Speech at Industrial Designers Society of America national conference

IDSA 99, Chicago July 17, 01999

by Bruce Sterling

Thanks for that kind and flattering introduction. Some of it was true! It's true that my name is Bruce Sterling, and I'm a science fiction writer from Austin, Texas. I'm here to talk about design opportunities in the early 21st century.

I'm enjoying my time here in Chicago. It's a good conference. Nice locale. I walked out to Chicago Navy Pier yesterday. The Pier is this huge, defunct, industrial wreck, and yet they've somehow transformed it into this heritage-tourist draw, experience-economy, Urban Entertainment Destination, theme-park thing. I was quite impressed. I recommend a visit.

So it's very pleasant to be here in Chicago in July 1999. It's certainly a hell of a lot nicer than being here in Chicago in July 1995. I don't know if you remember Chicago in July '95. People have a way of blocking these memories out. But back in July 1995, six hundred people died of the heat in Chicago. More people died in the Chicago Heat Wave of '95 than died in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Chicago morgues couldn't handle the corpses.

Those were some kind of heat-strokes, too. Merciless heat, freakish heat, it lasted all night, night after night, from July 12th to the 16th. That heat wiped people out. Half of the people admitted to the Chicago intensive care units in July '95 were dead within a year. I'm not making this up, y'know. You can read all about it on the website of the Centers for Disease Control. It's quite an interesting study. "Multi-system organ dysfunction... lasting neurological impairment... brain, kidney, and cardiovascular damage, previously considered rare in classic heat stroke", I'm kinda quoting here....

(((speaker places ashtray on podium, ostentatiously lights cigarette)))

But we're not here to talk about the dead past of remote 1995. We're here to discuss the glorious future. You know all that futuristic stuff about emitting carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, and how CO2 causes a Greenhouse Effect that makes the weather all freaky? Like, all those Nobel-Prize winning scientists who said this stuff is bound to be bad for us in the long run? (((exhales plume of cigarette smoke and flicks ashes))) Well, they're all full of hooey. And I should know, because I sell the stuff.

There's a lot more carbon-dioxide in the air, now, in 1999, than there was in that evil summer of 1995. And five years from now, into the future the future, ladies and gentlemen there's gonna be a hell of a lot more of it yet. And how do I know that? Because I was watching the jet engine that flew me up here, that's why. (((Blows huge cloud of smoke))). And the taxi that got me here from the airport. Whoosh. (((puff of smoke))) Vroom vroom. (((puff))) Beep beep beep. (((puff))) Honk honk. Even email burns coal, y'know. Click click click. (((puff))) I'm digging coal with my return key! Websites run on oil. See those lights up on the ceiling there? Hear this microphone? They're all carbon-powered, people. That's why I know there's more now.

So let's follow the trend just a tad. Reach into the unknowable future. Chicago IDSA, July 2005. Instead of reaching 104 degrees like it did in '95, it's the year 2005, and the temperature in urban Chicago reaches a hundred and six. Or maybe a hundred and eight. It was a hundred and twelve in Dallas last summer, 1998, so we're not talking impossibilities here.

What do you think is gonna be the prime topic of discussion at a Chicago design conference when the air outside this hotel is a hundred and eight degrees F? When our basic experience of the city of Chicago is, like, that lethal space between the air-conditioned cab and the doorman. It's my kind of town, Chicago is especially when there are eggs frying on the sidewalks and Black Mariahs working round the clock.

You know, the sad part isn't the temperature. I'm from Texas, I know what it means when it's real hot. We can hack it; when we had unprecedented heat waves in Texas last summer, we only lost about 300 people in the whole state. The scary part is that that we might be in here in 2005 discussing typography and brand management. Instead of dealing directly with a dysfunctional technological reality that is rendering our world uninhabitable.

That's an ugly prospect. Kinda scary. Not because of what it says about the weather, though it's not good news. Mostly because of what it says about us. Because it means we have no intellectual integrity and we're living an evil lie. People have tremendous powers of denial. We're living in denial right now, in 1999. As a society. As a civilization. It's all about puff-puff- puff. Beep beep. Honk honk. And never mind the consequences.

I'm a futurist by trade, and I'm gonna tell you how that 2005 situation feels. It's not a difficult prediction, because it's not an unusual situation. I know just what that kind of denial-behavior sounds like and looks like. It looks like creative life under Stalinism.

You had all these Russian artists there's nobody as intellectual and creative as Russian artists, they're really just amazing people, great formal training, mathematically gifted and all that and Russians are very clubby, too, it's all about guilds and professions and societies, and people's unions, and Russian mafias and suchlike and the Russians used to have gigs rather like this one, in some ways. Except that Comrade Stalin has just seen fit to purge half the leadership. Our best and brightest have been hauled out head first to the Lubyanka and the Gulag. But do we talk about that subject? Confront the issue? Hell no! Not on your life. Not at all. "In today's topic for general discussion, it's the glories of proletarian art, part seventeen. Turn to your Marx and Engels hymn book and let's all applaud in unison." That was their lives. Their society. It went on for decades. It meant their ruin. It was their ruin.

What's the difference between a creative, lively epoch and a dark age? Is it that people suffer less? Not really. People always suffer. It's not that human beings ever escape human problems. Only dead people have no problems. It's never Utopia-or-Oblivion, that was a Modernist illusion. The human condition is inherently problematic. Problems are good. If there were no problems, designers would have nothing to do.

In a vital historical era, the fertile and creative minds of the time are productively engaged with society's challenges. And the population sees this process happening, and they sense that civilization has a grip, and their children have a future. They suffer sometimes, but they suffer with their eyes open. They speak out, they bear witness. In a darker epoch, people cower from their degrading, overwhelming conditions. They seek safety anywhere they can find it, in any lousy nook or cranny, without any sense that they can overcome the conditions producing their suffering. They invent scapegoats, they wrap themselves in superstition, they tear at their own flesh. And they whine. My God, do they whine. It's that malignant, historically-trapped, Serbian whine. It's the voice of evil in the world today.

So what about this 21st century and its light and dark possibilities? I gotta confess something to you here I'm an optimist. And I'm the hard kind of optimist, because I'm a post-pessimist. I think the Greenhouse Effect is the central problem our civilization has right now. We don't face the problem, but we sure as hell have it.

It's not that big a problem. Not compared to the nuclear arms race, or the military industrial complex, or the population explosion, or fascism, or communism, or other 20th century crises that we don't fuss about much any more, because they're old hat. The Greenhouse Effect isn't a dramatic problem, like playing Russian roulette with hydrogen bombs. The Greenhouse Effect is a chronic problem, like cigarettes. When you die of emphysema and lung cancer, it's because you didn't die of the more obvious, immediate stuff. But you're run-down a lot of the time. And you're an addict. And you're soiled, and debilitated. And in the long run, yeah, you die in the end. Unless you kick.

Cigarettes have a product-design problem. Am I right? That's what they say now. That's what a Florida jury just said about cigarettes. They found in court that cigarettes are a defective product. And that the tobacco industry conspired to hide the truth from consumers. And now they must pay. It's like: wait a minute Mr RJ Reynolds, Mr Marlboro Man. You said these cigarettes were gonna make me hot and sexy, so I smoked 'em for thirty years, but at the end game, I'm not Joe Camel. I'm Joe Chemo. You didn't promote the hospital bed and the lumps in my chest. I thought I was Marlon Brando in The Wild One, I didn't know I was a sorry addict with a lifelong substance problem.

I'll predict something for you here. That's exactly how people are gonna talk, when they can fry an egg on the sidewalks of Greenhouse Chicago. Hey Mr Rockefeller. John D Rockefeller. You said that drilling for oil would give us cheap energy. You didn't say it would turn the planet's entire atmosphere into a suffocating blanket. Hey Mr Ford. Henry Ford. You said that owning a car would give us freedom and mobility. You didn't say there would be no place to hide from a ruined atmosphere full of violent, unpredictable weather that I can never drive away from the storms and the heat, even in my SUV. Hey Mr Edison. Thomas Edison. You said we'd turn the day into night with electric light and electric power. You didn't say we'd have to do it in the constant hum of air conditioning. Day and night. Or else.

That was inadequate product design. The product design of three innovative titans of the American century, Rockefeller, Ford, and Edison. Three American culture heroes. Three men who defined and built the basic infrastructure of the twentieth century. How come you three guys didn't think a hundred years ahead, huh? Could it be because we don't think a hundred years ahead?

Some people still don't believe we have a Greenhouse Effect. Most of them are either morons, or on the take from the carbon-mining industries, and those two subcultures are never gonna change their minds about anything. But I'm not preaching hippie paranoid tree- hugger stuff here. I'm a serious middle-aged guy. I want to make this issue easy and accessible for reasonable people.

So I'm gonna explain to you how to recognize the Greenhouse Effect. When the weatherman comes on TV, and he has this stunned, sheeplike look on his face, and he says a new weather record has just been set, by a heatwave, or a flood, or a fantastically destructive hurricane, or an anomalous snowfall, or giant belts of rain forest on fire in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, and Mexico, and nothing like this has ever happened quite like this before, and it broke a record, and the previous record was also set in the 1990s, well, people, that is the Greenhouse Effect. Those are its big, greasy, smokey thumbprints. That's how you know it. That's the only way you will ever know it. It's not trying to hide from us. We're hiding from it. It's obvious. And if you're too dumb to catch on to this, I don't care all that much. I'm a futurist. The longer it takes you to catch on to this, the more farsighted I get.

So, this is the central design challenge of our historical moment. How do we, the natives of the 21st century, go head to head with the colossal industrial legacy of Edison Rockefeller and Ford?

Well, we could try various approaches. We have been trying them, for forty years. Political. Spiritual. Religious. Regulatory. Not working. No. Because it's not a political problem. Nobody votes to fill the atmosphere with soot. Nobody voted to make Chicago uninhabitable in July 1995. The mayor didn't have, like, a local plebiscite to kill six hundred citizens.

The Greenhouse Effect is a design problem. So it's obvious that's what's needed is a major new design movement. Something huge, ambitious, impassioned, and impressive. And glamorous. A newer Art Nouveau and a more modern Modernism. A smarter and better movement that learned from the earlier ones and makes different mistakes. A native, twenty-first century sensibility.

This can't be one of these diffuse, anything-goes, eclectic, postmodern things. Forget about that, that's over, that's yesterday. It's got to be a narrow, doctrinaire, high-velocity movement. Inventive, not eclectic. New, not cut-and-pasted from the debris of past trends. Forward-looking and high-tech, not William Morris medieval arts-and-craftsy. About abundance of clean power and clean goods and clean products, not conservative of dirty power and dirty goods and dirty products. Explosive, not thrifty. Expansive, not niggling. Mainstream, not underground. Creative of a new order, not subversive of an old order. Making a new cultural narrative, not calling the old narrative into question.

It's for creative people taking a moral stance and determined to make the twentieth century obsolete across the board. Not by returning to an Amish life of the seventeenth century. I have no problem with the Amish if you want to live like the Amish, that should be your privilege but you can't make other people live that way that without gulags, barbed wire and bayonets. That's not a productive design approach.

What I want to see from the design community let's be frank here, what I demand is an intensely creative, and intensely aware, and focussed twenty-first century design movement. A new movement that knows what time it is, understands the great stakes at risk, and completely obliterates the crap techniques, crap approaches, crap methods, crap industries and crap consumer goods of the twentieth century.

I don't think that's too much to ask from you people. You're up for it. You're perfectly placed to do it. You're well-trained. You're got access. You've got the tools, you've got means, motive, and opportunity.

I came here to tell you to do it. I'm giving you formal permission. I'm prophesying that the world will welcome you. Do it across the board. Kill all the foul, no-good goods made by loud, stupid, smoke-belching, twentieth-century machines. They're old, dirty and obsolete. They are contemptible, they deserve to be stigmatized. Completely reform the means of production and the means of distribution. Use computers, leverage the networks, use your smarts, do it in Internet time, promote it, invent it, make money doing it. Create a profoundly different, cleaner, more liveable world . Sell it on the titanic scale of Ford Rockefeller and Edison on a bigger scale. I don't care how much money you make I'm not your bookkeeper. Get rich doing it. There's no other way that's fast enough.

Unfortunately, we don't seem to have any such vigorous design movement here in 1999. We're in a dull, fallow, fin de siecle period. It's gone all totally eclectic now, so anything is possible and nothing is interesting. But the fin de siecle is almost over, and I'm glad it's over. I'm tired of it. It's boring. I like major design challenges where adults have something to lose, not silly-putty gizmos for kids in sandboxes. Let's get with it here.

I'm not a designer. I don't have what that takes. I'm a literary ideologue, I could cut my thumb off slicing a bagel. But since I can't create designs, I decided to create a design movement. There was an obvious cultural market need here, okay? So this speech is about a high- tech 21st century cyber-Green movement. It's called "Viridian Green." Why "Viridian"? Because it's easier to type than "cyberpunk." And why now? Because any year with three zeroes in it needs a new design movement. You can just take that as a given.

The "Viridian" concept mostly imaginary, mostly speculative, mostly vaporware, but let's face it, you're talking to a science fiction writer here. A new design movement can't really get going until 2000, when the populace is going to be screaming in the streets for something new. Anything new.

The central aim of this Viridian movement is not to create a utopia. That effort stinks, it's evil and anti- human. Anyone who tells you they want a utopia wants to put chains on the souls of your children. They want to deny history and strangle any unforeseen possibility. They should be resisted to the last breath. We Viridians don't want to last forever as some ultimate perfect Bauhaus formulation of what to do with space and reinforced concrete. Our aim is to get co-opted as soon as possible, and have our principles vanish into the everyday world of the 21st century's anonymous truisms.

I'm convinced this is perfectly doable. If we succeed, by 2012 or so, most everybody who counts will think in a Viridian way without knowing who came up with the concepts. The world will look, feel, and act very differently, and people will be delighted about this, they'll recognize it as the way forward. Despite their necessary human problems, they will be living in a rather bright, productive, creative time. Postmodernism will be over, there won't be much in the way of style recycling; the world will have a new, genuinely novel, unprecedented appearance, that only the 21st century could have created.

The new look will be all over the place. Why? Because designers will put it there. Clothes, keyboards, websites, billboards, shoes, teakettles, chairs, wallpaper, homes, offices, aircraft, everything everything you know, everything you do. It will be embraced eagerly, not because I say so, but because it is hot, sexy, very attractive and fully in touch with the core realities of its culture and its period.

It's not an idealist dreamworld, or a shrinkwrapped Disney scripted experience. It doesn't pretend to discover eternal truths, or to last forever. It's a fully disposable ideology. Its heyday lasts maybe ten years. Then it becomes history, gracefully. Viridianism doesn't have to be torn apart, because it spontaneously decays and recycles itself. After it's over, the culture has an entire new set of problems. Very serious problems. We have achieved the fabulous designer luxury of getting to the next serious problem. Because we didn't fry of heat stroke and end up in intensive care. We kicked the carbon habit, and therefore we have a genuine future.

So, how do we get there from mid-1999? Well, I don't have to time for my usual elaborate theoretical justifications, so I'm simply going to dictate unto you. This is it, people. You're industrial designers, and I'm a futurist guru, and the year 2000 is at hand, and I'm going to give you some goddamn principles here. Get a pencil.

Opportunities like this don't show up real often, maybe once a millennium. So pay attention. If you re- think your industrial design enterprise with these Viridian principles in mind, you are going to create a new practice, new materials, new structures, a new language of ornament, and new industrial design.

Principle Number One. "The Biological Isn't Logical"

Design tends to follow the leading technical products of its period. When airplanes were hot, even pencil- sharpeners were streamlined. A Space Age gets supersonic coffeetables. The Net is the defining technology of the early twenty-first century, and we've also got a bio- genetic technical revolution on the way. That means a biomorphic epoch in 21st century design. Not simple, honest, all-natural materials, no. Stuff that looks simple honest and natural, but has performances and affordances that are totally unheard-of. Think plywood bamboo, industrial spider silk, artificially fossilized wood.

Design rationalism is dead. The living world sets the design tenor in the future, and it was not designed by any teleological, rationalist, reductionist process. It doesn't have any sharp corners. Forget about doing it the rectilinear way. Modernists had to build square objects because their mass-production machines were hopelessly stupid, and they couldn't handle detail and elaborate calculations. You don't have those limits.

The living world grows irrationally through non- systematic, genetic exploration of niche possibilities, pruned back by natural selection and occasional massive disasters. You can make that into an industrial process now, that is your destiny. It's an irrational, illogical, efficient design process. So if you're building distributed networks, learn from crabgrass.

Principle Number Two. "Augment Reality: Aestheticize All Sensors"

To make things look different, you have to see differently. Who determines how the world comprehends the world? Scientists are way ahead of designers in visualizing new aspects of reality. This is a scandal. We need a new language of ornament, a radically new look. It should come from aspects of reality that the human eye has never been able to see before.

That means from scientific visualization, from computerized axial tomography, from medical imaging, from sonar vision, the ultramicroscopic, from satellite surveillance, from computer simulation processes. The visual output of these high-tech instruments is as ugly as sin. That's because engineers have never heard of Edward Tufte.

Do you really think that DNA looks as ugly as those ball and stick models make it look? DNA is too small to reflect light! DNA doesn't have "colors." DNA has no inherent "look," DNA has an imaginary look which is dictated by the people who take DNA seriously. The scientific presentation of DNA is a graphic ideological construct. DNA is the stuff of life! The only reason it looks like a bunch of ugly ping-pong balls is that you're letting people with no taste get away with this presentation. You own "DNA," not them. You are the kings of designed imagery, not them. You should be the ones in charge of this. Get after it.

You should Make the Invisible Visible. We can see much better than the twentieth century could. We can manipulate, store, create and analyze graphic imagery with historically unprecedented ease and power. So stop stealing sheep, for heaven's sake. You think nobody on earth but designers knows how to cut and paste? My three year old can cut and paste. Designers need to stop riffling through the Dover books and stop using design history as a giant Microsoft recycling basket. Use the new graphics technology to create totally unprecedented images. Knock it off with the cheap, cheesy, sci-fi special FX. Change the zeitgeist with this technology.

Principle Three: "Less Mass, More Data"

We've already seen what the web has done to graphic design. That's not over by a long chalk, but it's accepted. The next phase is the web embedding itself into physical product design. The intelligent environment. Smart, linked products. We still think in old-fashioned terms like "wiring the home," but in the future it's going to be about "sheltering the network."

The net comes first. Period. This can revolutionize our relationship with the physical world. Physical resources should be replaced with information whenever possible. If you always know where something is, you don't have to chain it up. If it can see stress coming and duck, it doesn't need to be sturdy. If it pops up and vanishes repeatedly on signal, it doesn't have to take abuse.

And it's not just putting smart circuitry into objects with silicon micro-mechanical systems, you can etch whole twentieth-century iron-bending factories into chips: gears, pistons, cogwheels, levers, screws, all computer controlled, and fully functional, and physically productive, and too small to see. If you want to create a twenty-first century that the twentieth century couldn't recognize in Henry Ford's wildest dreams, then take that idea as a given. Don't put smarts into designed objects. Establish the smarts first, and re-engineer the objects around them.

I'm not talking about mere CAD-CAM. I'm talking about a profound new interrelationship of the computational and the environmental. "Computers" aren't sterile cyberspaces, they turn into worldly, sensual entities. Everybody has done a fork. Nobody has done a fork that knows what it is, and knows where it is, and knows where it belongs. And you know what else that fork knows? The fork knows who designed it.

Principle Number Four. "Seek the Biomorphic and the Transorganic."

"Nature" is over. The twentieth century did it in. There's not a liter of seawater anywhere without its share of PCB and DDT. An altered climate will reshuffle the ecological deck for every creature that breathes. You can't escape industrialism and hide from the sky. It's over. From now on, "Nature" is under surveillance and on life-support. Face up to it. A 21st century avant-garde has to deal with those consequences and thrive in that world. We already know how to paint flowers. We need to learn what a flower means when a flower has onboard processing, amped-up genetics, and its own agenda. What does a garden mean, when you look at a garden and the garden looks back? "A Rose is No Longer a Rose."

You know, people, this only sounds crazy. None of this is impossible, or even very far-fetched. It's already here in the present, it's just not well- distributed yet. The implications haven't sunk in. But it's on the web.

Twentieth-century design is over now. Anything can look like anything now. You can put a pixel of any color anywhere you like on a screen, you can put a precise dot of ink anywhere on any paper, you can stuff any amount of functionality into chips. The limits aren't to be found in the technology any more. The limits are behind your own eyes, people. They are limits of habit, things you've accepted, things you've been told, realities you're ignoring. Stop being afraid. Wake up. It's yours if you want it. It's yours if you're bold enough.

Are you bold enough? I can't tell you that. That's beyond my ability to judge. You have to tell me that.

I take designers with complete and utter seriousness. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the people who design the technical infrastructure of daily life are placed to become the most powerful and influential social group in the world. Because you are the people who are loose enough to understand the full scale of the potential, but together enough to do something practical about it in real life.

You only feel tangential, because you're used to living under the floorboards of art, commerce and engineering. But the twentieth century's house has burned down, and the space beneath the floorboards is huge. It's a tremendous, vast, creative space.

You have no real rivals. Politics are sterile. Banks are in a frenzy. Capitalists don't know what to tell you to do. Venture capital is a mob scene. The military can't take casualties. Religion is a joke. Scientists are losing government patronage and going broke. The fine arts certainly aren't gonna stop you. Engineers are obsessed with technical sweetness, they despise the end user and don't understand consumer trends. But designers: you're right in a booming market, and you have the public eye. You're without rivals; there's no one else on the public stage. This could be your profession's greatest, most golden moment. Ever! Ever.

Or maybe not. You tell me. I've said enough now, and we're out of time. Thanks for your attention.