Bruce Sterling on making the Internet safe for freedom and art

Bruce Sterling's keynote at the Transmediale conference in Berlin is one of his best-ever outings (and I say that as a person who dropped out of university and totally upended his life after reading a transcript of one of Bruce's speeches). Sterling addresses the bankruptcy of tech giants, who have morphed themselves into intrusive presences that carry water for the surveillance industry, and lays out a credible case for a future where they are forgotten footnotes in our history.

In particular, I was impressed by this speech because it corrected some serious errors from Sterling's essay "The Ecuadorian Library," which, as Danny O'Brien pointed out completely misattributed a kind of optimistic naivete to technology activists past and present.

In this speech, Sterling revisits the origins and ongoing reality of the project to remake technology as a force for freedom, and corrects the record. As Sterling says, John Perry Barlow didn't write the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace because he thought the cops couldn't or wouldn't try to take over the Internet: he wrote it because the cops were trying to take it over, and he was "shouting through a megaphone" at them.

There's a species of bottom-feeding contrarian that has sprung up in this century to decry the Internet as a system of oppression. Most of these men are people with some passing connection to the entertainment industry, which has spent the past 20 years demanding systems of Internet censorship and surveillance to help with copyright enforcement. These critics -- who get a lot of press from the news-media, who love mud-slinging as much as they fear disruptive technology -- have somehow hit upon groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Free Software Foundation as villains in their narratives. Nevermind the fact that the cause of Internet freedom (which includes a fair deal in copyright, because the Internet is a machine for copying) has always been central to these groups' missions, and that they've championed Internet freedom because they were frightened of how the net could be used to surveil and control us, not because they were blind to that possibility.

This talk demolishes that streak of revisionism, and furthermore advances an agenda for a technologically adept arts-practice. It is a marvel of rhetoric and a tonic for those of us who are heartily sick of the trolls.

Bruce Sterling / transmediale 2014 afterglow Opening Ceremony (via Futurismic)

Notable Replies

  1. There's a species of bottom-feeding contrarian that has sprung up in this century to decry the Internet as a system of oppression.

    I think a more pervasive threat to digital freedom comes from progressives and radicals who continue to use Apple and Microsoft technology. If more Apple/PC users in that group switched to GNU/Linux and encouraged others to do the same - if more of them saw free software as integral to, and a piece with, the other freedoms many of them are fighting for - it would do a lot to catalyze adoption of those technologies. (I'm thinking mostly in the US; I know there's more widespread adoption of free software elsewhere.)

  2. I say that as a person who dropped out of university and totally upended his life after reading a transcript of one of Bruce's speeches

    Kind of obliterated the lede there. Now guess which speech I'm interested in first.

  3. In your situation I think I would run whatever programs can be run on the GNU/Linux system on that system. So maybe that would mean one gaming machine and one for all else. You pay a price in inconvenience, having two systems, but the compelling moral reason would be that you would support and promote free software and all the goodness* that derives from that; and you are also doing your bit to neuter the corporate surveillance state.

    *Goodness summarized here: http://www.fsf.org/about/what-is-free-software

  4. tboy says:

    Two things, really:

    A transcript of the speech would really be appreciated. Not everyone has the time or bandwidth to watch an entire video.

    And then this:

    There's a species of bottom-feeding contrarian that has sprung up in this century to decry the Internet as a system of oppression. Most of these men are people with some passing connection to the entertainment industry, which has spent the past 20 years demanding systems of Internet censorship and surveillance to help with copyright enforcement.

    Please don't do this.

    People who criticize American, Canadian and, oh yeah, Bad Countries™ for using information obtained by companies operating on the Internet (like Facebook, Google & co.) to profile, harass and occasionally murder people are not necessarily the same people who want the bad old way of doing the content-creation business. Heck, sometimes they're the same people you credit for keeping Internet Freedoms alive.

    I mean, the biggest issue with regards to Internet surveillance is how governments brazenly do it, often aided and abetted by corporations that trumpet the "freedom to innovate" line when it suits them.

  5. Similar to @wysinwyg and @ycharleyy I chose my OS based on software to do the job I want to accomplish rather than for idealist or quasi-cultic reasons. I too am aware of the attempts of FLOSS developers to clone commercial packages to try and replicate the tool chains which developed in the closed source/commercial world and have used some of those FLOSS applications at different times and my current choice of OS depends on the goodwill of the FLOSS community. That doesn't mean the FLOSS applications fit my needs and I am not persuaded by the jeremiad cries of he prophets of GNU that I should alter my needs to fit their moral view.

    I'm well aware of the goodness of the FLOSS concept and I applaud it but I don't view the moralist overlay as being universally applicable.

Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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