I look forward to Bruce Sterling’s traditional closing speech at SXSW more than anything at the conference itself. It’s the only place where the heady rush toward the future is momentarily put in check, and somebody has the balls to stand up and ask us if we’ve considered where we’re heading, if we’ve had a look at where we really are, and ask why the hell we aren’t doing something to correct course.
I don’t know why I transcribe what I can of this every year. It’s available on video, my render is never accurate to his exact words, I miss getting some of the best stuff because I’m laughing too hard or wolf whistling in agreement or on my feet in anger — but I continue to do it. Somehow I find it the act of putting it down comforting — it gives me better appreciation, it anchors it in my personal history. And it provides me with a touchstone that I can go back to, once the future is written, and see how it stacks up.
(UPDATE: But it can’t beat video can it?)
Bruce Sterling declares solidarity with the Millennials
I’ve become a tradition. I’m notorious for showing up at SXSW with no graphics no powerpoint, no gamification, no apps to plug.
But I do have a user-interface designed paper notepad.
Unless you are sentimentalizing, this SXSW is better in every objective way than its predecessors. The panels were great, wasn’t a dud in the bunch. There are people here younger than the event. There are augmented reality folks here: I’m a devotee.
The road ahead is pretty clear: if you have done 5 or 6 of these events, you need to go to Europe: go to Picnic in Amsterdam, go to other tech conferences. If you run one of those conferences, fly people from here to your gig. Pay them, feed them, make them welcome. Austin has become the world-capital of the web for four days every year. I am not going to cry in my beer over the shin-digs at my house not being possible anymore. You should bathe in glory, and have a beer.
Now we come to the less pleasant part, where I get a few things off my chest.
I feel this is an audience I can level with. I think it’s important to talk about politics, which is tough because all the language of politics has been made toxic. Reduced to verbal rubble. Polarized brand management. The US has a bad case, but I’ve seen worse.
I want to talk about politics from the point of view of a design critic. I design things that don’t exist yet — with one foot in reality, one in fantasy.
I spend a lot of time collecting cool techno-political ideas, like Government 2.0. Open Democracy.
But it’s not enough to have a lot of ideas.
What it’s about is passionate virtuosity. Find someone who is capable of higher than average performance. In a writer’s career, you have early wild rebels setting fire to stuff with youthful fervor but not a lot of technical skill. At the end of their career they’ve mastered the art, found a comfortable armchair and sit there making wisecracks about youth. Somewhere in between, they peak in both passion and virtuosity.
Politically, in our society, we don’t have any passionate virtuosity. In fact, you need to come up with a term to describe the opposite: disgusted incompetence would probably be better.
I want to talk about Dr. Craig Venter. I went to Washington to talk about the policy consequences of Dr. Venter’s work. What I want to ask is why the guy was here. What benefit did he expect to gain. He’s here because he is trying to reframe 20th century genetic engineering as 21st century synthetic biology.
He started a project called iGen which is a high school science project on the web in which teenage genetic engineers combine synthetic DNA into new organisms. It’s a brilliant end run around the opposition to genetic engineering which you face, e.g. in Europe, where GMOs are synonymous with Frankenfoods.
I remember the fight over GMOs. Then you look at the reaction to synthetic biology and it’s terrible. Microbes are not baby seals. No hippy will ever show up to stop you messing with them. “They’re too small to see, they must not matter” Synthia, the new bacteria that they’ve created, has already replicated billions of times. And of course they want heaps of them. And he’s got Exxon-mobil putting 600 million dollars into more research.
ExxonMobil is the personification of corporate evil if any corporate board should be in prison for crimes against humanity it’s them.
Malefactors and visionary in alliance. Blood will be on their hands, and on the hands of their brethren on K Street. Just look at HBGary. Look at heaps of sock puppets going after climate change and denying it because it pays well.
Oils skyrocketing in price and two nukes melt down. Texas has great wind power and nobody talks about it. Why not take it to the streets Madison style and paralyze Austin with energy demands?
Let J.CRaig be J.Craig. He uses your hacker chops, and your digital media to get your support for his alien technology. Because he’s willing to win ugly.
I was in Google’s lobby HQ in Washington. I watched people discussint potential implications of this thing. And it was pathetic. A 15 year old kid from Cairo could have kicked them to the curb. Had there been a fire they would have published a white paper.
I want to talk about something worse: Italian politics.
Rubygate is a sign of political corruption and flaccidity. This is the walking mummy stalking your future. Berlusconi is the functional equivalent of the owner of Fox news, except he owns all of Italian media. His wife left him for his infidelities because he was a lip-smacking skirt chaser. But then his 90 year old mother died, who apparently had been his moral compass, and he picked up a harem and set up favor networks and placed them in politics and bought them homes and got invovled with an underage belly dancer who robs the apartments of her friends and he bailed her out in this incredible Caligula soap opera: imagine a dozen Monica Lewinski’s. This is a guy with an army, and a navy, and a cabinet.
The women of Italy were naturally upset, took to the streets in their normally silent multitudes and said we are your sisters, your wives, your mothers, why is this man allowed to lead us. To which the men said, it’s about money. Proving Italy has become a bit like Berlusconi’s special harem, and have become used to the little favors he grants them.
Italy is a brothel. And Washington DC is a Wal-Mart of a brothel.
People vote for the party of common sense, the GOP, and yet every other person on the planet who is not American can’t believe it. It’s madness to EVERYONE outside the range of Fox news.
In Berlusconi’s Italy evil is communist feminist lawyers trying to prosecute him for harmless soirees.
In the US it’s teachers in Wisconsin.
And then there’s the Catholic church. It’s two millennia old, and if I blow a little dust on them they’re not gonna wrinkle up. It’s a shocking display of Jesuitical cynicism that they’re not calling for Berlusconi’s head. But he’s gonna support the legislation we want, so we’ll make a devil’s bargain. Where is the moral compass of these people? Do they think it will make the pedophile stories look better?
And the population sit on the couch and play video games, and get more and more obese.
Imagine if the statue of liberty was clocking in around 350 pounds, with a Wii exercise bat instead of a torch. It brings out our inner Bill Hicks.
And if Bill Hicks is looking down on Texas now he’s scolding you worse than me.
What worries me are the things that require focussed attention and passionate virtuousity. Like Earthquake disaster relief. In Italy, L’aquila is still a mess. For us it was the BP oil spill. The government did nothing. Suppose it was 10 times worse, do you think there’s another government that would do more. Who will save us from BP? They’re incapable of rapid compassionate action. A Vampire geezer instead of a President. Wikileaks has more political clout than the pentagon and the State Department combined.
It’s like gothic torpor in a coffin of earth, with the only official act that government has become capable of is reassurances. The Soviets were great at maintaining the pretense that all was well.
Who suffers when your society is incapable of focussed action or genuine innovation? The youth. We have a geritocracy. The old outnumber the young in Italy and the developed world. The reason Egypt worked was because the young got out in the streets and outnumbered the old.
I declare my solidarity with the millennials. Boomers shut the hell up. What’s left of the civil rights you campaigned for? Nice job getting rid of totalitarianism, but get out of the way now.
Stop clinging to your entitlements. You’re turning into Miss Havisham, with cobwebs on your wedding cake. Who is going to provide your entitlements, your retirement? You are sucking the blood of your children. Like Edward in Twilight, 110 years old and still hanging out in high school hittin on a mormon teen no wonder this is the parable of your time — get the heck out of here.
What you need is a global youth movement. General strike. See if they’ll flip their own burgers. Get a mayor under 30– withdraw from places that are top-heavy with over thirties. You guys are the army and cops.
Days of rage, baby.
Be realistic–demand the impossible. Up against the wall.
I usually like to end with a poem, because I am secretly keen on poetry and like to have an audience that can’t escape. But let’s try a couple quotes from Garibaldi, a terrible novelist but a great general, and a great maker of battle speeches:
“I offer neither pay, nor quarters, nor food; I offer only hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles and death.”
And people went for that. And if you don’t stand up, millennials, that’s what you are going to get, so you might as well man up.
“Women of Italy, cast away the cowards from your embraces”
Now the only reason SXSW looks like a new order is because women now attend, and it looks less like a fringe club for eccentrics.
Women of SXSW — do not embrace a coward.
Another world is inevitable. The future is unwritten.
Good luck to you.