Bruce Sterling: "From Beyond the Coming Age of Networked Matter," a short story

Beyond the Coming Age of Networked Matter

By Bruce Sterling

"Mutation Machine" by Daniel Martin Diaz


In 2013 at Institute for the Future, the non-profit forecasting thinktank where I'm a researcher, we explored what we're calling the Coming Age of Networked Matter. Over the next few decades, a confluence of breakthroughs in physics, engineering, biology, computation, and complexity science will give us new lenses to observe the wondrous interconnections surrounding us and within us. In the future we're moving toward, we won't only observe complex systems, we'll also modify and even create them in vivo and with purpose. It will be an era of huge possibility, daunting pitfalls, and high weirdness.

To help make this future tangible, we commissioned some of our favorite writers of speculative fiction — Cory Doctorow, Rudy Rucker, Ramez Naam, Bruce Sterling, Madeline Ashby, and Warren Ellis — to write short stories tied to our research theme. The anthology, titled An Aura of Familiarity: Visions from the Coming Age of Networked Matter, contains six stories all released under a Creative Commons license. The accompanying art is by Daniel Martin Diaz.

We are thrilled to premier these stories on Boing Boing. At IFTF's site, you can watch an animated author interview and find out how to win a limited edition print copy of the book and a t-shirt. In August, the entire book will be available as a free PDF at — David Pescovitz

I wasn't too chuffed about the weird changes I saw in my favorite start-up guy. Crawferd was a techie I knew from my circuit: GE Industrial Internet, IBM Smart Cities, the Internet-of-Things in Hackney hackathons. The kind of guy I thought I understood.

I relied on Crawferd to deliver an out-there networked-matter pitch to my potential investors. He was great at this, since he was imaginative, inventive, fearless, tireless, and he had no formal education. Crawferd wore unlaced Converse shoes and a lot of Armani. He had all the bumbling sincerity of a Twitter Arab Spring.

Crawferd could see no difference between physics and metaphysics. The way he had it figured, all matter was code. If you suggested that his trippy hacker mysticism was not entirely plausible—that rocks were rocks and trees were trees, they weren't "networks"— he'd brood at length, then chase you from the hackerspace, slam the door, and blog compulsively.

Given his deep unworldliness and his intense interior life, Crawferd was a pretty easy guy for me to manage. We got along okay, while Sophia and Fatima totally loved Crawferd. S&F were my two wealthy oil widows from Dubai. Their Gulf State pin money had to go somewhere that wasn't Cyprus or Bitcoins.

So for a while things were cozy. I'd arrange funding brunches in Gstaad, where Fatima and Sophia went skiing. I'd wheel in Mr. California Ideology while they had their mint tea and shared the hookah. The sparks would fly.

Crawferd was cool about Sophia and Fatima. He never asked them for much, and he always brought them nifty digital fitness toys. All tech chicks kind of dug Crawferd. He had this spooky geek tenderness, a possibly sensual, my bits-might-turn-to-atoms thing going on.

So S&F hung on his every word, but the truth was, the guy simply didn't know how to cash in. He was all sci-fi and no megacorp.

Then he missed a couple of gigs and he stopped updating on LinkedIn. I was busy helping Microsoft waste some Kinect money, so I didn't bother him.

Then I breezed through Palo Alto and he spotted me on Foursquare. He shot me a mysterious, incoherent SMS full of sick Tweet orthographics. "W3 sh4ll overl4p time, space, and dimensions,

and with0ut bodily motion, peer to the ."

I got rid of that thing pronto. I always erase after reading, my lawyer taught me that. But seeing his freaked message, I took good care to meet him F2F.

Crawferd was lurking and had gone very downside-scenario. He had tinfoiled all the windows inside a nameless AirBnB, which he'd rented from some shivering TumblrGoth who was way into, like, black candles, inverted pentagrams, and big plastic 3Dprinted gargoyles.

Fancy LED lights in Shapeways Nervous-System lamps were segueing through every color in the spectrum, while Soundcloud was streaming the shriekiest works of Grimes.

This was not his customary scene, and I further perceived that my man Crawferd had shed several kilos, dyed his hair pastel, and failed to shave. He kept compulsively stroking the filthy screen of his Chinese-knockoff fondleslab.

"Buzz, old buddy," he croaked at me, "it used to upset me, because I couldn't deliver a massive breakthrough in the networked- matter space. I talked a great game sometimes. But I couldn't execute. But now I'm so freaked out! Yes! Freaky from success! I have networked matter!"

Crawferd had this thousand-mile killer-drone stare now, and also that rigid, pedantic, coder tone of voice, that grammar-nazi thing you see mostly on Ayn Rand websites.

My deliverable seemed clear to me: reduce fever, resume chill, and restore functionality.

"Crawferd, pal, listen up. You've been way overdoing it in an overheated tech scene. I've got your back, and I'm thinking Oahu. There's this cool yoga-hula ashram out there, no Internet connectivity, no cell-phone bars, nothing. Some exercise, brown rice, and vitamin B, and you'll be the old Crawferd in no time."

"Buzz, this matter is about matter. We see matter because we're constructed from matter. We imagine we're made from matter because all we can measure with our network sensors is a narrowly materialistic set of inputs. But that is not the cosmic truth, Buzz. A new science underlies 'matter.' It's about a cellular- automata framework in which all material manifestations are computationally equivalent."

I'd seen these sad symptoms in other guys like him. My fave Californian tech boy had gone straight off the ledge into full Erik Davis techgnosis. "Oahu's just hours away. Beaches, blue sky, maybe a sweet, understanding hippie lady with some pakalolo."

"I have found the grail for the coming age of networked matter, Buzz. I have seized its Philosopher's Stone. I have found a way to transform all matter into network."

"Why?" I said.

He got that look on his face. "What do you mean, 'why'?"

"Where is my user benefit? Where is the business model? You can't get VC backers for that scheme! That is pure Tim Leary mystic woo-woo! You're a coder, Crawferd. I can hear crap like that from L.A. screenwriters."

"Do I look like I'm handwaving at you? I have built a freaking demo! I can run it for you, right here, off my phablet."

Crawferd was a proud and touchy fanatic, but then again, so was Steve Jobs. You can take one fatal step too far into the Reality Distortion Field, and all the typewriters will vanish. They don't come back, either. "So, what does your demo, uh, demo?"

"You remember those two Maker kids? The ones I had hacking those beehives for me?"

I remembered his interns, all right. Two cute Millennial designer kids. Their names escaped me, but she was, like, very Kevin Kelly techno-emergence, while he was very Jussi Parikka insect media. They were Crawferd's start-up slaves. Being Makers, they worked around the clock without a salary, just like bees did.

"Your beehive kids," I said.

"Great design research team! They went deep into the bee 'umwelt,' that sensory world of bees that only bees can perceive. Bees are intensely illustrative of matter-networking principles. Bees scarcely have brains, yet they still assemble and congeal all the nectar and pollen within a given area."

"So that's your demo? It's bees? Cut to the chase! Where's the humming and stinging?"

"That's not my demo yet . . . but here, look what they did on

Kickstarter. You'll appreciate this."

Crawferd caressed his cruddy little "phablet"—man, I really hate that word—and there they were, Crawferd's two favorite Maker kids. Nicely dressed up in black and yellow bee-themed cosplay duds, with that embedded video that crowdfunding projects always do.

"Hi there, people of the Internet! I'm Adrienne, a graphic interface designer from Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, and this is Julio, my coder and Significant Other!"

There followed ninety seconds of jerky handheld from Adrienne's iPhone. Her pitch was all about the graphic interfaces through which bees perceive and manipulate matter. Bee sensors, mostly, their compound eyes, antennae, and their big tonguey mandibles.

Then Julio horned in, to vlog about the bee-code running on their tiny bee brains.

Bee brains lacked much processing power. Just enough hardware in there to run a high-level bee-dance language where the bees could clue each other in about tasty matter resources. Adrienne had mocked this system up on a whiteboard with boxes and arrows. Julio had coded it with open-source modules.

Then they'd created these 3Dprinted plastic "bee puppets." Their fake plastic Maker bees were, like, awesomely effective at bee dancing. Their robot bees, set dancing by Arduino, were basically Trojan Bees. They had gotten root in the hive. They had powned the hive colony superorganism. Those bees would do whatever the hackers wanted.

"Their bee-swarm pitch is out of this world!" I told Crawferd. "I can't believe I haven't seen this idea before!"

The Maker kids ramped up to their triumphant climax. Being new to California, they'd noticed all the window-box marijuana plants. They'd hacked their bees to go out to forage for dope pollen.

They showed the camera their existence proof: a double fistful of honey-drenched Silicon Valley hashish.

Then little Adrienne and Julio modestly asked the public for twenty grand to go 3Dprint some beehives, so they could issue some royal-jelly marijuana prescriptions. A business-model screwup that was total facepalm. Of course their Kickstarter had exploded. Just gone ballistic. It had blown past twelve million USD in capital and was heading north at high speed.

"You have created a monster," I told Crawferd. "I can see why you're so upset now. This is not even funny. Where are those crazy kids? They're gonna need to lawyer up."

"They're no longer with me," muttered Crawferd. "That's the bad part. That's why I'm hiding in here."

"So where'd they run off to?"

Crawferd toyed guiltily with the hopelessly tangled power cord of his phablet. "It's worse than that."

"It's worse than drugs? They're busted?" "Sort of. Worse!"

"They're kidnapped? Mexican marijuana mob? Paramilitary? Body bags, they're hanging from an overpass?"

"Lots worse. Totally worse than that. That's kid stuff compared to what happened."

"Knock it off with the eldritch, nebulous hints, Crawferd! Put it in words of one syllable!"

"I helped them refine their bee-network code. We discovered an underlying network that holds matter together. That code has very wide applications—and they ran it! They hit the Return key! Next millisecond, and they materially failed to compile. Adrienne and Julio just glitched out. Poof, gone, both of them, gone like New Aesthetic render-ghosts."

Crawferd mournfully shook his pastel-dyed head. "Something . . . took a bite right out of material reality. Something like an oblate spheroid, some kind of matte-black collapse field. It devoured them, their desktop, the backups, plus two big round scoops out of the wall and ceiling . . . . Nothing left of them but their Melissa jelly shoes."

"Your interns are dead, Crawferd?"

"No, it's so much worse than just that! I keep telling you! This stuff we call 'matter' is just a fraction of what the 'network' is

all about." Crawferd reached out and clicked off the lamp. The shareable room fell into a deep gloom.

"The true reality is mostly darkness," he intoned. "There is scarcely any light or matter—that's just the graphic front end for the cosmic code. Most of the cosmic code is Dark Energy and Dark Matter. The stuff we foolishly call 'reality' is the cute friendly part with the kid-colored don't-be-evil Google graphics. The true, actual, cosmic reality is the giant Google network pipes and the huge steel barns full of Google Cloud. It's vast and alien and terrifying. Julio and Adrienne rashly pried off the surface of that code. Then the two of them, they just . . . They bluescreened. They snowcrashed. They went Dark."

Due to some vagary of the network, the video on the Kickstarter had started over again. There were little Adrienne and Julio . . . two YouTube phantoms now, still going through their motions, perky and undaunted.

"It's not that I can't believe you, Crawferd," I said. "I can get my head around your story. I saw what Netflix did to Blockbuster."

"Unheard-of cosmic forces rendered both of them," said Crawferd, wiping at his reddened eyes. "My Maker kids are smaller than ultrasonic mist now. They were particle-animated down to Wolfram cellular computrons."

I couldn't face the guy in his grief and woe. In fact, I couldn't tear my eyes from the cheap Chinese phablet with its Kickstarter screen. "Man, they sure had one killer networked-matter application. Look, they've raised fifty grand more while we were talking."

"Stephen Wolfram was right about everything. Wolfram is the greatest physicist since Isaac Newton. Since Plato, even. Our meager, blind physics is just a subset of Wolfram's new-kind-of- science metaphysics. He deserves fifty Nobels."

"How many people have read that Wolfram book?" I asked him. "I hear that his book is, like, huge, cranky, occult, and it drives readers mad."

"I read the forbidden book," said Crawferd. "It's not Steve Wolfram's fault that the universe is a computationally equivalent Turing Machine that's ninety-six percent hideous darkness. It's just that . . . " He drew a trembling breath. "Well, once you understand that truth, you become a cosmic exile. You can never go home."

"Crawferd," I told him slowly, "this news of yours has put me into a headspace where I don't think I can thrive."

"Yeah," said Crawferd. "It's so awful. Truly. It turns out that networked matter is something we should never have messed with. It is 'knowledge Man was not meant to know.'"

I didn't know what to say to that. I'd never heard such a thing said to me by anybody. That whole paradigm made no sense to me. "Not meant to know?" How? Why? Meant by what?

Things not meant to be known were happening all around me, every day. Big Data apps—they were hot—were full of 'knowledge' no 'man' was ever going to 'know.' Wolfram's Mathematica could answer millions of questions no man had ever asked. Even Siri blurted out awesome surreal cut-up bullshit that William Burroughs couldn't match in Tangiers.

"I've been suffering," said Crawferd, "living with cosmic reality for three weeks now. I'm surrounded by terrifying networks of dark matter and energy which are one keyboard tap away yet can never be detected with our human senses."

He fidgeted with the phablet screen, which had gone all green and sickly. "It's clear to me now that somehow bees get it. Bees operate at some unwelt scale of size and insectile perception where they don't even have to read Stephen Wolfram. Did you ever see 'Wax, of the Discovery of Television Among the Bees'? Greatest nature documentary ever."

"I saw Wolfram lecture once in Chicago. He seemed like a decent guy. Maybe we can shoot him an email and get him to suppress his book before it's too late for mankind."

"It's ALWAYS TOO LATE!" Crawferd shrieked in anguish. "Once you know about the cosmic code, the hints are everywhere! You can't suppress that, it's like calling up Shawn Fanning at Napster to shut down Metallica records! Of course I wish—a million times, God help me!—that I'd never opened that accursed book and exposed my mind to the hideous facts! Do you realize how ANCIENT AND ELDRITCH that Wolfram cosmic code is? It predates the universe of matter! The Big Bang was like its start-up chime."

He doubled up choking with despair, and I had to pound his 86 AN AURA OF FAMILIARITY

shoulder blades. I was lucky that as an industry promoter and marketing guy I'd never really grasped code. I couldn't take this half as hard as he did.

But even a layman isn't immune to software. I was catching on. It was dawning on me that "Man" didn't belong in the Cosmos. The Cosmos belonged to something else entirely, something vast and dark and chaotic and pretty much glitchware, and we people, the human user base, we were just phantoms flitting by on the surface of that, like so many lolcats.

Maybe you could see that setup as "funny." If so, it sure was very black, dark, punk, no-future funny. It was very cyber and it was also very nihilist punk. I could sort of get behind that. At least, I'd seen it around. Some kind of dread—but there was still something missing.

There needed to be some way that I could feel about this situation. Some strange, old-fashioned but authentic emotional reaction. Some sensibility, or paradigm, a philosophy, moral order, whatchamacallit, help me out here . . . But I just couldn't get there from where I mentally existed. It was like my permission screen was grayed-out.

"Crawferd," I said, "I know I'm not as smart as you . . . I'm just not feeling it. What is this? What is happening?"

"This is cosmic horror," said Crawferd.

"What's that?"

"It's the stark truth that the cosmos is horrible, Buzz. The universe is dark and ancient and monstrous, and hostile to our frail place within it. If we ever peek just once through a crack in the doors of perception, we shrivel into absurdist nothing, We're cackling madmen eating flies. We're mental mummies forever frozen in fear."

"What are we supposed to do about that? We're tech start-up people!"

He blinked emptily and plucked a stray nose hair from one watering nostril.

"Look, Crawferd, even if all that's true, why would you want to buy into that scene? I mean, that's true like Al Gore Global Warming is true. It's too big a bringdown to talk about in public."

"It is true. I know it is, I proved it with computer science. I've got the cosmic code module. I can boot it from this phablet right here and now."

I waved my hand at him. "You know what I'm hearing from you? I'm hearing a panic attack. Now I get it. This is just a crisis of confidence. You got all 2008 on me here."

"My Makers were eaten by invisible Dark Energy monsters."

"What are you supposed to do with that, post it in the comments section of io9? You're a start-up guy who lost your unpaid interns. It happens! What has become of you, man? You used to be FUN! 'Networking matter' isn't weird gloomy metaphysics! It's a carnival of cool hacks that can turn the whole world on its ear!"

"Sure it's metaphysical. Combining data with matter is always metaphysical."

"You're confusing stuff that's 'awesome' with stuff that's 'awful'! Pull yourself together before it's too late! 'Networked Matter' is like automated Segways that carry you around on Google Maps! It's like Roomba Tiny Scrubble Bubbles that clean up all your mess! It's a beautiful thing, the way forward, it's win-win, it's pure upside!"

"That's what I used to see in the prospect," mourned Crawferd. "I know you can't help me anymore. I ate the Red Pill. The hallucinatory operators are real."

Sadly, he opened a leftover bag of his AirBnB hostess's dehydrated banana chips.

"All I have to do," he said, munching tragically, "is to run my SourceForge code—and it's so pig-simple that it'll even run on this no-name Android device. Then my demo will trojan that Wolfram code into the spacetime that surrounds us." He had a melancholy sip of stale Fanta. "And then, with your own weak human senses, you will understand why dogs howl at silence and cats scream at darkness. We will touch the intangible and eff the ineffable. We will dent the universe."

Of course, we had to do it. It took him awhile to start the streaming mode for us—new media demos never work the first time.

Then, astoundingness started oozing into our meager little room. It was bright, raw, pure 1991-era Wired magazine "Astound Me"

astoundingness, in design-award-winning chrome and hot pink, oozing right off the edge of the page.

Then the walls opened up or rather faded like a smoky mist. We could see that everyday objects, an amazing array of them— spoon to a city, bus to a body, cell to a sewage treatment plant— they all had a cloudy network tissue.

Spotlights of bleeding wireless radiance were shooting through this inferno of the material world. Powerful radiations blasted from devices that unknowing cloudy entities, hapless people, had clamped to their transparent skulls. Sheets of hard data radiation, auroras of it, were blasting straight in and out of their eyeballs, ears, and pineal glands. There were billions of these evil data barnacles out there, infesting every purse and pocket.

A hellish veil lifted over a decaying world of dead analog elder gods. Endless ranks of blacked-out stone columns that had once been as solid, trustworthy, and commonplace as the mystic pyramid on the back of a dollar bill. Now these temples of a lost time were rain-dampened slabs with their roofs torn off, cyclopean temples virally eaten away, reduced to mere vectors and voids, so many once-solid bricks horribly phantomized to pixelated clicks . . .

And then! Then the SOUND came, the ghost wail of Top 40 rock- n-roll that had once been on honest vinyl and delivered through weighty, high-performance quadrophonic speakers, yet now it was some nauseous, thin, maddening, nose-flute wub-wub with all its highs and lows snipped out by bit compression! A maddening, spiritually empty dance music from the court of a demon sultan who torrented so many mp3s that he'd never stop till the heat death of the universe!

Tormented beyond madness, poor Crawferd was staring past me, or rather straight through my flesh, and from the freaked expression on his gaunt face I was sure he was seeing much more than I.

Then from some dreadful tagged spot in geolocative extradimensionality came a seething, writhing cavalcade of immaterial shapes. These were the ghastly, tentacular exudations of a Dark Energy force in the universe—the multiplex arms of a face-sucking vampire squid, the dark lord of the mayhem around us that withered every mortal thing it could touch.

This was a negative equity, a world-spanning, hideous, and implacable debt monster, a beast rising up under the floorboards into a bright and childlike high-technology world that had never known such aberrance existed!

My ears rang, my mouth filled with the panicked taste of my own blood, and suddenly I became possessed of an augmented insight. I saw, through this luminous and shadowy chaos, a machine code underpinning everything. I saw that the AirBnB room, and Crawferd's little Android phablet, and our clothes, shoes, doorknobs, all these networkable objects, known and unknown, were all permeated by the hideous Dark Energy!

In their disgusting disarray, every one of these virtual tentacles was a monstrous composite of an unconscionable entity that fracked the bedrock while inflaming the sky! The dark tentacles overlapped, they were semi-fluid, always floating with malignant purpose! Sometimes, the incorporate tentacles feigned to destroy one another—for I could see a sudden undercutting and a vaporous billowing—but they were all parts of the same writhing extrageometric entity! Then I knew what had happened to Crawferd's poor start-up slaves, what's her face and whatever his name was. They had venture-capitalled into this unholy maelstrom and they would never be seen again!

Something had to give, for soon we would be screaming our lungs out and hauling the papier-mâché puppets of our anxieties around the streets like Occupy tent derelicts. Then mercifully, something did indeed fail, crack, and die in a horrible spasm— Crawferd's phablet.

Nothing called a "phablet" could ever be built to last. It was just a pirate toy, all forged components and no-name Chinese connectors. It had ignited its battery and blown itself into a spewing puddle of toxic plastic stink.

A bad graybar moment ensued then, like that painful pause when a provider cheats on broadband. Then, with a high-pitched yip and a visual warp, we were back in material existence. Just a few leftover hairballs of the truth, scampering off into dim corners like Tumblr gifs from a Studio Ghibli anime.

The rest of this I can tell pretty quickly. We left the smoldering plastic stink for our AirBnB hostess. We stumbled into the empty streets like madmen, disheveled, moaning, and without even a car, until we finally found a lit door that would take us in.

We found ourselves in the welcome, kindly shelter of a globalized, highly efficient, chicken-networking, franchise KFC. I forced a hot tea and some extra crispy into the tormented genius. At least we were alive. Somehow we hadn't deserved to die in cosmic horror. I guess we hadn't lived up to the dignity of it.

Now what were we supposed to do—go to the New York Times? They've got a paywall! We'd glimpsed a frightening ultimate reality. But, mercifully, the sensation had faded.

The sense of wonder has a short shelf life. Cosmic horror, a more intense, more spiritual feeling, even shorter yet. Nobody human can perceive reality at that cosmic level and still persist in daily life. Bees do that, maybe. Bees have been around longer than we have, and bees generally do a better job of keeping their shit together.

So we're shaking all over in the Kentucky Fried Chicken, wondering how we can live henceforth, or at least get more biscuits. Then we glance behind the counter because there's like a quarrel, or at least a noise. There's like two radically underemployed people in there, boxing the product.

These two are dead ringers for—no, they clearly ARE—Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. She's this sensitive poet's widow with an English degree and no means of financial support. He's this hulking, mute, underclass cyborg who's already the walking dead. We hadn't seen 'em when we came in. They hadn't seen us, either. Who ever looks?

They are in there minding the KFC optimized algorithms, and they are feeding us. And we're eating what they feed us. Lots. They don't want to be integral parts of that system, but they can't see any way out of it. They're manning a real life cyber supply chain that they don't perceive as such.

They have something pretty intense going on with each other, too. It's hairier than what we had going on.


Click here to watch an animated interview with Bruce Sterling about this short story.

Bruce Sterling

A futurist, journalist, science-fiction author and design critic, Bruce Sterling is best known for his novels and his seminal work on the Mirrorshades anthology, which defined the cyberpunk genre. His nonfiction works include The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier, Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years, and Shaping Things. He is a contributing editor of Wired magazine, for which he writes on a wide range of topics, including politics, globalization and offshoring, technology and security, and the potential of NGOs. He also writes a weblog. During 2005 and 2011, Sterling was the "visionary in residence" at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

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Text © the author and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Artwork © Daniel Martin Diaz and used with permission.