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Bruce Sterling on several histories that haven’t happened yet

SXSW Interactive drifts on and off the radar in terms of relevance to the art and technology circuit. Aside from the brain drain Silicon Valley exerts on its talent pool, the festival’s focus on commerce bears little relation to more aesthetic and research-oriented practices (aside from the fabled New Aesthetic brouhaha in 2012, anyways). One thing that endures at ‘South by’ though is Bruce Sterling’s wrapup talk each year, in which the Turin-based science fiction writer and design theorist ruminates on the currents that are rippling through the gathering. His talk from last week has been shared online and it lands a flurry of timely jabs.

As per usual, it’s a pleasure to hear Sterling put Silicon Valley in its place. In this particular rendition he sketches some of the futures that might result from pervasive automation. Driverless cars and the continued erosion of social security both point to the possibility of Universal Basic Income (UBI) – a prominent SXSW topic this year – and in his telling it could yield everything from a Plato’s Academy-style rethinking of cities as giant universities (fully-automated luxury communism!) or permanent austerity and/or mass-militarization. Even better: his contempt for the current fixation on AI. Below, he imagines our ancestors chiding us for turning humanity into the ‘supporting actors’ for automated systems and ideologies:

They would say ‘okay, you’re human like us. You want wealth, you want power, you want fame – sure, so did we. But why are you forfeiting all those things to robots and AIs?’ Why did they become the protagonists of the human story suddenly? I mean those aren’t beings like us; those are recipes, they’re algorithms, they’re embedded in networks of electricity. They’re not historical participants. They could play a great game of Go – they’re very capable – but when they win the game of Go they don’t take any joy at it. They don’t even know they have won. They don’t perceive the beauty of the game they have won. They’re not alive, they have no will to live. And you’re problem is not that you invent them, but secretly that you envy them.

Incisive, derisive, dripping with concern for both culture and climate – give the embed below a listen to hear Sterling opine on the possible future(s) of labour and human agency.

Bruce Sterling | SXSW

  • Harry Dean Stockwell

    Bruce was even crankier than usual this year. This benediction is one reason that I keep going back to SXSW.