Bruce Sterling on startups' role in helping the global rich get richer

Bruce Sterling's speech from NEXT Berlin is a blast of cold air on the themes of startup life, disruption, and global collapse. Bruce excoriates the startup world for its complicity with the conspiracy of the global investor class to vastly increase the wealth of a tiny minority, and describes the role that "design fiction" has in changing this.

Bruce Sterling on Fantasy prototypes and real disruption | NEXT Berlin (via Die Puny Humans)


  1. This is not a new problem. Every ruling class has known from the beginning of time: “Don’t let the peasant class ever own anything.” From outright slavery to indenture to interest payments, it’s all the same. 

    Once something shows value, acquire it. Then rent it back to the poor.

    1. I agree it’s not a new problem. It emerged with the first social stratification. However, I think it bears repeating until everyone gets it. I think there are plenty of people who have deluded themselves into thinking they have somehow gamed the system and opted out of the system of exploitation we all inhabit. That’s unlikely for the vast majority, if not all of us. Just because he’s not the first person to say it, doesn’t mean he shouldn’t say it.

    2. The talk was more than just about rich people controlling the means of production. It was about how they are inventing the future according to their vision, and how the technological class has been recruited in this effort by promises of wealth to build it for them. Bruce is saying the technological class needs to take the lead here.

      1. I don’t disagree with you, but what is the motivation of the two players in this as you identified them? The rich class, and the tech class…?

        1. There aren’t two players with one motivation each. There are millions of players each with their own motivations.  The point of distinguishing between the investor class and the technological class was to recruit the technological class to challenge the assumptions and driving efforts of the investor class — efforts which aren’t always compatible with civil rights, the middle class, etc. Taxonomy of motivations is secondary. Bruce wanted to motivate, to instill motivations that might not have been there, to slay dragons, or at least point them out.

          1. Are you sure you can’t narrow it down to either
            A) What’s good for everyone, or
            B) Take the ‘every’ out of answer A


          2. No, you can’t narrow it down that much.  There is no such thing as “good for all”.  The best for society, or civilization or humanity will necessarily be bad for some people. 

            By our best understanding, a vibrant civil society with a strong middle class will make the rich less rich – in some cases MUCH less rich.  

            A stable ecology will require shutting down or dramatically curtailing fisheries for decades to allow them to recover, which will be extremely painful for entire segments of societies which have been fishermen for generations.  

            A truly sustainable supply chain will raise the cost of goods and force marginal ( often small ) businesses out of the market place.  The higher cost of goods will be a crunch on many lower and middle income families.  In theory, this will improve with time as we try to rebuild a middle class, but there are no guarantees, and in the mean time, they will suffer. 

            Energy companies that employ tens of thousands of people will be forced to change or die, and many will die. 

            There has never been, and will never be a perfect choice.  Even the right choices have negative consequences.   At most, we can strive for the best compromise. 

    3. Every ruling class has known from the beginning of time: “Don’t let the peasant class ever own anything.”

      That probably explains Adobe only allowing vital features of Creative Suite to work if you subscribe to Creative Cloud and pay monthly/yearly fees.

      The corporatists don’t want us to own anything anymore and it shows.

  2. Thanks for the link, Cory!

    Brilliant!  Fucking Brilliant.  The section at the ten minute mark needs to be repeated.

    1. Well, the context was Bruce was asked to speak in front of a bunch of people within the “digital industry” in which many of whom fancy themselves as “digital disrupters”.  

      Many of these self-proclaimed “disrupters” think they are taking advantage of new technologies to disrupt status-quo markets, undercut the slothy competition, seduce away customers/consumers with closer interaction and are generally wreaking havoc with the usual ways of doing business.

       But Bruce is there to give them all a little spanking.

      He said as they are making rich guys richer, they are not disrupting the austerity and are, in fact, one of the top facilitators.

      These corporatist investors are not their friends and they prove it every time they create and smash a tech bubble (over and over again).

      These “disrupters” should keep the money they make and re-invest it in themselves and others to break way from these destructive corporatists.

      They are not disrupting anything with their so-called “disruptive technology” when they answer to corporatists or use their profits to navel gaze and buy little rockets to play with.

      That was my take on it anyway. ^_^

      1. That’s about half of it.  The other half is that he says the tech community needs to actively engage en masse with techno fiction.  Here’s what he means by that.

        Do we really need a Google Glass?  Seriously, what’s it for?  Do we really need a Facebook?  What’s THAT for?  What ELSE is out there that hasn’t been getting play but should, from a technical standpoint?

        The Google Glass is a techno-fiction that someone working for Larry and Sergei came up with and now they are selling.  It will undoubtedly prompt little guys to try to out-invent it, which Google will then buy up and perpetuate the upward-filtration of ideas, to their specifications.

        Sterling is saying, keep a skeptical eye about these techno-fictions.  Don’t get full on suckered in.  Cast a critical eye to what actually gets made, what gets invented.  And do it by catalogging and curating these Dragons. 

        Take Google Glass and FORCE it into a context, naked, shivering, where it must be appreciated alongside its equally nascent techno-fantasy cousins.  Pick it apart.  And don’t be afraid to say, “No. Google Glass is CRAP.  We need better [something else] instead.”

        He’s saying the techno-community should be more organized and a better filter for the shit that actually comes into existence, and push back against the five minute youtube techno-fantasy dragons and bring us all back down from the ledge of hope for the flying cars and robotic maids. 

        Because what we REALLY need are things like vast, intelligent networks of drip irrigation and solar power generation.  Passive water filtration and devices for smart calorie counting and nutrition monitoring.  Health status telemetry and more efficient vehicles.  Safer travel and more responsive governments.

        Those things aren’t as sexy as a Google Glass.  But think of the mileage we’d get out of them.  We can pull ourselves back from this stupid idea of the future and actually create one that promotes our humanity.

        That’s what I took from his talk.

        1. Agreed, the first half or so was about what you’re saying, but I tend to put more emphasis on the last half and closing of a talk to get the overall gist of the message intended (plus you might also note that I was pretty much quoting him nearly direcly in parts of my post). People tend to sum up their overall intentions in the end of a talk or paper, etc.

          On a positive note, more silicon valley money is trying to do what big agriculture won’t do, so that’s a start…

          Good quote from above article link:

          Some investors say food-related start-ups fit into their sustainability portfolios, alongside solar energy or electric cars, because they aim to reduce the toll on the environment of producing animal products. For others, they fit alongside health investments like fitness devices and heart rate monitoring apps. Still others are eager to tackle a real-world problem, instead of building virtual farming games or figuring out ways to get people to click on ads.“There are pretty significant environmental consequences and health issues associated with sodium or high-fructose corn syrup or eating too much red meat,” said Samir Kaul, a partner at Khosla Ventures, which has invested in a half-dozen food start-ups. “I wouldn’t bet my money that Cargill or ConAgra are going to innovate here. I think it’s going to take start-ups to do that.”

        2. Thank you awjt for taking the time to give your interpretation.  If this is what Sterling meant then I actually find more reason to disagree.  You seem to be suggesting that innovation have a point – especially at the time of its birth.  But history is littered with innovation that were not disruptive at the time of their creation but became so under a different context.  Yes, Google Glass seems like a toy but I am not one to say that it has no point yet.  Perhaps someone that sees a greater need than me will figure out how to make it really rock.  The argument wold make more sense if innovation was a zero sum game but since it is not, I say “let it fly!”

      2. Thank you Cowicide for taking the time to explain it better.  I wonder how many people in the audience started wondering what time they were serving dinner.

    2. Oh, thank God! I thought I was the only one. Mr. Sterling had been speaking for a full 3 minutes before he said a single thing I even thought I might understand. (To get timings, place your cursor on the progress bar.)  

      The rest of the time he seemed to be speaking exclusively to people who already knew what he meant, using common words but with unguessable new meanings. “We’re all auto-colonialized…by The Austerity.” Huh? Until I read cowicide’s and ajtw’s posts below, I couldn’t even guess what that might mean.

      And did anyone in that room seriously need to be told they’re making rich guys richer? Are technocreators really that clueless? If so, that would explain a lot.

      1. I more than half suspect that with that air of self-assurance he carries and the absolute confidence he has in whatever he has to say, that a lot of people take him at his word, no matter what he’s saying. And they do so reverently.

      2. And did anyone in that room seriously need to be told they’re making rich guys richer? Are technocreators really that clueless?

        I figure they are well aware that they are making rich guys richer (for the ones in the crowd that do), but what they might not understand (and Bruce’s point) is that because of this, they may not be as truly “disruptive” as they’d like to think they are.

  3. He looks pretty smug in the first frame there.  Then again I would probably be pretty smug if I was Bruce Sterling too.

  4. I’m gonna say that the emperor is not wearing any clothes here. Sterling rambles from topic to topic for fifteen minutes with a single hand-drawn doodle to back up his smug prognostication about what the world is coming to.

    I’m sick of apologizing for people that I generally agree with. Apply some rigor to your “research”, or do us all a favor and dial it down a notch.

  5. This might have been impressive if he were at all coherent. Is it unreasonable to expect a WRITER to say what he means? Every time I thought he MIGHT be getting near a point, it was “Dragons! Dragons! Dragons!”

  6. “A clever 19-year-old GIRL in Arts & Design school.” Er, was that supposed to be derisive? Genuinely wondering.

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