[Transcript] Bruce Sterling Closing Remarks - SXSW 2014
Mar 15th, 2014
- The following is a typed-from-scratch transcript of Bruce Sterling's Closing Remarks at SXSW Interactive 2014 in Austin, Texas on Tuesday, March 11 at 5:00 CDT. To the extent possible under law, I (Stephen Torrence, the creator of this transcript) hereby waive all copyright and related or neighboring rights to this work and place it in the international Public Domain. More information here: http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/
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- Original sound file: https://soundcloud.com/officialsxsw/bruce-sterling-closing
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- So, thanks for taking the trouble to show up, yet again. Nice to see familiar faces out in the audience there in the home town crowd.
- Now there are certain people who are almost always at SXSW Interactive, and that would include me, and Lebkowsky, and Hugh Forrest there, and those affable geezers I was on [with] at this year’s commemorative panel, “The Years of South-By.”
- But I don’t want to talk about the people who are just always here, ‘cause that’s a little tedious. I want to talk about the people who are always here and the people who are sometimes here, and then the category of people who are sort of “virtually” here, and then people who ought to be here but aren’t here for various good and sufficient reasons. So it’s kind of a people-centric speech this year, kind of demographics. So I’m gonna mention a lot of these people, I’m gonna name names, and then I’m gonna offer a little summary of what I’ve been up to later, and then you can all go have a beer.
- So we’ve been at this for quite a while here at South-By. Memories and archives and institutional continuity — those are all very important things. I’m very happy about those. I’m an alumnus of the University of Texas. We’ve got huge archives down there second to none. They’ve got a ton of my stuff in there, I trust them to look after it, it’s very important. And I’m an old guy, and people are sentimental about old guys, but… I have to warn you. Really. Nostalgia is a vice. Don’t wade in that. It’s like listening to old people complaining about their health problems. Because they’ve got them, and that’s sort of like uppermost on their mind, and they’re very happy about the sympathy, but it’s just like the Kiss of Death for an event. And it makes you a lot more boring than you actually are. No matter how old you are.
- So I don’t want to reminisce at South-By anymore. I’m gonna kind of refuse to do it on principle. It wouldn’t kill me to skip a few of the events. See if that breaks up the monotony, maybe wakes you up a little. I don’t come to Austin in order to reminisce. I go to Austin to be deep in the heart of the state of the art. I can get all heritage industry rubbish I want in Europe. There’s lots. They’ve got more than you, better than yours. There are people who are here all the damn time. Enough said about them.
- So let’s talk about the people who are sort of here. Like not actually here but super interesting people.
- Assange. Oh yeah. Out in the Ecuadorian library. Our Mr. Assange. On a scratchy and blurry connection, with the sound dropping out periodically, while somebody holds up a cheap webcam and kind of scans the audience. And he’s like rambling on and ranting at the assembled masses.
- And then there was Snowden. Snowden was kind of, almost here. Except on Google Hangout — a lot better connectivity, kinda smoother, more professional. More Big Tech kinda thing. Short, purposeful, to-the-point sentences. Meaningful, no rambling, super organized guy, Mr. Snowden, really playing the long game there. An impressive appearance on his part.
- So there was like the kind of the home made net connection that Assange was on, then there was this sleek, high-tech Google thing that Snowden was using, and then there’s like some Congressman from Kansas who sends an open letter. [audience laughter] I mean, at least he puts it on a website, but really it’s a letter. It’s got like a letterhead, “Dear South-by-Southwest, please stop with the other guys…” He doesn’t show up himself. But he’s just sending his shot across the bow there.
- I understand why you’d be a Congressman from Kansas and want to say such a thing, and I can sympathize with his ideological take on matters because I pay a lot of attention to the American right. I actually know where they’re coming from. But compared to the Mayor of Chicago, who was actually here cutting up something on stage with a 3D printer, this guy looked just hopeless out of it. I mean really sad. He should’ve shown up! I mean what is Congress do ing that’s so important that he couldn’t come to South-By instead of sending a letter? They’ve done nothing in Congress! It’s the worst Congress in American history. Why is he even there? But he did send a letter. [audience laughter]
- And then there was the Governor of Texas, who didn’t show up. But he wrote a newspaper editorial, which to my great surprise was published in the Austin-American Statesman, a print publication. [That] happened across my view. And he was boasting in his Texan fashion about the Texan creative class, and South-By, and music, and film, and so forth, and how creative we Texans are, and how we’re actually making some money making up stuff, and entertaining people. And y’know, I’m from Texas, and I’m a novelist, I entertain guys, and he’s my governor, and I was like… kinda pleased about it. I know he didn’t write that thing himself. [audience chuckles] But that’s what speech writers are for, and I understand that perfectly, and it was kind of like a cool thing for him to say.
- And at least he wasn’t vomiting up his party’s customary hatred for Austin. Because they really do hate Austin in the Republican party. They resent everything about the city. But he’s seeing that it actually conveys some economic benefit, and writing editorials for the paper and praising creative people can’t do much harm. It doesn’t matter as much as the Texas oil industry, but at least we’re not entirely stupefied by our oil industry like a lot of petrocrat states are. We do have creative people here, and it’s a kindly thing to say on his part, and I appreciated it.
- So, so much for the people who were virtually here… kind of here and kind of making their presence known instead of patting on the head or asking for help or haranguing us or scolding us. They weren’t actually in the room, but they’re participants. They’re participants within the social event.
- Now, what about people who weren’t here but probably ought to be here. I’m gonna mention a few. I think these people should be “wooed” and asked to come. I miss their presence here. I think they’d be proper stars at the event. Maybe they would even show up.
- And they’re European. And of course I’m happy to see Europeans here, and also the Brazilians, and the Koreans, and the Hong Kong contingent. I’m thrilled to this globalization of the event. But there are a few people who I think really belong in South-By, and really have sort of a South-By frame of mind, who may have never heard of the event, and you may have never heard of them, but they’re kind of your brothers and sisters in a different social situation. And I want to explain to you why they’re significant, and why you should pay attention to them, and maybe even buy them a tamale someday.
- There’s this woman in France right now who’s running for mayor of Paris, and her name is Nathalie. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. Known as “NKM” in social media, because Nathalie’s super into social media. Nathalie is a French, right-wing, feminist, green, master of communications, and tech entrepreneur, who’s running for mayor of Paris. So she’s got everything that South-By would kind of like. I mean… except for the fact that she’s right-wing. But by a European standard that really doesn’t matter — she’s to the left of the Red Brigades by Texan standards. [audience laughter]
- Anyway… so she’s a Web 2.0 maven, environmentalist, right-wing, social media campaigner who’s big on Flickr and Tumblr and very keen on social media. And she’s been running a *brilliant* campaign to become the mayor of Paris. And she’s a woman, and she’s pretty, and she’s fashionable, and she’s young, and she’s well-spoken, and she’s super well-educated, and she comes from a prominent family, and she has ties in the Paris couture industry… She’s kind of a fascinating person to watch. My favorite French politician.
- She’s gonna lose. [delayed audience chuckles] She’s gonna lose this race, and I’m gonna explain to you why she’s going to lose this race even though she’s got everything going for her that you would think somebody from South-By would like. She’s a woman, she’s a feminist, she’s well-educated, obviously intensely bright, knows all kinds of stuff about digital media, super good at fundraising, going out and finding crowdsourcing for people… She ran the presidential campaign of the previous right-wing president. The left in France is completely on the skids because the president was found having this affair with an actress while he was also having an affair with a TV presenter.
- So on paper she looks terrific, but in Paris people don’t like her because she’s rich. She’s rich and she’s intelligent and she’s technically skilled. And the tide has turned in Paris to the point where people resent that. So the left very cunningly put up *another woman* to run against her, so she couldn’t play the gender card. And then they started going out and using the tactic of humiliating Nathalie by making fun of her wealthy background and her fine clothing and her detachment from working class Paris.
- In other words, she’s kind of getting the Google Bus treatment. They managed to slice her out of the background, and they’ve painted her… well, her nickname among the Left is “The Harpist.” Because she was once photographed in French Vogue with a huge golden harp. So they’ve taken the big golden harp — and I’m sure Nathalie really appreciates harp music — but they’ve taken this harp and they’ve hung it around Nathalie’s neck. And no amount of technical skill is gonna get that harp off her neck. And it’s not gonna get that harp off your neck either, if somebody manages to put it on yours.
- So she’s gonna fail. She’s not gonna win that election, unless she pulls off some kind of last-minute miracle. And then she’s gonna be left for the first time in a long time with no political power, no post at all, really nothing to do. And I’m thinking you should ask her over. I mean, I would. I kinda like Nathalie. I’ve followed her closely through social media. I said hi to her once at an event in France. We don’t know one another personally. But y’know, I recognize her significance. She really an interesting person! She’s really someone who’s quite like you, and she’s going to be defeated and humiliated in a way that she’s never been defeated and humiliated. And I think you can cheer her up, and I think you’re gonna get a lot of what’s being dished out to her, and you’re gonna deserve it every bit as much as she does.
- So it’s a very good idea to watch the ones who are sitting a little closer to the fire there. Yeah, she’s toasty. She doesn’t want to lose that election. She’s a very ambitious woman. She’d like to be president of France. I don’t doubt it. She’s got a Marshall’s knapsack in her baton. She’s young. She may be president of France someday. Very capable woman — energetic, intelligent, technically skilled. Good person to have on your side. You should pay attention to people like her.
- Then there’s another guy who I think kinda belongs here. He’s kind of a mysterious figure. He’s a Web 2.0 organizer in Italy, and his name is Gianroberto Casaleggio.
- I used to hear weird rumors about Gianroberto Casaleggio, because I knew he was the webmaster of the most powerful new political party in Italy, which is called the M5S (the Five Star Movement or the MoVimento Cinque Stelle). He never appeared in public. Nobody knew much about him. He was just the blogger for this electronic mass movement of disgruntled Italians.
- They had an electronics democracy thing going on, and their front man was this angry comedian, who is kind of a functional equivalent of a Colbert of the Colbert Report, or maybe Rush Limbaugh in the other direction. There’s a lot of discontent in Italy, and the MoVimento Cinque Stelle managed to unite a whole bunch of angry groups. Mostly Not-In-My-Backyard groups, kind of protest groups. They were able to use their networking skills to form a big coalition of disgruntled Italians (and believe me, contemporary Italians have plenty to be disgruntled about). They actually managed to win about a third of the seats in parliament — in just a shocking upset — and Casaleggio was basically the webmaster and campaign manager for this party.
- He never talked to the press, because everybody in his party despises the press. They know that the newspapers and television and radio are all in the pockets of the ruling class (what they called the “Casta” or the Elite, meaning basically Berlusconi and his elderly cronies). So they campaigned primarily through gigantic street rallies (which were organized by this comedian) and online on the websites (which were organized by Casaleggio). So very few people knew anything about Casaleggio, but I was impressed that he had actually managed to win this resounding electoral victory in Italian politics.
- I happened to be in an event somewhat similar to this one in Milan, which was run by Wired Italia (you may know that I blog for Wired and therefore know guys at the Italian Wired). So I was at the Italian Wired thing and somebody asked me what I was doing here in Italy and I said, “Well, I’m just hanging out studying guys like Gianroberto Casaleggio.” So they immediately arranged for me to go interview him, and he’d never talked to any member of the press before.
- I went over to his office in Milan. I went in there and actually had a discussion with Gianroberto, who looks *almost exactly like me*. [audience laughter] It was unnerving! He has long, curly hair, sort of little myopic glasses, kind of a tall guy, long nose, dark eyes, and he’s wearing Italian clothing ‘cause he’s Milanese. So the two of us sort of come to the door and look at one another in *shock*, because like “Wait a minute! It’s like my Doppelgänger is standing here.”
- We had this long discussion. He speaks excellent English. He’s spent quite a lot of time in Milan. He has *every* Web 2.0 guru management book ever written in his office! It’s *fantastic!* Every South-By guy who’s ever come in here and pounded the podium, Casaleggio knows about him, he’s read about him, he’s got some kind of file on the subject. I was *astounded* by the guy’s erudition. He’s just put together this web platform that’s really without a European equivalent. But he’s also a guy my age — so he’s a Green, and kind of a philosophical / literary guy, really digs reading history books, kind of resentful of materialism, doesn’t like finance, he’s into voluntary simplicity, he’s read Thoreau’s Walden, we were having this discussion of American Transcendentalism — he’s an intellectual. An Italian hippie intellectual.
- And they almost took power in Italy. If they had formed a coalition with the Right or the Left, the M5S would have been the ruling party in Italy now. But the Right and the Left, recognizing them as an existential threat, immediately united in a coalition. The M5S has always said the Right and the Left have no difference in Italy, they’re just a part of the cast, and the M5S immediately proved that by forcing the two of them into a coalition, which in fact they were doing quite fine. It’s sort anybody but the ‘populist clowns’ (as the Casta called the M5S, because they came up off the streets and they came up off the Web).
- There will be more elections in Italy presently, and there’s a pretty good chance that Casaleggio and his party will actually take power, unless the new Italian government can actually stick something together and solve their many, many economic problems (which are not Italy’s fault and are very, very difficult to solve from an Italian perspective). There’s a pretty good chance that Casaleggio will be the grey eminence of the new Italian parliament, and I don’t think that’s going to be pretty.
- I don’t think that their coalition of Web activists is going to be able to govern Italy, because they have severe [fission] problems. It’s almost as if the organizers of South-By had taken over the Texas legislature. That’s pretty much the political equivalent. Most of the people who are in power now have no experience in governance, they’re all first-time politicians, they don’t really know how to game the system. They’re honest people, but that doesn’t help them in Italy. It’s a very, very strange situation.
- He may also lose, in which case his coalition will probably fall apart, and he will be kind of yesterday’s man, and will be kind of a brilliant organizer of electronic democracy with nobody to organize anymore. If that’s the case, *he should be here.* You should help this guy out! This guy needs a Shiner Bock. He’s really gonna need one pretty bad. He’s one of the most important electronic politicians in contemporary Italy. He’s done a lot of things right, but he’s also laid *wide open* the inherent problems of a lot of political solutions that *you think will work*.
- You’re wrong. They’re not gonna work. Some of them will. Not all of them. A lot of them are gonna fail. “Fail early, fail often, fail hard.” You need to watch the people who are actually, kinda getting some traction, learn by their mistakes, don’t be a naive sucker. He’s way ahead of you in doing stuff like this! He’s the best electronic political organizer in any G7 country. A weird guy. People in Italy think he’s some kind of huckster, spook, a weirdo. Absolutely not— he’s completely honest. What you see with Casaleggio is exactly what you get. He’s more honest than most of the people in the room here.
- What are you gonna do with a guy like that? AirBnB. I dunno. [audience laughter] He’s one of your own. You need to look after him. He’s important. Don’t ignore him. Okay…
- Oh, and I would mention that his party actually sent some guys over to the Ecuadorian embassy in London to cheer Assange up. That’s the M5S.
- So let me talk about some other people who ought to be here but aren’t. And I feel their absence quite keenly because they’re Texans.
- Barrett Brown. [scattered applause] Ever heard of Barrett Brown? No. Crickets chirping in the room over Mr. Brown. He’s the Aaron Swartz of Texas. Ever heard of Aaron Swartz? [more applause] Yeah well, he’s sort of done you the favor of dying, so he’s kind of a romantic figure, whereas Barrett Brown’s actually in a slammer in Dallas for threatening an FBI agent.
- Barrett’s this writer. Underground guy. Writes for the underground press. Dallas kid. Comes from a rich family, has kind of a weird Gonzo / Hunter Thompson lifestyle. He formed a deep friendship with the marauders of Anonymous, back in the days when Anonymous and LulzSec were absolutely *trampling* the security landscape. He got charged with various weird crimes and they’re gonna put him in the slammer for a hundred years. Recently the EFF managed to get some of his more ridiculous charges reduced, but he’s still looking at about 70 years in the slammer for writing friendly articles about sinister hackers.
- Nobody gives him any bail. He’s in there writing book review columns, which get put up on the net. Nobody sends him books. People are trying to raise money for the Barrett Brown defense fund. No millionaires leap to defend him. He’s like an unspoken figure here. He’s like a journalistic bad boy who went over the Dark Side. The Feds came down on him like a ton of bricks. He’s in the slammer.
- That could be you. He’s just the extreme version of a lot of the attitudes that you have. But he’s not the most extreme version. I would also point out that he got into all kinds of trouble mostly through interfering with Stratfor, which is a website *based here in Austin,* which is about cyber-war and cyber-sabotage, and it has a whole bunch of Beltway spooks inside it. Barrett went right over the third rail and he trampled on a bunch of these, and boy were they angry, and boy do they ever knew a lot of prosecuting attorneys. If you don’t know what’s going down with Barrett Brown and you’re living in Texas, you know *nothing* about contemporary electronic politics, okay? Wake the hell up there.
- But he’s not the worst. He didn’t make it to the Ecuadorian embassy. Also he didn’t kill himself. He’s facing this very large set of legal charges. He may be convicted of something, [but] eventually he’s gonna get out. He considers himself a Freedom Fighter against the vast, nebulous pack of Beltway spooks. There are a vast, nebulous pack of Beltway spooks, they’re really mad and afraid now. They’re afraid of him, and a lot of his pals and allies. You should probably send him some books to read, or at the very least you ought to catch up on what went down with him. Because he’s in your backyard. He’s pretty bad.
- But he’s not as bad as Cody Wilson, who ought to be here and isn’t. Cody Wilson. Who is this? Right-wind, Anarcho-Libertarian, student radical from the University of Texas, *in Austin*. What does Cody do? Cody runs an outfit called Defense Distributed, which distributes open source plans for plastic, 3D, magnetometer-transparent handguns. Cody’s a handgun liberation 3D printer. He invented this thing. 100,000 copies have been spread around the Net. It’s called the Liberator. It works. It’s made entirely of plastic, except for the firing pin, which is a ten-penny nail. It fires .380 caliber ammunition, which will put a whole through you as big as your fist. He makes weapons. He’s a weapon-maker. He 3D prints weapons. And he’s an Anarcho-Libertarian gun enthusiast.
- Okay, I understand where Cody’s coming from, and I understand why student radicals want to make loud, headline-grabbing interventions. He’s not much different in his own way than somebody like the Yes Men, or various other kinds of Left-wing pranksters who are keen on doing this all the time. But he’s super-Texan. And there’s a problem that Austin is really into building untraceable weapons and building 3D printed guns, and that Austin has gun stores that will take Bitcoins and sell you guns for those, or that Cody wants to sell his guns for Bitcoins too.
- It’s a serious political difficulty. What’s gonna happen when somebody whips out their secret, undetectable, plastic 3D printed popgun and actually kills some important political figure? It’s not gonna look good. Hundred thousand downloads of that thing. It’s *fantastic!*
- Then there’s Mr. Dark Side Austin. Scarcely heard a word about him here, although he’s notorious, especially among computer crime prosecutors. His mom was here. She got some attention. Not a word about him on any panel.
- Dread Pirate Roberts. Ross Ulbricht. You may not know Ross is an Austin boy, but boy is he ever. You couldn’t tell this guy apart from the crowd in this room with an electron microscope. He looks like you, he smells like you, he talks like you, he wears your clothes, he drinks as much as you do, he’s your age and he’s from your town. And he’s a major Bitcoin, narcotics, international crime lord. He’s an Eagle scout with no criminal record. He’s got a degree in physics. He never had a straight job. He drank the Cool Aid from the Bitcoin fountain and decided to upset / subvert / disturb / disrupt the international narcotics market so that anybody could buy anything they wanted from anywhere with no governmental or police interference.
- He gave it a pretty good shot. Silk Road sold a lot of stuff. I shudder to think how many people in this room were using that service. I don’t doubt that many of you were. [single cheer] What were you thinking?! [nervous laughs] His stack of fake IDs… He’s *very South-By* that guy. [more nervous laughs] Very South-By, totally into creative disruption and meeting computer needs. You should have had a dozen panels here about *not turning into him.* He’s your Mr. Hyde! He’s the Dark Side of the Force.
- And also, the guy who busted him — Preet Bharara, the prosecuting attorney from the Southern District of New York, crushed Silk Road like a bug — I would (if I were still doing computer crime coverage, which thank God I am not) he would be my number one interview candidate right now. You should probably listen to him. The bigger Bitcoin gets, the bigger mister Bharara gets. He’s a very talented, capable, and ambitious prosecuting attorney. If you just follow him on Twitter, you’re gonna learn more, you’re gonna learn more about computer crime than I can teach you while standing here. He’s more interesting than Ross. He doesn’t talk as much as Ross, he doesn’t brag as much as Ross, he doesn’t have a crazy political ideology like Ross does. He has actual politics. But he just crushed Ross like a bug.
- Silk Road 2.0 went down before a week [it could get up]. And what the hell happened to Mt. Gox? Not looking real good. Okay, so why wasn’t Ross here? Well, Ross isn’t gonna be here for quite a while. [audience chuckles] And I grieve for his mother. I grieve for his friends. I grieve for people who trusted him and I’m sorry for what he did. He’s facing trial. I don’t want to condemn him. Perhaps he’ll walk away an innocent man. Everybody’s innocent until proven guilty. But man they jumped on him in a California public library with his laptop open and running and *everything decrypted on it*. Lord of Mercy.
- Okay, he’s not the worst. He’s not the worst Texan anyway. The real gang I’d like to see here — Ross would show up, I think. Ross would certainly appreciate your dollars for his defense fund. You’re gonna have a lot to discuss with Ross. He’s got a martyr complex. He knew what he was getting into in many ways. He immolated himself and his cause there…
- But the real guys I’d like to talk to are the Texas Cryptologic Center, who are in a San Antonio Air Force Base, where they work for the NSA’s Tailored Access Operation. Basically they’re in San Antonio, pulling off electronic equipment off the back of the truck, popping it open, and putting in special NSA components — like “Tailored Access Operation Inside.” They’ve been doctoring hardware in this thing in San Antonio apparently since 1988. This is part of the Snowden leaks.
- Okay, who the heck are these guys? Where do they sleep? Who are they married to? What do they do after a hard day breaking into routers, soldering little stuff? Where do they think this is gonna go? What’s it like to be somebody from the Texas Cryptologic Center’s Tailored Access Operation? What do they tell the kids down at the Little League? How do they get through the day knowing they’re bugging this stuff all the time? And they’re our *neighbors*, they’re like 90 miles yonder. Probably some of them have come to South-By. Why wouldn’t they? They know all about computers. They’re like friends, neighbors, fellow citizens. They vote. They watch Game of Thrones. Whatever the heck they’re doing… What is this bizarre absence of these guys? [audience chuckles] Okay, I guess I could kind of forgive them. They’re technically skilled guys. At least they don’t do particularly sinister things.
- But then there’s one group that I *particularly detest*. This is the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group. And I rejoice to tell you that they’re British — they’re not actually Texans. But if you look up JTRIG (the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group), they sit around all day making up high-brow ways to interfere with political discussion on the Net — false flag operations, fake victim blog posts, every possible method of denial, disruption, degradation, deception. They’re agent provocateurs. They’re secret police spies. They don’t speak Farsi or Pashtun or Arabic. It’s all English! They’re just sitting there disrupting political discussions. Whatever they consider to be “threat.” And they don’t research it. It’s not the Joint Threat *Research* Intelligence Group! You can read the Snowden leaks — it’s the Joint Threat *Disruption* Intelligence Group! They don’t simply *research* them, they’re getting out there to mess with them.
- Okay, JTRIG, I don’t know who you are. I don’t much want to know about your person lives. I understand that you’re spies and you’re secret police agents, and you’re agent provocateurs… but I just want to warn you. *This isn’t gonna end well for you.* You’re not gonna do well by this. You’ve done something that’s morally repugnant here. It’s really beyond the pale. Even though you work for an ally… I’ve read your documents and I understand them, I’ve seen your leaked PowerPoints, I’ve studied them with care, I could probably join you, I understand where you’re coming from, I’m a novelist, I get it about black propaganda… You’re doing the wrong thing here. You’re gonna regret it. You will *not sleep well over this*.
- People in this room — you social media mavens — you would be excellent assets for a group like JTRIG. It wouldn’t surprise me if you were approached by them, in their kindly, perfidious, sinister way. I’d like you to know as much about them as you can, just in case they come knocking someday with their many, many different ways of recruiting agents and assets. Don’t work for them. I know it will tempt you. Don’t go there. It’s wrong. I warned you. Don’t succumb to the perverse allure and romanticism of thinking, “Aw well man, I’m gonna be a hacker and a spook and I’m gonna be a secret master of the universe,” okay? You’re not gonna be able to look in the mirror there. You’re confronting your own darkness there. That abyss is gonna stare back into you. There’s gonna be trouble out of it.
- Okay, who else might show up here in Austin, in the future, besides these people I just named?
- I once came to this very building at a less happy time than SXSW, and I was surprised to find the building entirely full of Louisianans. They were all Katrina refugees. They were from New Orleans. Their homes had been drowned. The dykes had broken and they’d just been swept away by an unnatural climate change catastrophe. They pretty well filled this building. And of course the people from Sandy similarly suffered. My suspicion is that you may get a lot of Californian guests in the future. How many? Maybe as many as can afford to leave.
- California’s looking pretty bad in terms of water. California’s pretty vulnerable in water. They’ve got a very severe drought. There are polar vortices, and the climate really is changing. It’s not a matter of predicting it or talking about it. The wolf’s not at the door, the wolf’s in the living room. Katrina was here, Sandy was here. There’s a very bad drought in California, and they’re gonna move the water. They always fight over water in California. They’ve been doing that for a long time. Anybody who watches Chinatown, the famous California movie, knows that’s all about sinister struggles for water in the desert west. As there’s less and less water, that’s gonna get harder and harder to manage.
- It may seem a little implausible to say the people from an American state are gonna have to get up and leave because there’s no water, but I will point out that many of the people who went to California in the 1930’s were leaving Oklahoma and Nebraska and Kansas because of the Dust Bowl. There was no water, they couldn’t stay, so they went to California. Anything that’s happened in the past may happen again.
- The weather in California now is really unprecedented, and so is the weather in Texas, but it’s worse for them. They’re very ahead of the curve and very intelligent, and a lot of them may leave, and where will they go? Assuming that they do that, where would Silicon Valley go? What if Silicon Valley was just not a going operation? They would have to go somewhere. They’re not gonna go to New Zealand. They could go to the East Coast maybe… but I think a lot of them would probably come here, and then you might have more Californian guests than you ever expected to have. A Katrina level of Californian guests. It might happen very quickly. And if it did happen, you would feel remiss that I didn’t mention this possibility.
- I don’t predict that it’s absolutely, necessarily going to happen, but it’s dumb not to realize that it could. Because it happened in the 30’s and it could happen in another direction. And what are you going to do about it? The people of Austin were actually exceedingly kindly and receptive to the victims of Katrina, but they didn’t have to stay here. They just showed up and they were fed, and clothed, and housed, and given medical attention and treated in a civilized fashion, and so forth.
- But what are you gonna do if the Californians just all the sudden *buy* all of Austin? Because they can. They’re *lots* richer than you. My suspicion is you’re going to see some very severe (not super severe, but increasingly severe) weather disruption events that are just like the ones we’ve already had, only more so. And they’re going to be carried within this cruelty of neo-Liberal global capitalism and the casino economy that we’ve built, our extremely uneven, and outmatched economic structure where the ultra-wealthy can basically buy anything anywhere.
- So what will that look like? The future is about old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. People often ask, “How could science fiction writers predict the future?” The middle of the 20th Century, from here up to about 2070, 2075… it’s old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.
- How do I know that? Well, it’s because demographic change is very obvious — people are gonna get older. And the urban change is very obvious — people have been moving into larger and larger cities for several decades. And climate change is super obvious. People can deny all three of them. You can say, “Oh, well my town will never get bigger.” Okay, Austin’s getting bigger by 100 people a day. Or you could say, “Oh, well I’m never going to get older.” Okay, you are gonna get older. You could get Botox, you can deny it, you can fake it, exercise, take vitamins… you’re gonna get older.
- Then there’s the issue of being afraid of the sky, which is mostly a slider bar — you should be afraid of the sky now, but you could be *extremely* afraid of the sky very suddenly for pretty much any unpredictable reason. Once the thing hits— there’s gonna be lots of Katrinas. If it’s a Katrina a year, we could manage it. But if it’s a Katrina a month or if it’s a Katrina a week, we’re in for it. There’s gonna be lots of old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. Demographics, urbanization, fear.
- What does that mean for Austin? Pretty good news, actually. Austin actually has a young demographic. By the status of cities (which are mostly old) in the world, Austin’s a rather young city. And young people in Austin actually *have jobs*, so they’re getting some training and they’re actually becoming more competent than other people’s cities. And you’re big and you’re growing, but you’re not super big and ultra growing — you’re not groaning at the seams like Rio de Janeiro — but you may be faced with that prospect if things look bad enough for other American cities. And then there’s the question of what are you gonna do about the weather, and the answer is not very much, because you’re an oil state.
- But it will happen, and I’m getting used to the prospect.
- In these speeches, I usually end them with a gimmick. And I actually had a gimmick for this speech, but it was so big that I couldn’t lift it. I had to abandon it in Phoenix, Arizona, because it was 3 meters high and it was 2 meters across, and it could have easily crushed and killed the people who built it.
- I went and I built this interactive art display, which was constructed and designed in the Fab Lab in Torino, and had Intel and Arduino components, and was built with equipment in the laser labs and construction facilities of Arizona State University. I can’t describe to you how eccentric this device was. We were working on it for weeks. We had five hours in order to put in front of the public and get it to run. It almost functioned, ladies and gentlemen. [laughs] [audience laughter] It came close to actually running! But when we had to break it down and put it in the backs of two tiny pickup trucks, and then bolt it all back together in a desert in downtown Phoenix, it never quite got its Italian spirit [embryo] back.
- But I built a thing that was indescribably big and weird, and it made me feel better about the prospect I face. Really. I have the feeling I’ve spent enough time talking about it. I’m actually bored with writing fiction about it. I think I’m gonna spend a couple of years trying to get to physical grips with the problem — What kind of life would old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky actually have? I think it’s time to try some prototypes. It’s time to get radical, actually throw away pretty much everything I possess (it’s not gonna hurt my feelings), try and replace it with completely new, really bizarre, untested lab stuff. It’s not an accident that I was here on a panel with MIT Media Lab, or that Warren Ellis (who works for BERG in London) and I are on the same panel. I don’t hang out with fabrication laboratories in Turin for nothing. I know Massimo Banzi of Arduino, he’s a personal friend.
- I’m just gonna try and built some stuff. I don’t know what they are yet, but I’m gonna be here again next year, I hope. And I plan to show you something *amazing*. I’ve got means, motive, and opportunity, and I’m feeling kinda restless.
- So, thank you for your attention, and you people be well.
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