Bruce Sterling public interview on the state of 2008

Bruce Sterling returns again to the WELL's public "Inkwell" conference for his annual state-of-the-year public interview, in which anyone can join in. It's off to a rollicking start, with plenty of chewy, sometimes gnomic Sterlingian pronouncements:
Some people still think that there's an "Islamo-fascist tyranny" somewhere that hates our freedoms and can organize Islam-dom into a coherent fascist state... There's just no way. Al Qaeda and the Taliban aren't true "fascists." Fascists can at least make trains run on time. Even Communists were better-organized. The mujihadeen have no organized army and no industrial policy and they don't know where to find any. Because God was supposed to handle all that for them. You're supposed to die nobly in a crowd of unwitting strangers, and then God's supposed to make that all better. That's the big plan.

But when you blow up the china shop, God doesn't reassemble the plates for you. Being faith-based doesn't trump reality.

It's pretty good news that Al Qaeda is getting tired and losing its charisma. They've held center stage more than long enough.

I think "we" in the largest sense, planetary civilization, world culture or whatever, we're closer to a consensus idea of futurity than it's been since, say, 1997. It's a green futurity. People don't like it much, but they know it's coming anyway.

Ten years ago, there was a little Belle Epoque era of good feeling there when the "Washington Consensus" held its sway... and the thought among opinion-makers of the time was, you know, let the dot-com Long Boomers run that show. Everybody knew that what they were saying and doing didn't make much sense -- but at least there was plenty of pie there for the Formerly Free World.

Now the Americans have clearly lost the thread... the Americans are really just horribly out of it, they're like some giant fundie Brazil, nobody takes their pronunciamentos seriously or believes a word they say... Whereas the world is much more seriously global now. China and India are real players, they're part of the show and they matter.

Serious-minded people everywhere do know they have to deal with the resource crisis and the climate crisis. Because the world-machine's backfiring and puffing smoke. Joe and Jane Sixpack are looking at four-dollar milk and five-dollar gas. It's hurting and it's scary and there's no way out of it but through it.



  1. Where I live, there are still people who believe black men want to kidnap and rape white women. Sterling is right, but I wonder if he knows just how right he actually is. In the midwest at least, Americans are looking at world events’ local effects and deciding to concoct violent and insane fantasies around them instead of working to solve them.

    Tangentially (for the most part), I learned tonight that not only are we in a War on Terror and a War on Illegal Immigration, but somewhere along the line we got entangled in a War on Cancer. If the terrorists, immigrants, and cancer gang up on us we’re done for.

  2. Wait: “China and India are real players, they’re part of the show and they matter.” but “Serious-minded people everywhere do know they have to deal with the resource crisis and the climate crisis.”

    Totally contradictory. China & India clearly stated in Kyoto & Bali that resource and climate issues are the West’s problem to deal with, not theirs.

    Unfortunate that it’s a slow process but the US is looking for shared load in in addressing climate. The Belle Epoque of expecting the US to pay the tab goes on and on.

  3. The thread is great. I’m waiting for more. I remember seeing Bruce when I was 12 at a Cyberpunk authors conference in Detroit. I remember being disappointed when Gibson couldn’t make it – but Sterling and Rudy Rucker took the stage by force.
    Every time 9/11 is mentioned in distant effigy I have to bring up Bruce’s article for Wired in the late 90’s stating – the biggest threat… is radical Islamic Fundamentalism. He saw it coming.

  4. There’s just no way. Al Qaeda and the Taliban aren’t true “fascists.” Fascists can at least make trains run on time

    Whether or not fascism is a good analogy for theocracy, it is a well known myth that fascists “made the trains run on time”, and I’m surprised that Bruce would repeat it. The founder of fascism, Benito Mussolini liked to claim credit for improvements to the Italian train system, but Snopes at least isn’t buying it

  5. Ausuchinu, who expects the U.S. to pay the tab for anything? The rest of the world knows we’ve been junking our economy and industrial base. China certainly knows it — they’re holding a huge amount of our debt.

  6. Joe and Jane may well be scared by looking at 5 dollar gas, in the UK we’re paying 8 Dollars. Serious minded people may well be aware that they should deal with the resource and climate crises but are they willing to give up the SUV’s and the air cons?

  7. Nothing good ever comes from thinking that God will take care of things. Stop Believing in God.

  8. Landowner: Expecting God to take care of everything is bad theology. The same goes for expecting that everything will be taken care of by the Invisible Hand of the Marketplace, or Historical Inevitability, or any other mystic force. There are no hands at work in the world but ours.

  9. B.S. said, “But when you blow up the china shop, God doesn’t reassemble the plates for you. Being faith-based doesn’t trump reality.”

    What a presumptuous thing to say. Does Mr. Sterling assume to know the particulars of everyone’s faith? Does everyone expect God to turn back time and constantly meddle in the affairs of man? I for one think God did what was required 2,000 years ago, now it’s up to us. If you want to believe in the ultimate reversibility of reality I believe worm holes may allow for it. Paradoxes aside. I dislike the meme that says “I know what reality is because I know science.” I know science and I’m aware of what percentage of reality? .00000000000000000000000000000001 percent of the Universe? Reality means Everything. Whoever claims to know reality is fooling themselves

  10. Bruce seems to surprised to discover that what is now called Al Qaeda would terrorize other sunnis.
    This was already explained and analyzed in the awesome documentary “The Power of Nightmares.”

  11. He seems to use corny cliches and thinks he’s readical because he dares to disagree with Fox “News.” The fascists people re concerned with now live in Washington. This guy seems dull and behind the times.

  12. #13 — i agree, mostly boring cliches, nothing too useful.
    Teresa, you seem enamored with the whole “the US economy is going to shit” meme. Have you ever studied economics or looked at any real data, or do you just rely on the “everyone else says this so it must be true” thinking?

  13. Well, the bottom line with regards to our human future is POPULATION. Everything comes down to population. The more humans there are the fewer resources there are to go around, and the less there is to go around the more violence there is, and so the harder governments will get in trying to keep the peace.

    With fundamentalist Islam this is exacerbated by religious laws, but it all originates with Jews and Muslims competing for the same land which they both consider their God-given homeland. Jews and Muslims used to live in peace in the “Holy Land” until the huge influx of diaspora Jews after WW2.

    Terrorism is nothing new, it’s just a guerilla movement on a global scale. Guerillas fight for some perceive injustice. You want to stop terrorism then figure out how to cure the injustice.

    I’m perhaps oversimplifying, but it’s a valid point.

    On a side note I appreciate Sterling pointing out that there isn’t an “Islamo-fascist tyranny somewhere that hates our freedoms”– when right-wingers talk about Al Queda “hating our freedoms” they are just trying to appeal to patriotism. 9/11 wasn’t about Bin Laden trying to destroy our freedoms, but inflict damage on the US both because of his religious intolerance, and because he is at odds with the Saudi royal family which is supported by the US. He may hate our freedom, but it’s more likely that he just wants the US out of Saudi Arabia. If the oil in Saudi Arabia suddenly ran out, I guarantee the US presence there would disappear almost overnight and then what would Al Quaeda do?

  14. Little brain nasty people are loosing it. Soft power that originates from our collective national heart is what has made us a world power. Being tough, fair ,and compassionate was the Warrior face we projected to the world in WW2. We are going to have to dig deep to rebalance that face. All Terrorists Are Criminals. The first time an act of terror was committed, and a leader “Took responsibility ” and that leader was not arrested, should have been a clue that acts of terror were enhancing the carrier of some bureau-rat. We simply have to self check W.T.F. we are using our power for.

  15. Ill Litch: the flip side of decreasing human population is that on the one hand, there are more resources to go round … but it’s also deflationary in macroeconomic terms. (Fewer people means fewer workers which means a smaller tax revenue base which means shrinking budgets for maintaining core infrastructure and government services. It also means more housing, cars, and surplus real estate and tangible wealth chasing fewer dollars.) And once you get into a deflationary cycle, it makes hyperinflation look pleasant in comparison.

  16. Charlie Stross:

    Point well taken, but clearly we can’t sustain human growth forever, there’s 6 billion people now for only 500 million square miles of Earth’s surface area (including oceans). If economic growth is tied to population growth, well. . . methinks the “death of communism” is wildly exaggerated. Either that or millenialist religions are remarkably prescient, although probably not in the exact ways they imagine.

  17. @#18 (Charlie Stross):

    I’m going to expose some of my ignorance here, but aren’t the effects you describe largely due to inherent assumptions under a capitalistic scheme? That is, capitalism seems dependent on ever-increasing sources of property/resources (be they human, natural, geographic, intellectual, or whatever) to exploit/consume in order to continue functioning in a healthy (or at least non-disastrous) fashion.

    We seem to be coming up on a ceiling on at least some of the essential resources for our global economy, and other axiomatic assumptions regarding the underlying “playing field” that the global capitalistic model functions on seem to be shifting. (I think at least partially because in some sense the phrase “global capitalistic model” is self-contradictory.)

    As such, if the method of resource distribution we call capitalism were to shift its assumptions (primarily I’m thinking by adjusting the conditions it defines in order a participant to be considered “successful”, and thereby changing the goals/activities of those participants), could the economic disasters caused by shrinking global population/castastrophic climate change/what-have-you be lessened or avoided (or perhaps even not perceived as being disasters)?

  18. I’m not sure what it is that is winding me up about this discussion or if those things are more a reflection on my mind than actually in the discussion. But I’ve been reading it (even contributed) and it’s making me angry.

    – It’s titled “State of the world 2008” and Bruce started it with a global overview but it keeps getting dragged back to “USA this” and “USA that”. Come on people. The world is more than the USA and you’re in it.

    – The endless doom and scarcity thinking, rightly named apocaphilia. Isn’t anybody aggressively optimistic any more? Doesn’t anybody want to think in terms of abundance instead of scarcity? Go back and read Buckminster Fuller. We’re not in the end times, we’ve hardly begun.

    – The feeling that this is a bunch of old fart hippies moaning into their bongs. Jeez’ we even had the old “there’s no good music any more” theme. Hasn’t anyone noticed the fragmentation, long tail meme? There’s more stuff, including music, being created and consumed by more people than even before. And even if 90% of it is shit as it’s always been, that 10% of good stuff is bigger than ever. Just because the short head of mainstream culture is dying doesn’t mean it’s stopped.


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