Bruce Sterling's Manifesto of January 3, 2000

From: Matthew Gaylor (
Date: Mon Jan 03 2000 - 23:33:58 MST

Viridian Note 124 : The Manifesto of January 3, 2000

Bruce Sterling


The Manifesto of January 3, 2000

In 1914, the lamps went out all over Europe.
Life during the rest of the twentieth century was
like crouching under a rock.

But human life is not required to be like the
twentieth century. That wasnīt fate, it was merely
a historical circumstance. In this new Belle Epoque,
this delightful era, we are experiencing a prolonged break
in the last centuryīs even tenor of mayhem. The time has
come to step out of those shadows into a different
cultural reality.

We need a sense of revived possibility, of genuine
creative potential, of unfeigned joie de vivre. We have a
new economy, but we have no new intelligentsia. We have
massive flows of information and capital, but we have a
grave scarcity of meaning. We know what we can buy, but
we donīt know what we want.

The twentieth century featured any number of -isms.
They were fatally based on the delusion that philosophy
trumps engineering. It doesnīt. In a world fully
competent to command its material basis, ideology is
inherently flimsy. "Technology" in its broad sense:
the ability to transform resources, the speed at which new
possibilities can be opened and exploited, the multiple
and various forms of command-and-control -- technology,
not ideology, is the twentieth centuryīs lasting legacy.
Technology broke the gridlock of the five-decade Cold War.
It made a new era thinkable. And, finally, technology
made a new era obvious.

But too many twentieth-century technologies
are very like twentieth-century ideologies: rigid,
monolithic, poisonous and non-sustainable.

We need clean, supple, healthy means of support for
a crowded world. We need recyclable technologies,
industries that donīt take themselves with that
Stalinesque seriousness that demands the brutal sacrifice
of millions. In order to make flimsy, supple technologies
thinkable, and then achievable, then finally obvious, we
need an ideology that embraces its own obsolescence.

The immediate future wonīt be a period suitable for
building monuments, establishing thousand-year regimes,
creating new-model citizens, or asserting leaden
certainties about anything whatsoever. The immediate
future is about picking and choosing among previously
unforeseen technical potentials.

Our time calls for intelligent fads. Our time calls
for a self-aware, highly temporary array of broad social
experiments, whose effects are localized, non-lethal and
reversible -- yet transparent, and visible to all parties
who might be persuaded to look.

The Internet is the natural test-bed for this
fast-moving, fast-vanishing, start-up society. Because
the native technology of the coming years is not the 19th
century "machine" or the 20th century "product." It is
the 21st century "gizmo."

A gizmo is a device with so many features and so
many promises that it can never be mastered within its
own useful lifetime. A gizmo is flimsy, cheap, colorful,
friendly, intriguing, easily disposable, and unlikely to
harm the user. The gizmoīs purpose is not to
efficiently perform some function or effectively provide
some service. A gizmo exists to snag the userīs
attention, and to engage the user in a vast
unfolding nexus of interlinked experience.

The gizmo in its manifold aspects is the beau ideal
for contemporary design and engineering. Because that is
what our culture will be like, at its heart, in its bones,
in its organs. A gizmo culture. We will go in so many
directions at once that most of them will never see
fulfillment. And then they will be gone.

This is confusing and seems lacking in moral
seriousness -- but only only by the rigid standards of
the past century, bitterly obsessed with ultimate
efficiencies and malignant final solutions. We need
opportunities now, not efficiencies. We need inspired
improvisation, not solutions. Technology can no longer
bind us in a vast tonnage of iron, barbed wire and brick.
We will stop heaving balky machines uphill. Instead, we
begin judging entire techno-complexes as they virtually
unfold, judging them by standards that are, in some very
basic sense, aesthetic.

Henceforth, it is humans and human flesh that lasts
out the years, not the mechanical infrastructure. Our
bodies outlast our machines, and our bodies outlast our
beliefs. People will outlive this "revolution" -- if
spared an apocalypse, human individuals will outlive every
"technology" that we are capable of deploying. Waves of
techno-change will come faster and faster, and with less
and less permanent consequence. Waves will be arriving
with the somnolent regularity of Waikiki breakers. This
"revolution" does not replace one social order with
another. It replaces social order with an array of further
possible transformations.

Since gizmos are easily outmoded and inherently
impermanent, their most graceful form is as disposable
consumer technology. We should embrace those gizmos that
are pleasing, abject, humble, and closest to the human
body. We should spurn those that are remote, difficult,
threatening, poisonous and brittle.

Most of all, we must never, ever again feel awestruck
wonder about any manufactured device. They donīt last,
and are not worthy of that form of respect.

We must engage with technology in a new way, from a
fresh perspective. The arts traditionally hold this
critical position. The arts are in a position today to
inspire a burst of cultural vitality across the board.
The times are very propitious for the arts. Thereīs a
profound restlessness, thereīs money loose, there are new
means of display and communication, and the nouveau riche
have nothing to wear and nothing that suits their walls.
Itīs a golden opportunity for techno-dandyism.

Artists, donīt be afraid of commercialization. The
sovereign remedy for commercialization is not for artists
to hide from commerce. That canīt be done any more, and
in any case, hiding never wins and strong artists donīt
live in fear.

Instead, we have a new remedy available. The
aggressive counter-action to commodity totalitarianism is
to give things away. Not other peopleīs property -- that
would be, sad to say, "piracy" -- but the products of your
own imagination, your own creative effort.

This is the time to be thoughtful, be expressive, be
generous. Be "taken advantage of." The channels exist
now to give creativity away, at no cost, to millions.
Never mind if you make large sums of money along the way.
If you successfully seize attention, nothing is more
likely. In a start-up society, huge sums can fall on
innocent parties, almost by accident. That cannnot be
helped, so donīt worry about it any more. Henceforth,
artistic integrity should be judged, not by oneīs classic
bohemian seclusion from satanic mills and the grasping
bourgeoisie, but by what one creates and gives away.
That is the only scale of noncommercial integrity that
makes any sense now.

Freedom has to be won, and, more importantly, the
consequences of freedom have to be lived. You do not win
freedom of information by filching data from a corporate
warehouse, or begging the authorities to kindly abandon
their monopolies, copyrights and patents. You have to
create that freedom by a deliberate act of will, think it
up, assemble it, sacrifice for it, make it free to others
who have a similar will to live that freedom.

Ivory towers are no longer in order. We need ivory
networks. Today, sitting quietly and thinking is the
worldīs greatest generator of wealth and prosperity.
Moguls spend their lives sitting in chairs, staring into
screens, and occasionally clicking a mouse. Though we
didnīt expect it, weīre all on the same net. We no longer
need feudal shelters to protect us from the swords and
torches of barbarian ignorance. So show them words and
images: make it obvious, let them look. If theyīre
interested, fine; if not, go pick another website.

The structure of human intellectual achievement
should be reformatted, so that any human being with a
sincere interest can learn as much as possible, as rapidly
as their abilities allow. The Internet is the greatest
accomplishment of the twentieth centuryīs scientific
community, and the Internet has made a new intelligentsia

Like the scientific method, the Internet is a
genuine, workable, verifiable means of intellectual
liberation. Donīt worry if itīs not universal. Awareness
canīt be doled out like soup, or sold like soap.
Intellectual vitality is an inherently internal, self-
actualizing process. The net must make this possible
for people, not by blasting flags and gospel at the
masses, but by opening doors for individual minds, who
will then pursue their own interests.

This can be made to happen. It is quite near to us
now, the trends favor it. The consequences of genuine
intellectual freedom are literally and rightfully
unimaginable. But the unimaginable is the right thing to
do. The unimaginable is far better than perfection,
because perfection can never be achieved, and it would
kill us if it were. Whereas the "unimaginable" is, at
its root, merely a healthy measure of our own limitations.

Human beings are imperfect and imperfectable, and
their networks even more so. We should probably be happy
for the noise and disruption in the channel, since so much
of what we think we know, and love to teach, are mistakes
and lies. But nevertheless, we can achieve progress
here. We can remove some modicum of the fatal, choking
constraints that throughout centuries have bent people

A human mind in pursuit of self-actualization should
be allowed to go as far and as fast as our means allow.
There is nothing utopian about this program; because
there no timeless justice or perfect stability to be found
in this vision. This practice will not lead us toward
any dream, any City on a Hill, any phony form of static
bliss. On the contrary, it will lead us into closer and
closer, into more and more immediate contact, with the
issues that really bedevil us.

Before many more decades pass, the human race will
begin to obtain what it really wants. Then we will find
ourselves confronted, in our bedrooms, streets, and
breakfast tables, with real-world avatars of those
Faustian visions of power and ability that have previously
existed only in myth. Our aspirations will become
consequences. Thatīs when our *real* trouble starts.

However, that is not a contemporary problem. The
problems we face today are not those somber, long-term
problems. On the contrary, we very clearly exist in a
highly fortunate time with very minor problems.

The so-called human condition wonīt survive the
next hundred years. That fate is written on the forehead
of the 21st century in letters of fire. That fate can be
wisely shaped, or somewhat postponed, or brutally
annihilated, but it cannot be denied. It is coming
because we want it. Itīs not an alien imposition; it is
borne from the inchoate depths of our own desires.
But weīre not beyond the limits of humanity, suffering
that, exulting in that. Weīre just going there, visibly
moving closer to it. Once we get there, weīll find no
rest there. The appetite of divine discontent always
grows by the feeding.

This dire knowledge makes todayīs scene seem quite
playful and delightful by faux-retrospect. Our worst
problems, which may seem so large, diffuse, and morbid,
are mere teenage angst compared to the conundrums weīre
busily preparing for some other generation.

Sober assessment of the contemporary scene makes it
crystal-clear that a carnival atmosphere is in order. We
exist in a highly disposable civilization that is hell-
bent on outmoding itself. The pace of change is melting
former physical restraints into a maelstrom of
reformattable virtualities. Thatīs here, itīs real,
it is truly our situation. We should live as
if we know this is true. This is where our own sincerity
and authenticity are to be found: in the strong
conviction that the contemporary is temporary.

We need to live in these conditions in good faith.
We need to re-imagine life and make the new implications
clear. Itīs a murky situation, but we must not flinch
from it; we must drench all of it in light. Because this
is our home. We have no other. Our children live here.
The mushroom clouds of the twentieth century have parted.
We find ourselves on a beach, with wave after frothy
wave of transformation. We have means, motive, and
opportunity. Spread the light.

Henceforth, it will make more and more sense to
base our deepest convictions around a hands-on
confrontation with the consequences of technology.
Thatīs where the action is. On January 3, 2000, thatīs
what itīs about. The deepest resources of human
creativity have a vital role there. Itīs where
inspiration is most needed, itīs the place to make a
difference. Come out. Stand up. Shine.

Turn the lamps on all over the world.

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