Bruce Sterling Interview: Cities

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probably needs little introduction here… Through an
electric career as a science fiction author, cultural observer, and
futures provocateur he's emerged as one of the most important voices
of the nascent 21st century. He has a sharp wit, an impeccable turn of
phrase, and a keen eye for spotting the most interesting and obscure
trends before they hit the world stage. His 2009 novel, The
, was released to glowing reviews by the likes of Cory
and Alex
. You can grab his daily brain feed over at the Wired blog,
Beyond the

I got in touch with Sterling and asked some questions about cities…

What are some of the cities you find most interesting? Why?

I go for Austin, Belgrade and Turin. Because I hang out there enough
to have some idea of how they function. I'm also keen on the much
bigger cities of Berlin, London, and Mumbai, but in a more detached
way. I'm getting very interested in Sao Paolo lately.

What do you see as some of the more valuable aspects of
urbanization and some of the more dangerous?

Well, the "valuable" aspect, or at least the interesting one, is that
bigger towns are getting much more "urban-informatic" lately.

a lot of innovation in the urban fabric these days. Cities also seem
to have political energy in an era when nations are getting weaker
every day. For instance, the UK is a creaking financial wreck while
Boris Johnson's London is a freak scene.

The obviously dangerous aspect of modern cities is urban organized
crime, narcoterror, low-intensity warfare, war in urban terrain,
favela shoot-'em-ups, whatever faddish name the trouble has this year.
Baghdad, Mogadishu, Grozny.

But I'd also like to point out that large financial centers in
certain cities around the planet are certainly going to kill millions
of us by destroying our social safety networks in the name of their
imaginary financial efficiency. You're a thousand times more likely to
die because of what some urban banker did in 2008 than from what some
Afghan-based terrorist did in 2001.

*Financiers live in small, panicky urban cloisters, severely detached
from the rest of mankind. They are living today in rich-guy ghetto
cults. They are truly dangerous to our well-being, and they are
getting worse and more extremist, not better and more reasonable.
You're not gonna realize this havoc till you see your elderly Mom
coughing in an emergency ward, but she's going there for a reason.

Do you think governance can scale with the increasing size
of megacities like Jakarta, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, & New York? Or are such
cities doomed to increasing ferality?

I don't think urban scale is a truly serious problem. Tokyo and
Jakarta share the same scale, but not the same problems. There are
plenty of cities that are getting *smaller* and have some awful
problems, viz Detroit.

There are many cities that have outgrown their old infrastructure and
become huge squatter camps, but that's not inherently a scaling
problem, it's a management problem.

How do you think the psychogeography of the city might be
affecting identity and tribalism? Do you suspect the trend is more
towards collaboration or fragmentation?

That word "psychogeography" probably means something, but guys who
use it go out on Situationist drifts and look for urban ley-lines. I
do a lot of similar activity, but I don't like to dignify it too much.

Modern large cities are the engines of globalization in the way that
New York used to be an engine of Americanization. You look at New York
back in the 1800s, obviously collaboration and fragmentation were
going on there at the same time. Little Italy, Little Ukraine,
whatever… but those sharp distinctions tended to melt with time.
Cities that segregate their citizens into ghettos tend to go broke.

The infrastructure always ends up shaping people more than they think
it will. Modern big city people tend to think and act like big-city
people anywhere. A big-city New York guy sleeping in bus stations is
as poor as his brother, some Deep South sharecropper. But the social
chasm between those two people is immense.

You talk about the favela chic expressions of the slums. In
a world of increasing poverty do you see slums as incubators of the
future or more as casualities of the past?

To tell the truth, the slums are probably just as various as the
cities. The slums were caused to exist for all kinds of different bad
reasons. But the slums sure as hell have the birthrate to be the
"incubator of the future." The slums are the nurseries of our planet.
Why we allowed ourselves to let that happen, I dunno, but it's the

What, to you, are the most interesting possibilities of
augmented reality, good or bad, for life in the city?

Oh, it's all about those nifty little navigation apps. They've got
the means, motive and opportunity right now. But you don't really need
AR to do digital mapping of cities. AR comes more into its own with
artsy, confrontational, bend-your-reality stuff. Like the Layar app that "shows" you the Berlin
Wall in its fearsome glory as you are walking thoughtlessly through
modern Berlin. Or the Museum of London "Streetmuseum"
iPhone app that pastes historic photographs of London over the modern
London you see in your iPhone screen.

Then there's the chance of turning urban billboards interactive, and
augmenting them. Not too much of that going on yet, but it's a
super-interesting idea. How come billboards are still so print-based
and static? With displays as cheap as they are, paper billboards
oughta be dying like newspapers.

Finally, what song or artist comes to mind in your personal
urban soundtrack?

Two for the price of one: Ladytron, "High Rise" and "Fighting in
Built-Up Areas."