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)