SXSW 2005 Panel: Bruce Sterling Keynote

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

[This is a (mostly complete) transcript of the keynote with Bruce Sterling and Alex Steffen. Official details about the panel here.]

Bruce Sterling: Here we are, another year under the bridge. I’m teaching design this year on the west coast. And the question foremost on everyone’s mind is, how can he invite all of the audience to his party when he doesn’t even live in Austin. We’re having the party at the American Legion Hall on Lake Austin Boulevard. [And more information about this…]

Alex Steffen: There are increasing numbers of creative pepople who want to tackle the big problems we face as a planet and we need a name for this movement. Cybergreens? World changers? But there’s a sense that solutions are starting to come at a very rapid pace, the sense of a race between products and solutions. Is the world getting better fast enough.

Bruce Sterling: Some problems I consider of interest. Fourteen chronic problems. Habitat destruction [and variations]. Increased consumption. [Etc.] Humanity approaching using the world’s entire photosynthetic capacity. All classic future issues on a slow timeline. Not to be solved in two years in the House of Representatives. I expect to see these problems diminish in my lifetime I be defeated in the 2060s. And the most interesting people in our society are those who will be able and willing to tackle these. The people are not conventional enviros or digital people. We’re seeing an electronic con[what?] of different groups of people, trading information across previous institutional boundaries and punt info into the world of mass-consumption. It’s not enough to do things in a virtually green way, these are things that will have to be done as a matter of status quo. Protocrats. A new society ahead of the curve in developing new technologies and pushing them into mass development. Protocracy suits my own proclivities. Grand topic: The actual is the new virtual. I’ve brought some things from California. [He has a box of stuff. Something printed from a 3-D printer, a dino bone or something. And another one made out of ABS plastic. And another, larger one. And others made of starch.] “Fabjects.” [More and more.] What we’re seeing here is the birth of the object processor. [Dinosaur head.] It’s difficult to see the detailing here. There’s an outfit called SecondLife where you can design landscapes and objects. And you could make them — print them out with frabricators.

Alex Steffen: Let me jump in with why that’s important. One essential problem is that we use way too much crap. Ecological footprint — how much planet it takes to lead your lifestyle. Essentially we have 1.9 hectares per person. We’re using 2.4 planetwide. Americans are using 7. So all of the problems listed earlier are related to that fact. So you need some way to redefine the material basis of society. But we’re not the only ones who use stuff. 1/2 the planet is under 30. 1/3 under 15. and no one’s going to be happy with a well and a goat if they’ve seen people on Baywatch with a Ferarri. And if everyone lives like wealthy Americans, we’d be screwed really quickly. So can we figure out a way to be sustainably prosperous. And I think we can. Now almost every object we used gets theoretically fed through a computer. Chairs. Clothes. Cameras. Gives us incredble leverage to redesign things. But can we make them better. What if one of these fabjects was a water pump that could give someone access to clean water?

Bruce Sterling: Fabs are a breakthrough innovation. We’ve got to disintermediate the method by which we’ve made practically evrything. And I think it’s doable. And it’s actually happening. Like this. A guy scanned his hand and printed it out as a fabject. And I’ve seen human skulls made out of this by surgeons. “Scan his head and print out his skull.”

Alex Steffen: And the twin to this is that stuff itself is getting smarter. One of the most interesting things is that you can track and share stuff like cars — car sharing. Thousands of people already share cars. And tool labs. Etc. How many things could you actually share so you don’t need to own a washing machine? That’s what we’re able to do right now.

Bruce Sterling: We’re heading for 11 billion people and they’ll mostly be living in cities. That 50% more people living in areas that don’t exist yet. And stuff can’t be built in the old way. It just won’t work. LA is a megacity. They’ve got traffic and smog problems. And housing costs. Almost makes the city unlivable in many ways.

Alex Steffen: Those are relatively nice problems compared to cholera. I heard a stat that we’re building a city the size of Seattle every 7.5 days. And we need to figure out ways to provide the services and structures for people to live in these mega cities. Like Mexico City. Lagos, Nigeria has 14,000,000. Cities are exploding in China. How we meet that challenge is one of the fundamental questions. Can you build cities better than the Romans? We’re still using some tech that’s 4,000 years old. How do you provide food? Some people say we’re in a food bubble. these are big, big meaty problems.

Bruce Sterling: And they’ve got solutions. Smog could go in pretty short order. There are hydroelectrics. The traffic problem is do to the stupidity of highways and not expect people behind the wheel to do all of the navigation for an area that large. And housing costs and critical. Green megacities won’t work unless we can break off our traditional notions of what structures are and how they’re maintained. Right now the center of LA and Austin are two of the most booming areas of the cities while the suburbs are turning into ghettoes. It’s a slow wave that needs to be analysed better and understood better. It needs a new level of sophistication in which the actual is the new virtual. Problems are solveable. Leapfrogging and treefrogging.

Alex Steffen: The idea behind leapfrogging. Under certain conditions some pople can skip a step of development. Not much phone grid in most fo the developing world, for example. So. They could just ahead and just use cellphones and never install a physical network. Extrapolate from that model. No power grid? Why build the 19th century power grid? Build more distributed power. Solar power. Smart grids. So leapfrogging can be used in many areas. And many of the most interesting innovations are coming from the developing world.

Bruce Sterling: You can just see leapfrogging. Companies know. That’s why they lobby the government against some of these more efficient ways of distributing internet access, for example. So WiMax goes to Belize and wires it up. But it doesn’t leave much for people in the advanced countries to do. Treefrogging. That’s altering how you live your own life to alter consumption patterns. has some interesting information. I visit it often. What do you sit on? Build your house out of? Eat? [Some rambling about LOHAS — lifestyles of health and s—? magazines.]

Alex Steffen: I’d recommend,

Bruce Sterling: And they’ll become affordable in short order. You can eat at Whole Foods and buy a hybrid electric car.

Alex Steffen: Not all of us have money to give to good causes, but we do have attention. Attention philanthropy. There’s an ability that’s emerging right now of people making recommendations and promoting.

Bruce Sterling: I reviewed a solar backpack for This guy made some backpacks with solar panels to charge cellphones. That sort of this. Ecoture. If you wear it people will come and talk to you. It’ snot that difficult to power a cellphone. He made a couple of dozen and gave them to blogger friends. Now he’s picked up by Hammacher-Schlemmer. It’s a new method of introducing technological innovation. and learn to take “yes” for an answer. Makes money? Manufacturing it. It’s not that difficult to meet consumer demand. It’s not that hard now to move this stuff into production really fast. And there are methods of doing this. Switch topics. Now. Neo-biology and biomemetics.

Alex Steffen: Biomimicry. One can create better design solutions by mimicing nature. And there’s a lot of really cool stuff out there. And it’s part of a larger shift that we’re seeing towards a neo-bio industry. Computers based on living organism. Growing your next laptop. One thing that’s fascinating about that is because a problem is that we make stuff wasteful and very toxic. We all wear it. We’re covered by it. Bill McDunnogh has great rants about this. Can you design a non-toxic environment? And more and more designers are saying, “You might be able to.”

Bruce Sterling: I read “Cradle to Cradle.” What’s you most intimate connection to an object. You buy it. It wears out. So we can talk about my rotting Converse shoes. These shoes have a tough sole built into them, here. The bottom has been abraded by use. That’s what it’s for. What happened to the missing part of the shoe? Knocking into microscopic particles. A gas. Where’d that go? I inhaled it, basically. It’s not like I took off my Converse and smoked it, but I did on a slower skill. Turned into vapor finer than cigarette ash and surrounded my body. What happened to all the microscopic particles around me? Well, a lot of them have been integrated into my body. The sinister part is that some stuff is bioaccumulative. I’m basically a little ocena under my skin. Sea water. Stuff floats around. And stuf fparticles are bioaccumulative. The body thinks it can make stuff out of it. So a fish will bioaccumulate mercury. Then I eat the fish and I bioaccumulate it. And that’s the most intimate relationship we have.

Alex Steffen: The breast-milk study. Affluent people have their breastmilk tested and it contains things like lead and jetfuel.

Bruce Sterling: Jetfuel? The body grabs jetfuel in trace amounts. And that doesn’t go away. It’s become a permananent part of your infrastructure. So we need to understand the memetic natures of our bodies and we shouldn’t make things out of stuff that our body will accumulate. We’re turning our bodies into dumps. Design is design for the dumb. [Eh?] First, there are always unintended aspects of it. Externalities.

Alex Steffen: […] Can we design a world in which the delivery of soda to my body doesn’t get into our breastmilk and our bodies. [The container.]

Bruce Sterling: You can have your body scanned to see what part is industrial artifacts. And we all carry some because we have to breathe. And if you had a monitor, you could see that you had a bunch of jetfuel in you. You’d talk to neighbors. Blog. And you’d kind of narrow in on the cause of the pollution. And the jetfuel in our bodies was created just now — it’s from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Because the dumps will get larger and larger until you can fold them back into the production cycle. […] So you make stuff out of stuff that life can use. Or. You build monuments that will last for hundreds of years, never decay. The difficulty with that is that you don’t get to change your mind afterwards. Third way. Never thought of before, but I’ve been writing about it. Label everything and digitally track it. Google the barcode. Scan it. Track its lifetime. Follow it through the production stream from retailer to owner. When it breaks, it calls something to pull it appart. Designed for disassembly. We have an internet of web pages but we don’t have an internet of things. The closest thing we have is Amazon. Everything has a haze of data around it. And I think this is the future for many manufactured objects. They don’t even exist before I pay for it. Like with a Dell computer. They don’t make it until you order it. And if they could watch the thing and take back the parts when you were done. You wouldn’t lose anything, but it’d be in a nice, closed loop. It’d be a complete remake of the complete political-economic-social system. And that sort of thing happens all the time. The internet of things. First we’ll see it in places like WalMart and the Pentagon and eventually it’ll just be something you do. Most people in this room when old will be surrounded by trackable object. If you loose your car keys, you’ll just google them. When your 75. And it will seem simpler like Google seems simpler. I google my own stuff — stuff that’s on my own hard disk! And in an internet of things, those things exist throughout the physicality. That’s how you look for every thing.

Alex Steffen: Huge leaps are going to happen no matter what you do. Something unsustainable cannot go on. So do we choose a future or do we get the default future? I tihnk we can beat som eof these problems and some things that we consider optimistic our kids will take for granted. We need to design something that’s better than what we’ve got. More attractive. Lots of creative people here with lots of good visions about making things better.

Bruce Sterling: Our society needs a victory condition. It’s in a completely reactive mode. But we are going to be transformed. I’m talking 30-60 year time-span. Environmental problems are slow and chronic. But we need to learn how to play and win. And almost all of our problems are infrastructural. We have the feul problems because we’re committed by fossil feuls. So we have to create a society that no longer relies on that resource. So we’ve got to invent our way around it. And that sounds radical. But what if you were to bring in someone from 30 years ago and have them ask everyone here what they do — they’d have no idea. The words didn’t even exist then. And now they’re huge industries. Computer gaming is bigger than Hollywood now! We really need society to have its creative people get out of bed with a fire to change. Two possibilities: A world that’s unimaginable and a world that’s unthinkable. In practice, we’ll be somewhere between the two. Our victory condition: [says it really fast — and applause].

[Note: I might alter this transcript in the coming days to remove typos and clarify the content. I post it now just to make it available as soon as possible.]

Bruce in Whole Foods

Posted Sat, March 19, 2005, 6:08pm EST by Paul Terry Walhus

Time flew by so fast this year that sxsw just buzzed by me, I only had time to quick scan the trade show for t shirts, a few complimentary beers and a serenade by SkunkWeed, the San Antonio Band.

I was rearranging bottles of Trek on the shelves when Bruce Sterling walking by and said he was allergic to b vitamins or something so I didn't lay a sample on him.

And it's amazing that Bruce Sterling doesn't live in Austin anymore.

forgot to mention . . .

Posted Sat, March 19, 2005, 6:10pm EST by Paul Terry Walhus

. . . that the above encounter was at the new mega Whole Foods store at their grand opening.


Posted Mon, March 21, 2005, 2:36pm EST by Josh

I like how those Trek drinks come with crampons attached to them. Haven't actually tried one yet, but, y'know, I'm a big fan of crampons.

Anyway, yeah -- I really enjoyed the talk... One of the more inspiring SXSWi discussions I've been to in a while.


Posted Sat, May 14, 2005, 11:57pm EST by dave james on bass

was there too. had a great time. i play bass for skunkweed.

Why all the "free"adverts 4 "Arse-Hole"Foods,a non-union sweat-shop,jerks?

Posted Mon, October 17, 2005, 4:49pm EST by Randi

SEE:ABOVE:Why all the "Free"Shilling/Spam/Adverts for "Arse-Hole Foods"??
Are you all whores,or not??