Skip to content →

Sterling on “How to be futuristic”

Attention Conservation Notice: The value of an ACN is to tell you why you may not want to read the following post. This post is the continuation of a synthesis of Bruce Sterling talks, this time about the ‘process’ of futurism. It is shorter but much dryer than his actual monologues can be, and will also obviously be colored by my commentary and pre-existing ideological whims.

I return to Bruce Sterling often because, like Stewart Brand, he’s a great (and prolific) communicator with a legendary nose for finding unevenly distributed futures and painting a scene for what they might look like as they arrive for the rest of us. From clear-eyed observation of the “present” back in 2009, Sterling did a remarkable job outlining a cultural sensation that I could tangibly recognize from here in 2019. Notably, ‘Dark Euphoria’ is basically an IRL flavor of the ecstasy-and-dread cyberpunk aesthetic of which Sterling is a founding father, now arriving into the mainstream.

In the next few posts, I’ll digest some of his recent talks, which happen to be mostly about how he does what he does:

  1. What does it mean to be a futurist?
  2. What does the arrival of Dark Euphoria mean for Cyberpunk and Science Fiction more broadly?
  3. How has the current moment changed about our relationship to history or futurism?

A few constants from my previous installations on Sterling’s annual talks:

  • Climate Change is mentioned every year
  • The political environment continues to get weird
  • People are getting older, cities are getting bigger, and the anxieties of natural, demographic, and cultural upheaval are intensifying.
  • SXSW and its associated tech and arts scenes continue to age and “mature”. Now ‘name brand’ politicians from the US and Europe are coming to talk about policy and regulation and taxes etc.

In these next few posts, I’m quoting and summarizing from these Sterling talks, in order to synthesize some thoughts on how to ‘perform futuristic’ and his reflections on what affordances the current cultural moment leaves for sci-fi, futurism, and historical thinking:

  • 2019: “SXSW Keynote”
  • 2018: “How To Be Futuristic” @ The Long Now
  • 2018: “SXSW Keynote: Disrupting Dystopia”
  • 2010*: “Atemporality for the Creative Artist”

The craft of being futuristic

TLDR how to be futuristic

  1. Locate: Find some other futurists
  2. Ingratiate: Learn to think and talk like them, adopt their jargon
  3. Go Deep: Find a narrow, specialty audience, probably in a thin slice of a PACE layer, and dig into this niche
  4. Get Seasoned: there’s no obvious shortcut in this step. Live long enough to see time pass.
  5. Get Cultured: Make an effort to avoid being a “parochial hick in your own decade”. Seek long-dead allies in the classics. Get familiar with genuinely slow and longterm processes, the ways people can be wrong, etc.
  6. Go Public: Do some original creative work (using experience from steps 4 & 5), publish it, call it futuristic, get the futurists (from steps 1 & 2) to acknowledge it [though not necessarily agree!], get your public (step 3) to acknowledge it. Done-zo. You’ve performed futuristic.

There’s no other way to do it. So, I do that.

Bruce Sterling @ The Interval, 02018

Finding your niche: a dive into step 3 and PACE layers

Much in the same way that personhood can be transitive, Bruce Sterling argues that “to be futuristic is to ‘perform futuristic’ for somebody”. You must cultivate an audience. It can’t be done alone. Futurism, like history, is an effort in the humanities, and I’ll contend that this quote applies to both:

History is not a science; history is an effort in the humanities. It’s about meanings, values, language, historical identity, institutions, culture.

“Atemporality for the Creative Artist” – Bruce Sterling, Feb 2010 [link]

In his Long Now talk in late 2018, Sterling references Stewart Brand’s PACE layers (pictured just below). Sterling claims skepticism about the reality of PACE layers but he does see its value as a model when discussing what it means to be futuristic- successful future speculators (more on what that means shortly) tend to operate in one layer, because one can only speak sensibly about ‘futures’ in narrowly defined areas, times, groups of people, and specialties.

“The fast layers innovate and the slow layers stabilize”

The [now late] Karl Lagerfeld was highlighted as a successful fashion futurist. “He’s the world’s deepest superficial guy”.

In today’s culture, the commerce layer is heavily populated due to a powerful and fearful investor class who require motivational speakers and cheerleaders. Strategic Forecasters like Forrester and Gartner are the widely-recognized brands in this space.

Skipping infrastructure for a moment: Governance layer futurists were once the great futurist institutions of our culture, led by scientific counsels like Vannevar Bush. Sterling considers Bush’s Science: The Endless Frontier to be “probably the greatest work of futurism put to paper with a typewriter”, but the culture has moved on from respecting science as we once did. Fundamentalists and Oligarchs despise the scientific enterprise. The “Endless Frontier” is also a bad paradigm: Frontiers end, and many of them cycle right “from barbarism to decadence without stopping at civilization”, as Sterling pithily notes. Scientific truth is provisional, and science as a human enterprise is a time-bound social activity. America- and especially California- has a Turner-esque cultural blindness here, an inability to accept that frontiers end.

[Note: John Robb recently posted a [Patreon-walled] article about reopening the frontier to space in order to reactivate our fictive national sense of kinship. Bookmarking for later]

Sterling disputes the placement of the Infrastructure layer above, too. “I don’t believe this is above [the government layer], because I live in Italy”, where the government changes every other year but the infrastructure has 2000 year old roots. This layer can take a decade or more to build up, but it can be very resilient when it is built. Sterling looks to Emirati super structures, artificial islands in the South China Sea, Smart Cities and urban development tribes.

The Culture layer is the “realm of the poets, prophets saints… historical novelists and futurist novelists.” Sterling entertains the question of whether historical and futuristic novels are the same activity. Science fiction and historical novels both have their era of creation, and whatever ideas held their attention or escaped their notice, in common; on the other hand, “culture is made from classics, not futurism”. We may enjoy science fiction, but we don’t tend to read straight futurism from the past about our own time, except perhaps as an excerpted point of amusement. Novels can capture contemporary sensibilities better than raw futurism can: there is an idea of what entails Orwellianism, Wellesianism, the Ballardian, the Clarkian; but Toefflerian or Peter Schwartzian sensibilities are rarely invoked even though they are great futurists, they don’t condense well into the culture layer.

People in 200 years will probably know few or none of our contemporary movie mega-stars, although they may still know who Charlie Chaplin is. Being a futurist in the culture layer requires familiarity with the humanities and a grander sense of some historical conversation.

The Nature layer is also a point of contention for Sterling. The natural layer should be the slowest, most stable layer- but now we expect continuous, sharp change to characterize the future. “You can’t move to a layer that isn’t being disrupted!” PACE layers, for this reason, may become an ‘archaic futuristic notion’ – (an atemporal idea, more on this later).

There are still things we can say about the future with great confidence, because it’s true now and becoming more true in real time. “Old People In Big Cities, Afraid of the Sky” (more here). Naturally, knowing the future may not convey that much additional privilege or optionality to you; perhaps you’re less weirded out when the weird things happen.

Published in Uncategorized

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.