Bruce Sterling on 17 Aug 2000 14:49:37 -0000

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<nettime> Info-Tech and Creativity

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.

Entries in the Viridian Magazine Cover Contest:

This contest expires August 31, 02000.

"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 

     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 
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 
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 

     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 

     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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