Tag Archives: Bruce Sterling

Old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky

Always provocative science fiction writer/design guru Bruce Sterling on the future – from his closing keynote at SXSW 2014 

My suspicion is you’re going to see some very severe (not super severe, but increasingly severe) weather disruption events that are just like the ones we’ve already had, only more so. And they’re going to be carried within this cruelty of neo-Liberal global capitalism and the casino economy that we’ve built, our extremely uneven, and outmatched economic structure where the ultra-wealthy can basically buy anything anywhere.

So what will that look like? The future is about old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. People often ask, “How could science fiction writers predict the future?” The middle of the 20th Century, from here up to about 2070, 2075… it’s old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.

How do I know that? Well, it’s because demographic change is very obvious — people are gonna get older. And the urban change is very obvious — people have been moving into larger and larger cities for several decades. And climate change is super obvious. People can deny all three of them. You can say, “Oh, well my town will never get bigger.” Okay, Austin’s getting bigger by 100 people a day. Or you could say, “Oh, well I’m never going to get older.” Okay, you are gonna get older. You could get Botox, you can deny it, you can fake it, exercise, take vitamins… you’re gonna get older.

Then there’s the issue of being afraid of the sky, which is mostly a slider bar — you should be afraid of the sky now, but you could be *extremely* afraid of the sky very suddenly for pretty much any unpredictable reason. Once the thing hits— there’s gonna be lots of Katrinas. If it’s a Katrina a year, we could manage it. But if it’s a Katrina a month or if it’s a Katrina a week, we’re in for it. There’s gonna be lots of old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. Demographics, urbanization, fear.


The invisible hand of our robot traders is a bit shaky

Recently I a mentioned a modelling paper (doi:10.1038/nature08932) on cascading failure in connected networks, that shows that feedbacks between connected networks can destabilize two stable networks.

This type of dynamic appears to be the cause of last weeks stock market plunge.  At least according to the article  Haphazard Trading Network Draws Focus of Wall St. Inquiry the New York Times writes:

Investigators seeking an explanation for the brief stock market panic last week said Sunday that they were focusing increasingly on how a controlled slowdown in trading on the New York Stock Exchange, meant to bring about stability, instead set off uncontrolled selling on electronic exchanges.

It was an unintended consequence of a system built to place a circuit breaker on stocks in sharp decline. In theory, trades slow down so that sellers can find buyers the old-fashioned way, by hand, one by one. The electronic exchanges did not slow down in tandem, causing problems, according to two officials familiar with the investigation.

According to Newsweek’s Wealth of Nations blog  The Computer Glitch Felt Round the World:

… computer-driven trading algorithms that now account for more than 60 percent of all stock-market volume in the U.S. While high-frequency trading certainly brings efficiencies to equities market, it can also exaggerate things enormously. When you’re dealing with such volume and speed, movements can be bigger and faster than predicted. Today’s volatility is an interesting blip in the yearlong debate over whether high-frequency trading is a dark, sinister practice that needs to be reigned in, or a benign technological evolution.

Science fiction author and design critic, Bruce Sterling has a more colourful description of the current situation as the Invisible Crazy Robot Hand

*Nobody is less surprised than me to see that interacting pieces of software can do weird emergent stuff, and act all buggy. This is not, like, some surprising discovery. It’s more like a law of computational physics.

*For the stock market to go into a “tornado” of dark pool trading is not all that great, though. Especially when days tick by, and nobody knows what the hell actually happened. This is not a chaos-theory lab experiment: this is supposed to be the bedrock of global capitalism.

Revenge of the Slow

cambray cheese platterBruce Sterling writes about the networked boutique localism of the slow food movement in a Metropolis magazine article Revenge of the Slow:

Slow Food began as a jolly clique of leftist academics, entertainers, wine snobs, and pop stars, all friends of Ital­ian journalist and radio personality Carlo Petrini. Their galvanizing moment, which occurred in 1986, was an anti-McDonald’s demonstration at which Petrini and his dining buddies brandished pasta pans while folk-dancing in the streets of Rome. This prescient intervention predated Jose Bove’s violent wrecking of a French McDonald’s by some 13 years. While the anti-WTO crowd was politically harassing corporate globalizers, Slow Food was methodically building constructive alternatives. Today, Slow Food is well-nigh as “glo­­bal” as McDonald’s but networked rather than hierarchical. Year by methodical year the Slow Food network has stuck its fingers into a host of pies.

As a nonprofit heritage organization, the Slow Food empire retains a mere 150 full-time employees with a modest budget of $37 million a year. Yet Slow Food has invented the modern Italian food-heritage industry. Today it is a thriving ganglion of local chapters, called convivia, which number about 83,000 people in more than 100 countries. It’s also a publishing house specializing in tourist guidebooks, restaurant recipes, and heritage reprints. …

The cleverest innovation to date is the network’s presidium system. The Slow Food “presidia” make up a grassroots bottom-up version of the European “Domain of Control” system, which requires, for instance, that true “champagnes” must come from the province of Champagne, while lesser fizzy brews are labeled mere “sparkling wines.” These presidia have made Slow Food the planetary paladin of local production. Slow Food deploys its convivia to serve as talent scouts for food rarities (such as Polish Mead, the Istrian Giant Ox, and the Tehuacan Amaranth). Candidate discoveries are passed to Slow Food’s International Ark Commission, which decides whether the foodstuff is worthy of inclusion. Its criteria are strict:

(a) Is the product nonglobalized or, better yet, inherently nonglobalizable?

(b) Is it artisanally made (so there’s no possibility of any industrial economies of scale)?

(c) Is it high-quality (the consumer “wow” factor)?

(d) Is it sustainably produced? (Not only is this politically pleasing, but it swiftly eliminates competition from most multinationals.)

(e) Is this product likely to disappear from the planet otherwise? (Biodiversity must be served!)

For the foodstuff artisan (commonly dirt poor and neglected somewhere in the planet’s backwoods), Slow Food has a strong value proposal. It is, among its many other roles, a potent promotion machine. Transforming local rarities into fodder for global gourmets is, of course, profitable. And although he’s no capitalist—the much honored Petrini is more justly described as a major cultural figure—he was among the first to realize that as an economic system globalization destroys certain valuable goods and services that rich people very much want to buy. In a globalized “flat world,” the remaining peaks soar in value and become natural clusters for a planetary elite. …

A local product with irreducible rarity can be sold to a small elite around the world. But it can’t be sold to mass consumers because it doesn’t scale up in volume, so it can never lose its cachet. The trick is in uniting these niches. A capitalist business has a hard time of that, but a cultural network is a different story. …

Slow Food, in its solemn wisdom, will methodically seek out local producers of the product, raise their consciousness, and then fly them to Italy and unite them in subsidized conferences. The group links local farmers, bakers, millers, and butchers with their peers in other countries: the “Terra Madre” global network. Having built this distribution net, Slow Food offers grants to needy producers for things like barns, butcher shops, and tractors. Then as a final twist, Slow Foodies cheerily eat the end products themselves.

The upshot is an obscure piece of rural heritage cunningly reengineered as a curated service/­product in Europe’s modern food-heritage industry. To Americans it might seem paradoxical that Eur­ope’s rural farmers could be at once blood-and-soil heritage patriots and culture-industry jet-setters whose star clients are wealthy politicized food theorists. But while McDonald’s mechanically peddles burgers to the poor, Slow Food acculturates the planet’s wealthy to the gourmand quality of life long cherished by the European bon vivant. They have about as much in common as an aging shark and a networked swarm of piranhas.