The Tropicalization of Digitization and Global Red-Light Districts

Bruce Sterling is an internationally acclaimed author who lives in Austin, Texas. Having produced a steady stream of enlightening essays and ground-breaking science fiction since 1976, Sterling’s most recent book is Tomorrow Now.


Bruce Sterling is an internationally acclaimed author who lives in Austin, Texas. Having produced a steady stream of enlightening essays and ground-breaking science fiction since 1976, Sterling’s most recent book is Tomorrow Now.


In his SXSW Interactive presentation, Sterling riffed through a wide range of topics, including politics, globalization and offshoring, technology and security, and the potential of NGOs. What follows is a partial transcript of his talk.

There once was a man in a tree whose limerick stopped at line three. He said with a grin

Welcome to the Bruce Sterling Rant-A-Thon for 2004. I’ve got 45 minutes in which I was told to just vent on whatever was on my mind. I only hope that 45 minutes is enough time. What’s different about 2004. What’s so special about this one? This is the year in which I outed myself as a futurist. After I wrote the book, I became a magazine columnist. I’m a Wired associate editor. I thought I’d run out of opinions, but there’s no shortage of those. It’s kind of an appetite that grows with the feeding. I’ve got a novel coming out in May. It’s a techno-thriller, a contemporary novel set in 2001, 2002, so when it comes out, it’ll be two years old. It’ll be every bit as weird as any book written in 1985, but it’s not set in the future. It’s not cyberpunk or steampunk. People are writing nowpunk. You’ve got to be tired to write novels set in now, but we’re still in that damn ditch.

What else am I up to? I’ve got a daily Weblog. Every day, I’m blogging now. I never thought I’d be reduced to this. I don’t get any hate mail off my blog, but I do get some very weird mail. I got an email from Pakistan after I did some stuff on Pakistani nuclear stuff. He said, “My brother built that bomb. You’ve got us all wrong. We can’t even make needles!” You throw your bread on the water, and it comes back tenfold.

There’s a lot of stuff to be opinionated about. The current administration is great for angry rhetoric. I’ve got my own favorite Bush administration figures. I’m a big Rumsfeld fan. I like Rummy. The poetry of Donald Rumsfeld is a great thing. Job One in the Bush administration is to get it spun. It’s a very infowar-oriented administration, and if you get it spun, you don’t need to get it done. Controlling the message is more important than the underlying reality, and blatantly so, ideologically so. Politicians are in the business of altering reality and the laws of physics.

It’s been done a lot. If you go to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Web site, there’s a list of things Bush has tried to get out of, including the denial of global warming. The UCS has got a lot more credibility on the ground because they’re on the ground and not a member of the Kennedy family. It’s like Trofim Lysenko under Stalin, who said that the reason why there were a lot of weeds in the wheat fields was because the wheat was evolving into weeds. In our country, politicians make up the laws of physics.

That’s a major trend. I never really expected to see 19,000 Europeans dead of the heat in 2004. 19,000 people dead, and beltway operatives are saying global warming ain’t happening. What else happened? Austin declared itself the clean energy capital of the world. That cheered me up. I want to live in the clean energy capital of the world. I got three kilowatts of solar voltaic on my roof. If they’re willing to subsidize that, I could go to 15-20 kilowatts and power my entire network. I could also drench it with WiFi, solar-powered WiFi.

That’s the right thing to do. Go for some grassroots technical reform. Just put it on your house. Have you read Richard Florida’s Creative Class? These smart creatives don’t know what a business model is. These guys are the enemy of the administration, and the administration is trying to put a dent in them as a class. The oil company paradigm dictates what goes on in this country. You get the well head, surround it with barbwire, and bring out the bayonets. You watch the decay of society while you pump black gold out of the ground.

This isnt just a Moslem problem. Equatorial Guinea, oil’s been its ruin. Canada can’t get over it either. The places in Canada that have oil are the most screwed-up places. Iraq is the one exception. People who attend this event will not survive in an oil-dominated society. There’s no way to finesse it, it’s just a question of how poor do you want to get before these guys are out of power.

2004 was still a cheerful year. The world’s most un-American people did well in 2004. India is doing better than it has in 200 years. They weren’t really pushing the limits, and now they really are. Plumbing, infrastructure, they’re destroying debilitating epidemics. It’s a billion people. That’s a huge number of the human race. It’s popular now to run around in tight little circles about offshoring. That’s short sighted. If you want to keep a portion of the world’s population ignorant, why not try it in your own country and see how it works. Look at the South. Did we like it when all the industry was in the north and we didn’t have any? Even Indians are concerned about offshoring. Look at the Indian flag. In the middle you’ve got Gandhi’s spinning wheel. Why did he have a spinning wheel? He wanted to make his own clothes instead of participating in global trade.

Because he wanted to be the change he wanted to see, he spun wool. And boy did he spin! If you look at pictures of the guy, he wasn’t kidding around, he had mounds of wool. Look at his cruddy loincloth. He made that! They tried that for 50 years, and they never really prospered. They never really prospered until the spiritual heirs of the guys who shot Gandhi came into power. Around ’98, they came into power. It turns out that Indians can compete!

They’ve got a lot of engineering schools. They’re bright, intelligent people. Take the shell away, and they’re doing OK! Not only are they doing OK, they’re creative. Bollywood lost a lot of money because they made the same film for 20 years. Now you’ve got the New Bollywood. I’m not a movie guy, but I like Bollywood. You want to see some real interesting filmmaking and distribution in Austin? Look at Sulekha. Go to Baazee, and you can buy the clothes right off the back of Bollywood actresses.

People used to talk about globalization as though it meant Americanization. It doesn’t. It’s everybody-ization. Even the most podunk towns have a Chinese restaurant. Maybe two. There will be an India Town in every city. Anime is everywhere. It’s no longer the Washington consensus. Globalization under those conditions look more like Brazilian-ization. I spend a lot of time following Brazilian politics. I’ve got a Yahoo! News alert set up for Gilberto Gil. He’s the weirdest politician in the world. Everywhere he goes, he’s trying to make some sort of culture industry deal. He’s into open source software. He says he wants to tropicalize digitization.

What do third-world people want to do with free and open software? What do they want from it? How do they benefit from it? What’s the killer app? There’s certainly going to be one, but it’s not going to be given them by Microsoft. Microsoft’s not going to eradicate elephantiasis. Well, Bill actually might, but he’d do it under the auspices of his foundation because he can’t find a way to commercialize it.

It alarms me, quite frankly, to find that Brazil’s the world’s most politically innovative country. Even Brazilians like to say that Brazil is the country of the future and always will be. But they’re setting a lot of trends. These are guys who have a lot to gain and little to lose. They’re basically assembling a labor union including everyone in the world who’s irritated about American policy. That’s basically everybody.

That’s the story. It might sound partisan, but let’s back up to Sept. 10, 2001. Could you have imagined that in 2004 we’d have alienated all of our world allies? If you then said, yeah, this is the way forward and what ought to be done, is that a successful thing? Go back and talk to your earlier self. Explain how things have played out. Is this a great thing? Do you want lots more of that? I find that hard to believe.

I’m not that big on military stuff and the kind of fight. I’m not a big anti-war guy. But I’m interested in it and I write about it. I hang out with military guys, but I spend more time hanging out with computer security guys. I have a lot of friends there. Cops are a fact of life. They’ve always been around. And if they’re not, we have riots. I keep my nose to the trail there, and what’s gone on in the last four years in terms of Bush trying to bring more security to the Internet has been a huge debacle.

They’ve done absolutely nothing. Just open your laptop and look. There’s more viruses. Torrents of spam. Medical fraud. Every time the civil liberties play hack-a-mole with the spooks who are snooping around, they just change the name of it. There’s no civil liberty there. One third of the spam that you get is being emitted by the machines of innocent people who don’t know how to secure their Microsoft machines because you can’t secure your Microsoft machines. Outlook? That’s a flaw with a mailer built into it.

The Internet is coming apart at the seams. It’s choking on this stuff. I remember cops telling me in 1990 that there was no security on the Internet and that the stuff was being built hastily. Well, it’s gotten really bad. It’s really, really bad on the Internet right now. But what frustrates me is not what’s happening in America. We’ve been doing this for decades. We’re used to it. If you just grab some of it and email it to your earlier self, you’d be disgusted. What I’m worried about is someone in China getting a machine and plugging it in in their village, and they’re swamped by the world’s worst filth. The spammers and scammers are a terrifying army, but they’ve got carte blanche to come into our homes.

This is supposedly one of the blooming orchids of American culture. We built it. We’re responsible for it. But imagine a more sheltered, shy society in which marriages last and people still grow their own food. Open this window to the world and see what we’ve brought on ourselves and other people. The worst part of it is is that the Bush administration had a golden opportunity to fix this thing. Everybody in the world is being savaged by these guys. Even if you’re a Mac guy like I am, you’ve got clean up the kruft that’s being passed on by Microsoft. We’re being victimized in this intimate way.

To fix this is going to involve investing some political capital. It’s a delicate matter, it’s difficult, it’s a global scale problem. It’s a complex problem, no one’s tackling it, and it’s getting worse and worse. The administration doesn’t do things in public. They’re into lies and super-secret stuff, and when they get found out, they just block it out. It’s embarrassing.

Remember Ritter? The guy who told us there were no weapons of mass destruction even before the war? He was passionate about it. He ruined his career over it. And I thought he was a nutcase! Well, he was right. We’ve got an administration that’s entirely detached from what’s going on on the ground. The prime minister of Spain just lost his job over it. Nobody likes it when students die on a train. But when he tried to spin it as a Basque thing when it was clearly Al Qaeda, people get mad.

It’s an abysmal business. But that’s the now. What’s coming up ahead? There’s a British writer who just came out with a book, and he thinks that our chances of coming out of the 21st century are 50/50. I’m cheered up by that. 50/50? Those are great odds. It’s the 50th anniversary of the Bikini test. If we can get to 50 years without blowing ourselves up, that’s pretty good. My chances of getting through the 21st century are like 99.999995% against. I’m going to spend the rest of my life watching whether we’ll make it, and I’ll never even know if we made it!

The reason we’ve got a 50/50 chance to make is because we’ve only got the possibility to screw ourselves us. The martians aren’t going to do it. We’ve got to save ourselves. What else am I interested in? Sars, bird flu, and newly emerging diseases? New forms of flu tend to only kill old people. And now we’re the most top heavy with old people. Futurists like demographics because it’s predictable. The only thing that changes the shape of population is an increased death rate, increased birth rate, immigration, or a catastrophe.

We’re going to be top heavy with old people unless something like bird flu comes through. I’m not saying it’s likely to happen. It’s not had a chance to happen before. Old people are vulnerable. The 19,000 people who died in Europe? Mostly old people. I’m going to be one of them, too. Whenever I see this Sars business, I go, “Let me get it first!”

I’m also looking at the global red-light district phenomenon. Globalization doesn’t life all boats. It can lift some boats, or you can become a criminal state. A lot of countries are criminal states, and they spend their time exporting criminal services to the developing world. The only difference between these criminal states and a country that has oil is that the country has oil. As soon as you take the oil away, they become a criminal state. Somalia? 14 solid years of massive, failed state. Not only are they not going to change, but they’re joining the network as fast they can. They’re wiring up as fast as they can go? Why? All of the people who can make a living have already left the country. And they’re sending money home. That’s not going to make Somalia a better place. It’s going to be e-commerce anarchy. I’ve seen a lot of drug use in Austin, but I’ve never seen anyone high on qat. It’s too difficult to ship it, but I dont expect that to last much longer. How long do you think it’s going to be for those viagra emails to turn to offers to sell you qat? They’re living in a nation that’s been turned into a red-light district.

How are we going to get out of this? We could invade Somalia. But that already didn’t work once. All of our interventions in Haiti didn’t seem to do anything. It’s an old problem, something we’ve been chasing since the ’80s. I also watch global civil society movements. I spend a lot of time watching NGOs. If there’s a new world order that actually has some order to it, it’s going to come out of bodies like this. I watch sustainability. It’s good to live in a city where you really feel that if more of the world lived the way we did, the world would be a happier place. This is a happy place, as well as an imperiled place. Austin excels at doing things that are the right thing to do regardless of whether they turn out in any particular way.