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Transcription of "Digital Culture, Network Culture, and What Comes Afterward"

Keynote by Bruce Sterling at COMMUNIA 2010 "University and Cyberspace" Conference - Torino, Italy, 30 June 2010

Good morning. That was all true. I am Bruce Sterling, and I'm a science fiction writer.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to address a group that calls itself "University and Cyberspace." I'd like to start by describing my own relationship to that word.

Back in the year 1982, that was the first time when I saw the word "cyberspace." It arrived in my home, in Austin, Texas, in a manila mailing envelope from Vancouver. This had the xerox of a manuscript produced by a manual typewriter.

The word "cyberspace" was in this manuscript. It was a short story by a writer named William Gibson -- whom I scarcely knew at the time, but we had friends in common. So, in our little Republic of Letters, my colleague, Mr. Gibson, was sending me this manuscript. The story was titled "Burning Chrome."

The first time that this word "cyberspace" appears in this story is as part of a commercial brand name. It's the brand-name for a future computer being used by one of the protagonists in the story, a computer called the "Ono-Sendai Cyberspace Seven." This future hacker is using a device called the "Ono-Sendai Cyberspace Seven," which is owned, obviously, by a Japanese corporation called "Ono-Sendai."

So the word "cyberspace" first appears as part of a commercial brand-name.

Later, during the heyday of Virtual Reality, in the middle 1980s, a Virtual Reality entrepreneur tried to trademark the world "cyberspace." As his own device; as in, "I have made a cyberspace, and I own it, and this is my trademark." William Gibson, to his credit, offered to sue. He hired a lawyer, and he went to the trade and patents office. He went to the trouble to keep "cyberspace" as part of normal language and in the public domain. That is why you are now able to use the word "cyberspace" as a name for your group and your meeting. If it had been owned by someone else in the 1980s, it would almost certainly have vanished long ago.

Among the innovations in this story of William Gibson's was a sentence that became very famous. "The street finds its own uses for things."

This dictum became part of what you might call a cyberpunk philosophy of technological development. What does it mean? It means that when you introduce some technical innovation, you cannot outguess its development. There are too many actors involved in it. Too many ethical, legal, and social implications; too many people, finding too many ways to deploy it. It cannot really be effectively policed. About all that one can do is what William Gibson did. This was to prevent a new idea from being tucked into a commercial corner somewhere -- where it vanishes.

So: what happened to the word "cyberspace"? This story of William Gibson's first appeared in 1982, in a magazine which is now extinct. So, the magazine is dead. And, the manual typewriter that William Gibson used to write the story is also a dead technology.

It's twenty-eight years later, and the latest development we have in "cyberspace" is this badge. This is the only slide I have for my entire speech, but I think it's a pretty good slide. Because it's full of technical and moral and social lessons.

This is the "future of cyberspace" as seen from the year 1982. From 2010 to 1982. If I were to go back in time and tell my colleague William what had become of this, it would be a very cyberpunk-style story. A story of the street finding its own unpredictable uses for technosocial innovations.

So what is this badge? This badge belongs to the United States Air Force. This is the "Cyberspace Operators" badge. It's worn currently by thirty thousand troops. There are actually three versions of this badge, something like the journeyman's badge, and the master's badge, and the super-master cyberwar-operator badge... So it's a military emblem being used today by genuine members of the American military.

Now, you might say that it is "bitterly ironic" that this work of William Gibson's, which is very cyberpunk and very bohemian, and concerned mostly with computer crime, has become this shining logo.

A very interesting logo, by the way. Graphically, I quite like it. There is something very Italian Futuristi about this badge. It's very Marinetti. It's got a lot of "abstract dynamism" in it. What it really looks like is Marinetti "Aero-Futurism" from the 1930s, when he became obsessed with flight, as well as speed and electricity. If you were to show this badge to Marinetti and his friends in the 1930s, they would not be surprised by it at all. It's the kind of design Italian Futurists liked eighty years ago.

But, there are nevertheless thirty thousand young people wearing this. These are your NATO allies.

Now, why is it that the word "cyberspace" found a patron in the United States Air Force? It's a complicated story, but I think I need to tell it to you, because these stories are, in fact, complicated.

This demonstrates how difficult it is to outguess the street finding its own uses for things.

So, in the United States, there are basically two major players in computer security at the federal level. One is the National Security Agency, and the second is the military. There is supposed to be a third player, the Department of Homeland Security, but the Department of Homeland Security is so poorly organized that they consistently lose all their political struggles. So the civilian police have basically been sidelined, and the struggle is between an espionage apparatus and the military.

Now, why does the military prefer the word "cyberspace"? It's basically for funding reasons, but it's also a paradigm that they can use to defeat the spies. If you describe "cyberspace" as "electronic transmissions," as "signals," as "flows of data," as "international movements of ones and zeros," as traffic going on cables and so forth, then clearly the National Security Agency -- who are electronic eavesdroppers, basically the planet's wiretappers -- clearly, that kind of activity belongs to them.

Because they spy on electronic signals. That's what they do. They've been doing it since the Allies won the Second World War by breaking the Enigma Code. They do it with ECHELON, they do it with listening devices of all kinds... They're a very very secret group, but they're one of the most public secret groups in the world. You can meet people from the NSA. They have a great deal of clout within Washington. They are shy people. They are not allowed to travel outside the United States, so they are oddly unworldly. There are jokes about them: "In the National Security Agency, an extrovert is someone who looks at your shoes, instead of his own."

They are shy and geeky in that way, and deliberately so. People in the National Security Agency are spies, and no one is supposed to know that they work for the National Security Agency, so they are very humble and retiring.

But then there's the military. They are very concerned about attacks on American systems, and they also have a very large budget. They're very brusque, and they don't want to passively surrender political control over this very important aspect of modern life to a group of unaccountable, completely non-transparent, opaque spies.

So, from their point of view, the word "cyberspace" is important. "Space" can be defended. They can use a term like "American Cyberspace," and a Congressman can almost understand that. Whereas, if they say, "the American Internet," that really doesn't make very much sense. "American TCP/IP transfer protocol" would be obviously an oxymoron, and just doesn't work.

So they need "space," because they need the idea of a defensible space, of something that can be held. A fortress, that can be attacked, that can be defended. So, that's what they did, and that's why this "Cyberspace Badge" existed. Basically, the young military people who wear this badge are doing the same work as the people at the NSA. But, rather than simply spying on signals, they are being trained to defend systems from attack, and also being trained to attack computers in other countries.

The number-one area where this is being done within NATO is the cyberwar research center in Estonia. This is NATO's biggest electronic warfare unit. One of the founders of this unit defected to the Russians recently. He was a Russian spy all along. It's a very 1980s story. It's quite fascinating. I could go on, and on, and on about it.

But what I am trying to get across here is the nature of unintended consequences over a long-term period. Because this Cyberspace Badge really is a true, factual, long-term future of William Gibson's idea from 1982.

It doesn't matter what William Gibson says about it. He's not the Pentagon. That political battle is fought in a completely different realm than his novels. They don't care where the word "cyberspace" came from. They are using it in a subterranean power struggle that involves billions of dollars. That was a future of real cyberspace.

Now, you can say: that was an unusual story -- something odd, that goes on in the United States. Well -- I would refer you to this sheet of paper, that all of you conference attendees got in your plastic packet here. This paper asks: "Why do I have to show my passport to get Internet access in Italy?"

This is the same phenomenon, basically. It's not about "cyberspace," but it's about long-term consequences of important governmental decisions. Back in 2005, when the "War on Terror" was hotter, some Italian legislators thought it would be a good idea to register everyone who wanted Internet access in Italy.

To some extent, that was doable. It's possible to build such an infrastructure. I'm a foreigner in Italy. Every foreigner in Italy gets Internet access, whether they are a terrorist, or not. The strongest, the most publicly visible result of this political decision is that people like your group here have to apologize to foreigners.

This paper is like a little apology. "Foreign guests of Italy, we're sorry that it's like this." It's a set of weird humiliations, really.

There are aspects of Italian electronic policy which are brilliant. I love TOPIX -- TOPIX are the Internet exchange here in Piemonte. TOPIX are dynamic guys, an impressive bunch of characters.

But, by making a decision of this kind, and then sticking to it over a long period, you create a society that has no public wi-fi. You also guarantee that, once foreigners begin chatting on their social networks about Italy, this will be the first thing that they say. To everyone on their social network, they will say, "Boy! It was hard getting my semi-legal Internet access here in Italy!" They turn into a giant public-relations machine to make Italy look old-fashioned.

Including to William Gibson, by the way, who is on Twitter. William Gibson is on Twitter and he follows me, and I have been hashtagging #communia. This means that William Gibson has been reading things going on in this room. It's no longer a distant or remote thing, for we are all in each other's laps now.

There's a difference between being deliberately old-fashioned and accidentally old-fashioned. This Italian anti-terror Internet policy is accidentally old-fashioned, whereas to be deliberately old-fashioned has some real promise in terms of cyberspace.

Cyberspace is an old idea. It's twenty-eight years old, it pre-dates the World Wide Web and many other things, and is not yesterday's idea.

The University system is nine hundred years old. Every Italian knows that the modern university system started in Bologna. It's much older than nation-states. The university system has a tremendous, almost millennial heritage. It has a lot of things to be old-fashioned about. The university has good, constructive, old-fashioned things.

The Internet first appeared in UCLA -- the University of California Los Angeles. The Internet was first built in a school -- not built in the military, not commerce, not government -- built in a university. Facebook, the world's biggest social network today, was built for college students. Facebook is a college yearbook that somehow got out of control. It now has more people on it than most G-7 nations. College students, mind you -- not the faculty, not the chancellor -- Facebook was all about the students.

CERN is where the World Wide Web was first invented. I once met people at the CERN. They said: oh, if only instead of using the letters "http," which mean nothing, basically -- if only we'd used the letters CERN! We would have had an advertisement any time anyone used a Web computer.

They had missed the chance to hook themselves to this explosive development. But -- CERN could not even use its own name, because CERN means, of course, the Center for European Nuclear Research. The letter N means "Nuclear," and CERN is sixty years old.

If you go to CERN, you will see that they have methodically removed any mention of the word "Nuclear." When they were first founded, after World War Two, it was exciting and sexy to be "Nuclear." Because it was the Atomic Age, and they were "nuclear" in much the same way that you are "cyberspace."

They were "nuclear," but then sixty years passed, and you really do not want to be nuclear in contemporary society. CERN people have to censor their own name.

Even though their scholarly question -- their old-fashioned question, "what is the ultimate nature of matter?" -- that old-fashioned question is as old as the ancient Greeks. It's their name, "nuclear," that cannot last. It's the frame, the paradigm that cannot last.

The very thing that seemed "futuristic" when CERN was first created turned out to be old-fashioned in fairly short order. Why is that? Because the "Atomic Age" was not an age. The Atomic Age was a rather brief cultural period. Maybe twenty, twenty-five years -- and really showing its age by the time it was twelve or thirteen years old.

Now the Atomic Age is not merely old, but repulsively old-fashioned. If you go to someone now and say, "I am a citizen of the Atomic Age!" you will get very strange looks from people. This is true even though we really are citizens of an atomic age. We use nuclear power, we are building new nuclear power plants, we have nuclear weapons, we have the entire infrastructure of the Atomic Age. But we don't have the mental framework of the Atomic Age, because it just was not an "age."

There is no "Network Age." Your slogan is "Reshaping Knowledge Institutions for the Network Age." There is no Network Age. There is a rather brief Network Period, rather like CERN's atomic age -- except, probably, briefer. It's like the Automation Age, the Supersonic Jet Age... it's probably about a decade. It's like the "age" of the Information Superhighway, the "age" of the dot-coms.

Except -- it is really, really big. This particular innovation -- what we now call "networking," and used to be called "cyberneticization," or "digitization," or "virtualization" -- any of a number of very rapidly aging terms -- has penetrated every modern institution without exception.

There were things that escaped automation. There were things that escaped electrification. There were many things that escaped becoming nuclear. Nothing -- almost nothing that matters to anybody -- has escaped being networked.

Even intimate things, like the structure of the family. Normally, the private domain is sacrosanct, free from industrial intrusion. Look at the common practice of modern families. People communicate through devices like cellphones. That is the electronic vernacular of the twenty-first century family. You talk to your wife, your husband, you track your children, you see if your grandmother needs help, with mobile phones. The intimacy of the family fireside has been disrupted by this; there is no reason for family members to gather in that tribal way.

Courtship has changed. People are finding their mates on the Internet. There's an explosion of people marrying foreigners now. People always rather want to marry foreigners, although it's tactically difficult. Not any more. You can get right into the lap of some foreign guy. All you have to do is follow his life-stream. You know what he eats, you know what his house looks like. You can make friends with his dog. It doesn't matter if he's in Norway.

The military has been transformed. As soon as anybody's military claims that they have an aggressive cyberspace capacity, an electronic warfare strike capacity, an instant arms race breaks out. A generation of electronic warriors is being trained -- and not just in the USA. It's happening all over, right now.

Finance, of course. We can see what happened to electronic finance. A terrible story.

Science. The practice of citation is being turned on its head by electronics. Publishing scientific "papers" -- what does that mean in a world where there's no paper? Scientists cannot help it -- it's a blow at the root of that knowledge structure.

Of course we all know publishing is falling apart.

Television, and the news media generally -- in a terrible state. News media have been violently disrupted by the Internet. An unbelievable number of journalists have lost their jobs over the last few years. Newspapers are shutting down all over the planet, while very few are starting. News channels are going away, and "channels" are going away. There are no "channels." "Media" are going away -- there is no "media," in the sense that I am here, and you are there, and there is some "medium" carrying a message between us. Now it's just "the net," or a "space."

Manufacturing is changing, retail of course has changed. Advertising is in a similarly perilous state. Religion has changed, through televangelism and other forms of electronic religion. Diplomacy has changed. People don’t need embassies when they can connect directly to people in other countries. Why do they need this medium of a diplomat in a little fortress in a foreign country?

Cinema has been changed, fine art has been changed, music has been dealt a blow from which it may never recover. Even agriculture has changed -- slow food, fast food, multinationals like Monsanto...

Of course universities are going to be changed by this. But I would urge you to look at what has happened to other institutions that have "reshaped themselves for a Network Age." It is by no means an entirely pretty story, and by no means are these an unalloyed set of successes.

Do we have better finance? Do we have a more effective military? Do we have a more just legal system? Do we write better novels? Do we see better movies? Is our manufacturing cleaner and more efficient? Is our news media telling us the truth? Is our publishing flourishing, are our diplomats bringing world peace? Is our food safe to eat? Are our families sounder?

What is it that you are buying into, here? At least, the history of electronic banking should give you serious pause. "Electronic Banking, and the Electronic University." "Reshaping Finance for the Networked Age." Is that an unalloyed success? Look what that failure has done to all these other people.

Have any of these institutions successfully resisted the intrusions of a networked capacity? The answer is no. There is no center of resistance to this dynamic. It has swept all before it. There isn’t a single coherent group with a good political, commercial or ideological argument against it. They've all been swept aside. It's like trying to combat climate change. It's a huge, overwhelming change.

The network is not much like a device. It's more like nationalism, or a religion. It's like watching the Roman Empire get swept aside by Christianity. It's like watching the rise of nation-states. As soon as you have one nation-state, everybody else wants to have a nation-state. Some take their time about it -- like Italy -- but everyone ends up with a nation-state. You just have to have one, or you’re just not okay. That's what it’s like.

That doesn’t mean a network is a bad idea -- any more than "cyberspace" was a bad idea. Cyberspace, was, in fact, a pretty good science-fictional idea. I remember the first time I looked at that idea -- I thought, "That one's gonna get up and walk!"

That cyberspace idea was a sexy and attractive idea. But if you read the original William Gibson works about cyberspace, you can see that his original science-fictional idea is about hallucinating. The original version of cyberspace is an experience inside people's heads. It's a hallucination which is induced inside people's brains by a brain-computer interface.

That's a really good science fictional idea. It's got very little to do with the current results in the United States Air Force. If you had been a university professor back in 1982, and you had read this William Gibson story back in 1982 and tried to outguess it, you would have become involved with brain-computer interfaces. That technology has basically gone nowhere in thirty years. If you had tried to "reshape your knowledge institutions for cyberspace" when the word was first invented, you would have failed completely.

You would be a laughing-stock. It's just the way of the world. I don't want to act upset about it, or make this sound cynical. It was a good idea for William Gibson to write a brilliant science fiction story. We need more of those, not fewer of those. I'm just pointing out the long-term consequences of activities like this.

Now, I'm really not the right person to do that. Right now, there are basically four people doing that, who I take seriously, as writers. They are Nicholas Carr, who wrote the famous essay about Google making us stupid. And Andrew Keen, the Antichrist of Silicon Valley, as he is known. Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of Virtual Reality and now a critic of Internet culture and its creative policies. And Evgeny Morozov, a Belarusian dissident who has become an American Internet policy expert.

These guys -- Keen, Lanier, Carr, and Morozov -- are Internet cultural critics. I'm not one of them, although I pay attention to what they are doing. I don't agree with what they say. But time is on their side. Time is on the side of the Internet critics, because there will be a devastating reassessment of the "Network Age." In the same way that there were devastating reassessments of the Jet Age and the Atomic Age.

There has been a lot of talk at this event about "digital natives." We have some people now who really have grown up within the Internet, and are probably something like digital natives. But I don't consider them true digital natives, because they still have some childhood experience of an analog world.

To my mind, the first true "digital native" is a guy who attacks digital society. He's going to be a critic who attacks digital society, rather than embracing it as current "digital natives" do. He won't say, "Well, I'm digital, and young, while you are old and analog." No: this is going to be a guy who is digital and young, and romanticizes the old and the analog.

He's going to compare the past to his own world, and treat his own world disfavorably. In other words, he's going to be an angry digital native who is upset at the shortcomings of digital society. He will compare it in detail to his ideas of an idealized past.

The first true digital native is going to be a guy who says, "The analog people were more civilized than us." "Back in the old days, when they had black and white television -- when they had newspapers -- when they were capable, focussed people, in hierarchies -- those were the good old days."

"We need to recapture the virtues of that lost time -- of our great-grandparents."

Clearly -- and I can promise you this -- this guy, this digital native, will have no idea what he is talking about. He will never have seen those twentieth-century things. They will appear to him in a misty, historical haze. He will valorize them, and romanticize them, because they are dead.

And because he can use them as a rhetorical whip against his peers. And he will be right. He will be right because his network-riddled society will need a great deal of reform. To go back to an analog situation and use historical parallels is a good way to reform a society.

I am waiting for that guy. I'm not him. I know he is coming. He could well be a woman. I'm waiting for her. I'm waiting for her entire feminist consciousness-raising group. I'm willing to go along -- I'm waiting for him or her -- I want to help them. I want to help him.

What will he say?

He will say that his world is emergent. That it is networked. That it is like a slum. That is ruled by mobs. That it is weak. That it is crumbling. That it is obsessed by short-term returns.

He will say that his world is like a favela. That it is something perched on the remnants of a dead city. That his world is like an unplanned suburb. He will say that it is like a gold-rush town.

He will take all the things that Joi Ito properly told us were virtues. The lightweight construction, the layers of software, the immunity system. The practice of trying many things first, throwing them out to the public, fail early, fail often... The things that are genuine philosophies of modern Internet development. Really effective, cheap, fast ways to build a network society, the things we’ve created that work. Those are the things that he will attack, because of their long-term consequences.

What does this criticism sound like? Well, it is really going to sting. It's going to really hurt your feelings.

It's going to be as if you were Turinese. And you had built cars for a hundred years, and an environmentalist came up, to give you a good scolding.

Not that you were bad at making cars. That you were too good at making cars. You were the capital of car-making in Italy. The industrial capital of Italy. The automotive boom-town of Italy. You were at it for a hundred years.

A hundred years.

The capital of traffic jams.

The capital of automobile fatalities.

The capital of destroying the planet's atmosphere, of mass extinction, of fossil fuels, of oil war.

That's what it is going to sound like. Because the judgement of history is merciless.

So, you may ask: since I know this can happen, and I know it can be said -- why am I so fond of Torino? Why am I in Torino?

It's because I know people in Detroit. I know a lot of people in Detroit. There has never been a collapse of a city in North America like the collapse of Detroit. Not since the downfall of the ancient Mayas has a city in North America fallen so far, so fast, and done so little to save itself.

I go to Torino in order to learn. And in Torino, I learn something new every day.

The long-term consequences are waiting.

This is an academic audience. When it comes to educating students... What would you do with your students, if you thought about them in the long term? What kind of philosophy would that be? I urge you to think about this. Ask yourself the question: what kind of people will run the world when you are eighty years old?

You'll be eighty years old in, let’s say, thirty years or so -- it's not that far away. The word "cyberspace" is almost thirty years old. When you are eighty years old, some day, you'll be old. Old, and feeble, and blind, and weak.

The world will be in the command of your students. What habits of thought and action do you wish they had?

Well, teach them now. Teach them that stuff, now. Teach them to run the world when you are eighty. Teach them now when you can be of some use to them, because when you are eighty, you're not going to be of very much use.

Would you say, "I really wish they had the most up-to-date Apple iPhone?" I myself really wish I had the most up-to-date Apple iPhone. People in our society really, really want the most up-to-date Apple iPhone; they will arrive at three in the morning and stand in long queues. Obviously this is a thing that is deeply valorized by our society. It means almost as much to us as sex or money.

Why don’t you give your students an Apple IIe? Because that's what a thirty-year-old Apple iPhone looks like. It looks like an Apple IIe.

If you saw an Apple IIe, if there was an Apple IIe right here on the stage, with its floppy-disk drives, and its green, phosphor, eighty-column monitor... Would you pick it up?

Would you bend over, and take it home? Would it be of any value to you whatsoever? Would you want it in your home? Would you show it to a child, or a friend? Would you give it to a friend, hoping that they would want to have it?

Okay... that's an Apple iPhone when you are eighty. That's it. That's what it is.

What do colleges really do for young people? What is the purpose of a young person going to a university? My feeling is -- it's all about the spirit of a generation. It's not really about what the professors tell the students in class. That goes on, they're required to pay attention, they're graded. University life is really about what members of a generation tell one another.

It's the student body that's the important part of a university. That is the body. The heart and the skin and the organs are the students. It's a chance for them to think for themselves about basic issues of our civilization.

They don't have to earn a living. They're young, they're bright, they’re inventive. They're seeking their own identity. They're trying to establish an adult role in the world. They're trying to find out what it is they want to do with the rest of their lives.

It's a chance to get married, which is very common in universities. You cant get any of that without the other students. None of that can be electronically transmitted; it doesn't really work.

Universities are machines for freeing people's parents. It's about the parents getting an eighteen-year-old time bomb out of the house. That's the unspoken service of universities. It's certainly the unspoken service of K-12, kindergarten through 12th grade -- it's about freeing the productive capacity of the parents. It's about moving the children into creches. It doesn’t really matter that much if they learn anything in the school or not. The parents have to go to work; they have to generate wealth for the rest of the society.

Universities act as a method of reducing inter-generational conflict. They allow a new generation to find its own zeitgeist. If you remove this capacity, which has very little to do with "cyberspace," our society is going to find some real turbulence.

It's not merely about learning or teaching: that's a vocational school. Vocational schools are about learning and teaching; industrial schools, employee training are about that. That's not a university. Universities have never been about that for nine hundred years.

These are deliberately old-fashioned values that I think you should be espousing and building up. They are values that can outlast the network period. It's about passing the torch of civilization to the coming generations.

That's a difficult matter. It is not something we have ever codified, and it is not something we can do effectively through software.

I go to schools, and I've been to a university... but I don't really go to a university now, because, although I do learn something new every day in Torino, I'm not a young person. I don't have a lifetime in which to put my learning into practice. When I go to school, I have to teach.

And what do I teach? It's always futurism. It's always what comes next -- and in the long term, when I can teach it.

And what comes next for the network period? A lot. We are almost exactly like people in 1910, our spiritual ancestors, talking about electricity, and aviation, and factory mass production.

People in 1910 were very aware of aviation, electricity, mass production and cars. Those things were all over the newspapers; aviators were becoming famous, electricity was valorized and spreading all over, new industrial methods were exploding -- they were as knowledgeable as you, about these change drivers within their own society. Their ability to understand the world when they were eighty? To forecast the world of the 1940s, from 1910? Not real likely.

Many of the models you've invented, for trying to understand network society, are going to be abandoned. Some have already been abandoned. They're dead, they're Gothic. I would urge you to forget more of them.

Forget the bricks and clicks model, the virtual and the actual dichotomy, real space and cyberspace, real world and simulated world, the online world and the offline world, print world and electronic publication world. These divisions are a period artifact. They mean very little to a digital native. They are going away. We're seeing an integrated, hybridized, pervasive, augmented, physicalized, informaticized, embedded version of these things.... It's like a scholastic distinction -- it's not going to hold.

We're going into a world which is more like ice, water and steam -- not the real and the virtual.

What is the grand trend? Well... maybe I can help. Consider these words, these paradigms for your Network Age. The Mainframe. The Desktop. The Information Superhighway. The Net. The Web. The Cloud.

What do those metaphors suggest -- if you line them up? It's an ever-finer mesh. The Mainframe is off in a box, by itself. Then the Desktop is in the home, and there are a lot more of them. Then the Highway connects them, and it's a channel and a medium. The Net is reticulated. It's laid on top, it divides the world into a grid. Then the Web grows spiderlike, it's permeating everywhere, it's thin, it's sticky, you can't get away from it.

And the Cloud is like a mist. It's wireless. It's pervasive, it’s everywhere. It's in your pockets, it's in your hat; it's in your ear as a Bluetooth, it's embedded in objects.

What comes after that? We don't really have a word for it. The augmented-always-on-locative-reality. Something along that line. Nobody's coined a term for what comes after the Cloud. We're still struggling to describe what "the Cloud" really is -- there's the Amazon Cloud, the Microsoft Cloud, the wireless WiMax urban cloud, the urban-informatics cloud...

Clearly this cloud is already coming, and clearly, we don't know what is coming next. I can promise you that when what comes next, does come next, people will say about it: "We're just getting started." Not that it's complete and finished, but that they are just getting started. "The Knowledge Institution Reshaping Itself For the Always-On Plugged-in Locative Reality." We will have always-on plugged-in locative reality natives. Ideologues will want to recast everything in order to understand this new situation. I can guarantee that.

The meshes get finer and finer. I doubt we'll be able to stop that. We've invested a great deal of money in doing it. There are Moore's Law-style imperatives that make this line of development clear. There is little than anyone in this room can do to shape that dynamic. It is loose upon the landscape. It is part of our technosocial condition. It's what is happening.

But, I want to point something out to you in this list of metaphors. The old metaphors die. They don't live for ages. They die. Nobody cares about "mainframes" on the "information superhighway."

If you go to your Chancellor and say, "We want to reshape our knowledge institution for the Information Superhighway," you will lose all your funding. You will be treated as a lunatic. You will be shown the door.

The old metaphors die -- and the Information Superhighway is not that old. Al Gore, who coined that term, is still a functional political figure. He even has sex scandals -- that's how young and vital Al Gore is.

It's the idea that's dead. And you are going to outlive many of these ideas. Many. The network gets reshaped much faster than the knowledge institution can be reshaped. You can't reshape a nine hundred year old institution at the speed at which these networks reshape themselves. And they die. You don’t want to die.

Now, the cyberspace metaphor is thirty years old. You can see how violently it has been reshaped by the passage of time. It's not bad that these things happen -- but you need to understand that these historical formulations are mortal. They're not false. It's not like the "information Superhighway" never existed. It existed. It got federal funding. There were political issues about it, newspaper stories. It's not false, it's just mortal.

You don't want to tie your fate to such mortal things. Universities need to be places in our society where young people, who know very little -- young, innocent, ignorant people -- are put directly in touch with things that are less mortal than we are. Less mortal than we are -- not more mortal than we are.

If it's something more mortal than a student -- more mortal than the institution -- it's like putting a pigeon on the head of a statue. Now, a pigeon can fly. I like pigeons. People feed them. A cellphone is like a pigeon -- it's mobile, it lasts about three years, then it dies.

You don't want to put the statue on the head of the pigeon. You can put the pigeon on the head of the statue, but don't build the statue on the head of the pigeon. The pigeon can't support it.

The Internet is going to die. The idea of the Internet, the historical formulation of the Internet, is going to die from its own success. Not because it failed to function, but because it won, and therefore buried itself in the texture of daily life.

If you walk around fifty years from now, and ask, "where is your Internet?" that question will make no sense. It will be like walking around today asking people, "where is your electrical power plant?" Why would I care? It's just sort of here... it's always on.

The Internet will die. The data that is on the Internet will also die, if it's not well looked after. We have no archival medium for ones and zeros. There is not one single storage method for ones and zeros that we know will last fifty years.

And fifty years is nothing! A genuine archival medium ought to last two hundred years. Maybe four hundred years, if it's kept away from humidity and light, in a dry space. We have no such medium. We are destroying them faster than we are building them. We think that since we have "huge" amounts of storage, we have "permanent" amounts of storage. That is not true.

You can talk to people in libraries about this. Talk to people in the Library of Congress. We have "migration strategies" for data. We don't have a safe place to put it, and leave it alone. All we have are institutional policies that say, "Every five years we try to drag everything off of the university's servers, and move it into some other frame." "Migration" is like a horde of displaced refugees. That's not a good way to treat data.

That's certainly not the way scholars should treat data. And yet you're mortgaging your future to a method of data transfer that has no archives. There isn’t even a group of scholars in a capacity to build the archives. And the difficulties there are very deep and go way, way down.

It's like ignoring Vesuvius. It's like we've moved from northern Italy into southern Italy. That's what the transition from the actual to the virtual is really like. It's like moving from the flat, fertile plains of Padania, to the flanks of Vesuvius.

And there's not just one earthquake. It's not that there was the old, analog world -- and then there was an earthquake -- and then we built the new, digital world. No. When you live in the new, digital world, you live on the flanks of Vesuvius.

There's an earthquake, and then there's another earthquake. Then there's an eruption, and then there's another eruption. And then the town gets knocked down, and gets covered with lava, and then everybody rebuilds it, and then it gets knocked down again. There's no end-state where you have reshaped your institution, and it's now safe. The land is inherently unsafe.

That happened because of our virtues, not because of our lack of them. It happened, just as in Joi Ito's very eloquent description of how we build such things. That is how we effectively build such things: favela style.

Small pieces loosely joined: that's a favela. Fail early, fail often: that's a favela. Distributed working groups on the wiki: those are favelas. Institutions with three-year funding cycles, so that they can have some good ideas about something, and then go away: that’s a favela. It's not really a "knowledge institution," it's a circus tent.

And we did it. And we are going to have to pay a long-term price for that.

That's all right. History passes. It's all part of the grand parade. This is the world in which we live: I just think scholars need to understand this world.

So, let me conclude by telling you a science fiction parable.

Just imagine that you are the Chancellor of the University of Pompeii. Pompeii, in one hundred AD. It's this really nice Italian resort town. It's on the sea. A lot of rich people have nice vacation villas there. It's full of pretty girls, and rich guys, and oranges, and wine, and there are tourists, and there's a very nice sports stadium where you can go see gladiators get killed. You're the Chancellor, and you have a lot of students in your Roman academy.

Now, luckily, you're very wise and learned. You really have unusual insight and strategic wisdom, for a Chancellor. So, what are you going to do -- knowing that Vesuvius is going to erupt?

You know this is going to happen. You don't know exactly how it is going to happen, but it's obvious, because you're observant and aware of the volcano, and you don't ignore it. You know it's a volcano. So: what can you do?

You have some various options.

Option number one. Just run. Run away, panic. Lose your head about it. "It's the worst! Why did I ever build next to this volcano? My heart is beating in terror! I can't sleep at night! The risk, the fear, are overwhelming me!" You're walking in the streets with your Doomsday stick, and then you flee, toward any place that might appear to you to have some safety.

Option two, another possibility: plug the volcano. The volcano is going to erupt, and you need a technical solution for this. Maybe you should do something muscular about the volcano, like go drill holes in the side and hope that the lava oozes out. Or, you might make the volcano illegal. Go to Rome, talk to the Senate, have them put a curse on the volcano. Maybe you can throw some maidens into the volcano. It's been tried.

Option three. Make a whole lot of copies of stuff. Just copy the canon. This stuff that you've been trying to transfer to young people, find some other way, and see to it that it doesn't get destroyed. Make a lot of copies of that, distribute them widely. The public domain solution. Move this imperilled stuff away from your university, get it into a wider system, and distribute it so it won't be lost.

Option four is the oddest one. Bury the valuable stuff. Bury some valuable canon specifically where you know the volcano is likely to hit. Bury it really deeply. Because, actually, a lot of our knowledge of the ancient world comes from things that were seemingly abandoned -- in Pompeii, and elsewhere.

Had a Chancellor done that -- if he'd just taken the things that a normal, educated young Roman should have known... The poems of Sappho, all the comedies of Aristophanes, the complete works of Aristotle besides the "Ethics," any number of Platonic dialogues, theatrical works, boring technical documents from Alexandria, about how to build steam engines... If he had put those things into a fireproof safe, and just buried them in Pompeii, he'd be the most famous man in the world. We would bless that guy a thousand times over for behavior that seemed senseless.

If he'd just given it to us, his remote descendants. Things that were common to him, of little value, but of tremendous value to us, that were lost in the transformations of time. If only.

The device, the service, the network and the code. These are valuable things; I pay a great deal of attention to them. I think, in the University, you have to ask yourself about these network services. "Do they help me network the dead with the unborn?"

Not -- do I network with my clients, or with industry, or do I get to form multidisciplinary network working-groups with Brussels. Do they help me network the dead with the unborn? That should be your version of a network society.

To be contemporary is good. To be aware of what is happening in your own time and your own space is a necessity. To be temporary is bad.

To be contemporary is fine. It's praiseworthy. You need a deeper understanding, as scholars, of what is happening in real time. To become temporary, and to mortgage your future to temporary things -- that's not wise.

Network the dead with the unborn. If you can make that work, the future will bless you for it. Thank you for your attention.


Copyright 2010 Bruce Sterling. This work is released under a Creative Commons by-sa license.

This transcription is also available in Italian.

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