Viridian Note 00181: Infotech and CreativityBruce Sterling [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Attention Conservation Notice: It has nothing to do with the Greenhouse Effect. Strictly from Foggy Bottom wonk-and-punditville. Over 3,500 words.
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I'm Bruce Sterling, I'm a science fiction writer from
Austin Texas. I've been doing it 26 years. I've written
nine novels and three short story collections. I edited a
book once. I also publish pretty extensively in science
fiction magazines. So though nobody has elected me to
speak here for my hundreds of colleagues, science fiction
really is my metier. That's really and truly what I'm
best at and pretty much all that I'm good for.
To begin with definitions: when I say "science
fiction," what am I talking about? There are those among
my tribe who like to trace our ancestry back to the Epic
of Gilgamesh, or Cyrano de Bergerac, or Mary Shelley, or
Jules Verne. I fully understand the motive behind this
grasping for respectability, but I don't hold with it.
My theory is that "science fiction" is basically a
creative cultural response to 20th century information
technology. "Science fiction" is a twentieth-century
techno-subculture that arose from American ham radio
enthusiasts. Its true origin was in a pulp technology
magazine called MODERN ELECTRICS.
MODERN ELECTRICS was basically a mail order catalog
for radio parts. It was issued by a small businessman in
New York City named Hugo Gernsback. Mr. Gernsback was an
entrepreneur in the radio crystal set boom of the 1920s.
Gernsback used his publication to push go-go technohype
about cool, exciting things to do with his electronic
wares. With the passage of years, he discovered that his
radio enthusiasts weren't really all that interested in
radios. Functional, real-world electrical engineering
was the boring part of his enterprise. What his readers
really enjoyed were imaginative power fantasies about
mastering technology and using it to radically change the
Gernsback's tiny magazines quickly became more
popular when he stopped promoting and selling real-world
technology, and simply made it all up. It's always much
more fun just to blue-sky the wildest possible prospects
of technical advancement, than it ever is to consider
arcane engineering problems and real-world paths to
commercial profitability. So rather than promote radio
technology, which was doing fine on its own anyhow, Hugo
Gernsback simply started rhapsodizing about various
astounding, thrilling and astonishing things that might
happen, someday, somewhere, somehow. So Gernsback
founded a new magazine, called AMAZING STORIES, in 1926.
This was the first publication in English whose stock in
trade was science fiction. It received a passionate
response from readers of pulp magazines and was quickly
copied by many imitators. Pulp science fiction did not
manage to see print in book form until many years later,
but by the late 1920s, science fiction readers had a sense
of joie de vivre and camaraderie that they have never
given up since.
I hope this makes it clear that science fiction is
not science turned into fiction. This happens in science
fiction sometimes, but it happens about as often as
ballroom dancing. Science fiction is not a mirror of
science or an inspiration to scientists. Science
fiction's roots are in techno-promotional copy turned into
metaphysical power fantasy.
Science fiction isn't science. Science is the
enterprise of discovering new facts about the natural
order. Science fiction is about the sense of wonder.
Its core concerns are power, spectacle and boggling
people's minds. Science fiction is about doing and
feeling things that scientists forbid themselves to do and
feel in their pursuit of credibility and objectivity. So
activities which benefit scientific creativity don't do
much good for science-fictional creativity. If the
budgets of the NIH and the National Science Foundation go
up by ten percent, that's great news for the federal R&D
effort and for unemployed and untenured post-docs, but
this does no good for science fiction. Science fiction
thrives when the scientific establishment gets radically
sidetracked into giddy power pursuits, such as nuclear
weapons and space rockets. Then science fiction really
sits up straight and starts typing.
Some scientists read and write science fiction.
Some science fiction writers are surprisingly well-
informed about actual science, but we're not the same
enterprise. If scientists are in the ivory tower, then
we're in the ivory flea market and the ivory junkyard,
selling snowglobes and bumper stickers. We do have one
great merit as artists, however. We ship product. We
ship tons of cultural product all over the world, and we
don't get bored and go away, either. We have tremendous
Science fiction isn't fiction, either. We probably
have even less to do with literature than we do with
science. The science fiction subculture uses the
promotional and distribution channels of the general book
trade, but it has always lived in a ghetto there. It's a
rather well-to-do ghetto, however, which features
specialized stores, specialized critics, and specialized
conventions. It's rather like ham radio in a world of
public radio and commercial radio.
I may be taxing your credulity, so I think perhaps
the time has come for some show and tell. (((Speaker
produces large heap of print.))) This is an actual
science magazine, called SCIENCE. Science fiction has its
own specialized magazines, like these magazines, ASIMOV'S
and THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION. These
two publications are living media fossils. They are
digest-sized pulp magazine that publish popular fiction
every month. In the 1930s, there were hundreds of pulp
magazines like these, published on every conceivable
topic: Westerns, romance, detective stories, men's
adventure and so on. Only the science fiction subculture
has had enough vitality to keep this medium of
distribution alive, decades after its death in general
Here is an interesting magazine that is a
contemporary equivalent of Hugo Gernsback's MODERN
ELECTRICS. It's ARTBYTE, the self-proclaimed "Magazine of
Digital Culture." You may notice that I have the cover
billing in this issue, along with a gentleman from the
Sci-Fi Channel. My work here is not science fiction.
It's me writing theory-driven nonfiction about
contemporary postindustrial design issues and interesting
things that people do with CAD-CAM and plastics. ARTBYTE
doesn't pay as well as a science fiction magazine, but it
is so closely related to them in theme, readership and
attitude that I have no trouble getting published there.
In fact they're in many ways a friendlier and more
indulgent market than a science fiction magazine. You
might notice that I was able to write some science fiction
ads for this magazine. These are ads that advertise
imaginary commercial products that do not even exist.
This is the kind of stunt that one can get away with when
one has a sound understanding of one's role in
Here is a millennial issue of TIME magazine, featuring
me and a bunch of corporate futurist pundits. TIME isn't
science fiction, either. My appearance in TIME is just
allowing me in my droll, Mephistophelean fashion to sneak
up and blow people's minds when they're not all braced for
Here is a magazine about the science fiction
industry. If you ever want to learn anything about what
we aficionados affectionately call "The Old Baloney
Factory," you want to read LOCUS. You can learn a lot in
a hurry about a rather modest and clannish enterprise
where a small horde of oddball creatives are marrying and
divorcing one another, having kids, selling books,
dressing up like Martians and generally having a whale of
a good time.
Science fiction writing is not that big a deal,
industrially speaking. About 250 science fiction novels
are published every year. If you include fantasy works,
horror novels, story collections, criticism and other
associated works, then you might expand that list to about
a thousand books. So if all written science fiction
vanished tomorrow, it would make no dent in this nation's
GNP. Written science fiction is a cottage industry.
Even though Newt Gingrich is a science fiction novelist,
the science fiction industry has never lobbied Congress
for support. It has never asked for arts grants from the
NEA or science grants from the NSF. It's never asked for
federal export subsidies or tax breaks, it has never asked
for licenses, inspections or safety standards. Science
fiction has no federal bureau or cabinet department
deputized to look after its interests. Industries do
that, disciplines do that. Subcultures don't do that.
Science fiction does have a formal trade group
called the SFWA. However, if you talked to the elected
officers of the Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of
America, you would find people who share the basic
interests of the P.E.N. or the Author's Guild, only in a
small, high-pitched voice. You'd hear a lot of loud,
predictable complaining about royalty statements, and
electronic rights, and chain bookstores versus Amazon.com.
These are all stereotypical author's issues. They have
nothing to do with making science fiction any better, or
bolstering the creativity of science fiction writers. It
would never occur to science fiction writers to ask the
government to advance their industry. Frankly, it would
never occur to them that authority figures from
conventional society have any mental grasp of their
activities at all.
I'm a novelist, but this is a rather old-fashioned
thing to be in the modern world of science fiction. I
create imaginative works of fiction all by myself; I'm
very artisanal. I could probably manage well enough with
a roll of toilet paper and a pencil. But this kind of
enterprise is a quite small fraction of today's science
fiction subculture. The best-selling science fiction
books today are tie-in novels. They are licensed work-
for-hire books, that fictionalize science fiction movies,
television and games. They're handmaidens of big media.
The mighty flagships of the subculture today are
science fiction cinema, science fiction television, and
science fiction computer games. Especially, computer
games. Cinema and television still have certain areas
that are somewhat science fiction free, whereas computer
games are simply unthinkable without science fiction.
Why has this come about? Well, it's a natural
outgrowth of those roots of the subculture. It's
directly tied in with the continuing impact of information
technology on creativity, starting with radios in the 20s
and moving into Internet today. During the past 25
years, cinema has almost been returned to the days of
Melies, because of the domination of digital special
effects. Cinema product became a kind of animator's
armature for the display of mind-boggling visual
spectacles. Science fiction as a form of narrative is
ideally suited for displaying special effects.
With the advent of creative movements like Dogma 95,
cinema is fighting back against this trend, and perhaps
beginning to get somewhere. Cinema may be slowly escaping
from the somewhat vapid, smash-em-up, blow-em-up aesthetic
of incredibly successful and profitable international
films like the STAR WARS series, TWISTER, THE MATRIX, MEN
IN BLACK, the TERMINATOR series and so on. Film is
becoming a little less frenetic, freaky and bizarre,
instead of piling spectacle on spectacle in a frenzy of
Special effects tomorrow will be better domesticated
and exploited in more sophisticated ways. We're
beginning to see some latter-day effects of this
production revolution in cinema. There's a round-the-
world rebirth of animation, because the production costs
of drawn images have collapsed. Japanese anime' is by
far the most powerful and successful form of science
fiction not created in America. Pokemon is very science-
fictional, and it's about cinema, television, animation
and computer games == in an across-the-board,
synergistic, fully leveraged, global, subculture
phenomenon. Pokemon is really a fantastically
sophisticated effort, and, I think, a model enterprise for
the culture industry in the near future.
It's thanks to Pixar that Steve Jobs was able to
remain a player in the computer industry. DreamWorks
hangs out with Microsoft, and Time Warner with AOL, not
because they want to, but because they have to. Digital
Hollywood is a huge net revenue earner for the United
I freely admit that big, dumb, sci-fi special effects
movies are phony, simpleminded and vapid, but that's not
because of lack of skill among screenwriters. They lack
character and depth because they are international. A
huge, mute, special-effects spectacle translates very well
across cultural barriers. If you pay to see a Hollywood
special effects movie in Hong Kong or Bombay, the rival
capitals of global cinema, the plot subtleties and
American in-jokes will blow right past you. You'll still
get your money's worth, however, because you'll see
things deform, twist, warp, invert and blow up with a
skill and fervor that Asia and India simply cannot match.
A major sci-fi special effects movie is all about the raw
domination of the last capitalist superpower. It's about
as subtle and arty as a B-52. It's by no means great art,
but it's an imperial hegemon really playing to its
If I were in charge of US industrial policy, and if I
was trying to sell the importance of subsidizing infotech
creativity, then this is definitely the arena where I
would devote my efforts. Forget delicate, touchy-feely
issues like artistic creativity and inspiration.
Nobody's voting for more of that, and the people who have
it don't ask for much. But computer imagery is strictly
a global industrial competitiveness issue, which has
nothing to do with anything likely to irritate Jesse Helms
or Tipper Gore. I would bet that today's US Senate on
both sides of the aisle would be perfectly delighted to
start-up a Cabinet-level post in the Digital Culture
Industry, as long as it was fully understood that it was
strictly technical and had nothing to do with any actual
Now let's turn our attention to computer gaming.
Here I think we face a digital industry with some serious
creative problems. Though Nintendo's about as big as
Hollywood, I don't think that computer entertainment has
ever managed to reach its potential, commercial, artistic
or otherwise. The gaming industry seems to have
fossilized into shoot-em-ups, car chases, beat-em-ups, and
aircraft simulations. It's amazing how boring and
predictable computer entertainment is, given the well-nigh
permanent state of technical revolution in its industry.
The same creative properties are re-numbered, re-released
and recycled over and over, with a few more bells and
whistles added as the platform advances and the chip gets
There's a definite malaise in this industry.
Occasional breakouts like THE SIMS and the online version
of ULTIMA indicate that there is some huge, bizarre
potential there, but the industry as a whole seems
stymied. It never lived up to its techno-hype == nothing
ever does == but I don't think it's even lived up to its
realities. It seems to me that there has been a premature
shakeout in this industry. There are too many production
dollars in the hands of too small a number of companies.
They really seem logjammed.
It seems to me that a major part of the problem is
their intellectual property system. The computer gaming
industry is in the business of driving their own gaming
platforms into obsolescence, so that they can make easy
money selling the same properties over again in a new
format. Unfortunately, this practice causes the history
of their enterprise to fall off the edge of the dock. On
the Internet, one can see that early computer games for
devices like the Atari 400 are preserved by pirates.
These pirates have no legal right to preserve and share
these extinct games, but the pirates are clearly the
people who are selflessly working in the general public
interest in this matter. When the pirates are the good
guys, the industry is sick. Whereas the owners in
computer gaming are exterminating the masterworks of the
creative talents of their own industry. This is not the
proper way to sustain and build a creative tradition.
It's as if a symphony orchestra had to set fire to their
cellos and kettledrums after every performance.
I think there may be some useful role for the state
or private foundations here == especially in matters of
digital archiving, which nobody else seems willing to
tackle. The rapid obsolescence of digital data is bound
to become a major scandal eventually. Private enterprise
is spectacularly bad at managing this problem, they're
even actively counterproductive. The intellectual
property regime is a mess across the board. Just look at
Napster and Gnutella, not to mention rampant and universal
digital piracy in Russia and China and, if truth be told,
the whole world.
I frankly think we may be a generation away from a
good solution here. In fact, I think it's entirely
possible that there is no solution. Not all transitions
to a New Economy work out. Poland looks okay now, but
Russia made a heroic leap from unworkable Communism into a
complete morass of piracy, fraud and petty crime in every
aspect of their industrial order. People who say that
that can't happen here don't understand what it takes to
manage a civilization.
Most authors scream aloud at the very thought of
their work being read without their getting some kind of a
cut. A few are bold free-expression zealots who think
that if we build machines that kill off the current order,
most anything new is bound to be better. I have a rather
different concern. I worry about a completely
dysfunctional, Russian-style situation in the digital
world. The Internet was built without an off-switch. It's
not in anyone's control. There's nothing about Internet
architecture per se that guarantees our prosperity and
happiness. We may end up with a war on bits to rival the
war on drugs.
We might find ourselves with the worst of two worlds.
We might create digital police bureaucracies that have
terrifying, antidemocratic enforcement powers, but no
ability to restore public order. They might be formally in
charge but useless and incompetent, with no ability even
to read their own digital records and track their own
performance. A bureaucratic meltdown just like that of
the US Internal Revenue Service, in other words.
I'm not all touchy and particular about the business
model I work under == in the modest little world of print,
we work under lots of models: libraries, public domain,
second-hand books, hardbacks, paperbacks, serials, the
collectors' market; the glaring inconsistencies don't
bother us much, and we manage to live nowadays, not all
that well, but better than authors used to. But the
digital situation now is so radically unstable that I
wouldn't be surprised if, in future, my publishers sued me
for talking to people like you. Because I could have
sold a speech like this. It could have been site-
licensed and subject to royalties. There's a lot of
valuable intellectual capital in this room. Somebody
could have made some money here.
I wish I had some easy, snappy solutions to offer you
in this vital legal realm of creativity and infotech.
Unfortunately, I really don't have answers, and that's not
for lack of thinking about the issues. And it's getting
worse, and crazier. I note that high-definition digital
television is getting killed off by intellectual property
hassles, even though the format was smiled upon by the
feds. That's the sort of thing that makes me fret.
To conclude in an upbeat, positive way, I want to
mention some of the encouraging effects that information
technology has had on my own creativity.
First, search engines. These things are a writer's
godsend. I now find myself doing actual compositional
work with Google online. If I need a name spelled, if I
need a historical date, or a quotation, I'll just drop
into the browser and type in a key phrase. It's not an
authoritative source. But man is it fast, and it is very
eclectic and getting more comprehensive by the day. I
really feel this technology is making me a better writer:
better read, more informative to my readers, more aware.
Second, fanmail. The Internet is the best way I've
ever found to deal with my readership. I'm by no means
sure that I'm helping them or myself in any way, but
mailing lists and websites are allowing me to deal with my
own public in a spectacular new fashion. I'm so
directly wired to my most devoted readers that I'm almost
able to organize them into a practicing cult group.
Granted, cult activity is not at all unusual in science
fiction, but this an exciting new method! Furthermore, I
wouldn't have come here to Washington to talk to you if
not for email. Perhaps this speaks for itself.
Thanks for your attention.
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