March 16, 2004

Bruce Sterling Rant at SXSW

Posted at March 16, 2004 11:38 PM in Notable People .
Bruce Sterling, Veridian God and Culture Hero, did a presentation at SXSW in Texas today. The full transcript is not available but author Cory Doctorow did his own, on the fly, transcript in the manner of an apostle receiving the gospels. Here it is...

Bruce Sterling Rant-A-Thon, 2004

SXSW 2004 Austin TX

Impressionistic Transcript by Cory Doctorow


I'm having a party tonight and you're all invited to my house for free beer.

Yes yes yes.

We've got WiFi!

We've got vodka!

We've got 100% free electrical wall plugs


My next book is a technothriller called Zenith Angle, near future -- it's an sf novel, but not set in the future. Gibson's doing this too. It's a trend among aging cyberpunks. It's not cyberpunk, it's not steampunk, it's NOWpunk.

You've gotta be tired, weary and grey to set your sf in the present day. but at least we're still in the ditch, still shipping product. It makes me proud, especially when I see what these kids with their anime and RPGs are up to.


I've got a daily blog now. I get weird mail from Pakistani guys telling me that I'm wrong about the Pakistani nuke program: My cousin built that bomb! We're no threat to the world! We can't even make needles.

This is a genius administration for inspiring angry rhetoric. It's got a nice, interesting consistency. I like Rumsfeld, I dig his poetry. Job one in the Bush Admin is to get it spun: they're an info-war-centric outfit. If you get it spun, you don't need to get it done.

Controlling the message is more important to them than controlling the underlying reality. It's a blatant part of their ideology. Their global climate change policy is in defiance of the laws of physics, it's Lysenkoism. The Union of Concerned Scientists has a page documenting the Bushies' Lysenkoism from climate change to on.

The science stuff is starting to blow back. The UCS is nonpartisan. It's like Stalin and Lysenko's faith-based agriculture: the reason Soviet wheat fields have weeds is because wheat is evolving into weeds. You didn't have to get the peasants to weed the fields, you could just allege this. Scientists were amazed and horrified. Soviet scientists who went abroad to talk about chemistry and physics were confronted with a credibility gap arising from this -- they had to admit that back home, politicians made up the laws of physics. So scientists defected to Cornell.

19,000 Euros died of the heatwave, and Beltway insiders are claiming that there's no climate change.


Austin has declared itself the clean energy capital of the world. I want that. I'll suffer a lot for that advantage. I won't defect to Denmark as long as Austin is trying to make itself into the clean energy capital of the world. I got 1-2 kW of photovoltaics on my roof. I'll go 20kW and power my neighborhood and blanket it in WiFi with South African surplus microwave horns. It's grassroots: it's right on my roof.

Every country with oil collapses: Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Canada -- Norway's the sole exception.

Creative class people -- the people at this event -- will never prosper in an oil society. An oil society sinks a well and surrounds it with bayonets and waits for the civil society to decline around it. Why bother, so long as there's money coming out of the ground?


2003 was the year for India. The best year in 2000 years. There are amazing improvements in everyday Indian living standards: plumbing, infrastructure, health: they're abolishing elephantiasis! You couldn't live in India without seeing people whose bodies were destroyed by this affliction. Now they've got it's number, it'll be gone in 50 years.

It's popular to freak out over Indian offshoring, but that's shortsighted. If you really want 1BB people to remain ignorant and backward forever, why not embrace it at home? Were we more prosperous during the century when the American South was backwards and ignorant?

Indians are opposed to this, too! There's a spinning wheel on the Indian flag -- Ghandi's wheel, with which he made his own clothes to frustrate multinational English clothes corporations. Not only was he relentlessly against offshoring, but in order to effect change, he spun his own fibres. Always! He was always making his own clothes with his own hands all the damn time: he made that simple cruddy loincloth with his own hands.

But the new ruling party has opened up engineering schools to see if they could compete and they can! They're doin' OK!

Not only that, they're creative! Bollywood lost a lot of money because they'd been making the same movie for 50 years. New Bollywood gets offshore financing is net in NYC, everyone in it is an outsourced Indian living in the USA in the hood, and it's a hit domestically and overseas.

Go to -- a website for Indian diasapora people -- it's international, it's got guides to every city in the US, all used by local Indians. Or, where you can buy the clothing off the backs of Bollywood actresses and have it FedExed to your house, and the US$ is strong against the Rupee, even if it's tanking on the Euro. They're making a lot of money: it's the Bollywood version of collectible plastic figurines.

Globalization isn't Americanization: it's everybody's ization: Chinese, Indian, you name it. Every little town in the US has a couple of Chinese restaurants, an India town and Japanese popculture. It's not about the Washington consensus anymore.

It used to be that globalization came out of the US State Department's lib-democracy stuff, but with the militarization of the State Dept, it's more like Brazilification. Gilberto Gil is a popstar, 60s acid-head and the culture minister: the weirdest politician in the world right now.

I wish I'd kept up a list with red pins of everywhere this guy has been since the govt took power in Brazil. He's touring. it's uncanny how much road-time he's logging. he's performing as a musician and being the Minister of Culture and doing culture deals: he's into Open Source Software! He wants to preside over the tropicalization of digitization.

What do 3d world people want from the Internet? They outnumber the advanced world by a huge margin. What's their killer app? It's not going to be given to them by MSFT: there's not immediate return on investment there. Bill might cure elephantiasis, but MSFT can't commercially offer Internet access to desperately poor people, but that doesn't mean it can't be done.

It can be done in weird ways with goys on WiFi bicycles in Cambodia soaking up email and pedalling off.

It's alarming to have Brazil as the world's most politically innovative country. Even Brazilians like to say that Brazil is country of the future and always will be. They've got a lot of things wrong.


I'm not into the military and I'm not an anti-war guy. I'm more into infosec. I wrote Hacker Crackdown in 1990 -- it was one of the few computer crime books that talked to computer cops. I'm sincerely interested in it. Cops are a fact of life. WIthout cops, you get riots. I spend a lot of time thinking about infosec.

The 4 years of the Bush administration trying to secure the Internet has been a debacle: it's getting worse and worse. Just look at the virii and the phishing, the torrents of porn, pharmaceutical fraud, rank quakery, privacy invasion: hordes of spooks TIAing around, and the civlib people playing hack-a-mole with the Poindexters and they just go underground and rename their programs.

Thousands of people have had their PCs turned into spam zombies. A third of your spam comes from innocent people who can't secure their MSFT machine because it's impossible to do so! Outlook is a flaw with a mailer attach to it. It's phony-baloney embrace-and-extend engineering, devil take the hindmost, and the hindmost is everybody. The Internet is choking on this stuff.

I remember cops telling me in 1990 that there is no good security on the Internet and that malefactors were less naive than the techies who weren't streetwise, they needed the shelter of cops, and nothing will happen until there's a major-league security disaster. I thought, well, they're trying to feather their own nests, it's alarmism. But it's worked out more or less as my informants told me. It's real real bad on the Internet now.

We don't notice in America cos we've had the net for so long -- we're a boiled frog, we don't notice the torrent of filth, but if you could email it to yourself 10 years ago, it would shock the shit out of you. Today, someone in China is plugging a computer in and facing the worst filth in the world. If you could get every scam artist, phisher, and 419 scammer and surround this building, we'd see them as a terrifying army, but they have carte blanche to go anywhere in the world and terrorize people less sophisticated than ourselves.

This is supposed to be one of the orchids of American culture, but imagine someone from a sheltered, shy society, where marriages last and most people earn their living growing food, opening up a browser and seeing what we brought on ourselves and on other people!

It's appalling. The Bushies had an opportunity to fix this thing. Go look at Clarke's and Schmidt's whitepapers on this: make companies responsible for their vulnerabilities, get MSFT to back off, it's all commonsense. But no one is paying attention, and it's not getting better. They have no intention of fixing things: they're incompetent. If they were hardcases who gave us law and order, kept people from being victimized, they'd be a tough right-wing government, but they're not, the gov't for all its tough-talk chatter won't even listen to the advice they got from their own hand-picked experts on the subject. Fixing this involves investing political capital, it's hard, it's global, it's security, it's diplomacy and freedom of speech, and they're not tackling any of it. It's a crying shame and a scandal. I'm close to it and it makes me indignant.

They don't do things in public. They lie and they're into super-secret stuff. When they get caught, they're embarrassed. I met a UN inspector, a Marine named Scott Ridder, at a convention. He got up and said in public, the WMDs, there aren't any. They're incompetent: they think they've got them, but they can't make them, they can't get it together. They can sell oil, but they're militarily incompetent. There are no WMDs. All the stuff about nukes and sarin and bio-agents, it's a put-up job. It's bullshit.

I haven't heard a word out of Scott Ridder in ages. Our jaws were dropping and we were shocked.

The administration is living a lie, like an alcoholic in denial. You can't say anything to them, the reaction is, "You bastard!"


The Spanish PM lost his job for bullshitting, for spinning the train attack as Basques when it was obviously Al Quaeda. In Spain they're tired of bullshit. They followed the PM to the poll and booed him: Put down that ballot, you lying son of a bitch. They were sick of the deceit. It wasn't the war, it was the policy of spin and feeding lies. It's the dismal business.


Coming up: Martin Rees, a UK scientist thinks that the chances of our civilization surviving the 21st century are 50-50. I've met him, he's got his facts straight.

I'm cheered up by that! 50-50! Those are great damned odds. This year was the 50th anniversary of the Bikini Atoll test, since the crust-busting bomb was invented, and we haven't blown ourselves up. We're up to 50-50! And my personal chances of making it to 2100 are 99.995 against. I'll spend the rest of my life watching people work on this thing and die without knowing if they pull it off. It's exciting, a fantastic spectacle. If it were guaranteed, life would be just a little dull.

We've got the power to save ourselves or screw ourselves up.


What'm I watching? Microbial threats to health: SARS and bird flu. They're spooky.

These bugs mostly kill old people, and this century is the most old-people-top-heavy society everywhere. Old people are all over Italy, Japan, everywhere. It's a demographic thing.

The only things that change population are birth and death and immigration rates and catastrophe. With bad SARS or bird flu we might get s disease that makes 30-year-olds sneeze for a couple days and kill off hundreds of millions of people in their 70s. 19000 people died of heat in Europe: almost all old people. They're metabolically vulnerable, they don't sweat well.

I'm looking at lot at global red-light districts. Globalization doesn't lift all boats, it can create criminal states, mafia-dominated, and non-competitive. They spend all their time exporting criminal services: trafficking in humans, drugs, money laundering. They only difference between them and an oil state is that oil states have oil -- and if it runs out they go straight into this.

It used to be that this was self-correcting, you'd get a strong-man after 2 years or so. But Somalia has been a failed state for 14 years. They're all online, but they're still a criminal state. It's ecommerce criminality, but they're not going to industrialize. They won't get shoe factories, but they will grow khat.

You chew these broomstraws, and purple foam comes out and then you drive your tactical around shooting at strangers. It's too hard to ship, so it's not in the US, but that problem will be corrected soon. They'll figure out how to fix it online and sell it via Viagra ads.

What else to they have? Their whole country is a favela, a red-light district. This is the real war on terror. It's the real problem of globalization: failed states fester and prey upon the successes. We could invade Somalia, but we tried it and it didn't work. It's a challenge in global governance for our generation and our childrens' generation. I dunno if its UN constabulary or a new feudalism with high walls.

The trouble moves in first now and the narcotics follow.


I'm watching NGOs, standards-setting boards, global civil society orgs. If there's a new world order it will come out of these bodies.

I watch sustainability -- the 20th Century isn't do-able. We need to work on this. Austin's a good city to watch people try to solve things. Austin's a happy place, and imperiled, but doing the right thing. I take comfort in Havel's statement about hope: "This isn't a facile expectation that things will turn out well, but the conviction that what you're doing makes sense no matter how things turn out." And that's what Austin is up to.

I'm off to sign some books -- come over to my place and drink some beer!



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