From: Bruce Sterling [email@example.com]
Subject: Viridian Note 00319: Grand Challenges
Key concepts: computer science, computer research, grand challenges, ubiqitous computation, genetic algorithms, corruption, spam, Internet, civil society
Attention Conservation Notice: it's not particularly likely that a loud, angry, impassioned, rambling 6,000- word speech by the Viridian Pope-Emperor is going to change the future course of American computer science. No harm in trying, though!
The Spam Epidemic. http://www.cluelessmailers.org/spamdemic/mapfullsize.html
Jordan Pollack's evolutionary machine lab. http://demo.cs.brandeis.edu/
All things ubicomp. http://homepage1.nifty.com/konomi/shinichi/ubicomp.html
"Without Vision, the People Perish"
Hi, I'm Bruce Sterling. I write novels.
Ladies and gentlemen, I bring unique qualifications to
this computer-science gathering, because unlike the rest
of you, I have the sublime creative freedom of not knowing
what I'm talking about. Besides, I am the only man in
this house who is wearing a tie. So I must be keynoting.
I am a science fiction writer and I am 105 percent
vision thing. The very idea of the likes of me, at this
august event of yours, blue-skying it with the legendary
likes of Gordon Bell, and Rodney Brooks, and Alan Kay...
And Bob Metcalfe... okay, granted, I can handle Bob
Metcalfe with no problem.
Imagine the sheer gall, the chutzpah this requires on
my part. Anyone with common sense and a smaller ego would
quail, but I am up for this grand challenge! I am totally
with the program. I am cocking my shotgun and I am going
to give you both barrels. I just wanted to take a second
to relish the rich literary irony of this situation.
Folks, I am really going to enjoy this. I am enjoying
Okay, so what's the story with this "Grand Challenges"
theme, huh? How come the computer revolution, so mighty,
so high-tech, so all-encompassing, is on a quest for new
spark plugs? Well, I can tell you. That subject is
within my bailiwick. The computer industry is my favorite
industry. She is my heart's darling. I have been
watching her for a long time, and I'm all used to her
weird little vagaries.
This is happening because computer science is the only
major branch of science that is named after a gadget. And
gadgets get old. It doesn't matter how lithesome and
charming and sexy they were in their youth. They get old.
They settle down. They get domesticated. They have
mouths to feed and socks to wash. Machines lose their
aura of the technological sublime.
The computer is a gizmo, and it's a great gizmo, but
it's not an ultimate gizmo. Computer science has been the
slave of metaphysics ever since Alan Turing invented the
Turing Test, but a computer is not a metaphysical entity.
It's not free of objective reality. Its bits are bits of
atoms. The only ultimate gizmo is a clock. The clock
never stops ticking. The clock has been ticking for the
computer for quite a while.
It's not just that the pace of basic innovation has
slowed in your field, although it has. It's not just
that computers have lost the lipstick of their geek gadget
romance, although they have. That which was accomplished
in the 1980s and 1990s is under attack. There is a
This ought to be obvious to anybody who uses the
Internet. All you need to do is examine your email.
Where is Al Gore's idealistic, civilized Information
Superhighway? It's a red-light district. A crooked flea
market. A nest of spies. An infowar battlefield. That
is the state of cyberspace 2002. There are fire sales on
every block. It has anything but grandeur. It's
decadent and sinister.
I've had the same email address for 13 years, and
I'm not budging. That's where I staked my little claim on
the electronic frontier, and by gum, I remember the Alamo
and I ain't a-goin' to go. Therefore, my email in 2002
is full of 419 fraudsters from Nigeria. And unsolicited
porn ads. And a galaxy of farfetched medical scams from
malignant, unlicensed quacks peddling Viagra and growth
hormone. With unreadable, unicode, collateral bomb-damage
from the gigantic spam mills in China, Korea, Thailand and
Let me put this to you straight: cyberspace has
become a slum. It's a diseased slum, festering with
Microsoft Outlook viruses. The viruses turn people into
unwilling, unwitting agents of corruption and destruction.
If you dare to use Microsoft's web products, which are so
easily and cruelly sabotaged, then you run a gruesome,
unconscionable risk of doing horrible virus damage to your
best friends and your closest collaborators. You can give
AIDs or herpes to the people who choose to have sex with
you, but you can give Klez.E to people you don't even
know. That is a pretty far cry from the antiseptic
Euclidean vistas of virtual reality. Cyberspace in 2002
is a high-tech low-life slum straight out of William
Gibson's NEUROMANCER. That's a great book, but the people
who have to live in that book are pretty damn far from
If you could find all these busy people who are
ruining the Internet for us, all these swindlers and
vandals and porn-whores and stock kiters and so forth, and
you could get them to surround this beautiful little gated
community of ours here, man, would they look scary.
You'd never physically choose to hang out with the likes
of these malefactors, but the Net ships 'em right into
your office or bedroom, rain or shine, 60-60-24-7-365.
So, you know, where is the civility? Where is the law and
order? Where is the government? There ain't any.
Spies, that's what we've got instead of any legitimate
government. Man oh man, there are a lot of spies on the
Internet. More every day. The place is crawling with
Consider last week's British Internet scandal. The
British government declares, "Well, we're going to store
everybody's websurfing records and their email, so if any
government official wants to spy on what you're doing,
they can make that happen pronto!" What a grand vision,
eh? Wonderfully comprehensive: Orwell would blush.
So the British press and citizenry are like, "What?
You're storing everything I do on the Net, and you want
to filter it and mine it and show it to anybody? Oh my
God, doesn't that contravene the Helsinki Declaration, and
the UN declaration of human rights, and fifteen leventy-
dozen European privacy statutes, and even the Magna
Carta?" But the British government and their happy spies
say, "Aw come on! It's just the Internet!" They expect
everyone to accept that, because really, could the
standards there be any lower? How could spies make it
worse? Spies are as happy as a pig in slop!
People think I make this stuff up. And it is
science fiction. Because it's all about "the
technological sublime." It's all about the sense of
wonder, and its limits as a political and industrial
policy. The Vision Thing. You are supposed to have a
vision thing, even if you are one of our President Bushes.
Because without vision, the people perish. Without vision,
the means always dominate the ends. Without vision, the
least little shock to the system is an existential crisis
A "sublime" thing inspires awe and wonder. It's
fantastic, amazing, and astounding. It has grandeur, it
ruptures the everyday. The sublime is a liberating
spectacle that lifts the human spirit to the plateaus of
high imagination. Science fiction dotes on this practice.
You can go back to the historical roots of science
fiction, and you can see science fiction methodically
using the technological sublime as a kind of all-purpose
cleanser. It's rooting out the sewers of a stale
civilization by making extravagant promises of better
things to come. Railroads, photography, aviation, giant
dams, rural electrification (I know that sounds corny to
us, but the Soviets used to be very big on that), atomic
power and atomic weapons, space flight, lysergic acid,
television, computers, virtual reality, and the
Information Superhighway. All grist for the mill, folks.
The clock never stops ticking.
The true grandeur of technology is not to be found in
any actual technologies. It's AM/FM, the severe
difference between Actual Machines, AM, and Fantastic
Magic, FM. A grand challenge is a grand challenge because
it's not an actual machine but a sublime concept, a goal,
an aspiration. Once it's a machine, it's no longer a
challenge, it is hardware. Science-fiction is crammed
with imaginary technologies: time machines,
interplanetary starships and human-like robots. They
stay sublime, they don't get stale. Because they're never
Due to human nature, familiarity breeds contempt,
especially for technology. Technologies that are
integrated into the fabric of everyday life can no longer
be perceived as "technology." No matter how grand and
elaborate and complex they may be. My teenage daughter
has a Pentium III running Windows 95. She knows it's a
piece of junk. Because it is. It's stale and old. It
doesn't matter how much fantastic press it got in 1995.
Many technologies of profound cultural importance,
such as immunization, plumbing, recycling and the birth
control pill, never become sublime. They are high
technology without the high. The height within high
technology has very little to do with the scientific
principles involved or any inherent difficulties of the
engineering. The height is entirely a social judgement.
It has distinctly metaphysical overtones. Science fiction
is one of the arenas in which these judgements are cast,
in which some forms of technological advance are valorized
as marvelous and worthy of mass attention, while others
remain the obscure work of specialists or even die off
entirely. And the clock never stops ticking, especially
for science fiction. Sublimity is as thin as lipstick, it
wears off at a kiss. The sense of wonder has a very short
The Space Shuttle is still sublime, even though it
is three decades old. It's clunky, and it's rusty, and it
has severe software and hardware problems, and it kills
people, and it has no destination to which to "shuttle".
But the Shuttle is still romantic and futuristic. Why?
Because it's not familiar. You can't buy one on eBay or
We need the technological sublime. The
technological sublime is a narrative, it's a cultural
story. It's something we tell ourselves to get out of bed
in the morning. It has its difficulties and its
shortcomings, but the other narrations are worse. Like
the narrative of Al Qaeda necromancy, which boldly claims
that history will stand still, and we'll all be holy and
sacred forever, just like in the mythic early times of the
Koran, if only enough of us blow ourselves up.
I'm not going to overdo it here with my literary
topics, ladies and gentlemen. Osama bin Laden may be a
noted poet, but we American pop authors have some
interesting technical challenges of our own. Here's a
good one: how the hell do you write a thriller novel in a
world that has cellphones? I happen to be writing a
thriller novel right now: in fact, I'm here researching
it, not that you'd ever guess. I'm not really here to
pontificate at you. I'm here to soak up your grand ideas
for use in fiction, because I need them even worse than
It's amazing how little technical room is left for
the customary cliches of a thriller novel, in this, our
modern, digitized, networked society. No more car chases
– because I just use my cellphone and I call the cops in
the next town. No more gunfights in deserted warehouses
– I just use my cellphone and I call the cops. No more
trailing the spy to his sinister lair – I just use my
cellphone and I call up the cop's video monitors.
I'm an author, but I get it about about gizmos. I
have to, but I don't mind that much. I'm eager to get
with the machinery. I've got a feverish literary need to
step closer to the techno-fire here. I'm blissfully
yielding to the hands-on imperative.
So let get right down to some brass virtual tacks
here, shall we? Let me demo a couple of my favorite
blue-sky notions out of your field of endeavor. Nothing
up my sleeves, but I'll pull us a couple of sci-fi
rabbits from way outside of the box here. We'll see if
Here's my first pitch. It may be slightly familiar to
those of you who watch Jordan Pollack's lab, because
heaven knows I do. Jordan Pollack is into genetic
algorithms, he likes to evolve machines. He had some
jointed plastic blocks in the lab that are wriggling
around at random. Their performance is measured, the best
models get rewarded and replicated. Pretty soon they are
wriggling around on the lab bench with some impressive
ease and fluidity.
So much for the real world. It's grand sci-fi vision
time. Let's imagine this experiment ramped way up to
petaflops and exaflops capacity. Very high granularity.
Exquisitely accurate simulated physics. At that level of
computational power you could go a lot farther than
primitive jointed blocks. I'll propose that you could get
a petaflops computer to grow machine tools. That's
right. I mean actual three-dimensional, fully working,
mechanical devices. They're not made on assembly lines,
they're grown inside computers. They're virtual, and they
do all their research and development as virtual objects,
and when they get good, then you make them real.
Yes, I know this notion is farfetched, but I wrote a
science fiction story about this. It won an award and was
widely anthologized, so hey, that concept is definitely
paying off for me.
Maybe you start small, by simulating and evolving,
say, some primitive, simple tools, like can-openers and
It's pretty easy to scan and input a can-opener or a
mousetrap. You might seed your artificial physics with
the design of some conventional mousetrap, and see how
they evolve. But it's yet more interesting to simply
litter the simulated landscape with objects that act like
mice, and attack them with soft, helpless, gelatinous
blobs. You don't want to pre-judge the phase space of
the problem by making any human decisions about possible
methods of trapping mice. Get the human out of the loop
entirely, that's the scheme. Reward any possible
mechanical entity that can grab or mangle a simulated
Let them crossbreed. Like the mice themselves, I
guess. Kind of a genetic-algorithm, arms race thing.
Have an overseer program keeping tabs. Whenever a mouse
gets whacked, a bell goes off. You run to the screen,
and you see this hour's brand-new mousekiller doing its
Human beings rush over and stare with eyes like
saucers and – man, they can't believe it! Nobody would
ever have thought that a device like that could ever
catch a mouse – but you know, we got the complete design
specs for it right here in memory! We just hit 'print'
and this unprecedented mousetrap will be smelted out for
us on the spot! We'll see how it works in real life!
Maybe we can put our logo on it and sell a million of them
on eBay! Ralph Waldo Emerson, stand back! We grew a
better mousetrap! The world's beating a path to our door!
Call the reporters! Put it on the website!
Once we've got that part of the grand challenge
down... and hey, I'm not claiming it's easy – we want to
extend the process to the big stuff. Heavy iron. For
instance, internal combustion engines.
We go over to Bill Ford's River Rouge plant. Bill
Ford is a grandfather himself by now, but you know, Bill
Ford is still a visionary. And we tell him: Bill, Mr.
Ford, my good man, let's put a big piece of Detroit iron
in this computer here. That's right, Bill, here in this
titanium laptop. We're running Linux in this baby and not
only is it freeware, we actually grew all the code in
this laptop. So there. You can trust us with your
industry and your revenue stream, Bill, we're computer
scientists, we know what we're doing. You just stick the
manufacturing specs for the latest Ford engine in here,
and we start systematically disturbing its components in
random ways. We'll see which configuration delivers the
most horsepower for the least fuel consumption.
Ladies and gentlemen, I know that simulating an entire
automobile engine at very low granularity would be a
rather difficult task. But once you've done that, you
ought to be able to subject this virtual engine to all
kinds of unprecedented indignities. You can explore huge
regions of the possible design space that would never
occur to any merely intelligent human being. If evolution
can bring us pterodactyls and coral reefs, why can't it
make us a car?
Or for you DARPA types: what happens when you
crossbreed a Predator aircraft with an Israeli Bulldog
drone? Of course, billions of these bastardized spy
aircraft will be total junk, they won't fly at all and
can't communicate their data from sensor-to-shooter, but
who cares? Computers are great at sorting. An exaflops
machine just keeps remorselessly grinding out new models,
like monkeys typing Shakespeare. You never see the
billions and trillions of failed mutants. You'll only see
the lottery winners.
Let's go just a little further with the concept, shall
we? One more dainty step down the garden path. Suppose
you simulate the human body. Human bodies usually have
pretty good on-site system administrators, but just how
well have their capacities really been exploited? It's
pretty amazing how long it took people to devise the
Australian crawl in swimming. There may be aspects of
human body movement that never occur to us – because we
live inside human bodies. We lack the proper objectivity,
that's the problem. What we need is a kind of New
Economy, new business model breakthrough for moving our
How many undiscovered judo throws are there, for
instance? It's all corny, mystical Eastern handicraft,
judo, and karate, and yoga, and such; we never digitized
all that, we never worked it out methodically as a problem
in physics. Imagine a soldier trained in forms of hand-
to-hand combat that had been discovered in computer
searches of the entire phase space of the physical
mechanics of combat. He might perform weird but deadly
movements that are utterly counterintuitive. He's simply
stun the opponent through sheer disbelief. When he got
wound-up, it would look like outtakes from THE MATRIX.
Ladies and gentlemen, yes, I know that THE MATRIX is
a sci-fi movie. In my game, you get the good stuff where
you find it, okay? I don't have to name-check sci-fi
movies up here. I could have stolen you something nice
and exciting from the many bright and accomplished people
at Microsoft Research and Development. I pay attention
to them, too. I know they're into stuff like a Sensory
Pocket PC that that detects touch, tilt and motion; and
Chinese text-to-speech software that probably detects
Chinese piracy in real-time. So I tried that. I Googled
it. I surfed over to the Microsoft Research "Archived
Headlines", but since they are a modern computer company
instead of a big-budget science fiction movie, this is
what I got off their web page:
[Microsoft][SQL Server Driver] Invalid object name 'features'.
Drivers error '80040e37'
So, back to the science fiction. Now I'll tell you
what's really got my attention lately, the stuff in your
field that I consider really groovy and with-it and hip.
Ubicomp. Oh yeah. I know it's got a million names. All
kinds of jargon. Pervasive computing. Wearable
computers. Intelligent environment. Wireless internet.
Peripheral computing. Self-configuring, adaptively
coordinated Embedded Nets. Things That Think. Locator
Tags. JINI. Wearware. Personal Area Networking. And so
forth. This kind of disruption in my beloved English
language is like the rumblings of a tectonic fault. The
signs are very good that something large, expensive and
important will tear loose there.
I personally prefer the word "ubicomp" because it
sounds so cheap. Ubicomp: that sounds like you go down
to the hardware store and buy a few gallons. You don't
have to genuflect to it, but it's still a grand challenge.
Because ubicomp is truly a profound idea. It has
grandeur, and better yet, it's not metaphysical. You
don't have to handwave with any big verbal catch-all
terms like "artificial intelligence". Or "evolution." Or
"nano-" anything. Or "virtual" anything. And that's
Ubicomp is about physicality. So ubicomp's got what
my friend and colleague Judith Berman likes to call an
"empirical referent." When you've got an empirical
referent, you can't just make it all up and sell stock in
it. You have to demo or die. You're got an anchor point
in consensus reality. This is, of course, the very
opposite of what Judith Berman and I try to achieve when
we are writing science fiction, but that's why we're not
in your industry.
Suppose that ubicomp really took off. What would that
mean, how would that feel? Well, the first suggested
uses for ubicomp are pretty primitive: because the chips
are too big and they need a lot of power. A refrigerator
is always plugged into the wall. So maybe my ubicomp
refrigerator reads the bar-codes on all the groceries that
enter and leave it. It answers my cellphone when I call
it from the grocery, and it gets me up to speed how old
the yogurt is.
Cars have plenty of onboard power. So my ubicomp car
gets to become a dangerous, highly distracting, mobile
office on wheels. It's reading textfiles aloud over its
radio speakers. It's taking voicemail. It asks for handy
directions from satellites overhead and the local street-
signs. The tires complain when the tread gets low. The
gas tank knows all its favorite gas stations in the area.
These innovations just add a sexy blink and smile to
products that already exist. They aren't grand ubicomp
challenges. The grand challenge in ubicomp is to reform
the basic, primal relationships between humanity and
If physical objects misbehaved as badly as modern
computer software does, then human life would become
hellish. It would be murderous. This is definitely a
grand challenge, because it is also the kind of nightmare
one reads in the darkest tales from RISKS DIGEST. "Risks
to the Public in Computers and Related Systems" from the
ACM – I love that publication, I read it faithfully. The
comic potential alone makes it more than worth my time as
Well, when everything public is a "computer
system," then there's no limit to the risk. A single
instant's bad driving can kill you and your family.
Automated kitchens can slice, dice and fry the unwary. So
those aren't good places to start.
So what is a good place to start with ubicomp?
Let's talk about express shipping. Here we have a nice
big camel's nose in the tent for a break-out ubicomp
scenario. With the modern express package, chip-function
is added to a portable object in a way which is not only
convenient, but a definite competitive advantage. I can
follow a package via Internet from distant New York right
to the doorstep of my business.
If I could keep that schedule for all raw materials
that down to the minute, then I could reschedule my
inventory, keep stockpiles low and lean, do just-in-time
assembly, and make a whole lot of money.
I don't need a "smart" package or an "agent" package.
I don't much want to "talk" to a package. I don't want a
package tugging my sleeve, stalking me, or selfishly
begging for attention and commitment. If a package really
wants to please me and earn my respect, it needs to tell
me three basic things: What is it? (It's the very thing I
ordered, hopefully). Where is it? (It's on its way at
location x). And what condition it is in? (It's
functional, workable, unbroken, good to go). The shipping
company already needs to know these three things for their
own convenience. So they might as well tell me, too. So
I don't have to swallow my ubicomp like castor oil. My
ubicomp arrives in a subtle way, as a kind of value-added
So the object arrives in my possession with the
ubicomp attached. It's a tracking tag. When I sign for
that object, I keep the tracking tag. It's mine now. Ho
Let's say that it's something I'm really anxious to
have: it's a highly evolved mousetrap. The mice in my
house are driving me nuts, because I'm a programmer. I
eat nothing but take-out Szechuan food, and everything in
my house is fatally disordered.
Luckily my new, computer-designed mousetrap quickly
and horribly slaughters all my mice. Not one vermin is
left alive. That's great service, but now I'm anxious to
get rid of it. I really don't need a super-mousetrap
attracting attention, if I get lucky and a hot date comes
over to help me play "The Sims."
Given that I'm a congenital slob, of course the mice
soon return. But by then, I've already forgotten my
mousetrap. Out of sight, out of mind. I paid a lot of
money for it, but I already forgot where I put it.
But suppose that my mousetrap still has that shipping
chip. That means that the mousetrap answers when called.
I just look up its location on my home tracking network.
The mousetrap is still responding to my three basic
questions: (1) it's a mousetrap, (2) it's in the northeast
corner of the attic, and (3) it still works fine! Those
mice are in peril of their lives!
Having benefitted once or twice by this, I take the
logical next step. I tag everything that I already own,
lawnmowers, garden rakes, tennis shoes, carkeys, remote
control, my eyeglasses, the works. Now I have a ubicomp
menagerie. I even tag the mice. After all, if I know
where the mice are at all times, then I don't have to kill
them. I just haul the mice out of the walls and I
sterilize them. Then the mice become a kind of tame
garbage disposal system.
Other huge benefits ensue. I no longer need to sweat
and struggle to put my possessions into order. My things
can never get lost or misplaced. They can't even be stolen
from me, because the ubicomp tags are too small to see,
and any thief just becomes a kind of large mouse to be
tracked down by bored cops and annihilated.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am a ubicomp groupie. I
regard ubicomp as a really nifty, high-concept scheme. If
it were just a matter of intellectual sexiness, sci-fi
appeal, and technical brio, man, we could breeze for this
technology. We'd be rolling out the old IPOs, and getting
cover stories in WIRED magazine, and Dell would be
underpricing us, and hoo boy, the sky's the limit.
But that's not the way your industry works these
days. Because people, your industry is showing its age.
And it has pulled that old Grand Challenge hat trick a few
times too many.
Okay, check this out. Here is a clear precursor to
ubicomp, poking its head above the trench here, getting
ready to charge the no-man's-land. Ultra-wideband. Wi-
fi. Airport. 802dot11. 802 dot 11 b and g. AirHead.
Nokia Rooftop. Mesh Network SkyPilot I-Burst base-station
smart cells. Ladies and gentlemen, we are having a
classic, distributed, heavily networked, spontaneous,
logarithmic orders of magnitude, early-Internet style,
popular eruption here.
This is the computer community at its anarchic,
inventive finest, this ultra-wideband scheme. Only this
time around, the clock has been ticking. The Digital
Revolution has a track record, and it's not entirely
pretty. The Non-digital Counter-revolution really gets it
about the menace that a disruptive innovation like this
represents to the status quo. They don't fight fair,
because, frankly, neither do computer geeks. Fairness was
never an issue here. Because "fairness" is a political
word, it's not a technical word. There's no such thing as
But there are still huge, severe issues of power and
access and money. So, the many frightened opponents of
ultrawideband are not sitting still like the wallflowers
at the sock hop. On the contrary, they are going for the
throat of this young thing. They are going to wallop that
little genie on the back of the head with a blackjack and
stuff it right back in the bottle. Check this out:
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission approves
the technology for limited commercial use in February.
But in come some heavy operators: all the major wireless
carriers, the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S.
Department of Defense, satellite radio companies, and the
entire global positioning system community. They want to
strangle ultra-wideband in its crib – to kill it while
it's still stuck in the standards.
Okay, just like the Internet, ultra-wideband is
something used for decades by the military. It's spooky
stuff. It is used to communicate wirelessly without being
detected by opposition forces. All of a sudden the
Silicon Valley crowd gets it about the raw potential. Not
the "commercial" potential, really, because there doesn't
seem to be a business app for it – but, you know, the
good old-fashioned potential potential. Build it and
they will come, right?
Ultra-wideband is low-cost, low-power, high-speed,
and best of all, it is the number-one alternative to a
whole crowd of normal-wideband, stocks-on-fire, money-
losing technologies run by guys like Gary Winnick of
Global Crossing, and Bernie Ebbers of Worldcom, and the
Rigas family of Adelphia Communications.
So, ultra-wideband is a grand challenge with a lot of
deadly enemies. Experienced enemies who are sick of being
burned by disruptive new technologies. Out comes the
Fear Uncertainty and Doubt. Nine hundred companies file
concerns with the FCC. The GPS will fritz, they say;
airplanes will fall out of the sky. This is cynical
baloney. Everybody knows that, but evil stuff like that
has to be said; because these are classic not-in-my-back-
yard tactics. Cynical, tooth-gritting tactics that people
use when their backs are against the wall.
This is the sort of civil-disobedience fervor that we
see from anti-genetics campaigners and anti-nuclear
activists. Except that instead of being hippie zealots,
it's guys the likes of ABC Disney and the music recording
industry. Wi-Fi isn't Al Qaeda, they're not going to
knock down any airplanes. But this is common or garden
competitive practice for your industry these days.
Obstructive incumbents. Monopolization. Vicious
infighting. Phony-baloney regulatory obstacles.
Computation doesn't lack grand ideas. There's nothing
gone wrong with Moore's Law. People in Nature magazine
this week are making transistors out of single atoms!
But it doesn't much matter how pretty these ideas are,
because your industry has been debased. The heavy
players in your industry gave up expecting any justice
from the Justice Department, or any civility from civil
They are having a civil war, where guys who own the
operating system and guys who own the intellectual
property go for each other like Lebanese militia factions.
It is war to the knife inside the box. In the eyes of the
public, your captains of industry have no honor. They are
either fatcat swindling behemoths ruthlessly trampling the
public good, or else they are self-appointed digital fire
ants giving Mickey Mouse the death of a thousand bites.
This is not a pretty sight.
Your best friends won't tell you – but I'm a science
fiction writer, and most of you guys are academics or in
government, so I'll tell you. The computer industry is
full of smart geeks who never took out their garbage. They
were so busy that they forgot about elementary business
hygiene. They smell. They are becoming repulsive.
Now, computation is my favorite little industry. But
you know, if you never take out your garbage, and the
clock keeps ticking, then you've got vermin. It rots
from the head down, the computer industry. The moguls in
computing aren't knights in shining armor, these are some
of the meanest robber barons anybody has ever seen. These
guys are like ninja assassins armed with rusty stilettos.
They are stealing each other's market oxygen. They are
stabbing each other's babies. They went straight from
Internet anarchy to feudalist monopoly domination. They
went straight from the barbarism of the garage startup to
the decadence of bribing the government, suborning
accountants, and paying themselves with stock options that
aren't on the company books. And oh my goodness did the
chickens come home and start roosting.
They never clean anything up. They just dump the last
box and start over. The Internet stinks right now because
we are getting the Internet we deserve.
Ladies and gentlemen, it doesn't give me any pleasure
to tell you these things. They are painful things, and
they are ugly things, and they are shameful and demeaning
things, things unworthy of a healthy industry, things
unworthy of a functional government, things unworthy of a
free people. But I'm telling you the truth, and you know
it. You know it better than I know it.
Okay – to be painfully, totally honest – maybe it
does gives me a little pleasure to tell you these
things. But to have a garbage problem is not the end of
the world. If you're a lazy hacker slob who lives on
take-out Chinese and Cheetos, you can reform. I've seen
it done. You grow up, that's the secret. You get older,
you take responsibility, you face up to it.
Arthur C. Clarke, a great science fiction writer, made
up an interesting aphorism once. "Any technology that is
sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic."
But that doesn't mean that any technology ever is magic
– just because the rubes up in the gallery can't tell
the difference. You want to see an industry with a
serious garbage problem, check out the nuclear industry.
The computer industry is still young. It's not as young
as it thinks it is, but at least it's still kind of
imaginative and dreamy, it hasn't become a byword for
warfare, radiological dirty-bombing and permanent
The truth is that ALL technologies have garbage.
Until they can pick up after themselves, they are
immature. Any garbage that is sufficiently advanced is
also indistinguishable from magic. It may look magic, but
it's still garbage.
Ladies and gentlemen, although I've been harsh with
you, I am bringing you a message of hope and aspiration.
What if it's smart garbage? When ubicomp become
garbage (as all gizmos and gadgets are inherently likely
to do) it can be smart garbage! It's garbage that knows
that it's garbage. It's garbage that can identify itself
to the junk recycler. It doesn't go out of sight, out of
mind, where it's allowed to fester like a leftover
computer virus. Without vision, the people perish; but
with some vision, what the heck, let's live it up!
The gizmos fold themselves right back into the production
stream. They don't spew toxins or waste, because even the
trash is computational. We've got a gizmo that is smart
enough to make its peace with the clock. It truly got
ahead of its time.
I see by my digital wristwatch here that time stops for no man, and I am out of time too. That's all I have to tell you tonight. Thanks for entertaining my speculations. I hope you have a great, productive conference.
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