SXSW: Verbatim in places, Bruce Sterling closing speech. Telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

SXSW 2010
[It’s ver­ba­tim except where it’s not, which is a fair few places, and there’s holes (Brazil, Lin­gerie). It’s full of typos. It’s what I cap­tured. Until we get the full length video (ppppp­pleasee, SXSW?) it is, I will immod­est­ly say, the best ASCII cap­ture I’ve seen.
But check out the art­work.]

I do com­plain, but I live in Ser­bia, where they are top-class com­plain­ers, so I take on pro­tec­tive col­ors.

And I’m a futur­ist, which means I can pre­dict my own com­plaints.

Grow­ing old is pleas­ant in many ways, and beats the alter­na­tives.

Kids the­se days” is where I jump the shark. This is prob­a­bly the best behaved gen­er­a­tion in his­to­ry. Depres­sion, two land wars, zero in the way of pre­dictable future and they’re still con­fi­dent and cheer­ful, and kind­ly. By the stan­dards to the 20th cen­tu­ry we shouldn’t be sur­prised if they were sett­ting fire to the core of every city on the plan­et.

Now to the com­plaints. Two big prob­lems. A Finance cri­sis, and this long last­ing green­house effect. We are net­work­ing while Rome Burns.

Every­body thinks the world is end­ing because the guys at SXSW didn’t do enough about it. I’m not say­in you should do noth­ing, only that say­ing your not doing enough is like say­ing bar­bers are not doing enough. So let’s talk about what you will actu­al­ly be blamed for in the future.

I heard say that the inter­net is 15 years old and hasn’t had sex yet. I think the inter­net is actu­al­ly about 25 years old and has some grown up prob­lems.

I was pleased and touched by the recep­tion that the inter­net crit­ics got. But they do a dis­ser­vice to Kev­in Kel­ley, to Tim O’Reilley et al when they call them inter­net-pro­mot­ing ide­alogues. They’re not. They’re deep thinkers and much more com­plex than that.

Your fate will be to be attacked by the dig­i­tal natives who nev­er knew the pre-dig­i­tal times but become pre-dig­i­tal nos­tal­gists. The buzz words of today will be used as the whips and scor­pi­ons of their cri­tique. Why did your “social media” rob us of the right to watch Gun­smoke?

You will be attacked for demon­e­tiz­ing the wrong things. Reportage, for instance. Much here about the death of jour­nal­ism, but how many peo­ple are pay­ing atten­tion to what’s hap­pen­ing in Juarez? Peo­ple talk about the extinc­tion of the press, the demon­e­tiz­ing of reportage. In Juarez peo­ple are being shot. Twice the peo­ple we lost in 9/11. Why? Because the anti-ter­ror­ist anti-insur­gen­cy troops switched sides and decid­ed to become a nar­co-ter­ror­it­st regime. And some­thing they were told was to ice the media. What con­ceiv­able moral leap is there between spec­tac­u­lar behead­ings in Mex­i­co and you guys? Because they are in the busi­ness of keep­ing Austin stoned. And this is because of an Amer­i­can pol­i­cy to crim­i­nal­ize drug use with a mal­func­tion­ing drug enforce­ment pol­i­cy that has fes­tered for a gen­er­a­tion and become real­ly sev­ere. And that’s the sit­u­a­tion that the inter­net will be in a cou­ple gen­er­a­tions down the pike. The prob­lems that we see today, that we have not dealt with, are going to fes­ter and we’re going to get exco­ri­at­ed for them.

You are going to have to find it in your heart to help the­se peo­ple. It will be your great­est moral test. Things that you didn’t plan, that you meant to plan, the ten­den­cy to treat every­thing as cen­sor­ship and route around it, the rub­ber band and scotch tape mashup kludge of putting it togeth­er is going to come back to haunt you. But you have to put aside the inate con­ser­v­a­tivism about the things you did to over­turn the exist­ing order. You will say you didn’t intend it. You will say it wasn’t forseen. And that will be true. And it won’t mat­ter. You have to be kind to your crit­ics, and you have to help them.

In the old days, SXSW used to be uphill with the tabog­gan — you had to explain what a modem was. The­se days you’re all head­ing down the slope full speed with your hands in the air.

Moral author­i­ty based on tech­noc­ra­cy. The small pieces loose­ly joined begin to rat­tle like bones.

If we had it to do over the first thing we should have demoni­tized was food and shel­ter. Imag­ine if the world had open source food, and shel­ter.

Why is there not a sin­gle star­tup whose busi­ness mod­el is com­mu­nist? From each accord­ing to their abil­i­ty to each accord­ing to their need, Van­guard of the rev­o­lu­tion… how much could it hurt?

It’s obvi­ous what hap­pens in a depres­sion. Pover­ty! But still I hear pun­dits ask “Gee what would an extend­ed depres­sion where the means of pro­duc­tion col­lapsed look like?” Well it looks like Detroit.

Or “What would an envri­on­men­tal cri­sis in which extreme weath­er events were rav­ish­ing our cities due to glob­al warm­ing?” It looks like New Orleans!

Why is there so much febrile res­ig­na­tion about giv­ing up? It’s arro­gant to despair. We’ve mul­ti­plied so many options we can’t even name them. Any­thing is pos­si­ble, and that’s what gets me out of bed. Telling the truth about the future is not hard. But why would peo­ple lis­ten, and how would they respond?

Cas­san­dra — the prophet who knows there will be hell to pay in the future. You rarely see some­one with pre­cog­ni­tion who is hav­ing a good time. It’s always a lugubri­ous guy with bats fly­ing around him. What Cas­san­dra had to say was not a lot. I looked up Seneca, in a 1912 trans­la­tion that hasn’t been retrans­lat­ed since, but which has been scanned and is in Google Books. So why did Cas­san­dra, favored by Apol­lo, get killed? She was a sex slave, cap­tured by Agamem­non, put in chains, ene­my alien, war booty, ille­gal immi­grant. So that’s a dis­ad­van­taged social sit­u­a­tion. Who she chose to talk to is also a crit­i­cal error. She only talks to peo­ple she hates. So I asked what would she have done with Social Media? You know, instead of shout­ing at her ene­my and get­ting behead­ed what if she had gone out an min­gled with the Greek pop­u­la­tion. Is there nobody who would lis­ten to her? Who would Cassandra’s BFF be? Who’d be link­in to her all the time? Socrates. Whose line of work was ask­ing point­ed and embarass­ing ques­tions, hang­ing out in the Ago­ra and spread­ing the news of the acad­e­my under the olive groves, tweet­in out truth.

She could have walked up and said Socrates, I know every­thing, I just don’t know how to say it in a way the boss can hear. That could have been a beau­ti­ful rela­tion­ship.

I want to read some­thing. Mark Twain was a high tech entre­peneur. He sunk a bunch of mon­ey in a new print­ing press, and he went broke. So to earn back enough mon­ey to pay back this machine that went into blue screen of death, he went out on the lec­ture cir­cuit because he couldn’t make enough mon­ey with his books. Do a Willy Nel­son. He didn’t write a gen­uine­ly fun­ny book after his encoun­ter with the day’s bust. But he could rein­vent him­self on paper. He enabled Amer­i­ca to become more Amer­i­can. At one point he was in India. He goes out and has a human encoun­ter with this indi­an.

I was up at dawn, the next morn­ing. In India the tourist’s ser­vant does not sleep in a room in the hotel, but rolls him­self up head and ears in his blan­ket and stretch­es him­self on the veran­da, across the front of his master’s door, and spends the night there. I don’t believe anybody’s ser­vant occu­pies a room. Appar­ent­ly, the bun­ga­low ser­vants sleep on the veran­da; it is roomy, and goes all around the house. I speak of menser­vants; I saw none of the oth­er sex. I think there are none, except child-nurs­es. I was up at dawn, and walked around the veran­da, past the rows of sleep­ers. In front of one door a Hin­doo ser­vant was squat­ting, wait­ing for his mas­ter to call him. He had pol­ished the yel­low shoes and placed them by the door, and now he had noth­ing to do but wait. It was freez­ing cold, but there he was, as motion­less as a sculp­tured image, and as patient. It trou­bled me. I want­ed to say to him, Don’t crouch there like that and freeze; nobody requires it of you; stir around and get warm.” But I hadn’t the words. I thought of say­ing ‘jeldy jow’, but I couldn’t remem­ber what it meant, so I didn’t say it. I knew anoth­er phrase, but it wouldn’t come to my mind. I moved on, pur­pos­ing to dis­miss him from my thoughts, but his bare legs and bare feet kept him there. They kept draw­ing me back from the sun­ny side to a point whence I could see him. At the end of an hour he had not changed his atti­tude in the least degree. It was a curi­ous and impres­sive exhi­bi­tion of meek­ness and patience, or for­ti­tude or indif­fer­ence, I did not know which. But it wor­ried me, and it was spoil­ing my morn­ing. In fact, it spoiled two hours of it quite thor­ough­ly. I quit­ted this vicin­i­ty, then, and left him to pun­ish him­self as much as he might want to. But up to that time the man had not changed his atti­tude a hair. He will always remain with me, I sup­pose; his fig­ure nev­er grows vague in my mem­o­ry. When­ev­er I read of Indi­an res­ig­na­tion, Indi­an patience under wrongs, hard­ships, and mis­for­tunes, he comes before me. He becomes a per­son­i­fi­ca­tion, and stands for India in trou­ble. And for untold ages India in trou­ble has been pur­sued with the very remark which I was going to utter but didn’t, because its mean­ing had slipped me: Jed­dy jow! (“Come, shove along!”) 

Why, it was the very thing.

Today, he would be sit­ting there in the same atti­tude, with a cell phone and an MP3 play­er. But the­se days the Amer­i­can nov­el­ist is the endan­gered species, and the guy he wor­ried was going to dis­ap­pear is still there, and he has a phone.

Telling the truth is a rev­o­lu­tion­ary act. But there are only so many times and places where peo­ple can han­dle that. So why not right here, right now.

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