Bruce Sterling's closing talk at Reboot -- life in the next decade


Mike sez, "In his closing talk from last month's Reboot conference in Copenhagen, Bruce Sterling guesses at what it will be like to live through the next ten years: 'It is neither progress nor conservatism because there's nothing left to conserve and no direction in which to progress. So what you get is transition. Transition to nowhere.'"

Bruce Sterling - reboot 11 closing talk (Thanks, Mike!)


  1. I’m about halfway through and trying to figure out what the hell this guy is trying to accomplish with all of his half-baked metaphors other than the world is gonna suck in the next 10 years.

  2. Wonderful stuff by mister Sterling it is sort of his spimes speech without the spimes. He drops the title of the new W. Gibson book in it too.

  3. I got halfway through and then gave up. Seriously, is this the followup to the Veridian thing? Ouch!

    Atemporality sounds a lot like Future Shock, repackaged 40 years later.

    I kind-of like the idea that historical transitions of the past have helped us understand present day artifacts… but I don’t know how this can help me, and neither does he.

    A Unicorn chaser for this one might involve the Long Now Foundation, or some other whole earth catalog alumni. Let’s change the channel!

  4. “Transition to Nowhere”: That is pretty much how I would have described the last ten years.

    About the only thing you can count on, when it comes to predicting the future, is that the predictor will almost certainly be wrong…

  5. Oh, don’t quit halfway through. The last half is where he actually gives some practical advice.

  6. I agree with the previous comments – the first half is doomsaying, the second half is basic advice on how to live. Not really impressed, sorry.

  7. I enjoyed quite a bit of this. The last part, the 4 catgories of your Stuff – that was wonderful. I’m in the midst of having to purge right now. Just too much crap. I’ve been through it, albeit not by choice (fire), and it IS cathartic. it IS good, after the pain of loss. Much like quitting smoking, it’s a Good Thing, but not while you are in the throes of addiction.

    I disagree however on the one aspect of catagory #1: Beauty. How to identify what is beautiful. If you want to share it, show it to others. If not it’s not beautiful. No, I have to disagree. For example – I have a pair of tea cups thrown by a friend many years ago, in a raku style. They are incredible. I never take them out, but to use them. They don’t sit on a table by the door so I can ‘share’ them. I appreciate the beauty nearly daily (as I have my slow process of making green tea). Sharing something does not qualify it as beautiful. Sharing something that IS beautiful is a Good Thing, but it doean’t define Beauty.

    Of course. in my opinion.

    nicely done.


  8. I’m surprised this many people are missing the point. He’s not being negative. He’s trying to get you to rearrange your thinking. Learn something new. Crist.

  9. Right on #11!

    It’s the sort of thing you usually see on Wired, where someone has spent months researching and writing a huge essay, and all the commenters have clearly read until they hit something they didn’t like and responded by posting “nuh-uh” and launching into a personal anecdote.

  10. The 2nd half was much better than the first, although I really don’t see the connection between the two … the 2nd half is a very well stated, memorable way of saying “get rid of what you don’t need, concentrate on getting the best of what you really do need, what makes life livable and memorable”.

    As to the first half, all this pessimism with no validation; just stating that things are going to be dull and pointless. Man, is this guy ever going to be surprised by the Nano- and Molecular Biology- revolutions! (And he’s friends with William Gibson!)

    But then, he’s only talking about the next 10 years. Not the next 30. Yeah, the immediate future is going to be a lot of over-compensation for the past 10 years. But I still can’t see the cause of all the pessimism. I can’t help but see that the next 10 years are going to be -better- than the last 10.

  11. #13: Give him some credit. Both Gibson and Sterling have seen several iterations of starry-eyed people gushing about the limitless possibilities of _____, and then seeing little come of it.

  12. OK, I sat through the whole thing: even as he warns us against the people who are afraid of the sky, he comes off as one of those people who are afraid of the sky. Scolding his hosts for hairshirt environmentalism doesn’t win him any points. And when he gets down to ‘positive’ suggestions, as reasonable as they all are, they’re still retail level- individuals’ relationships with our own personal stuff.

    The most interesting part of his Atemporality flickr set, is where he talks about social class. I think the elephant in the room, is a sea change in the way people organize ourselves. In the past, social class has generally manifested in a hierarchy, with one group clearly higher on the organization chart than another. This isn’t nearly enough state-space to accommodate the differences that social classes of the future are going to want to express.

    I agree with him that the artifacts we make and use are no longer sufficient to set us apart from each other in any meaningful way. But I have to wonder if maybe he’s not seeing the near future through the eyes of those who have the most to lose. Massive structures are falling, it’s true. But that means a lot more market share can make its way to the forest floor, where small startups can still notice what people still truly need.

    For those with the most to gain, the future looks very good indeed.

  13. Thank you Cory for posting this.

    This man is a SAGE.

    After having many upheavals in my life, I have come to practice much of his “practical advice.” I am now free of “stuff” and make sure I continually weed-out. But I never considered my stuff as “space and energy.” This makes so much more sense.

    Scraping off the barnacles is indeed, emotional and difficult. But I do hope everyone will do it.

    Also, I am a not rich person. Due to health issues I did spend upwards of *most of my money* on a good bed and good shoes. My daily level of happiness has skyrocketed.
    Still working on the chair…

  14. He’s right to scold “hairshirt environmentalism”. Environmentalism of that sort rarely takes off, and, when it does, it’s often cosmetic. It also gives what I’d term “effective environmentalism” a cluttered field to deal with. Anyone who either stumbles upon or earnestly develops something of net benefit to the environment has to contend with how many times people have been hoisted on an environmentalist petard.

    Here’s an example: remember all the “disposable diapers are stuffing our landfills” hype in the US a few years back? It was basically a bitter PR pill. A exemplary canard. Apply the Pareto rule to the situation and it’s evident that what was over-flowing the landfills (at approx 70%) was lawn clippings and old newspapers, with disposable diapers coming in at a fraction of one percent. So why the hype about disposable diapers? It hits people where they live, it forces capitulation in some respect, right at the point of life where young couples are sensitive to their responsibility to the future. Focusing on dirty diapers break’em of altruistic pretensions. Faced with challenges on many fronts, financial, sleep, time, family, etc. they say “screw it, I’m not an environmentalist after all. Give me this one iota of convenience. I’ll use disposable diapers.” Thin edge of the wedge. Happens a hundred different ways. Often manufactured. Look at the whole “a search on Google uses as much energy as making a cup of tea” meme, which is rarely followed up enough with the “how much is that compared the energy I’d spend driving around without a good map, or from retail venue to retail venue hunting for bargains, or that I’d have wasted not reading the product review that saved me from buying a piece of crap device I’ll use but once?” Are you gonna stop using Google? (or an equivalent)Would you knowingly accept as half as good search results to save the energy required to boil-up a half a cup of tea? Me neither. Accept this narrative and you’re in a bind. It’s no mistake. It becomes a scientific analog to a poorly formed religious conundrum for the merely devout. Spend a few minutes and, even if you’re mildly conversant regarding engineering and design as well as environmental issues, several similar instances will come to mind.

    Let’s face it: People like hot showers. People like having a variety of choices of where to be, who to be with, and what to do for entertainment. They like to eat tasty food, drink cold beverages and experience comfortable ambient temperatures. They like these and a myriad of other things and conditions that they have now. Any “lifestyle” with the prospect, never mind the certainty, of denying them these amenities is a non-starter except for the deluded and a few rare outliers. Stack up enough filling meals or hot showers on the scale versus Bambi and the “environment” and Bambi looses every time. The only way things will ultimately work is to be upfront about what the trade-offs are and ways to satisfy both competing claims on our productivity.

    “Claims on our productivity”. That phrase can go a long way toward explaining how we got into the current situation. People who have a vested interest, and who profit from, the current inefficiencies in our dominant productive and economic modes like how it’s going generally, and to that end, they LOVE “hairshirt environmentalism”. It’s a big ‘ole club to beat everyone who might be sitting on the fence.

    Hairshirt “greener-than-thou” environmentalism is probably a flight into fantasy and twisted social purity displays. Hairshirt environmentalism is probably also one of the biggest obstacles to actual environmentalism.

  15. Atemporality–

    We cease to be able to date anything within centuries, let alone decades, by the language of its ornamentation.

    Cranky Ozzie Spengler. Lots to dislike about him. But he knew something.

  16. Sterling is right about our need to change our relationships to things, but as long as there is cheap oil and the polar ice caps are still frozen, people (in general) are not going to change those relationships. We need the good minds in the “design sector” to fully accept we have past the mark to easily extract petroleum out of the ground, and that no combination of renewable energies are going to allow us to continue our techno-industrial lifestyle–if we had started when Jimmy Carter warned us, maybe we could. Once people experience (hopefully we have the foresight to envision it before it happens)life with staggering costs to some really basic life giving objects and services, that relationship to those needed objects(food, healthcare etc)and the desired objects (ipods, fun kitchens etc) will be change without the use of metaphors or cool SF books that Sterling employs. Alas, human overpopulation has brought us on the brink of an environmental and energy crisis. In other words, we have overshot the earth’s carry capacity!

    I commend #16 for stripping down!

  17. Terrific presentation …

    I love the fact that he is sticking his head above the crowd and looking around.

    Theres a lot of truth in what he says that I suspect a lot of us sense but assume that since noone else says it that it must be wrong for some reason you cant imagine.

    I tend to WANT to be more optimistic about the future but I have only hope that it is, he may infact be more correct and if he is thats scary and inevitable and if it is inevitable then we should be embracing anarchism more and living more in the now.

  18. Seems to have been a divisive speech, judging by the comments, but I thought it was fantastic. He mentioned a number of ideas I’ve noticed as well, like the increasing anachronism in our society. Also, I’ve wanted to get rid of a lot of my stuff for a long time, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. This was convincing.

  19. I liked this very much.
    We need more crazy people. With political ideology gone, and religious ideology soon to be gone too (I hope), we must provide our own meaning to this world. We must be ourselves and totally at that. To be yourself is a crazy thing these days (unfortunately), partially because it requires lots of wisdom and time. I look at the world for the last 10 years and the word that comes to mind is “FAKE”.

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