Bruce Sterling on the Transition Web

Posted by on March 1st, 2009 in activism, doomed future, Futurism, rage against the machine

Bruce Sterling just blogged his entire Webstock 09 speech, since apparently my neighbours, the Kiwi’s, couldn’t parse his accent.

It’s a brilliant overview of the history of the web, but it’s when he starts looking forwards that he really gets rolling.  Here’s just some of it (all emphasis is mine):

We’ve got a web built on top of a collapsed economy. THAT’s the black hole at the center of the solar system now. There’s gonna be a Transition Web. Your economic system collapses: Eastern Europe, Russia, the Transition Economy, that bracing experience is for everybody now. Except it’s not Communism transitioning toward capitalism. It’s the whole world into transition toward something we don’t even have proper words for.

The Web has always had an awkward relationship with business. Web 2.0 was a business model. The Transition Web is a culture model. If it’s gonna work, it’s got to replace things that we used to pay for with things that we just plain use.

In the Transition Web, if you’re monetizable, it means that you get attacked. You gotta squeeze a penny out of every pixel because the owners are broke. But if you do that to your users, they will vaporize, because they’re broke too, just like you; of course they’re gonna migrate to stuff that’s free.

After a while you have to wonder if it’s worth it — the money model, I mean. Is finance worth the cost of being involved with the finance? The web smashed stocks. Global banking blew up all over the planet all at once… Not a single country anywhere with a viable economic policy under globalization. Is there a message here?

Are there some non-financial structures that are less predatory and unstable than this radically out-of-kilter invisible hand? The invisible hand is gonna strangle us! Everybody’s got a hand out — how about offering people some visible hands?

Once upon a time there were lots of social enterprises that lived outside the market; social movements, political parties, mutual aid societies, philanthropies. Churches, criminal organizations — you’re bound to see plenty of both of those in a transition… Labor unions… not little ones, but big ones like Solidarity in Poland; dissident organizations, not hobby activists, big dissent, like Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia.

Armies, national guards. Rescue operations. Global non-governmental organizations. Davos Forums, Bilderberg guys.

Retired people. The old people can’t hold down jobs in the market. Man, there’s a lot of ‘em. Billions. What are our old people supposed to do with themselves? Websurf, I’m thinking. They’re wise, they’re knowledgeable, they’re generous by nature; the 21st century is destined to be an old people’s century. Even the Chinese, Mexicans, Brazilians will be old. Can’t the web make some use of them, all that wisdom and talent, outside the market?

Market failures have blown holes in civil society. The Greenhouse Effect is a market failure. The American health system is a market failure — and most other people’s health systems don’t make much commercial sense. Education is a loss leader and the university thing is a mess.

Income disparities are insane. The banker aristocracy is in hysterical depression. Housing is in wreckage; the market has given us white-collar homeless and a million empty buildings.

The energy market is completely freakish. If you have no fossil fuels, you shiver in the dark. If you do have them, your economy is completely unstable, your government is corrupted and people kill you for oil.

The human trafficking situation is crazy. In globalization people just evaporate over borders. They emigrate illegally and grab whatever cash they can find. If you don’t export you go broke from trade imbalances. If you do export, you go broke because your trading partners can’t pay you…

Kinda hard to face up to all this, especially when it’s laid out in this very bald fashion.

But you know, I’m not scared by any of this. I regret the suffering, I know it’s big trouble — but it promises massive change and a massive change was inevitable. The way we ran the world was wrong.

I’ve never seen so much panic around me, but panic is the last thing on my mind. My mood is eager impatience. I want to see our best, most creative, best-intentioned people in world society directly attacking our worst problems. I’m bored with the deceit. I’m tired of obscurantism and cover-ups. I’m disgusted with cynical spin and the culture war for profit. I’m up to here with phony baloney market fundamentalism. I despise a prostituted society where we put a dollar sign in front of our eyes so we could run straight into the ditch.

The cure for panic is action. Coherent action is great; for a scatterbrained web society, that may be a bit much to ask. Well, any action is better than whining. We can do better.

I’m not gonna tell you what to do. I’m an artist, I’m not running for office and I don’t want any of your money. Just talk among yourselves. Grow up to the size of your challenges. Bang out some code, build some platforms you don’t have to duct-tape any more, make more opportunities than you can grab for your little selves, and let’s get after living real lives.

The future is unwritten. Thank you very much.

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2 Responses to “Bruce Sterling on the Transition Web”

  1. That is a whole lot of predicting happening in a short piece.

  2. I love to see a pragmatic guy like Sterling (he’s off-the-wall creative, but never sounds like a cheerleader) talking about the end of money. Makes me feel a little less insane.