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Bruce Sterling Speeches at "The Virtual City"

 


Bruce Sterling
bruces@well.sf.ca.us

Literary Freeware: Not For Commercial Use

Speech at Rice Design Alliance: "The Virtual City"

Houston, Texas, March 2, 1994




Hello everyone, thanks for having me in on a bright and lovely Texas Independence Day.... My name's Bruce Sterling, I'm a science fiction writer from Austin. Speaking as a science fiction writer, I must say it's remarkably pleasant to be invited by some harmless design group to talk about the future design of cities. Especially so in the glamorous and highly futuristic year 1994 AD, a year so very near the very end of our twentieth century.

Both design and science fiction have very old roots, but as disciplines they are younger than this century. And during this century both design and science fiction have already committed a large number of gross errors in forecasting the true shape and character of cities. Tonight for your supposed entertainment and purported enlightenment, ladies and gentlemen, I hope to continue our century's fine tradition and commit many more such errors -- many more grievous and terrible errors! Because, unlike a design professional, I am a professional science fiction writer, and I have absolutely no credibility to lose. Ladies and gentlemen, being utterly mistaken about the future is my job!

But before I commit my own, brand new, entirely original errors and gross misconceptions in urban forecasting, I would like you, my audience, to ritually cast aside -- to deliberately cleanse your mind -- of all the baggage, all the futuristic notions about the city that date from the earlier decades of the twentieth century. I want you to free your mind of the spell of yesterday's futures. Earlier traditions of the future from the corpus of science fiction will simply not be on our agenda tonight. I don't plan to promulgate ideas about skycraper utopias. Or space cities. Or underwater domed cities. Or moon colonies. Or giant Bauhaus megalopoli with pedestrian skyways and a steady aerial traffic of streamlined atomic-powered helicopters. None of those wonderful superstreamlined future cities that basically date back to the 1920s and 1930s, the golden age of full-scale, centralized schemes for urban design, the golden age of efficient streamlining.

The 1930s, a very bleak decade in most respects, were a golden age for American design and also a glittering age for American science fiction. In retrospect frankly, it's become rather difficult to tell those visions apart: the fools-gold visions of the science fiction writer and those of the serious industrial designer, urban planner, and architect. Frank R. Paul, who was the best-known illustrator of AMAZING STORIES and other science fiction pulps of the 1930s, did a great deal to establish the standard popular image of the gleaming futuristic megastructure supercity. Frank R. Paul was originally trained as an architectural draftsman. His future cities, designed for pulp magazine covers, in retrospect look extremely 1930s. Weirdly, they seem far more 1930s than the actual 1930s themselves ever managed to look in reality. Paul's future cities -- even if they're on Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Pluto -- are often festooned with those wonderful Art Deco fins and keels and ribs that served no apparent functional purpose. They seem to grow from the buildings strictly in order to radiate raw technological enthusiasm.

But we shouldn't start chuckling nostalgically at the misplaced enthusiasms of Mr. Paul before we have a good look at the culture that produced and fostered him. Take a good long look at the supposedly far more serious work of period architects and designers. Look at Frank Lloyd Wright and his plans for a mile-high skyscraper of glass, concrete and bronze, with a landing-field on the roof for freight dirigibles. Look at Buckminster Fuller's amazing designs for tensegrity skyscrapers to be carried by zeppelin into the fastnesses of the desert and then erected on the spot with explosives and quick-setting concrete. Consider former stage designer Norman Bel Geddes and his utterly astounding designs -- the giant glassed restaurant built right into the concrete wall of a Hoover- sized dam, the transatlantic flying wing aircraft that's large enough for interior squash courts and a minor shopping mall. Have a look at Henry Dreyfuss's giant, swarming Democracity model, from the New York World's Fair of 1939.

Those were all megaprojects, from a culture enchanted by the vision of seemingly unlimited energy, seemingly unlimited resources, and the seemingly unlimited social discipline and centralized governmental control necessary to carry out such megaprojects. In pointing out that these are obsolete visions, I don't mean to scorn them. Personally, I find plans of this scope intoxicating. Even when I realize that the populace around me, including myself, would almost certainly go completely insane if actually forced to live inside them.

To us, who live at the end of a century of failed totalitarian utopianism, those plans for sleek titanic towers and geometrical street grids seem oppressive and sterile and authoritarian. But to those who made the plans, they seemed liberating, democratic, clean, beautiful, simple and yet majestic. I believe that urban plans of this scale and ambition will return someday -- not in the same form of course, not with the same blueprints, but with something like the same zeitgeist.

It doesn't really take all that much energy to spin the cultural wheel, and when ideas like the megaproject reach their nadir -- when they're utterly scorned and completely out of style and seem to be almost utterly forgotten -- that is often a very good sign that the return of the repressed is imminent. Sometimes all it takes is a change of technological circumstances. Believe me, the entire world would be abuzz with monster plans for unbelievably huge and ambitious urban structures right now, at this very moment -- if cold fusion had turned out to be a scientific reality. If that basic design restraint of energy had been removed, urban designers all over this planet would be going hog-wild. And a dazzled and deeply impressed population would be happily cheering them on.

Someday the megaproject, and the circumstances and the cultural state of mind that support the megaproject, will return. And I will make a further forecast -- when that happens, there will be a science fiction writer at work who will be busy casting scorn on the outmoded ideas of the current era -- our hopelessly narrow-minded, limited, gloomy, niggling, old-fashioned and unimaginative ideas about what is possible with cities.

In the meantime, however, we face, not the past's amazing visions, but some pretty amazing stark realities. We face our own gigantic and intimidating real life challenge in contemporary cities. We face the prospect of cities of a scope beyond the imagination of the 1930s -- not because of the way they're designed, not because of their materials or their planning or their Albert-Speer-type Nazi-aesthetic scale, but because of their sheer population. Mega-populations. At the end of the century this is the single starkest reality we face, far more important than any number of information superhighways or sophisticated digital virtualities.

In the year 1800, there were only 1 billion people on the entire planet. Even as late as 1950, there were only 2.5 billion. Today, there are 5.5 billion. There will be 8.6 billion by mid-century, 10.2 billion by the 2090s. I got these figures from a weekly issue of last month's SCIENCE magazine, I'm not just making them up for you. And those are rather optimistic population projections, which assume that the progress already made worldwide in birth control continues steadily. What do those figures mean for the way people are going to live on this planet? We're not talking Jeffersonian yeomanry here, ladies and gentlemen. We're not talking a lot of genteel suburban lawns. We're not even talking Le Corbusier's machines for living. There is no place to put these people but inside big cities. Monster cities. We are talking about single cities, single urban complexes, with populations larger than entire modern nations.

This is the context in which the impact of information technology on cities should be considered. It's not a pretty context. For some of these cities -- maybe most of them, if things are sufficiently mismanaged -- we're talking a megascale Beirut, a giant Sarajevo... Urban unrest and urban decline to the point of urban warfare. Wars that take place entirely inside the boundaries of cities, because there isn't any countryside left in which warring factions could go out and fight. There's nothing farfetched about such a prognosis; it's simply more of the same, a simple science fiction technique that H G Wells used to call "expanding the present." And the present isn't pretty either. In the United States today, at the end of the twentieth century, we have rotting, violent, crime- ridden inner cities, rampant homelessness, a clear political and architectural inability to cope, obviously insufficient resources, severe political and economic and material constraints.

As Joel Garreau points out in his very useful and interesting book EDGE CITY, we Americans haven't built a brand-new city from the dirt up in something like seventy years. We have thriving rings of light industry and information industry around rotting cores of abandoned heavy industry and railroad industry. In a lot of cases these are basically *abandoned* urban cores where the midnight plumbers have ripped the plumbing and wiring out of the highrises for scrap money, and made even the shells uninhabitable....We just keep accreting our cities around the edges as a complex tangle of malls and highrises and bedroom tracts. Like the architecture of Silicon Valley, like Highway 128 outside Boston, North Carolina's Research Triangle, the Netplex around Washington DC. It's interesting to speculate why this is even possible, and how these processes might continue or alter in the future.

I'm going to approach this in a somewhat roundabout and suggestive fashion, because I'm a novelist, and I prefer to sort of explore the coastlines of the future rather than try to sell you a chunk of real estate. So as a central symbol, a kind of symbolic harbinger of the future, a kind of grail to settle your mind on, I offer the totemic image of the Macintosh Quadra 800 AV, a powerful desktop audivisual personal computer of 1994 which has physically devoured a telephone, a fax machine, and a television. This peculiar device -- and it's far from the last of its kind, whether it happens to be made by Apple Computer Inc or anyone else -- represents an unprecedented congelation of information technologies. It's a kind of Swiss-army-knife informational mutant of the desktop, a computer which has eaten every other functional device in the office environment with the possible exception of the user himself. If you could boost that computer up to the point of running a bulletin board system, a private branch exchange, and an Internet node, along with the standard image/text scanner and a fullcolor printer, then you'd find yourself in possession of a kind of multi-armed full-color Hindu juggernaut of the office, a device that could dismantle and digitally consume almost everything in its path. Including, in its own peculiar and roundabout fashion, the urban landscape.

In order to understand the future possibilities, let's look at what has information technology and telecommunications has already done to our cities. First one up to the plate: the telegraph.... The ancient and honored telegraph is fast approaching technological extinction, but in many ways the telegraph was a very interesting technology that was denied its full potential. Those dots and dashes in Morse Code are very similar to a digital one and zero; the telegraph might have been able to go digital without ever bothering to go analog. If Alexander Graham Bell had been hit in the head with a brick, and if the telephone had somehow been held off for another generation, some very remarkable and innovative things might have been done with telegraphy. Instead of the human voice carried by wire, we might have had a technological structure much more like the modern Internet, a digital network where text could be stored, accessed and forwarded. In any case, the telegraph, and the telephone, which followed on its heels in about forty years, made the urban skyscraper possible. Not physically possible -- the skycraper was physically possible as soon as you had iron girders, curtain walls and steel-cage construction. But the telephone made the skyscraper *informationally* possible. Imagine how incredibly difficult it would be to run a business inside a skyscraper without electrical communication. It would be physically impossible to ship all those necessary messenger boys up and down through the structure.

You could probably do it with telegraphy alone, if the telegraphy were made much more sophisticated than telegraphy ever actually became.

Actually, if you think about the problem as science fiction writers like to think about these problems -- and I can't resist this digression -- you might have been able to do something quite useful with pneumatic tubes and electric lights. In the early days of the electric light, the electric light itself was considered a mass communications medium. In the days before radio, people often used giant searchlights to signal breaking news, such as election outcomes. Even today we still have those big flashing electrical message boards, like the one in Times Square. If you can imagine a kind of desktop version of one of those scrolling message boards... I'm digressing shamelessly here, but if you're interested in this kind of steampunk alternate-history speculation, I can recommend a quite interesting study called WHEN OLD TECHNOLOGIES WERE NEW by Carolyn Marvin, a book about electric communications technologies in the late 19th century.

In any case, the telephone devoured the telegraph. And now the telephone itself is in the process of being devoured by even more powerful and mobile machines. We know that the telephone must have had an enormous effect on society, because everyone has one. It's the kind of intimate, household technology that is visible only by its absence; everyone simply expects you to have a telephone, and if you lack one it's as if you have no running water. And yet it's very difficult to describe exactly what effect the telephone has had on society because the effects keep recomplicating themselves. Back in the 19th century, when the telephone was young, witty people used to remark about it: "Now I can telephone my friends many miles away -- friends who wouldn't have left town in the first place, if not for the telephone." That's gives a good idea of the cyclical nature of an innovation as powerful as the telephone; of the way in which a breakthrough of that fundamental level of power and influence will repeatedly feed upon itself. It gives with one hand as it takes away with the other. No silver lining arrives without its cloud.

The telephone was the first electrical medium to enter the home. Suddenly people were able to do business from home, to call the office and instantly judge the situation and issue appropriate orders. You'd think this might tend to spread people out, to diffuse the population -- but at the very same time the telephone, paradoxically, made it much easier to crowd people together into large vertical buildings full of tiny cubicles.

The telephone can liberate people to learn all kinds of things really quickly, a wonderful way to spread subversive verbal streetrumors below the noses of the authorities. The telephone is a wonderful instrument for reporters and newsgatherers of all kinds. But Joseph Stalin loved the telephone, and used it as a way to monitor and corral the Soviet populace, to make sure that there was no place left to hide. The Romanian Securitate built unique double-telephone stations -- one switching station at ground floor, with an entire duplicate set of secret-police operators up on the second floor, busily monitoring the calls. You can reach out and touch someone with a telephone -- or you can reach out and put your hands right around their throat.

I believe that the telephone, and the newer electronic networks that are slowly eating the telephone such as fax machines and electronic mail, have a great deal to do with our peculiar contemporary urban architecture. I'm describing the basic building block of the Edge City economy as described by Joel Garreau in his book EDGE CITY, a building of a type familiar to everyone, especially here in Houston. It is the standard mirrorglass information factory. A tall, mostly featureless, glasswalled building out at the edge of town, or even way out in the boonies, standing there alone, gleaming darkly, like a monolith from 2001, in a green campuslike area with a lot of black tarmac parking spaces around it.

Why are these buildings socially possible or economically feasible? Because there's not much physical material going in or out of them. If they were refining oil, or sulfur, or iron ore, then they'd need railways and smelters and smokestacks, but they're refining information. So they have info conduits, info highways, piercing their walls and floors, and satellite dishes on top.

And of course they have the advantage of the individual automobile. They're surrounded by individual automobiles, and almost every single one of those automobiles parked around it has carried a single individual to work. And when their day is done those individuals don't report to some factory barracks nearby -- they disperse in their cars in every direction of the compass. And when they reach their home the single activity that consumes most of their free time, other than sleeping of course, is watching television. If there were no television they'd have to have quilting bees and cornhuskings and squaredancing; but with television, who needs a social life? They have a social life mediated by screens. They probably don't know the name of the guy in the condo next door, but they all know who Tonya Harding is.

Lewis Mumford -- a very interesting figure, a kind of literary critic and urban design enthusiast -- used to preach about ways in which electrical power could change the shape of cities. Mumford figured that national electrification would free cities of the necessity of being nastily crowded around a generator or a power plant. Mumford, who considered large cities to be malignant sewers of ruthless capitalist greed, thought that life would improve drastically if big ugly centralized cities were atomized across the countryside into clean, human-scale, regional cottages. Schumacher's book SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL preached much the same message a generation later. And Mumford was right, in a peculiar way -- with electric networks accompanied by cars and information networks, the earlier economic advantages of highly centralized cities *did* collapse.

Unfortunately there are grave practical difficulties with Mumford's sublime vision, because every electrical regional cottage is the seed of a sleazy tourist stripmall. The minute you move your electronic cottage out to the unspoiled shores of Lake GitcheeGoomee, then you find you still need a Chinese takeaway and a Domino's.... and even a video retailer -- and soon you find yourself, not downtown, not in the countryside, but in Edge City. Instead of a fairly compact, dense cityscape, you have these weird gnarled sprawling one-story office complexes stuffed full of franchises. Anonymous strip malls and tangled parking-lot complexes, where every enterprise can be stripped to the walls overnight, and replaced with an entirely new business, just by replacing the big plastic lettering above the doors. In 48 hours flat an entire new enterprise can be fitted into slot F33 of cellblock 4... And their clients and owners live in anonymous and peculiarly characterless bedroom suburbs. I'm sure you Houstonians have had some hands-on practical experience with these. There are places out south of Houston now where the entire infrastructure of a privileged existence has been plugged into place, and there aren't even streetmaps yet...

These places are difficult to socially comprehend and also difficult to police... I always imagine bootleg genetic engineers or black market human organ smugglers in there, hiding under the fake shingle of a printer ribbon consortium or a hairstyling salon... Who's to know, right? Any fly- by- night enterprise could be in there, counterfeiters, gunrunners; it's not like there's a lot of community oversight in a situation like that. It's no accident that urban design in the 90s so often takes this shape. These structures are also made possible thanks to information technology, i.e. the specialized express people with their extraordinary shipping and tracking technology, and the credit card people with their astounding arsenals of electronic credit and payment records...

It's been said that architecture and design tend to follow the key technologies of their period -- a breakthrough technology that has captured the popular imagination by its glamour and its sense of promise for the future, its sense of open-endedness. That's why the Empire State Building has a zeppelin mast on top... Why in the 1930s people used to make streamlined toasters. Why you see these peculiarly aerodynamic supersonic jet-age coffee-tables from the 1950s.

I would suggest the personal computer as the key technology of the 1990s, and I think these sprawling office complexes owe a lot to the design examples set by personal computer technology. I don't mean that the integrated chip resembles a suburban street-grid; it certainly does, but the resemblance goes deeper than that. It's a plug-and-play architecture. You pull the top off, yank the motherboard, put in a new upgrade, whether it's a PC or an Edge City retail business. And the surroundings -- the carton -- may look postmodern and sophisticated, but at basis it is sleek and plastic and cheap. And in eighteen months you dump the whole kit and caboodle without a pang of regret and make way for the next model. There is no permanence there. There cannot be any permanence there. The pace of change is far too fast. You miss too many vital opportunities if you stop to think.

A personal computer looks incredibly impressive, and it is deliberately designed to look incredibly impressive, especially to those who know very little about them. They look high tech, cutting-edge, nice ribbing on them, little high-tech logos and keys of unknown function. And the computer still costs plenty, so it's something of a prestige item -- but it's also one of the most ephemeral technological objects ever invented. It's so amazingly ephemeral that it changes as rapidly as high couture does. Personal computers have the production vibes of the fashion industry.

That's because of a principle known as Moore's Law, named after an integrated chip designer and executive, Gordon Moore. Gordon Moore predicted that computer chips would double in speed and density every eighteen months. Moore's Law has held close to steady for about twenty years now, and it shows no sign of faltering. So every eighteen months or so, computer chips become twice as fast and hold twice the number of transistors. And yet those chips remain about the same size physically and they cost about the same as they did before. The result is that guys in jeans and running shoes in 1994 have more processing power on their desks than the entirety of NASA used to land men on the moon in 1969.

The result is that computers first nibble, then chew, then swallow whole entire other technologies. First telegraphy, then faxes, then voice telephones, then voice telephone switching centers, then cable, then the info superhighway. First dotmatrix, then inkjet, then laser, then fullcolor laser. First green screens, then black-and-white, then color screens, then color screens far better than television, while computerized special effects dominate the movie industry. And since the computers themselves are highly unstable and highly disposable, everything they swallow also becomes highly unstable and highly disposable. Including the urban landscape.

There's a terrific impact on industry. It's been said that the key impact of the computer networking revolution is to collapse the costs of distribution and remove the middlemen. Federal Express, which tracks their shipments via computer and microwave links, collapses the cost of distribution and direct marketing. Electronic credit eliminates financial middlemen. Corporate email collapses middle management. Unfortunately almost all of us are middlemen in something, or middle management in something. You end up with hollowed-out corporations, a collapse in job stability, with diplomas replaced by computer-assisted just- in-time learning.... Blue chip stocks melt because the stockmarket itself is computer assisted. So are the currencies. Companies begin re- engineering themselves with frantic speed, flinging career employees aside like so much human shrapnel. There are vast fortunes to be made, and yet vast fortunes to be lost just as quickly. If the course of computer history were predictable, then IBM would rule everything forever. They had every conceivable advantage. And yet it will surprise no one if IBM does not even exist ten years from now. Perhaps five years.

And it seems to me that this is precisely where the information highway comes in. It offers something to do for all those people -- remember those billions of people? They have to do something, and if we don't want them to cut down every last tree in the rainforests, we'll have to give them something to do somehow. Something to interest them, something to occupy themselves with. Something harmless, and what could be more harmless than billions of people sitting perfectly still and moving their fingertips up and down on a keyboard while staring at a screen? A peculiarly makework thing to do, but there's nothing new about that. If you were a cynic you might say that interactivity is necessary so that people can be supplied with a "virtual job." You might say that 500 channel interactive television is a social good that will keep the proles really occupied, couch potatoes practically rooted to the couch, laboriously pulling down menus on their televisions instead of merely channelswitching.

But actually this kind of labor offers enormous advantages for an overcrowded world desperately short of physical resources.

Virtual reality offers unique design opportunities, because virtual reality has no material constraints. There's no material in it, by definition. It's all just moving pixels, so anything can look like anything; all it takes is someone willing to invest the time and effort to make it look that way. Nothing every rusts, nothing breaks, nothing collapses; it just gets diskwiped. There are no laws of physics in virtual reality, no entropy, no friction. Virtual environments, therefore, can absorb infinite amounts of manpower, infinite amounts of design ingenuity.

We then are faced with the spectacle of the true Virtual City: 10.6 billion people trading incredibly rich and detailed phantoms, as they eat their humble rice crackers and tofu on their cheap foam futons. Inside skyscrapers of a new kind: not a single rigid monolith, but something like a termite mound, a massive concretion that has built itself from the ground up pebble by pebble, and morsel by morsel, until it's a honeycomb of individual cells the size of a mountain. They won't be simple structures like the megastructures of the 1930s, because they won't be designed on blueprints, where there is no room for the necessary tiny complex details. People will use virtual design technology to design their actual cities. They'll design real cities all right -- the streets, the sewers and such -- because people still have to eat, and there are no bathrooms in cyberspace....

At the moment, computer-aided design is a very halting business. It's far better and more flexible than drawing on paper, but it offers a certain limited number of polygons per second, and the result is this candycolored planar world of inorganic sterility and a grave lack of convincing detail.... There's no dirt, no grittiness. As Moore's Law continues its relentless climb, though, the problem of the missing dirt and detail should prove easy enough to defeat. You simply program-in flaws and convincing variants of detail. Detail becomes incredibly cheap. Instead of the sterile monotony of 1930s megaprojects, you have megaprojects that burst all over with incredible variations, where every door and window is a different size and shape. You just design every single room in a skyscraper to be entirely different, every floorplan to be entirely different, and let the machine figure it out for you.

And since memory and machine intelligence are cheap as dirt (or cheaper), you can do quite astonishing things with very simple and cheap materials. Concrete for instance. You need no longer have a flat featureless sidewalks. You can have extremely arty sidewalks, designer sidewalks, at essentially zero cost. You simply spool the sidewalks out and have a kind of cement graphics plotter work them over as they dry. You then have urban sidewalks with an MC Escher ribbon of subtly varying imagery in them, stretching for whole city blocks.... The same for walls, the same for paint... graphic imagery, arbitrary richness of detail, loses all economic value. If you want to pave the walls around you with a 3D animated rendition of the fevered imaginings of Hieronymous Bosch, it's no problem.

As Gordon Moore's Law ramps up even further, machine smarts begin to permeate everything physical. The science fiction writer Vernor Vinge talks about *smart bricks*. These are chips so cheap that every single brick in a wall has a chip, and they all communicate with one another and they all gauge the strain of the structure in real time. If you want to rip them out and reassemble them on a whim, they already know how to do it; they don't fall down because the *wall itself* knows when its getting weak. Pillows can be reactive, chairs and tables and clothing. Rooms and homes might become smart enough to adapt to their owner's activities. Kevin Kelly in his forthcoming book OUT OF CONTROL, speculates about intelligent rooms that come to adapt to their owners... including *bad, evil, depressing* rooms that owned by bad, evil, depressing people....

Intelligence and virtual imagery become the cheapest parts of the environment, a full color screen almost as cheap as curtains or a new coat of paint.... As a vision of the mid-twenty-first century I offer you the vision of a man freezing to death under a bridge with a last decade's state of the art laptop showing the entire Library of Congress on atomic-density CD-ROM storage. Bums with a virtual world in a paper bag....

I offer that ugly image because I want to break the spell of transcendental utopianism that a powerful technology can seem to offer. Nowadays, networks seem to offer the pure clean electroworld where nobody can mug you.... There's a lot of utopian rhetoric about cyberspaces and virtual realities. I reject that utopian rhetoric because I think it is false to our historical experience and it is dangerous politically. If you read the science fiction novels of William Gibson, the man who invented the word "cyberspace," you'll quickly see that his fictional portrayal of cyberspace has as much dread as it does ecstasy. I think that is a healthy approach when contemplating powerful technologies. It is simply wrong, dangerously wrong, to think that we can run away from our problems by hiding inside our gadgetry.

Cyberspace does offer new kinds of public space and new kinds of public life. New does not by definition,mean better. Howard Rheingold, who will be here next week, has written a fine book about his experiences with what he calls the Virtual Community.... I know the community Howard frequents most often, the WELL in San Francisco; it's also my home system, so in a way although I physically live in Texas, I'm a virtual San Francisco Bay Area guy. I like the WELL, it's a pleasant system and I spend a great deal of time there. I would point out however that connectivity, however empowering or interesting it may be, is not the be all and end all of human existence. Computer literacy does not make you bulletproof.

I'll never forget the first time I read some Internet postings sent from Croatia. It was a young girl writing electronically from a Croatian city under siege, I believe the city was Vukovar. She talked about finding her cousin's foot still in its boot lying out in the street after a shelling. My point being that if you hold your laptop up in front of a bullet, the bullet will still go through the laptop and also through you. It doesn't matter how many meg of RAM there are in there; Gordon Moore's amazing expanding chips just become instant shell fragments to be pulled out of your sucking chest wound.

Joel Garreau makes a great deal of fuss in his book EDGE CITY about the menace of urban crime, and how it has caused people to retreat to edge cities. Now the menace of edge city crime is causing some people to retreat into cyberspaces. The menace of cyberspace crime is already here. Cyberspace definitely has a native criminal element. The slums of the urban city are already matched by the redlight districts of cyberspace, the porn boards, the kidporn boards, the sex chatlines. The digital underground is aswarm with electronic credit card thieves. Close on their heels will come the rest of the urban condition: gambling dives in cyberspace.... offshore tax dodges... call-sell operations... bunko people and professional con artists. Intangible virtual crimes, but crimes none the less.

And crime is far from the only issue of virtual concern. How will the virtual city be governed? Will they be accountable and electable governments, or will they be corporate governments strictly in it for the cash? Or will they be the shadow government: the National Security Agency with its weird plans for a global-scale Key Escrow encryption chip, the FBI with its Digital Telephony Initiative to make all telephone systems, and computer networks, wiretap-friendly for the purposes of federal surveillance? Who is watching whom in cyberspace, and who is accountable to whom? The old problems of politics, power, status, control, anarchy, civility, none of those go away. Those problems don't go away because they don't originate inside the machinery and they are not susceptible to strictly technical solutions. They are political difficulties which can only be met by political means. If you are interested in these matters -- interested enough to think seriously about them and actually do something about them -- I refer you to the Electronic Frontiers Houston people. I know there are a few of them in the audience tonight.

I am a science fiction writer and as a science fiction writer I don't consider myself particularly well equipped to deal with practical politics. But there are people already in politics who take these matters quite seriously. So I want to to end my remarks tonight by repeating to you some Congressional testimony -- *my* Congressional testimony, from the House Subcommittee on Finance and Telecommunications, in Washington DC last April. And since I am a science fiction writer I testified there as a science fiction writer. I made up a science fictional scenario from the year 2015 and I recited it to the committee. The last part of my prepared remarks concerned the Texan electronic frontier of 2015. It also dealt with the interesting issue of social conflicts between actual cities and virtual cities. With your indulgence I will repeat this last part of my testimony verbatim. This is part of what I told Edward Markey's subcommittee:

"I can't conclude my brief remarks today without a mention of a particularly odd development having to do with *wireless* computer telecommunications. Since it is now possible to transact business entirely in cyberspace, including financial transactions, many information entrepreneurs in 2015 have simply given up any physical home. Basically, they have become stateless people, 21st Century gypsies.

"A recent tragic example of this occurred in the small town of North Zulch, Texas. There some rural law enforcement officers apprehended a scruffy vagabond on a motorcycle in a high-speed chase. Unfortunately he was killed. A search of his backpack revealed a device the size of a cigarette pack. In searching the dead man's effects, the police officers, who were not computer literate, accidentally broke the device. This tiny device was actually a privately owned computer bulletin board system with some 15,000 registered users.

"Many of the users were wealthy celebrities, and the apparent outlaw biker was actually an extremely popular and nationally known system operator. These 15,000 users were enraged by what they considered the wanton destruction of their electronic community. They pooled their resources and took a terrible vengeance on the small town of North Zulch, which, by contrast, had only 2,000 residents, none of them wealthy or technologically sophisticated. Through a combination of harassing lawsuits and sharp real-estate deals, the vengeful board users bankrupted the town. Eventually the entire township was bulldozed flat and purchased for parkland by the Nature Conservancy.

"Thanks in part to the advances that you yourselves set in motion, violent conflicts between virtual and actual communities have become a permanent feature of the cultural landscape."

That's all I have to say to you tonight, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for entertaining my speculations.

 

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