Fake news often reads or looks on video, like weaponized design fiction: Bruce Sterling

Gautham Shenoy January 20, 2018 11 min

His Twitter bio says that he is ‘One of the better-known Bruce Sterlings’. But for readers of science fiction, the tech community, people interested in knowing how culture and technology interact, intersect & impact humanity, and geeks at large, he is THE Bruce Sterling.

Multiple-award-winning science fiction author, cyber-guru and technopundit, Bruce Sterling is one of the founders, and chief architects of the cyberpunk genre, with his novels and the genre’s defining anthology Mirrorshades edited by him being essential for an understanding of cyberpunk. Along with William Gibson, he helped establish many of the conventions of another genre, steampunk, with the highly influential book, The Difference Engine. Quizzing enthusiasts know him also to be the person featured on the cover of the very first issue of Wired (with the headline, ‘Bruce Sterling Has Seen the Future of War’), a magazine that to this day hosts his popular blog, Beyond the Beyond. Readers of this New Worlds Weekly column would also remember him for his contributions to the Sci-fi Anthology from Project Hieroglyph (in fact it was an extract from his short story Tall Tower that concluded that piece), and for being a part of the XPRIZE Science Fiction Advisory Council, and contributing to its anthology. And the Indian connection? Bruce Sterling lived – and travelled – in India during his teens and keenly follows India, not least Bollywood.

An outspoken commentator on the state of affairs of (almost) everything, Bruce Sterling is also a futurist, a proponent of design fiction, a much sought-after speaker, amongst many other things, the listing of which and that of his achievements and involvements, would take many a page-scroll. So without further ado, let’s go straight into the Q&A.

Gautham Shenoy: Many things you read in sci-fi today seems so familiar, given technological breakthroughs and headlines that tell you every day that yet another ‘gadget from sci-fi’ has arrived. Even fictional elements or tech that seems new, feels like ‘a difference of degree than a difference of kind’. Is there any point to reading ‘science fiction’ anymore, and where does sci-fi go from here?

Bruce Sterling: How do people learn what is “science fictional?” It’s rhetoric. Science fiction is what sounds like science fiction. It’s not about the “breakthroughs” in science, it’s a cultural sensibility.

Let’s say that I write a short story about people eating insects in Europe. You might as well say, “Wow, what a science fictional idea! People would never eat insects in Europe because Europeans are all gourmets, and fussy about their fine traditional food”. But, in reality, insect-eating rules were just relaxed in the European Union, on January 1 of this year. In 2018, it’s legal to farm and eat insects, and Europeans are selling insect-based foods. It’s the objective truth.

Even before insect food was entirely legal in Italy, I ate some cricket-flour snacks in Rome late last year. So those two things, the legal European regulatory business, and my personal experience of eating cricket food-product in Europe, those are not “science fiction”. They’re not imaginary. I didn’t invent them. They happened. I was there. They “arrived,” as you say.

But now imagine that you read a science fiction story about, say, a Bollywood star getting married in Italy. She and her cricket-star husband sit down at their Italian wedding feast, with the costumes and the cameras, and they eat some Italian crickets, insects ground into powder and packaged as pasta.

That incident has to seem plenty weird. It sounds shocking, bizarre. It would surely be perceived as science fiction. So it doesn’t much matter much if “breakthroughs” in insect diets have “arrived in the headlines.” A Bollywood wedding with a cricket captain is sure to get plenty of “headlines” in India. Those headlines are just headlines. They’re media artefacts.

An Indian cricket captain who eats crickets will seem weird for quite a while.

An Indian cricket captain who eats crickets will seem weird for quite a while. It’s science fictional. Even though the laws about crickets are as real as the laws about weddings.

That would remain true even if that happened in reality. Maybe Mr. Virat Kohli has literally, factually eaten some crickets. I myself did that in Italy — so maybe he did it too. How would we even know? Why does it matter? For a professional science fiction writer, with an understanding of how this sensibility works, that should make no difference at all.

Now. Do you see how I just made you imagine Virat Kohli, the famous Indian cricket captain, eating crickets? That’s absurd, right? Think about it – it’s crazy, bizarre. It’s a pun. ‘Cricket’ the sport and ‘crickets’ the insects. But I just deployed science fiction rhetoric to dissolve your sense of reality. You have to pause in the middle of the sentence, you have to think, “Wait, maybe that happened. What I thought was impossible — it’s possible”. The unthinkable becomes thinkable. So: do you see what I did to you, the reader, there? That’s where science fiction can go!

Some essential science fiction reads: Schismatrix featuring the featuring the Shapers (who use genetic manipulation & bioengineering to improve themselves) and Mechanists (who utilise machines and AI to augment themselves), the Bruce Sterling-edited Mirrorshades: A Cyberpunk Anthology, Islands in the Net, that foretold some of today’s technologies and the steampunk classic co-authored by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine.

Shenoy: Increasingly, companies are turning to science fiction, and to SF authors to “imagine the future” and prototype it, so to speak. What is your opinion on this, given that such narratives can influence the present towards their preferred ‘version of the future’? Is this design fiction the way you imagined it?

Sterling: Yes, I understood that design fiction was a form of design. Design has clients. You can create design fiction and try to get an audience to pay for that fiction as entertainment. But in the design world, it’s commonly the client who pays the designer. That’s the structure of design as an industrial sector. Those clients might be corporations, governments, think tanks, ad agencies, political parties, many different people. “Fake news” often reads, or looks on video, like weaponized design fiction.

I sometimes consult for companies or other organisations, but I don’t do that as a science fiction writer, I do it as a futurist. We do trendspotting, strategic forecasting, quadrant scenarios, all that good stuff. If you want to act as a futurist, you have to pay attention to futurists who aren’t science fiction writers.

Shenoy: Mega-corporations, hacktivism, widespread surveillance, everything online, companies versus countries, lousy weather….are we living in a cyberpunk world architected by Bruce Sterling?

Sterling: Pretty much we are doing that, at this particular historical moment. At least, this contemporary world looks rather more like my novels that it does most other science fiction novels of the 1980s or 1990s.

It’s fun to see people realise that cyberpunk writers were realists. We were pretty confident that we were realists back at the time, but American critics assumed that we were too cynical and visionary.

I have to give some personal credit to India here. After living in India for three years as a teenager, I came to understand that my fellow Americans have a lot of illusions.

Shenoy: Robots will take away our jobs leaving us free to explore our creative side. Whatever needs to be done will be done by AIs. Everything will be automated. Humanity will live in a post-work utopia. Is this just a pollyannaish fantasy? And if ‘humans’ as we know us do become obsolete, and have to move on, would I be better off as a Shaper or a Mechanist?

Sterling: Those are many different questions, and I don’t accept the premise of any of them. None of that is going to happen. The relationship of people and autonomous machinery is more interesting and complex than all that. It’s not Utopian, it’s political.

Some critic of Schismatrix once remarked that the Mechanists seem to have a better life, but the Shapers have the best dialogue lines. So if you prefer a short, dramatic life then you should be a Shaper.

Other Bruce Sterling essentials: Heavy Weather, Holy Fire, Distraction, and Zeitgeist.

Shenoy: What are your thoughts on India’s Aadhaar project? What is it doing right? What could the UIDAI do better?

Sterling: I don’t like to intervene in Indian domestic controversies, although I do enjoy watching them! If I were Indian, I wouldn’t want any strategic advice on electronic governance from any Americans right now. There are times when Americans can give people some useful technical advice, but the year 2018 isn’t one of them.

If I were an Indian technical journalist in 2018, I would probably write a loud essay arguing that Facebook is more of a threat to Indian democracy than Aadhaar.

If I were an Indian technical journalist in 2018, I would probably write a loud essay arguing that Facebook is more of a threat to Indian democracy than Aadhaar. I bet that would be a really popular essay that would go viral in a hurry.

The UIDAI doesn’t require my advice, but I can comment on the general issue. When you’re building infrastructure for a democracy, you naturally want to build something exciting and dynamic that gives you more power and makes you look great to the voters. But someday, always sooner than you like, you’ll be voted out of power. Then everything that you built will belong to the opposition party. That problem is underestimated.

Shenoy: What’s your opinion on SF in/from India? What work or works of science fiction from India – across any medium – have you truly enjoyed, and which ones did you think could’ve done better?

Sterling: Naturally every writer in India would like to be internationally famous for writing some brilliant, yet commercially successful science fiction like ‘Calcutta Chromosome’. But did you ever hear of “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie? That’s a book with some Indian themes that have worldwide consequence. It’s not comfortable to be a famous and important writer like Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s novel is better than most people understand, though. Because it’s got a genuine, consequential topic. People who were offended by “Satanic Verses” understood that the novel was powerful. It’s literature.

Most science fiction writers aren’t cyberpunk ideologues like me. They’re harmless fantasists who want to entertain the fans.

Most science fiction writers aren’t cyberpunk ideologues like me. They’re harmless fantasists who want to entertain the fans. “Enthiran the Robot” is an enjoyable work of Indian science fiction. The “Krrish” trilogy is lively, too. An Indian science fiction with genuine popular roots in India would probably look like those two hit movie series, in much the way that most American science fiction looks like cheerful commercial rubbish such as Star Wars, Star Trek and Marvel Comics movies.

Probably that mass commercial success is what creates commercial room for cultural efforts like cyberpunk. So if there’s something that Indian science fiction can “do better,” it might be a more sophisticated understanding of how science fiction fits into the Indian media scene in general, and into the larger context of Indian culture.

You would need to understand what Indians like about science fiction, and what aspects of it they like. You have to take those intellectual tools, make them your own, and use them to make a difference.

But you must go farther than just India. Not to publishers in London or New York, but into the Indian cultural sphere of influence. Try to think kindly of Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan. Tibet, even. Places and peoples who understand that India has a space program, a Moon rover, a Mars probe. That India has Bangalore and elite engineering schools, that India is a regional superpower.

If you only write patriotic nationalist fiction that makes your own Dad happy and proud, that might play well at home, but it can’t last.

If you only write patriotic nationalist fiction that makes your own Dad happy and proud, that might play well at home, but it can’t last. Because it’s just propaganda, it’s not literary. Imagine a modern Indian science fiction novel that would impress people in Dubai. If you understood Dubai well enough to disturb them – to tell them things they just didn’t know, to change their minds about something that matters – that book would be a big domestic hit in India. You wouldn’t have to persuade the Indian public to read such a book. They would look at it and understand quickly, “This is us”. “We want to be seen like this,” that is propaganda which belongs in the embassy or the ad agency. “This is us” – that’s a contribution to world culture.

“It’s within your capacity to do that. It isn’t easy or simple, but I have seen it done.” he says as he concludes with that encouraging, realistic piece of advice.

That’s it for the interview! Thank you, Mr. Sterling for the opportunity, and for making for this.

I for one, found the ‘A’ part of the Q&A quite insightful and enlightening, as it to be expected when Bruce Sterling is involved. I hope you did too. And on that note, I bid you farewell, until next weekend, when we shall meet again over another edition of New Worlds Weekly. Live Long and Prosper!


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