Key concepts: Austin Software Council, clean power, Greenhouse Effect, Texan patriotism

Attention Conservation Notice: It's a speech about air pollution and the Greenhouse Effect to a regional trade association.

When it comes to "seeking the biomorphic and the transorganic," it's hard to match Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau with their "Life Spacies" installation.


Speech at Austin Software Council annual meeting, "Software, the Pervasive Technology," Austin Texas, 9/9/99

by Bruce Sterling

Hello, thanks for that introduction. I got fifteen minutes to talk, so I want to tell you two things about the future of Austin, Texas. One is a promise, and one is a threat.

I've lived here since I first came to school here, 27 years ago. When I first got here, Austin meant state government and state education, and that was it, period. Austin was a sleepy, hippie-dog college town. Today you can't say the name of Austin without people thinking "high-tech."

Let me tell you this: I am definitely with that program. We Austinites have an industrial base now, and we have go-it-going-on as we never have before. The potential of software as "the pervasive technology" has scarcely begun to be tapped. Software is gonna be as common and ubiquitous as clocks, telephones and running water. There will be digital DNA stuffed into any object and any process that can take the stuffing. Software will soak completely into the fabric of daily life.

And every indicator says we in Austin Texas are gonna be right on top of that phenomenon.

And here's another fine thing. Austin, Texas is a real place. Go to Silicon Valley sometime. Okay? I've been there. It's a great place to grow oranges. You can't tell any of the so-called cities of Silicon Valley apart from one another. The place is one endless series of highrises, corporate campuses, parking lots and assembly garages.

But Austin is for real. Austin has actual, authentic, regional food. Austin has actual, authentic, regional music. You can't fake that sort of thing. It's priceless.

Here's where we Austinites stand now, in the eyes of the world. Traditionally, Austin has been the cute hippie little sister of other American cities. Austin is the cosmic cowgirl chick from the college, with her "City of the Violet Crown" hatband. Sipping a margarita, munching her tamale, with her feet up on the Goodwill couch. Living in her golden rut, enjoying blue skies, lots of creeks, big green trees, nice restaurants, bookstores, and bars. Not a lot goin' on, really.

But suddenly, she's pulling down more high-tech venture capital than Dallas and Houston combined. So after 2000, the hippie little sister has a screamin' laptop and a friend in the White House. She can get her bare feet off the couch, pick up her guitar and solo on CNN, C-SPAN and MTV. Cities around the planet would beg for a future like that.

That is our bright promise. We're up for it, it suits our talents and our character, the chips are falling our way big-time, and we have a chance to shine in the next century as we have never shone before.

So what is our dark cloud? Well, I'll tell you. Austin's dark cloud is a just plain dark cloud.

It's in our newspaper. Look at this headline. "Austin Joins List of Air Quality Offenders." It's smog.
The feds are on our case. Because we stink.

The sad truth is, for all our boasting about our lovely quality of life, we're the dirty little hippie sister. And that's just the start of it. You can sweep a little dirt under the Goodwill couch, but it is getting hotter here. Let me repeat that. Summers in Texas are getting hotter. Okay? It's a fact. Here's the headline, look. "Austin's August Heat Sets Record."

In July 1998, Austin had the hottest July that Austin has ever had. In August 1999, Austin had the hottest August that Austin has ever had. We already have very hot summers in Texas. There's not much leeway for summers to get any hotter in Texas. If the climate in Texas gets much hotter, people will live in hell and rent out Texas.

Why is this happening? It is because of the Greenhouse Effect. Let me repeat that. All of the oil in the great State of Texas has been drilled up, pumped up, refined, and set fire to. Okay? Burning fossil fuels! Greenhouse Effect! Everything that used to be under our ground is up in our sky! That is why it's getting hotter!
It's gonna keep getting hotter as long as we keep burning stuff!

The Greenhouse Effect has been a theory since the 1960s. These aren't the 1960s and it isn't a theory.

Let me say this slowly and loudly, so that you will never be able to say that a futurist never warned you about it. If it keeps getting hotter every summer for the next couple of decades or so, it will depopulate this state! Nobody will work here if the weather in summer can kill you dead on the sidewalk.

This isn't a merely technical problem for us Austinites, for us Texans. This is a problem that strikes at our souls. It is a vital threat to the land that sustains us. We are betraying our sacred Texan heritage.

Those are some pretty strong words, so let me back that up.

A heritage isn't something you can just talk about. Traditionally, it's something you have to sing about. So listen to these fine, traditional, Texan anthems:

"The stars at night are gray and dim
(clap clap clap clap)
Deep in the heart of Texas!
The traffic's fumes, are like perfume
(clap clap clap clap)
Deep in the heart of Texas."

That's the situation. Check this out:

"Texas, our Texas, all hail the mighty state Texas, our Texas, so wonderful, so great, Dirtiest and grandest, flunking the federal test Oh empire formerly glorious, you reek just like the rest."

Are you proud of that? Is that the legacy you want to leave to your children? Who do we blame for this? Is this El Paso's fault? You'd think so, to hear the way people are whining about all the fumes blowing in on us from out of town.

Are we professional victims suddenly? Who are we trying to kid? We're the capital of the state! Of course it's our own damn fault! The University of Texas is founded on oil! There isn't a family in Texas, my own most definitely included, that doesn't have oil people in it! Texas meant oil and gas throughout the whole 20th century. We can't sidestep this issue! The Greenhouse Effect is completely and totally about us. And it's not a mere theory any more, because you can step out onto any street in Austin and feel the heat! You can look at any Austin sunset and see the filth.

What does this have to do with software, you may ask, nervously. Everything, that's what. Because coal- burning power plants are your biggest desktop peripheral. Your industry can't live for one nanosecond without electricity. The Internet is an electrical network.
You're digging coal with your return key.

Furthermore, you are especially responsible in matters of technology, because you are technically aware people. You are smart enough to understand a trend curve and do the math. You don't need any hand-holding when it comes to scientific literacy. A city like Austin is supposed to be leading technical trends, not tagging along like a child.

Now we have a way forward. Just this month, September 1999, the Texas utility situation has been opened up to market forces. It is being deregulated. There is competition in effect. Henceforth, you can buy clean power. Clean electrical power that doesn't put any smoke in our air. As the flagship industry of Austin Texas, I am telling you people, straight out right now, that you have got to do this. It's for the sake of our future, and an act of respect for our heritage. It's not something you can shirk. You have got to do it, and more importantly, you have got to publicly promote the fact that you are doing it. You have got to glory in doing it.

Austin must be seen by the world as a city of ideas that is a source of genuine solutions and genuine progress. A city that sees the future, understands the road ahead, and leads the way. Your industry should do that for this city. Go to the Austin Energy department, and tell them you're paying extra for wind power, for sun power. They'll sell it to you, they're ready to go. Treat this as a public-relations expense. And tell everybody you're doing it.

In the next century, oil is over for Texas. Because we sold it all. We import oil now. We are a net energy importing state. This is a tragic betrayal of our natural role in the world. Texas has a lot of solar, we have a lot of wind. The State of Texas should be an energy giant, today, tomorrow and as far as the eye can see. We have to have clean energy sooner or later. The only question is how dumb and backward we are about it, as we're making this vital technical transition.

We only have to kill this smoking dragon once. Once we replace that old energy infrastructure, it'll be as dead as the UNIVAC. It doesn't cost that much to do it. It costs less to do it than it costs to litigate not doing it. And these are boom times. We can afford it.
I can afford it. I'm paying for clean energy, I am doing it myself, right now.

If you look at our history, our heritage, you can see the Texans don't merely get given a future. Consider Sam Houston. You may have heard of him: victor of San Jacinto, and all that. Sam Houston is still remembered today, because he was an ultimate Texan culture hero. Drinking problem, marriage scandal, hot temper, Sam Houston had everything that makes a Texan politician world-class!

When there was smoke rising on the pyres of the Alamo, Sam Houston didn't say, "Reckon it's time to mosey back to Tennessee." Sam Houston was a lot of things, but there were two things old Sam never was. He was never short-sighted, and he was never a cheap carpetbagger.

Sam Houston thought big and bold, and when Sam Houson put his boots on the public stage, Sam came to stay. If Sam Houston were talking to you now instead of being six feet under in Huntsville, he would say: "Texans, seize your lone star of destiny."

And I can't possibly top that advice, so I'm giving him the last word. That's all I have to tell you; thanks for your attention.

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