Mar 18, 2013 · 9 minutes

At the end of South By Southwest Interactive – after MakerBot had unveiled its desktop 3D scanner, after Google had demonstrated the power of Google Glass, after Leap Motion had shut down its demo tent, after churns of Spring Breaking startups had partied themselves into a stupor – science fiction novelist and cyberpunk Bruce Sterling took to the stage in a half-empty exhibition hall and presented his closing remarks, an annual tradition in which the writer delivers a blunt-force counter-narrative to the narcotic techno-optimism of the festival.

For someone who has been ensconced in the fluffy-tailed world of startups for the past year, Sterling’s talk was a bracing jolt into a different solar system: one in which innovation is not necessarily a friendly force; one in which technology is regarded with wonder and skepticism in equal measure; and one in which disruption is synonymous with destruction.

We in the Land of Startups tend to get carried away with the excitement and world-changing powers of “disruption.” The word itself has been mythologized: there is a conference named for it; pundits editorialize on how to execute it correctly; it has been invoked on television as “fuck you disruption,” a full-circle embarrassment of the self-unaware signalling the self-unaware. As much as it has become one of the defining forces reshaping the modern economy, disruption has become a heat-seeking missile of douchery and disengagement.

So Sterling’s address was both challenging and invigorating. In it, he questioned the assumption that technological advancement was the same as societal progress; he confronted innovators with the consequences of their actions; and he equated disruption with death. He did so while confessing that he too is a futurist, and that he too is a disrupter. The speech was provocative, but it was also honest.

While I don’t endorse all of Sterling’s speech – the writer pushes his examples to extremes in order to make his point, and therefore his remarks themselves deserve our skepticism (Dell, for instance, did have a presence at SXSW, despite Sterling claiming the opposite) – it should be prescribed reading for anyone in the business of startups. Sterling spoke for nearly an hour, and I encourage you to listen to it in its entirety. But for me, two passages stood out. They speak for themselves as follows.

I’m okay with disruption, I’ve seen a lot of it, I’ve seen how it works. I’ve participated in it. I’ve known people who have benefited by it; I’ve known people who have suffered by it. I have seen disruption in music, literature, the arts, entertainment, publishing, the fourth estate, the military, political parties, manufacturing – pretty much everywhere, except finance, health, the law, and the prison/military industry, which is why they’ve got all the money now and the rest of us are reduced to disruptic global peons. Computers were really radically disruptive; mobile devices are so disruptive that they even disrupted computers, they’re a bigger deal than the dead bookstores. We’ve got guys who own cellphones in this world who can’t even read. And I’m very intimate with this spectacle, I’m very keen on all its in and outs. The thing that bugs me about your attitude towards it is that you don’t recognize its tragic dimension. This is something that literature has always been very keen on, that technology never gets around to acknowledging: the cold, the wind, the moaning through the empty stone box. [Throughout his speech, Sterling used the stone box, an artefact of an ancient culture, as a metaphor for the personal computer.] When are you going to own up to it? Where are the Dell PCs? This is Austin, Texas, Michael Dell, the biggest tech mogul in Central Texas, why is he not here? Why is he not at least selling his wares? Where are the dedicated gaming consoles you used to love? You remember how important those were? I could spend all day here just reciting the names of the casualties. In your line of work, it’s always the electronic frontier; nobody ever goes back to look at the electronic forests that were cut down with chainsaws and tossed into the rivers.

And then there’s this empty pretense that these innovations make the world better. This is a dangerous word, like, ‘If we’re not making the world better, then why are we doing this at all?’. Now, I don’t want to claim that this attitude is hypocritical, because when you say a thing like that at South By – ‘Oh, we’re here to make the world better’ – you haven’t even reached the level of hypocrisy. You’re stuck at the level of childish naivety. The world has a tragic dimension. This world does not always get better. This world has deserts – deserts aren’t better. People don’t always get better. You personally, once you’re over middle age, when you’re becoming elderly, you don’t get better every day. When you’re elderly, you are in metabolic decline. Every day you get worse. It’s the human condition, it’s a simple truth. It is fatuous to think that culture or politics or society or technology always get better. It’s just not true, and it’s certainly not true right now. Since the financial panic of 2008, things have gotten worse across the board. The austerity is a complete policy failure; it’s even worse than the panic. We’re not surrounded by betterness in 2013. By practically every measure: nature is worse, culture is worse, governance is worse, the infrastructure is in visible decline, business is worse, people are living in cardboard in Silicon Valley, we don’t even have much to boast about in our fashion. Although you have lost weight – and I praise you for that because I know it must have been hard.

We are living in hard times, we are not living in jolly boom dot com times. And that’s why guys like Evgeny Morozov, who comes from the miserable country of Belarus, gets all jittery and even fiercely aggressive when he hears you talking about technological solutionism. There’s an app to make that all better. Okay, a billion apps have been sold. Where’s the betterness? Things do not always progress, and the successes of progress become thorny problems for the next generation, they don’t stay permanently better. Our value judgments about what [is] better are temporary, they are time bound. When you over-use the word “better” it’s a head-fake, it’s a mantra. You don’t have a betterometer; you can’t measure the length and duration of the betterness. Better is a metaphysical value judgment, it’s not a scientific quality, like mass or velocity. You can’t test it experimentally. We don’t know what’s better. We don’t even know what’s worse. Which is good. Every cloud has a silver lining.

Google doesn’t want to be evil. But they don’t have an evilometer. They don’t have an evil-avoidance algorithm. I can already tell you what an evil Google Glass looks like – nobody mentioned it, but it’s stunningly obvious. You just take the four Glass design principles and you reverse them. You use software that was not designed for Glass. Buggy, abusive software, stuff that breaks up or jams or just fails to display. You grab fiercely for attention; you disrupt the user’s day; you send the user stale, useless information. You do freaky coding that breaks, or hacks, or pwns the device. And why do I know these things? Because they’re already present in Android right now. [Laughter]

You don’t have to see into the future to recognize this. That’s not a prediction. All you have to do is abandon your naive pretense that every tech deployment is necessarily an advance. It isn’t true. If I’m a huckster in Ghana who was spamming you through Google Glass, for me that situation is better. I’m not your pal – I’m an adversary, I’m out to rob you. The Russians, they used to want to blow up Stanford. They didn’t want to send a Sergey Brin. They were not our permanent enemies; they were not always bad. ‘Anything that’s good for us is bad for them’ – it’s not true. If you’re fixated on betterness, you might lose hope when good goes to the bad. You might even lose hope when bad goes to the good. Because it leaves you at sea, because you are living an illusion. You are living an illusion. Later, after describing the advanced but ultimately underwhelming technologies on display at Arizona State University’s Emerge 2013: The Future of Truth conference, Sterling turned his attention to the morality of technological advancement.

How can we get past the ‘Wow’ factor? How can we really inquire with this? How can we treat it with moral seriousness? I think the first step, really the proper step, is to accept that our hands are not clean. We don’t just play and experiment. We kill. When you disrupt the stone box, the stone box goes empty. It’s not merely irritated or disturbed – it’s dead, it’s dead media. It’s dead, it’s been killed. And to be a phoenix you have to admit your complicity in the barbecue fire. It’s your fire; it’s not somebody else’s. It’s like, yes, we killed the past. We didn’t pull the trigger on it directly, but it died for our benefit. It died through things we did. Own up to that. Own up to that. Yes, we burned it up. No one is historically innocent. Yes, we are carnivores at this barbecue. Yes it died, we roasted it and we ate it. And the saving grace here is that we eat what we kill. Go on, eat it. Don’t pretend to be the child bride in white lace who thinks that babies are found under the cabbages. You’re not that young. You’re 26 years old. You’re going to be slaughtering the hog of the 20th Century, roasting it over a bonfire. Live up to it, come on. To kill it and pretend that it was some kind of accident, that is shameful.
After the sepulchral sermon, a young techie sitting next to me and my friends said that he wasn’t impressed with Sterling. He found him rambly and overly nostalgic for a past that’s not coming back. What it comes down to, this twenty-something argued, is consumer choice: it’s Google or Samsung, not the disrupter and the dead. If one fails because it wasn’t as good as the other, that’s the company’s own fault. Tears are wasted on a stone box.

We filed out of the cavernous exhibition hall. Sterling’s words whooshed over the techie’s head as he charged full-tilt into techtopia.