterling on the year that was:

It'll be hard, this year, not to dwell obsessively on the capering specters of the NSA, Snowden, Wikileaks, Bitcoin… 2013 turned out to be the year when the Digital Revolution trended Stalinist. Old-school Digital Bolsheviks scattered hapless in every direction, as Big Data Killer Bot Commissars scoured the darkening landscape, and Trotsky went to ground in Ecuador.

An extraordinary atmosphere of sullen, baffled evil, as the year opens. I don't know what to compare 2014 to — except for many other glum post-revolutionary situations, when the zealots succeeded in toppling the status quo, then failed to install a just and decent form of civil order. The world in 2014 is like a globalized Twitter Egypt.

What's become of yesterday's august, sturdy, pre-digital institutions? For instance: why does the United States even have a Congress, in 2014? Is it habit? The Congress doesn't do anything now. Everybody despises them. They despise themselves even more than the public does.

Sterling on Google:

Google was going wild in early 2013, they were like android demigods. Now Google is, all of a sudden, presto, Russia. Google is a surveillance secret-police empire with spy binoculars on their faces. Sergey Brin's pet Moonshots are just a lame prestige show.

It's sad, really. Larry and Sergei used to be the Not-Evil Guys, they empowered the users and won their instinctive trust. Now, if Snowden entered the boardroom of Google, Larry and Sergei would shriek in falsetto like the Wicked Witches of the West and melt into two puddles of black wax.

That doesn't make Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Amazon any better than Google — Facebook in particular, oh my God — but it's the first time that these new titans of American industry have really looked genuinely ugly. Just, nasty. Because they're rich and powerful, but they're also narcs. They're creeps and snoops. They're police informants.

Sterling on writing scifi:

This year, I happen to be the fiction editor for the 2014 all-science-fiction issue of MIT's "Technology Review."

I've already lined up a cluster of my favorite fellow-travellers for the effort, and I'm trying to encourage them to write some science fiction stories that actually *review technology.*

Just, like, a literary confrontation with the emergent techno facts-on-the-ground — and that's getting harder to do, I think. It's not because technology is moving faster, or that we're approaching a Singularity or anything. Mind you, that's an excellent sci-fi idea, "Singularity," it was great of Vernor Vinge to come up with that concept, everybody knows what it is now, the Singularity, even long-haired duck hunters in backwoods Louisiana know what a Singularity is. It's cool and rare when science-fictional thinking becomes genuinely popular.

But that's not why it's harder to write science fiction about technology. Technology's not moving all that fast in 2014; tech is simply drifting toward the money, really. It's hard to write fiction about technology because the structure of language is mutating. Also, the demographics for printed fiction have collapsed. So, who is science fiction talking to? Why aren't those readers doing something besides reading science fiction?

Much more here.

Image: Akira.