Bruce Sterling lecture

Here’s the raw text of my notes from Bruce Sterling’s session at Conjure this morning. Was a fabulous literary exploration of changes in language as an indicator of changes in meaning. Great stuff!


Incredible grind to invent a new speech everywhere you go. Solution is stop pretending to sage on the stage and start begging people to help you in speech. So instead of coming up with a new speech every time, I’m coming up with things on my mind.

Things on my mind right now: deadlines. Currently a columnist for Make magazine. About people who build/hack stuff. Most fun, because it comes out quarterly, and it’s about unusual stuff – freaky, out there. We’re making it our business to find stuff that’s new and weird. Come up and tel me about it. I’m constantly looking for material. But have a worse problem – professional challenge… besides losing my cola. It’s about the nature of language. I worked on a manual typewriter, and saw word processing come in, so I’m keenly aware of electronic language. I’m aware of something happening. Cyberculture is changing paper. I don’t get paper anymore. Even contracts come by PDF. Half the population of the US is now online, and while it’s not quite the paperless office, it’s still the compost office. We’re starting to se a lot of hybridisation of media – not just in channels but also in language. Reflexive learnign habits mean that research is part of understanding in young people. Blogs, search engines, MMOGs – any time you have these kinds of acronyms, you know it must be important. Social factories and culture factories are emerging. Trend there is probably stuff like second life where there isn’t so much a game, as a platform for player-driven content. We have a distributed culture of people. We’re seeing a new kind of cultural fluidity with CC and open source movement, flattened barriers to entry, micro-publics to super-publics… this is all impacting on our language, our communication, our capacity to understand.

We’re seeing the birth of many neologisms and archeologisms. Neologisms that sound stupid usually hang about (ie: ‘blog’). Archeologisms are also regarded as “so yesterday/last week/last month/last decade” … information suyperhighwy, lotus notes, vector graphics, floppy disk. We now have architectures of communication, tagging, web 2.0 (it will be an archetologism really fast, because it has in implicit expiration date). We need to start using words that are going out of date soon, because that way we might be able to second guess change, and participate more appropriately. Why would I want to do this? Because I need to consider myself as morethan just a journalist or a novelist. Neofiles, prodocrats (neologisms that may or may not catch on) probably more appropriate… author? writer? blogger? activist? commentator? What do any of these things mean? Days of print on demand, and electronic media, there isn’t the differentiation between roles. Commonly bloggers are more influential than bloggers. These days, if you want influence and profile, then you’re better off startng a scandal on networked blogs than on writing a book.
Links and trackback are the new means of understanding the impact of your work, and value adding content. Anonoymous individuals pile up these towering heaps of wisdom, knowledge, tools ideas, sensibilities. This isn’t the way it used to be. Comments have a half life of a very small period. Power law distribution means that you can get maximum impact, but your words don’t have longevity. You can watch an idea or a meme take flight. You can tag it on something like, and it becomes like a platform for development. We now have technologies that allow you to track semantically the movement of an idea, a word, a process, and see how it alters, transforms over global, popular exploitation of an idea. We used to be able track media about a subject, but tagging allows much more sophistication of tracking, because they acrete a body of knowledge and acrete social appropriation.. it would be better to call them a knowledge object rather than “tag”.

We are producing a geek clique, and this is the source of so many neologisms. When the language of the geek clique moves into the mainstream, the edges get taken off the concept. It gets boiled down from a cube to a pebble. This just happens, and we need to get used ot the fact. Even with machine assistance you’re going to have to get used to it. God help us, I’m sounding like Noam Chomsky.

So what’s the problem. I’m working on a novel on ubiquitous computing. I wrote a non-fiction text. I blogged that I was having trouble with communicating this … I then received this extraordinarily academic response. He had collected series of neologisms to describe the objects that formed part of the ubiquitous computing sector.
[[Listed an extremely long list of alphabetically organised tools online.]] How do you deal with that?

The way I deal with it is by playing with internet poetry… because poets tedn to predate the changes in language about 5 to 10 years before genuine change.

[[ Then quoted from flarffs poetry of internet langauge – spammy, porny, google searches and IRC chat – semantically different from normal poetry.]] Found objects!

This is a genuine literary phenomenon. If you cut up dogmatic systems of language they destroy the lure of standard preconceptions of language. We’re hacking language, we’rw finding pieces of meaning, so we’re negotiating, diplomatically and technologically generating meaning. It’s up to literary practitioners to find new ways of communicating.

I was going to say that “cyberspace” is tired. This is reflecting somethign hinted in Henry Jenkins’s book on a Convergence Culture. New forms of science and new means of knowledge happening all over the place. New pattern recognition system taking place.. how we comprehend the world and reality is changing. All the usual considerations of patterns, structures and so on are being challenged. Science fiction allows some of this negotiation to occur. SF can be used to understand the world, and create some of the new sematics. This is the heartland of SF, and the privilege of our people. Let’s get to it.

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