Welcome to 2020 and your annual State of the World discussion with Bruce Sterling, Jon Lebkowsky and The WELL

Every year (20190, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2014, 2012, 2010, 2007, 2005) Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky conduct a public salon with the users of The WELL on the "State of the World." It's always one of the highlights of the new year for me, and this year (which Sterling calls the first year in his life when it's "hard to find any genuine technical novelty") is off to an especially chewy and interesting start.

Sterling's curtain-raiser posts are all about autocracy and inequality, authoritarianism and the climate emergency. The US's global reputation is in tatters, and with the fall of the US, so too have the US tech companies' reputations plummeted: "Anything that American technology tries to pull in Europe has Trump's face stamped on it. Everyone just assumes it's a lie, a fraud, a subterfuge and a grift, and they're gonna get rooked, if not murdered by drones."

Meanwhile, as the US has grown more similar to a poor autocratic state, the poor states that were once headed for US-style growth have instead stalled out and grown more autocratic themselves: "Brazil is Trumpistan with a Trump who is less sleepy and more predatory."

Where does this autocratic mood come from? Inequality, which is intrinsically humiliating: "People have to be taught there’s a lot they just can’t do that their betters can do, and they’re better off not asserting themselves or making trouble above their station, unless they’ve pledged fealty to some nobleman who commands resources."

That's true abroad, and it's especially true in America, where "Americans are humiliated. That’s why they’re keen on personal-power fetish symbols like handguns. They cling to the Jeffersonian-yeoman self-image, but that’s not the world they’re in."

So in MMXX, we're in a world situation that claims to be post-global and post-Internet and post world-trade, where everybody wants to take back control, be great again, assure sovereign cyberspace, set tariffs, jail immigrant tots, beat up ethnic minorities, nurture billionaires, ignore science, and reduce education to assure that there are fewer brainy chicks -- but in practice, there's no big difference among the players. They ALL do that. There's next to no genuine cultural variety. They all use the same hardware, slogans and techniques.

Also, there's no technological innovation in MMXX. Innovation and invention are out of style. The closest we've got to innovation is "capital moating," where you start some allegedly technical company to screw around with, say, hotels or taxis, and throw so many billions at the project that businessmen are awed. That's financially innovative -- sort of -- it's like the space-aviation biz staying aloft by angling subsidies. That's not Moore's Law, there's nothing amazingly great that is busting out of the garage to set Google-Apple-Facebook-Amazon-Microsoft on their ear. There is no wonderment, because there is no reason to wonder.

The fix is in. The Industry has consolidated. Best of the year lists from tech journalists have been replaced by lists of the worst things happening in tech. For the first time in my life, it's getting hard to find any genuine technical novelty.

State of the World 2020 [Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky/The WELL]

(Images: Moises Rodriguez and Crates, CC BY-SA, modified)

(via Beyond the Beyond)