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TUCoPS :: Cyber Culture :: sterling.txt

A speech given by Bruce Sterling to the Library Information Technology Assoc.

      Here is Bruce Sterling's address to the Library Information
Technology Association at this year's ALA meeting in San Francisco.  He
followed Hans Moravec, who made a mind-boggling speech about
the future of robots, etc.--when I described it to Robert Silverberg later,
he said, "Now *that* is science fiction"--I mention this because
Bruce refers to Moravec's speech.


      Hi everybody.  Well, this is the Library Information Technology
Association, so I guess I ought to be talking about libraries, or information, 
or technology, or at least association.   And to be fair, I really ought to 
address the stated panel topic of personal information machines.   I'm gonna 
give it a shot, but I want to try this from an unusual perspective.  I want to 
talk about money.
      You wouldn't guess it sometimes to hear some people talk, but we
don't live in a technocratic  society.  We live in an advanced capitalist 
society.  People talk a lot about the power and glory of specialized 
knowledge and technical expertise.  And it's true there's a Library OF 
Congress.  But how many librarians are there IN Congress?  

      The nature of our society affects the nature of our technology.   It
doesn't DETERMINE it; a lot of our technology is sheer accident, serendipity, 
the way the cards happened to fall, who got the lucky breaks.  But as a 
society we don't develop technologies to their ultimate ends.  Only engineers 
are interested in that kind of technical sweetness, and engineers generally 
have their paychecks signed by CEOs and stockholders.   We don't pursue 
ultimate technologies.   Our technologies are actually produced to optimize 
financial return on investment.   There's a big difference.

      Of course there are many elements of our lives that exist outside the
money economy.   There's a lot that can't be denominated in dollars.  The best
things in life are free, the old saying goes.   Nice old saying.  Gets a little
older-sounding every day.   Sounds about as old and mossy as the wedding 
vow "for richer for poorer,"  which in a modern environment is pretty likely 
to be for-richer-or poorer modulo our prenuptial agreement.    
Commercialization.  Commodification.  It's a very powerful phenomenon.  It's 
getting more powerful.   

      Academia, libraries, cultural institutions are already under seige.
Welcome to our museum exhibition, brought to you by Procter and Gamble.  
This is MacNeill Lehrer News Hour, brought to you by publicly supported 
television and, incidentally, AT&T.  Welcome students to Large Northeastern 
University, brought to you by Pepsi-Cola, official drink of Large
Northeastern.  Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make ye 
employable.   Hi, I'm the head of the microbiology department here at Large 
Northeastern.   I'm also on the board of directors of TransGenic Corporation.   
The Chancellor says it's okay because a cut of the patent money goes to 
Large Northeastern.

      Welcome to the Library of Congress.  Jolt Cola is the official drink of
the Library of Congress.  This is our distributed electronic data network, 
brought to you by Prodigy Services, a joint venture of IBM and Sears.  You'll 
notice the banner of bright-red ads that runs by your eyeballs while you're 
trying to access the electronic full-text of William Wordsworth.  Try to pay 
no attention to that.  Incidentally there's a Hypertext link here where you 
can order our  Wordsworth T-shirt and have it billed to your creditcard.  Did 
I mention that the Library of Congress is now also a bank?  Hey, data is data; 
every pixel in cyberspace is a sales opportunity.   Be sure to visit our coffee-
bar, too.  You can rent videos here if you want.  We do souvenir umbrellas, 
ashtrays, earrings, the works.   We librarians are doing what we can to 
survive this economically difficult period.   After all, the library is a 
regrettably old-fashioned institution which has not been honed into fighting 
trim by exposure to healthy market competition.   Until now, that is. 

      Imagine the library had never been invented.  You're Benjamin
Franklin, a printer and your average universal genius, only it's not 1731, it's
1991.   You have this debating club called the Junto, and you decide you're 
going to pool your information and charge everybody a very small fee to join 
in and read it.  You're gonna keep it all in one place.  There's about fifty of 
you.  You're not big people, in the Junto.  You're not aristocrats or well-born 
people or even philanthropists.  You're mostly apprentices and young people 
who work with their hands.   If you were rich you wouldn't be so anxious to 
pool your information in the first place.   So you put all your leatherbound 
books into the clubhouse and you charge people forty shillings to join and 
ten shillings dues per annum....

        Oh sorry, I forgot I said it was 1991, didn't I?   You start swopping 
floppy disks and using a bulletin board system.   Public spirited?  A benefit 
to society?  Democratic institution, knowledge is power, power to the people?  
In 1991?  You must be nuts, Mr. Franklin.   Not only that, but you're 
menacing our commercial interests.  What about our trade secrets Mr 
Franklin.   Our trademarks, copyrights, and patents.  Our intellectual 
property rights.  Our look-and-feel.  Our patented algorithms.  Our national 
security clearances.  Don't copy that floppy Mr. Franklin.  And you're telling 
me you want us to pay TAXES to support your suspicious activities?  Hey, if 
there's a real need here, the market will meet it, Mr Franklin.  I really think 
this is something better left to the private sector, Mr Franklin.   No author 
could possibly want his books read for free, sir.   Are you trying to starve 
the creative artist?

      Let's get real Mr Franklin.  You know what's real, Mr Franklin?
Money is real.  You seem to be under the misapprehension that information 
wants to be free and that enabling people to learn and follow their own 
interests will benefit society as a whole.    Well, we don't believe in society 
as a whole.  We believe in the ECONOMY as a whole -- a black hole.   Why 
should you be able to think things and even learn things without paying 
somebody for that privilege?   Let's get to brass tacks, the bottom line.  
Money.  Money is reality. You see this printed dollar bill?   It's far more real
than topsoil or oxygen or the ozone layer or sunlight.   You may say that  this 
is just a piece of paper with some symbols on it, but that's sacrilege. It's the
Almighty Dollar.   Most of them are actually stored in cyberspace -- dollars 
are just ones and zeros in a computer, but that doesn't mean they're only 
virtual, and basically one big fantasy.   No, dollars are utterly and entirely 
real, far more real than anything as vague as the public interest.  Don't try to
talk to us in a language that doesn't involve monetary transactions.   You
have to talk in real language, the language that automatically makes you and 
everything you do and everything you believe into a marketable commodity.    
You're a commodity or you don't exist.

      Can you believe that Melville Dewey once said, "free as air, free as
water, free as knowledge?"   Free as knowledge.  Let's get real, this is the 
modern world -- air and water don't come cheap!   Hey, you want breathable 
air, you better pay your power-bill, pal.  Free as water -- man, if you've got 
sense you buy the bottled variety or pay for an ionic filter on your tap.  And 
free as knowledge -- well, we don't know what "knowledge" is, but we can 
get you plenty of DATA, and as soon as we figure out how to download it 
straight into student skulls we can put all the teachers and librarians into 
the breadline.

      Ladies and gentlemen there's a problem with showing Mr Franklin the
door.  The problem is that Mr Franklin is right.    Information is not 
something you can peddle like Coca-Cola.   If it were, then information would 
cost nothing when you had a glut of it.  With other commodities, if you make 
too much the cost drops.  Money just does not map onto information at all 
well.   How much is the Bible worth?  You can get a Bible in any hotel room.  
They're worthless, but not valueless.   

      What's information really about?  It's about attention.  You're never
gonna read the Library of Congress.  You'll die long before you access one 
tenth of one percent of it.   What's important is the process by which you 
figure out what to look at.   This is the real and true economics of 
information.   Power is departing its base in possession of information -- who
owns the books, who prints the books, who has the holdings.  The crux here 
is access, not holdings.  And not even ACCESS, but the signposts that tell you 
WHAT to access -- what to pay attention to.  

      That's why the spin-doctor is the creature who increasingly rules the
universe.   Never mind that man behind the curtain -- no no, look at my 
hand, I can make a candidate disappear.  Watch me pull a President out of a 
hat.  Look, I can make these starving people disappear in a haze of media 
noise.  Nothing up my sleeve, presto.

      Librarians used to be book-pullers.  Book-pullers, I like the way that
sounds.   I like it kind of better than I like the sound of "information 
retrieval expert," though that's clearly where librarians are headed.  Might 
be the right way to head.   Though I wonder exactly what will be retrieved 
and what will be allowed to rot in the deepest darkest swamps of the 
dustiest hard-disks.

      I like librarians, I owe my career to librarians.  I hate being turned
into a commodity and seeing things turned into commodities.   I like 
bookstores too, but I don't like chainstores and I don't like distributors.  We 
already have twelve people in the US who buy all the books for the twelve 
major distributors.  They're the information filters and their criterion is the 
bottom line and the bottom line is a fraud.   I don't like megapublishers
either.  Publishing is owned by far too few people.   They're the people who 
own the means of production and worse yet they own the means of 
attention.   They determine what we get to pay attention to.

      Of course there are other ways of delimiting people's attention.  Like
aesthetic and cultural means of limiting attention.  Librarians used to be 
very big on this.   Conceivably they could get this way again.  Librarians 
could get very correct.  Try reading what librarians used to say in the 
Victorian age.  They were really upset about popular novels.   They carred 
on about it in a way which would sound very familiar to Dan Quayle.  Here's 
a guy named Dr Isaac Ray in the 1870s.  Quote:  "The specific doctrine I 
would inculcate is, that the excessive indulgence in novel-reading, which is a 
characteristic of our times, is chargeable with many of the mental 
irregularities that prevail upon us to a degree unknown at any former 
period."  Unquote.   

      Here's the superintendent of the State of Michigan in 1869.  "The state
swarmed with peddlers of the sensational novels of all ages, tales of piracy, 
murders, and love intrigues -- the yellow-covered literature of the world."   
James Angell in 1904.  "I think it must be confessed that a great deal of the 
fiction which is deluging the market is the veriest trash, or worse than trash. 
Much of it is positively bad in its influence.  It awakens morbid passions.  It
deals in the most exaggerated representations of life.  It is vicious in style."

      These worthies are talking about authors who corrupt the values of
youth, authors who write about crime and lowlife, authors who drive people 
nuts, authors who themselves are degraded and untrustworthy and quite 
possibly insane.  I think I know who they're talking about.  Basically they're 
talking about me.

      Here's the President of the United States speaking at a library in 1890.
"The boy who greedily devours the vicious tales of imaginary daring and 
blood-curdling adventure which in these days are far too accessible will 
have his brain filled with notions of life and standards of manliness which, if 
they do not make him a menace to peace and good order, will certainly not 
make him a useful member of society."  Grover Cleveland hit the nail on the 
head.  I'm the nail.  Not only did I start out in libraries as the greedy 
devouring boy, but thanks to mindwarping science fictional yellow-covered 
literature, I have become a menace to peace and good order.

      Far too accessible, eh Mr President?  Too much access.  By all means
let's not provide our electronic networks with TOO MUCH ACCESS.  that might 
get dangerous to the status quo.  The networks might rot people's minds and 
corrupt their values.  They might create bad taste.  Think this electrical
network thing is a new problem?  Think again.  Listen to James Russell 
Lowell speaking in 1885.  "We diligently inform ourselves and cover the 
continent with speaking wires.... we are getting buried alive under this 
avalanche of earthly impertinences... we... are willing to become mere 
sponges saturated from the stagnant goosepond of village gossip."
      The stagnant goosepond of the GLOBAL village.  Marshall MacLuhan's
stagnant goosepond.   Who are the geese in the stagnant pond?   Whoever they
are, I'm one of them.  You'll find me with the pulp magazines and the comics and
the yellow-covered trash.  In the future you'll find me in the electronic pulp,
stuff so cheap that it's copied and given away.  In the hacker zines, in the
fanzines, in the underground.  In whatever stuff it is that really bugs Grover
Cleveland.   He can't make up his mind whether I'm the scum from the gutter or
the "cultural elite" -- but in either case he doesn't like me.
He doesn't like cyberpunks.  

      And he's not going to like cyberpunk librarians either.  Don't deceive
yourselves on that score.

      Weird ideas are okay as long as they remain weird ideas.  Once they
start changing the world, there's smoke in the air and blood on the floor.
You guys are marching toward blood on the floor.  It's cultural struggle, 
political struggle, legal struggle.  

      You've heard some weird ideas today.  I like reading Hans Moravec.  I
respect him and I pay close attention to what he says.  He's a true fount of 
weird ideas.  He's a credit to the American republic. I think he even makes a 
certain amount of sense, technically and rationally if not politically and 

      But then again, I don't think the Ayatollahs have read MIND CHILDREN
yet.  If they had, they would recognize it as complete and utter blasphemy, 
far worse than Salman Rushdie's SATANIC VERSES.   If Hans actually got 
around to creating a digital afterlife right here on Earth, I'm pretty sure the 
Moslem fundamentalists would try to have him killed.  They'd surely 
consider this their moral duty.   And they probably wouldn't be first in line, 
either.  A lot of people have seen TERMINATOR TWO.   They might  figure 
our friend Hans here as the future Architect of Skynet.   He wants to make 
the human race obsolete.  Doesn't that mean it'd be a lot more convenient to 
kill him right now?

      Of course we're not going to kill Hans now.  I mean, not till he gets his
own satellite channel and starts his own religious movement and asks for
love-offerings.   Not till he starts building a posthuman brain in a box.  When 
his technology moves from the rhetorical to the commercial.  When MIND 
CHILDREN become MIND CHILDREN (TM) and they're manufactured by Apple 
and Toshiba and retailed to adventurous aging yuppies.   Thirty years to the 
Singularity?  Thirty years to the complete transformation of the human 
condition?   Maybe.  Maybe it's just ten years till the day the Secret Service 
raids the basements of MIT and removes all his equipment.  As for criminal 
charges, well, we'll think of something.  Maybe we can nail him on an FDA 

      I do kind of believe in the singularity though.  I think some kind of
genuine deep transformation in the human condition is in the works.  I have 
no idea what that will be, but I can smell it in the wind.  That's why I want 
to bring up one last topic today.   One last weird idea.   I call it Deep 
Archiving.  It's possibly the most uncommercial act possible for the 
institutions we call libraries.   I'd like to see stuff archived for the long te
The VERY long term.  For the successors of our civilization.  Possibly for the 
successors of the human race.

      We're already leaving some impressive gifts for the remote future of
this planet.  Namely nuclear wastes.   We're going to be neatly archiving this 
repulsive trash in concrete and salt mines and fused glass canisters, for tens
of thousands of years.  Imagine the pleasure of discovering one of these nice 
radioactive time-bombs six thousand years from now.   Imagine the joy of 
dedicated archeologists  burrowing into one of these twentieth-century 
pharoah's tombs and dropping dead, swiftly and painfully.  Gosh, thanks, 
ancestors.   Thanks, twentieth century.  Thanks for thinking of us.

      Isn't it a moral obligation to explain ourselves to these unknown people
we've offended?   Shouldn't we give some thought to leaving them a legacy a
little less lethal and offensive than our giant fossilized landfills and
the cesium-90 fallout layer in the polar snows?   If we're going to put the 
Library of Congress in our hip pocket, I'd like to see us put the Library of 
Congress in every canister of nuclear waste.   Let's airmail the Library of 
Congress to the year 20,000 AD.  There's absolutely no benefit for us in this 
action.  That's why I like the idea.   That's why I find it appealing.  I hope 
you'll think about it.  As weird ideas go it's one of the less hazardous and 
more workable.  If you remember one idea from my visit here I hope you'll 
remember that idea. 

        That's all I have to say, thanks a lot for listening. 


                                Tom Maddox
                   "I swear I never heard the first shot"
                Wm. Gibson, "Agrippa:  a book of the dead"

A couple extra notes:

I'd like to thank Tom for getting this speech onto alt.cp to begin with
and add that it is now available in book form with the rest of the papers
and speeches from the meeting:

_Thinking Robots: An Aware Internet and Cyberpunk Librarians_
	Miller, R. Bruce & Wolf, Milton T  eds.
	LITA Publications  ISBN 0-8389-7625-5
	200 pages, tp
Available from Order Department, American Library Assn, 50 East Huron St,
Chicago, IL, 60611.

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