Viridian Note 00181: Infotech and Creativity

Bruce Sterling []

Key concepts
National Academy of Sciences, Rockefeller Foundation, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, computer art, computer games, science fiction

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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"Information Technology and Creativity" Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, National Academy of Sciences Washington, D.C. August 14, 02000

     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 future.

     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 staying power.

     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 culture.

     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 technological society.

     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 it.

     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 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 gizmo inflation.

     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 States.

     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 strengths.

     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 culture.

     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 faster.

     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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