Distraction

I’m re-reading Distraction by Bruce Sterling. Published in 1998, it is/was frighteningly prescient.  Here are a few of my favorite excerpts (does that first one remind you of anyone?).

“He’s like a not very bright child who can be deceived and managed, but not reasoned with.”

“The American national character realty wasn’t suited for global police duties. It never had been. Tidy and meticulous people such as the Swiss and Swedes were the types who made good cops. America was far better suited to be the World’s Movie Star. The world’s tequila-addled pro-league bowler. The world’s acerbic, bipolar stand-up comedian. Anything but a somber and tedious nation of socially responsible centurions.”

“It always offended him to hear his fellow Americans discussing the vagaries of “white people.” There was simply no such thing as “white people. That stereotype was an artificial construct, like the ridiculous term “Hispanic.” In all the rest of the world, a Peruvian was a Peruvian and a Brazilian was a Brazilian— it was only in America that people somehow became this multilingual, multinational entity called a “Hispanic.”

“Political reality in modern America was the stark fact that electronic networks had eaten the guts out of the old order, while never finding any native order of their own. The horrific speed of digital communication, the consonant flattening of hierarchies, the rise of net-based civil society, and the decline of the industrial base had simply been too much for the American government to cope with and successfully legitimize.”

“Knowledge is inherently precious even if you can’t sell it. Even if you can’t use it. Knowledge is an absolute good. The search for truth is vital. It’s central to civilization. You need knowledge even when your economy and government are absolutely shot to hell.”

Something new is happening

As it becomes increasingly difficult to know what’s ‘true’ and ‘accurate,’ I find myself depending (not he right word but close enough) on how something is said. Am I just talking about style or tone here? Perhaps. Anyway, Bruce Sterling (On Social Media Jihads) never disappoints.

“People are gonna kill ISIS because they want those oil wells back, not because ISIS is sort-of okay at social media and pushing viral atrocity videos. […] When you’re a top terrorist, you don’t really want to “wreak havoc” anyway. Mostly, you want to create a failed state, a place like Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, where you can take over at gunpoint and live it up in the narcotics, weapons, and oil biz.”

And this gem on U.S. foreign policy:

“It doesn’t matter how much data the U.S. military or U.S. intelligence has: They attack the wrong people for made-up reasons and they’re also [a] terribly ineffective occupation power.”

As for the Internet as a global brain uniting all of mankind…

“People don’t realize that the old-fashioned global Internet of the 90s is segregating into radicalized filter-bubbles, but it is, and fast. People are used to the Free World idea, they think the huddles masses behind the Chinese Firewall and the new Russian firewalls want to get out and be rich and happy at the West’s shopping mall. But the Chinese, Russians, and even the Greeks tried that, they don’t like it, and that’s not what is happening any more. Something new is happening.”

The Blast Shack: Part 2

Bruce Sterling has written a follow-up to his 2010 essay on Wikileaks. Here are a few of my favorite snippets:

The War on Terror has failed as conclusively as Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations failed.

Even US Senators are decorative objects for the NSA. An American Senator knows as much about PRISM and XKeyScore as a troll-doll on the dashboard knows about internal combustion.

The authorities finally got around to convicting Bradley this week, of some randomized set of largely irrelevant charges. But the damage there is already done; some to Bradley himself, but mostly grave, lasting damage to the authorities. By maltreating Bradley as their Guantanamo voodoo creature, their mystic hacker terror beast from AlQaedaville, Oklahoma, they made Bradley Manning fifty feet high.

It’s incredible to me that, among the eight zillion civil society groups on the planet that hate and fear spooks and police spies, not one of them could offer Snowden one shred of practical help, except for Wikileaks.

Personal computers can have users, but social media has livestock.

Bruce Sterling’s State of the World 2012

“The mid-century will be about “old people in big cities who are afraid of the sky.” Futurity means metropolitan people with small families in a weather crisis.”

Future Change as Seen by American Right-wing Talk Radio (2011-12)

  1. Existential threats to the American Constitution. Mostly from “Sharia Law,” which is sort of like the American Constitution for Moslem Islamofascists.
  2. Imminent collapse of all fiat currencies, somehow leading to everyday use of fungible gold bars.
  3. Sudden, frightening rise of violent, unemployable, disease-carrying “Occupy Wall Street” anarchists who are bent on intimidation and repressing free speech.
  4. Hordes of immigrants being illegally encouraged to flood the polls.
  5. Lethal and immoral US government health-care.
  6. Radical Gay Agenda / Litigious Feminazis (tie).
  7. God’s Will. Surprisingly low-key, considering what an all-purpose justification this is.

“I’ve got a soft spot for chemtrail people, they’re really just sort of cool, and much more interesting than UFO cultists, who are all basically Christians. Jesus is always the number one Saucer Brother in UFO contactee cults. It’s incredible how little imagination the saucer people have.”

“Space Travel people. There’s no popular understanding of why space cities don’t work, though if you told them they’d have to spend the rest of their lives in the fuselage of a 747 at 30,000 feet, they’d be like “Gosh that’s terrible.”

“Transcendant spiritual drug enthusiasts. You go into one of those medical marijuana dispensaries nowadays, they’re like huckster chiropractors, basically. The whole ethical-free-spirit surround of the psychedelic dreamtime is gone. It’s like the tie-dyed guys toking up in the ashram have been replaced by the carcasses of 12,000 slaughtered Mexicans.”

Original discussion on the Well.

Bruce Sterling on mobile phones and revolution

“… we’re in the midst of a massive global reinvention. Not just a shift from analog to digital, but a shift from centralized control to distributed systems. From isolated single user experiences to a global social fabric. These mobile devices are the of Gutenberg presses of our generation. This is not a bubble, this is a revolution.” – Blog post

The Blast Shack (Bruce Sterling on WikiLeaks)

I think my first exposure to Bruce Sterling was The Hacker Crackdown (1992). Some years later, I read and enjoyed Distraction (“the story of an America on the skids: economy in tatters, dollar collapsed, unemployment spiked, population on the move in great, restless herds bound together with networks and bootleg phones.”)

He has written the best essay I’ve read on WikiLeaks (The Blast Shack). A few excerpts:

(Bradley Manning’s) war made no sense on its face, because it was carried out in a headlong pursuit of imaginary engines of mass destruction.

Bradley’s gonna become a “spy” whose “espionage” consisted of making the activities of a democratic government visible to its voting population

Trying Assange is “the kind of show-trial judo every repressive government fears.”

Everybody wants everybody else’s national government to leak. Every state wants to see the diplomatic cables of every other state. It will bend heaven and earth to get them. It’s just, that sacred activity is not supposed to be privatized, or, worse yet, made into the no-profit, shareable, have-at-it fodder for a network society, as if global diplomacy were so many mp3s. Now the US State Department has walked down the thorny road to hell that was first paved by the music industry. Rock and roll, baby.

(Assange is) a darkside hacker who is a self-appointed, self-anointed, self-educated global dissident. He’s a one-man Polish Solidarity, waiting for the population to accrete around his stirring propaganda of the deed.

(Assange is ) just what he is; he’s something we don’t yet have words for.

If the Internet was walking around in public, it would look and act a lot like Julian Assange. The Internet is about his age, and it doesn’t have any more care for the delicacies of profit, propriety and hierarchy than he does

American diplomats are gonna read those stolen cables, though, because they were supposed to read them anyway, even though they didn’t. Now, they’ve got to read them, with great care, because they might get blindsided otherwise by some wisecrack that they typed up years ago

Diplomats are people who speak from nation to nation. They personify nations, and nations are brutal, savage, feral entities. Diplomats used to have something in the way of an international community, until the Americans decided to unilaterally abandon that in pursuit of Bradley Manning’s oil war. Now nations are so badly off that they can’t even get it together to coherently tackle heroin, hydrogen bombs, global warming and financial collapse. Not to mention the Internet.

You don’t have to be a citizen of this wracked and threadbare superpower in order to sense the pervasive melancholy of an empire in decline.

Julian Assange is “the kind of guy who gets depressed by the happiness of the stupid.”

“State of the World and Things Various and Sundry”

Every year the Well (one of the early, pre-web, online communities) invites Bruce Sterling to chat about the state of the world. This year, he paints a grim picture of where the “present” is heading:

“Various entities and institutions have scrambled together safety pins and gobs of glue to rig the global economy so that it appears to be ambling along, but isn’t it a great conceptual Jenga, ready to fall if you move the wrong block? What kind of shuffling and reshuffling can we expect, if there’s a global economic meltdown? And has the collapse already happened – are we like the coyote, run far beyond the edge of the cliff, waiting for gravity’s effect?”

On Google News and Twitter:

“I’m looking over my Twitter stream here, because it seems a more useful barometer to me now than Google News. Google News definitely has that rickety Jenga feeling that JonL is talking about. Whenever you see something on Google News nowadays, you have to wonder: “who owns this so-called news organization now? What’s left of them financially? Is there even a shred of objective fact in this?”

“Setting fire to dead stuff”

Every year on The Well, Bruce Sterling does an “overview of Things in General, the State of the World, Where We Have Been and Where We are Tending.” I’ve cherry-picked a few thoughts from the latest installment:

“I always knew the “War on Terror” bubble would go.  It’s gone. Nobody misses it.  It got no burial.  I knew it was gonna be replaced by another development that seemed much more burningly urgent than terror Terror TERROR, but I had a hard time figuring out what vast, abject fright that might be. Now I know.  Welcome to 2009!”

“You know what’s truly weird about any financial crisis? WE MADE IT UP.  Currency, money, finance, they’re all social inventions.  When the sun comes up in the morning it’s shining on the same physical landscape, all the atoms are in place.”

“The sheer galling come-down of watching the Bottom Line, the Almighty Dollar, revealed as a papier-mache pinata.  It’s like somebody burned their church.”

“I keep remembering the half-stunned, half-irritated looks on the faces of those car execs when they were chided for flying their company jets to Washington to beg.  I felt sorrow for them.  Truly.  These guys are the captains of American industry at the top of the food chain.  Of course they fly corporate jets.  Corporate jets were *invented* for guys like the board of General Motors.  And now they’re getting skewered for that by a bunch of punk-ass Congressmen they can usually buy and sell?”

“Practically everything we do in our civilization is directly predicated on setting fire to dead stuff.”

“People don’t have to solve every problem in the world in order to be happy.  People will always have problems. People ARE problems.  People become happy when they have something coherent to be enthusiastic about.  People need to LOOK AND FEEL they’re solving some of mankind’s many problems.  People can’t stumble around in public like blacked-out alcoholics, then have some jerk like Phil Gramm tell them to buck up.”

“When you can’t imagine how things are going to change, that doesn’t mean that nothing will change.  It means that things will change in ways that are unimaginable.”

Bruce Sterling’s Distraction

If you’re looking for an interesting read over the long weekend, may I suggest Distraction, by Bruce Sterling. I read this book in October of 2004, long before my political awakening. Here’s a short review on Boing Boing:

DistractionDistraction is the story of an America on the skids: economy in tatters, dollar collapsed, unemployment spiked, population on the move in great, restless herds bound together with networks and bootleg phones. The action revolves around Oscar Valparaiso, a one-of-a-kind political operator who has just put his man — a billionaire sustainable architecture freak — into the Senate and is looking for some downtime. But a funny thing happens on the way to the R&R: Oscar and his “krewe” (the feudal entourage who trail after him, looking after his clothes, research, security, systems and so on) end up embroiled in a complex piece of political theater, a media war between the rogue governor of the drowned state of Louisiana, the Air Force, the newly elected president, and a weird, pork-barrel science park in its own glassed-in dome.

I’d love to know how many books and screenplays about the 2008 campaign are in the works.