Bruce Sterling in 1994, talking about crypto backdoors and the future of VR

Here's a 30-minute keynote that Bruce Sterling gave in 1994 to the ICA's "Towards the Aesthetics of the Future" VR conference in London. You should watch it, if only for the insight it gives into the early years of today's most contested technology questions.

I'm pretty sure this was the year I first met Bruce face-to-face, at a Philcon. I was a fresh Clarion graduate who had dropped out of university after reading a transcript of Bruce's keynote at the 1991 Game Developers Conference, and had followed his coverage of the crypto-wars in the first issues of Wired Magazine; I read and reviewed The Hacker Crackdown at the bookstore I was working in and hand-sold it by the boxload. This video shows Bruce exactly as I remember him then: his laconic Texas delivery still a little disjointed, rather than the gnomic mystique he'd develop later; wearing a cyberpunk leather jacket, freely mixing science fictional speculation about living in a vat of shared blood with wry jokes about the foolishness of allowing US spooks to backdoor UK computers.

This speech is a remarkable time-capsule. 1994 was the height of the Clipper chip debate, the first salvo in our decades-long crypto war. It was the early years of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a host of other organizations that didn't prosper as well in the years to come (I can't remember the last time I heard of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility). VR was in its first blush, and there was massive investment and hype, and media companies were trying to figure out how to make money with it, while the users were split between those whose brains and bodies responded fully to the bulky helmet and glove combos, and those who were left flat (or worse, nauseated) by the experience.

The arguments about crypto and backdoors are remarkable too, if only for how little the underlying substance has changed (crypto works, putting backdoors in crypto makes it stop working, crypto is key to securing computers) — but of course today we have much less abstract debates about these issues: on the one hand, the Apple vs FBI kerfuffle after the San Bernardino shootings; on the other hand, a planet brought to its knees by dum-dums after an NSA backdoor got out into the wild.

Keen Sterling readers will recognize, towards the end, a plot device that turned up in his excellent and prescient climate-change novel Heavy Weather, published the following year: the breathable heavy liquid must have felt like an incredible balm to the still-a-Texas Sterling, whose asthma was confounded by smoking, pollen and scorching heat.

I'm also struck by the generational difference among the cyberpunks and post-cyberpunks in our speech delivery. That first wave, composed of smart, thoughtful midwesterners, southerners, Texans and the occasional laid-back Californian, were wont to speak slowly, thoughtfully, in measured tones, as with seers staring off into a great distance, taking care to describe what they were seeing as precisely as possible. The post-cyberpunks who came after are overheated, frothy, a little spittle-flecked (guilty as charged), the kind of people who can drive a simultaneous interpretation translator to fits of tears (I'm sorry, honestly). Something about the compressed attention spans of the noughties versus the nineties?

Bruce Sterling talking in London in 1994 [Bruce Sterling/Beyond the Beyond]