Liveblogging Bruce Sterling's annual rant

NICK DOUGLAS — I had a lot of fun live-mocking last year's moving but off-kilter speech by sci-fi author and futurist Bruce Sterling. The venue was South by Southwest, the topic (mostly) spimes, Sterling's pet idea of constantly trackable objects. He's speaking again this year, no one knows what about. And in what I'm now declaring an annual Valleywag tradition, I'm live-blogging it below.

Photo by Dan Melinger
Most lines, quotes or no quotes, lifted right from his speech as he makes it.

5:03: The lights dim. Innocuous rock fades out in the background. Applause. Bruce says about himself, "I guess he needs no introduction." Bruce jokes about how the conference has scaled to "massive Google-sized cultural conglomerance (?)...I can level with a group of people I respect."

"Last year I was talking a lot about RFID. I could have gone on about that at great length here...but I just wanna offer you one little signifier, which is people at SXSW [music, which follows SXSW Interactive] now have RFID chips in their wristbands."

5:06: "This year video is ramping up. It's a stupid year and it's a stupid medium...I think it's kind of useful to see video metabolize on the net in this non-year."

Bruce goes on about how much he finds himself getting videoed. Yes, yes, you're a star. Now he mentions how Viacom just sued YouTube for $1 billion. Bruce thinks this sort of attempt to step on innovation will fail, because the new generation just won't let that happen.

"I don't like to use the word hope, because that's not the proper thing for a futurist to say," but he's seeing promising trends. He's reading a book, "The Wealth of Networks." "It reads a lot like Das Kapital." Another media theorist has been doing papers on "Creole media" and "hybrid media," which Bruce recommends. "In a lot of ways, these guys are the acceptable face of [free culture and GNU license co-author] Richard Stallman."

5:13: "You pitch Google and Wikipedia together, and it's time to say goodbye to the 80s."

Getting information is just not a struggle. Bruce compares it to the downfall of communism. "If you hang around the second and third world like I do...there's a new category emerging." The first world, he says, is global capitalism, the market world. The second world is all forms of governance. The new third world is commons-based peer production. It's not communism, the state, or the market. It's starting to profoundly affect culture: "Didn't you just Google that?" is an example of this expectation of using these tools.

The fourth world is, well, the old third world, but that's the fastest-growing part of the planet. Whoops, here's where Bruce pulls out the futurist's bogeyman: "This will become really evident in the next ten years." Why doesn't any glorious future ever take a number of years not divisible by 5?

5:17: When commons-based peer production comes into play, things that were a business are no longer a business. For example, Craigslist. "Craig [Newmark, founder] isn't interested in having a business. He's interesting in having five thousand friends."

The newspapers, meanwhile, are worried: "Why are we joining the global precariat [ha!]? Why are we worrying about who's writing what on Wikipedia? When these people who are working better than you aren't even working..."

5:20: "A peer-to-peer network will outship anything else without a dime changing hands." Bruce says this can mean there are lynch mobs, dunderheads — there are downsides.

There are downsides to fandom: "Fan art is terrible. It is not good and it's never gonna be good. Mary Sue stories by fan teens, who are so stricken that they must write Harry Potter fan-fiction...that's not good writing...there's no good way to tart it up."

5:22: "People on the Internet like to pretend mash-ups are really great...nobody's going to listen to mash-ups in ten years. They're novelty music. It's like magazine collage. But to pretend that's tremendous creative work, no! It's tremendous creative power, it has tremendous creative attention, but it's not tremendously creatively good."

5:24: "You're building stuff entirely out of effects." Anyone can do this, building everything out of effects. This means that media aren't converging. "They're all becoming different flavors out of the same mixing machine." Meh. Is Bruce really describing all media? Discuss.

5:25: "When Cuisinart came out, you thought everything you could eat should go through the chopper blades." Just because this mixing is now electronically capable doesn't mean it's good. "There's interesting stuff on Deviant Art — interesting. But not great." Again, the dude is going too far here. Is he really saying no fantastic work comes out of electronic media? "It's folk culture. And folk culture is for hicks."

5:28: Still on this anti-amateur-art rant. He just called blogs a "passing thing." Oh please, Bruce, you've lost me. Still, okay, almost all blogs are "'I did this I did this I did this' — it's like being beaten to death by croutons."

5:31: To wrap up that topic, "I'm very interested in generated art, but it is what it is. It's machine-generated, robbery and gibberish."

A friend of Bruce is making a plan to sell broadband spectrum: "basically a scheme to take away channels from broadcast TV, which nobody watches." It's "for the semi-educated, shut-ins...a lower end evil medium that debases even the poverty-stricken people who watch it." Really, Bruce? So, um, I'm not allowed to watch 30 Rock, The Office, or Arrested Development? Everything has to be a supersaturated whiny HBO series? These pithy lines do not speak the truth, dude.

5:38: Now let's talk about Yokai Benkler (is that spelled right? Probably not). Bruce is back on solid ground. "If you're wondering how these emergent Flickr-style Web 2.1 things work, what it takes to build them, Benkler explains how it's done:"

"Socially motivated commons-based peer production: how to do it.
1. Divvy up the work. Because it's a lot of work and no one wants to do it and you can't pay 'em and you can't draft 'em. The work has to be granular, modular, and integratable:

Granular: "If you can do it for five minutes, that has to advance the general cause." Then you can combine the five million little bits.

Modular: You have to divide it all into projects with a slider bar at the bottom — you can see people getting there.

Integratable: The project has to add up to one thing that achieves something.

And there's a further checklist: The project must be self-selective. It must be in-or-out so people don't have to get sucked in, but they can. You need deeper communication. You need humanization (which Bruce doesn't believe and thus skips). You need trust.

5:47: Bruce jokes about Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake. "Caterina, you've sold out!" her fans say. "Caterina, you're drinking white wine with the Google boys, chatting with Bill Gates while Bono floats by!"

Back to the checklist. Monitor: You need someone to watch the griefers, the hackers, the thieves. If you don't monitor, you'll be torn apart. You need peer review to find out who's good at working in the group. You need discipline. It's hard to do good work. "To discipline people who are not working for any money and not taking orders from on high..." Bruce describes the problem; he's not sure what could be the solution.

5:50: Did Bruce just mispronounce "intelligentsia"?

Now he's secretly making fun of Jason Calacanis (as well as all the other old-media-thinking guys) who act scared that Digg and Wikipedia aren't paying the people "doing the work." Oh please, he says, "as Rupert Murdoch pockets billions."

5:53: "Al-Qaeda is the #1 socially motivated commons-based peer production." Norm creation: Suicide-murder used to be for Jonestown whack jobs; now it's geopolitical genius. Discipline? Institutional sustainability? "They're pretty damn hard to kill. And the more you kill, the more come in through the cracks." They're existing proof of the potency of this form of organization. Also fourth-generation warfare groups; cells of the KKK.

Benkler: Computers are an unruly platform, not a well-behaved machine. Another C-BPP: Ubuntu, a form of the Linux operating system.

5:57: So Benkler opened a wiki about his book. Oh boy! Everyone could exchange ideas etc etc! But there's nobody there. It's easy to open a wiki, it's open to post to a wiki...but it's not easy to be as smart as Benkler.

6:00: And we're closing. Last year he finished with a poem. This year, he says, the poem will not be about the downtrodden and how horrible it all is. Who's it by? A politically persecuted dissident from Poland. He wrote it in Berkeley. Here's this poem about serenity by Czeslaw Milosz, "Gift." [Full text here.]

And we're done. Come back next year!