Bruce Sterling on Sat, 8 Mar 97 11:18 MET

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Dear nettimers:

   It's been very gratifying to follow the discussions of 
WIRED in the list.   While I'm not a WIRED staffer, I
am on the WIRED masthead, and I am a virtual San Franciscan
thanks to seven years on the WELL.  

   Those who aren't familiar with the WELL may find its
internal practices odd.   WELL was a closed bulletin board system 
long before it ever became a website, and its social practices 
have been created over literal years of internal discussion.  The 
WELL is something like a tide pool, it's not exactly in the Net 
and  not exactly out of it; data flows in, but has a rather hard 
time flowing out.  I didn't make the WELL's rules, but the rules 
have made  the community, and if you want to play, it's de rigeur 
to respect their standards.

       Every once in a while I see material on nettime which is of
particular relevance to WELLbeings, and since I'm not putting this
material to commercial use, I crosspost it.  I've been cross-
posting nettime comments on WIRED -- not all of them, just the 
ones I found of particular interest -- for almost a year now.  

     I don't really see anything untoward in this practice.   
After all, my "Master List of Dead Media" was also posted on 
nettime, and it was swiftly crossposted to other lists, and sites, 
all over the planet.  I'm still getting responses to that piece 
months later.   I was glad to have my nonprofit Dead Media Project 
getting such gratifying publicity from a core demographic of net 

    Mark Stahlman's bizarre attacks on WIRED's so-called
"English Ideology" have been so entertaining that it's well-nigh 
impossible not to quote him.  Naturally when he bravely showed up 
on the WELL in person, he was immediately subject to rough 
handling by people who actually know the WIRED milieu at first-
hand, and found it hard to believe that Mr Stahlman was serious.

     For all I know, there may be people on the nettime list who
seriously believe that a popular American magazine on contemporary 
computer culture  is a stalking-horse for a European-inspired 
cabal of  cyber-illuminati inspired by the sinister doctrines of 
H.G. Wells and bent on global domination.  Unfortunately, within 
the WELL, Mr Stahlman has found little popular support for his 
thesis.  I can understand his distress, but I'm not in command of 
the WELL audience and can't stop them from making up their own 
minds after reading his own words.   I rather imagine that people 
on nettime who have closely studied Mr Stahlman's assertions have 
had their own difficulties in this matter.

Mr Stahlman's copious remarks have inspired me to write an essay.  
Unfortunately it's not directly relevant to his own statements, 
but since he's referred in nettime to my essay as "elegant back-
to-back rants that have to be read to be believed," and has 
expressed his cordial hope that I will cross-post them to nettime, 
I'm ready to oblige him.  

Unfortunately I can't cross-post the comments of other WELLbeings, 
since this would be a violation of WELL You-Own-Your-Own-Words 
netiquette.   My essay loses some valuable context by being 
separated from the thread of commentary by other WELLbeings such 
as ludlow, kk, rushkoff, markdery and neal, but I hope it will be 
of some use or amusement anyway.

Note:  on the WELL, Mr Stahlman is known as ""

Bruce Sterling

(text follows) 

Topic 200 [wired]:  Goofy Leftists Sniping at WIRED
#759 of 796: Bruce Sterling (bruces)      Fri Mar  7 '97 (06:28)   
125 lines

 This is a good topic.  It's forcing me to wax all magisterial and 
politico-philosophical.  That's a dire occupational hazard for 
science fiction writers, but even if you're of the stature of HG 
Wells  (probably the only science fiction writer with serious 
pretensions of being a Great Man), you're still not gonna get many 
people willing to page through all of it.

      Except for newmedium himself, clearly a guy of rockbound 
personal self-esteem whom no mere argument will ever sway, it 
looks like we're approaching a general consensus that his "English 
ideology" is silly.  It is, and it always was.  It scarcely seems 
possible to demonstrate this any better than ludlow demonstrated 
it.  Certainly newmedium isn't the only guy in the world whose 
weltanschauung is dependent on gaseous, self-marginalizing verbal 
sleight-of-hand, and since I'm an SF writer by trade my tolerance 
for this kind of activity is extremely high, but it's not the same 
thing as a reasoned argument with historical awareness and proper 
citation.  If one is really trying to live and make political, 
technical and economic decisions through this kind of empty, 
glittering rant, one is just plain being goofy.

      I have kindly and indulgent feelings towards cats like 
Stahlman and Rushkoff, as opposed to my thorny relationship with a 
guy like Mark Dery, someone I can recognize as an actual, 
authentic cultural critic.   Dery is probably wrong about a lot of 
stuff and may even be kind of dangerous, but compared to him 
Stahlman and Rushkoff are like a couple of aluminized balloons in 
the same corral with a cactus.  Life is funny that way.  It seems 
to me you could make much the same assessment about HG Wells or CS 
Lewis and their roles in a thorny world of twentieth-century 
realpolitik. You might even make a similar assessment about the 
only 20th century science fiction writer who has actually seized 
power in a major government -- Newt Gingrich.

     I don't think Wells and Lewis were particularly influential 
people, even though this would be very flattering to me and mine 
were such to be the case.   But I do want to discuss why it is 
that I do prefer HG Wells to CS Lewis, and what relevance this 
might have to the current, uhm, cyberculture situation.

       First, this is not a literary judgement on my part.  I 
would not make the category error of saying that CS Lewis was a 
bad writer merely because I don't like his theology.   I think 
Wells was a very good writer, better than Lewis, especially when 
Wells wasn't doing propaganda, but Lewis was also clearly a major 
writer of fantastic fiction.  His fantasies are very engaging and 
have many stellar moments of high imaginative concentration. Lewis 
clearly had a gift -- that's not under contention here.

        The I Ching is great literature too, but if you start 
tossing hexagrams to govern your life-decisions because the 
descriptions are so charmingly evocative, well, you've got a non-
literary problem.

       When I wonder why it is that I prefer Wells to Lewis -- two 
minor-league combatants in what seems to me a very old struggle -- 
I think fondly of one memorable battle in this culture war.   It 
was Wells's teacher, Thomas Henry Huxley, in public debate with a 
guy whom I take to be one of CS Lewis's spiritual ancestors, 
Bishop "Soapy Sam"  Wilberforce.

      What Huxley had on his side was a boatload of objective 
evidence that Charles Darwin  had painstakingly scraped up and 
cataloged over twenty years or so of obscure but dedicated 
research.   What Wilberforce had on his side was a glib tongue and 
a deep, instinctive, passionate moral revulsion at the thought 
that human beings were apes.

     Huxley won the debate through an exchange of insults.  
Wilberforce snidely inquired whether Huxley felt that it was his 
grandmother or grandfather who had been the  ape.  Huxley riposted 
(I'm paraphrasing from memory here, being several hundred miles 
away from my references) that he felt no shame in having an ape 
for an ancestor, and would prefer that to being the descendant of 
a man who would deliberately obscure the truth.

     Huxley put his finger on it there.   There is something 
deeply shameful about obscurantist mysticism.   Mysticism conjures 
up wonderful feelings within us that make us purportedly aware of 
the full, marvelous, flattering scope of our numinous humanity, 
but it's intellectually fraudulent.  Mysticism is a retreat, a 
cop-out, whether it's a retreat into the gospels, the noosphere, 
astrology,  the Tarot, the Bhagavad Gita, Aum Shinri Kyo armed 
yoga, Illuminatist conspiracy theory, or even some brand-new 
amalgam of 'shrooms and cyberspace.     It's a cheat,  like rising 
with a flourish to write your proof on the blackboard, getting off 
to a cracking good start, and then drawing us a large cloudy area 
labelled "miracles happen here."

       I'm not under the illusion that scientists, psychologists 
or any other biped in a labcoat really understands deep 
ontological reality or the  true nature of the universe.    What 
bugs me is the social practice of deliberately enshrining our 
ignorance, anthropomorphizing it as a living divine being, and 
giving it moral and ethical dominion over our lives and 

       In practice, obscurantist mysticism is like the practice of
embezzlement.   You can't get your budget to add up.  The 
bookkeeping rules are too hard and pernickety, and they probably 
don't fit your personal situation anyway.  You're too weak and 
anxious to directly face the paralysing prospect of  genuine 
intellectual bankruptcy.  So, to keep the business going, you just 
borrow a few life-giving dollars out of the secret stack of the 
Great Unknown.   You can always put it back later, right? Pascal's 
Wager will win it back for you, maybe you can win it back at the 
track...    But embezzlers always say this.  They don't really 
reason, they rationalize.   And the convenience of free money rots 
away their integrity and destroys their judgement.  They almost 
always take more and more.

       Unfortunately, the "miracles" gambit also  expands in just 
this way. Mystic revelation will grow to cover everything that is 
emotionally, politically or socially  repugnant to the believer.   
There are always excellent reasons to declare certain things 
unholy, unthinkable and not subject to question.  You mustn't look 
at this, you mustn't think that; such and such a thing is 
unnatural, it's blasphemous, it is the sin against the holy 
spirit, it what we were Not Meant to Know.  And why make painful 
decisions about what to eat, how to dress, who to tug your 
forelock to? It's all divinely ordained.

     For all I know, there may indeed be aspects of human behavior 
which are so unspeakably blasphemous and horrible that, like a 
Lovecraft character, my mind might shatter into bicameral 
fragments from the awful impact of glimpsing them.  But I haven't 
seen any yet, and not from lack of looking around.    In practice, 
this sort of blanket mental prohibition has generally turned out 
to be about harmless oddities such as worshipping idols, eating 
pigs, anal sex, and speaking politely to black people.

      So I think that what newmedium was demanding earlier is the 
1990s version of Soapy Sam's old question:  "So:  is it your 
grandson, or your granddaughter who's the hideous, shambling 
posthuman?  'Fess up!"  And my  Huxleyan response would be that my 
shameless posthuman grandchildren might have a chance to do okay, 
if we can honestly examine the possibilities without his eerie 
brand of obscurantist paranoia.

Topic 200 [wired]:  Goofy Leftists Sniping at WIRED
#760 of 796: Bruce Sterling (bruces)      Fri Mar  7 '97 (06:33)   
122 lines

      We now  (I hope you didn't think I was finished)  examine 
the pressing topic of what kind of ideology might be suited to 

      I see little promise in mysticism.  However.  While I'm not 
religious, I can only concur with neal's earlier cogent remarks on 
atheists having no better record.  Guys who get all hot and 
bothered about Christianity rarely fail to bring out its dismal 
record of antisemitism, Biblical justifications for slavery, and 
inquisitorial practices of the seventeenth century.    But let's 
face it:   if you're looking for the big-time practice of those 
evils in our own century, you can't find better candidates than 
revolutionary leftist atheists.

      The worst thing that could happen to you in the twentieth 
century was to have your society taken over in a leftist atheist 
coup.   The Nazis, no great believers themselves, were more 
virulent maybe, but the Nazis were so frankly megalomaniacal that 
they could barely manage a dozen years in  power.

         But Marxist-Leninist Stalinist Mao Zedong thought...   
Let the record speak.   The movement's roots were in  scientific 
socialism and the rational investigation of economics and history.   
Marx was the kind of roly-poly bearded swot that any of us would 
instantly recognize at a UNIX programmer's convention.  Wells was 
just one among legions of period radicals with scientific utopias 
in their back pocket.  He believed that rational political science 
would simply sweep away the ills and unseemly quirks of human 
culture, in much the way that germ theory superceded pre-
scientific notions like malaria, in the brisk and proper way that 
sanitation eliminates cholera.   But Wells was no democrat.  He 
was too full of himself.   He cherished a deep, heartfelt contempt 
for the feudal creeps, class snobs and rich bullies standing in 
the manifest road of History. Like most pre-WW1 zealot reformers, 
Wells had no idea of the havoc that totalizing one-size-fits-all 
doctrines would create when their arrogant dictates contacted 
human political reality.

       Consider the Russian Revolution.  Okay?  It's gone now, we 
can talk about it honestly.   Atheist intellectuals with 
impeccable backgrounds in the European radical press.   Started 
off in a horrible world war.  Lights go out all over Europe.  
Fratricidal civil wars follow.   Class liquidations.  Mass 
starvation.  Nutty doomed efforts at collective agriculture -- 
it's the 'scientific' way to feed the masses, it makes great sense 
on paper.  Mass deportations,  genocide of minorities  (hopelessly 
backward, stupid, and in the way).  Abandonment of all pretense of 
representative government  (why listen to backsliders?).   
Abandonment of the rule of law, even their own laws and their own 
Constitution (too much trouble following tedious rules which will 
only be exploited by bourgeois parasites and "cosmopolitan" 
lawyers).    Suspension, and then abolition of civil liberties.   
Armies of secret police.   Pogroms against secret police by other 
factions of secret police.  One of the most dangerous positions 
you could possibly have in such societies was a loyal servant of 
the state.

       And   I was waxing indignant about Soapy Sam's rhetorical 
hijinks, so then let's talk about the intellectual crimes of 
Russian, atheist Marxism. Rampant forgery of historical documents.  
Censorship on unheard-of scales. Celebrities rendered non-persons, 
famous events rendered non-events.   The Lysenko fraud against 
biological science  (Huxley's favorite field). Scientists put into 
labor camps and still forced to do technological work behind 
barbed wire.   A mania for classifying anything considered of any 
conceivable benefit to any imagined enemy, leading to 
strangulation of the scientific process.  Writers and thinkers of 
all sorts and varieties browbeaten, silenced, purged.    Cultural 
and intellectual life reduced to totalitarian parody.   Party 
lines and personality cults exalted to unquestionable status....  
it really goes on and on.

      That's why I really don't fancy myself a prophet of 
historical destiny.  Yes, I'd feel really great, cocaine-high 
great, if I had a sudden ideological Answer to History.   History, 
that chaotic, fractal, deeply irrational, painfully human, tragic, 
unpredictable-even-in-principle process.   A nightmare from which 
the human mind loves to struggle to escape.   But I *don't* have 
any such answer, and the penalties of believing that I have one 
are just too high.

         I'd be wrong.   And I'd end up having to defend my 
ideology, and if I didn't, others more ruthless would.   And I 
might be brilliant, and glib, and deeply convincing, but I'd still 
be wrong, because predicting history is probably eighty orders of 
magnitude harder than predicting the weather, a thing itself 
impossible, no matter what Laplace thought back in the 

      So, I'd be forced to disguise my intellectual failings with 
slippery rhetoric, appeals to faith, high-sounding catchphrases, 
and intimidation.  I'd have to school myself so that appeals to 
objective reality no longer made a dent.   Skeptics and scoffers 
would have to be discredited somehow -- as organized conspirators, 
presumably, bribed and corrupted to defy the truth.   Probably 
they're all witting or unwitting disciples of some Satanic figure 
-- some Rosicrucian Machiavelli, a really obscure but nevertheless 
vaguely plausible guy, for instance, a bio-school dropout and 
tubercular journalist who became the greatest trend-spotter of his 

      So what's my idea of a worldview fit for posthumans?   It's 
not religion and it's not a modernist master-plan.  I'm a 
postmodernist and a skeptic.   These are issues too complex to 
regulate which cannot be planned from a flat-footed start.

      I kind of favor the Internet "answer" -- "run code and rough 
consensus."    You debug it as you go along.  You assume there 
will be bugs, and you try not to call them "features."  You let 
the devil's advocates speak up, all of them, even the crazy ones, 
even the opinions you detest. You don't create systems with single 
points of failure.  You allow diversity -- firewalls, different 
speeds, differences of scale, you don't bet the farm on one super-
mono-culture.    You never change the operating system before you 
back up the contents.   You *make* backups.   You check for 
viruses.  You assume the system is insecure.  You assume some 
people mean the system harm, and can never be won over, and will 
never, ever go away.

      But wait -- I seem to have more principles than I thought I 
did.  You don't attempt to change a  complex distributed system 
all at once.   You don't trust complicated systems unless they've 
grown from tested simple systems.   You distrust theory, you don't 
invest your ego in ideological declarations.  You distrust 
results, too -- you replicate results and claims in other labs 
before you start howling with joy and passing out cigars. You 
beta-test all the vaporware, and the shinier it is, the *more* you 
test it.   You check out what's gone before (Aryan breeding 
experiments, excellent case in point) lest someone justly flame 
you as a clueless newbie.  And you never let authorities soft-soap 
you into deploying sanctified encryption devices too wondrous and 
special for mere people to understand -- no matter what kind of 
hats they're wearing, how eloquent they are, or what kind of brass 
they have.

    Okay, I guess I'm done now. *8-)

Bruce Sterling

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