Next 20 Years Rant

Delivered by Bruce Sterling at "The Next 20 Years", Austin 1998 edition, at La Zona Rosa, 9.17.1998.

Hi, thanks for having me in. I'm Bruce Sterling, I live here in town, I write novels. I'm also something of a garage futurist, so I go to a lot of gigs like this. The material's always great.

I got about ten minutes here, but I never heard anyone complain that a futurist rant was too short. So let's get right after it.

I love the Internet and everything associated with new media. I spend a lot of time online. However, this summer in Austin I spent a really absurd amount of time at my computer, admiring the marvels of high technology. Because it was insanely hot outside.

The crucial issue of the next 20 years is climate. Because a bad climate is the only real ghost at our feast. If Mike Dell has built his mansion in a frying pan, it means our ruin. Other than that, the next twenty years look swell. Things in Austin look particularly good. I've lived in Austin most of my life. I've watched it change from a sleepy Southern government town to a thriving capital of digital industry. Austin has problems, but they're the problems of success. Mostly, Austin's problems were created because people like us live here.

Austin has it good. Except for our heat and our drought. Those aren't accidents. Those are Greenhouse chickens come home to roost. Anyone who tells you different is either deluded or on the take.

We Texans really suffered here this summer. We had weather which was frankly weird. So did a lot of other people around the world, but there's a strange poetic satisfaction in witnessing the Greenhouse Effect here in Texas. Because it's so very much our own doing. I'm a child of the Texas oil industry. The Texas oil industry fed me and raised me. The oil business sent me to college. It was UT, a state-supported land-grant oil college. Oil was the reason my dad was a successful engineer instead of a dirt farmer or cattle rancher. Without the oil industry, I myself probably would have been a Texas dirt farmer. I would have been a very hard-pressed farmer, too, because without petrochemicals, most of the world's population would have crashed and starved back in the 1970s.

I'm properly grateful for the many blessings of oil. But CO2 mining is not a young industry any more. It's a mature industry. Time marches on. Maturity has its consequences.

Our civilization is hung up. We have a substance problem with carbon dioxide. Back when we were young and foolish, we could consume coal and oil by the barrel and case. It made us fun at parties. It was convivial and life-enhancing. Now we're older. We've become dependent on this stuff. Big time. Our eyes are bloodshot and we've got a tremor in our hands. The little veins are starting to show.

We know in our heart that it's bad for us, but we're in denial. We're chock full of lame evasions and slick excuses. Hey, China drinks CO2. Why should we stop drinking if China's still drinking? All those Arab bartenders, like that Libyan guy and that Iraqi guy -- it's not that we need to blow our paycheck on bartenders. We go to them because they're our friends.

We have the problems of success, the chronic problems. The big fast scary threats, like nuclear armageddon, didn't kill us. We survived the 20th century, we triumphed! We lived long enough to risk getting killed by the slow stuff.

You know, I feel good about this. Serious problems focus our energies. Only dead people have no problems. Slow, technical, industrial problems are especially promising, because they are always opportunities in disguise.

The Greenhouse effect is only partly a political problem. At its core, it's a design problem. A consumer problem. And maybe most of all, it's an artistic problem. A problem of sensibility.

It's an aesthetic problem. We're in trouble because we live in filth and we can't see it. We're like eighteenth century people who lived before germ theory. We're ignorant of the squalor that surrounds us, and we have bad taste.

The next twenty years could change that. Suppose you could take a laptop down to Austin's highways at rush hour. Suppose you could hold that laptop up and push a function key. Suppose you could visibly see the entire spectrum of particulates in the air.

At first, of course, you'd be horrified. It would be like that gruesome intimate moment where the dentist gives you that red stuff that shows you the plaque on your teeth. And then if you turned your screen backwards and it showed you that stuff nestling inside your lungs.... Holy mackerel. I'm a changed man. I want a very different kind of car. I want it right now. Who's going to sell me one?

Let's take it a step further. You're the guy trying to sell electric cars. You want to create consumer demand? Sell those smog detectors. No, give them away. Install them in the electric car as a standard feature. Write the software, and get the sensors installed in the dashboard. Make the invisible visible. Let people see. The rest will follow.

Change what people see. Change how they see. That's why I consider this basically an artistic problem. The tools for this are at hand. The eighties were a decade of chips and computation. The nineties -- a decade of lasers, bandwidth, and communication. The next twenty years -- I hope they will be about sensors and perception. Cheap, ubiquitous sensors that make the invisible visible. If you can leverage that new awareness, you can drive the whole culture, you can change people inside and out. Suddenly they will realize that their lives are full of unmet demands.

We need people in the business of doing this. We need new entrepreneurs who are Green and rich. They've got to be at least as rich as Rockefeller and Henry Ford, because it was Rockefeller and Ford whose huge success got us into this mess in the first place.

We need to create new vision as an industrial process. In computer networks, in electrical networks, weather networks, satellite networks. Networks aren't just pipes for passing fantasies and taking money. They can become a sensitive nervous system for the physical world. I have to conclude by offering one example.

Today, we have a booming industry in water tap filters and delivered mineral water. Because our water supplies are degrading, they are in environmental stress. We need sensors built into the household tap. They instantly show us the particulates, the arsenic, the heavy metals, the PCBs, the E. coli count. Water taps are network peripherals. They are a mass market. Don't sell these devices to nervous health freaks. Sell improved awareness. Empowering the user to see her quality of life. Maybe you'll sell them -- or maybe the City of Austin will give them away. Because our commercial rivals in Silicon Valley don't dare to reveal what's down in their wells.

Competitive advantage? Sure. Subtle and sneaky? Yes, but so what. Effective? Well, why shouldn't it be? We can't thrive in smog and obscurity. We need more sunshine in our lives.

Thank you.