Never one to limit his horizons, this talk saw the cyberpunk author, tech visionary and all-round web guru range across global and local politics (especially those of the former Yugoslavia, where he has recently been living), the environment, technology, design and society.
Segueing between topics with remarkable lucidity and an implicit logical bent, allusions were littered elegantly among the sometimes incantation-like ebbs and flows of his sentences.
This was Sterling at full throttle, and the over 1,000 strong audience were largely frozen with what can only be summed up as astonishment, as if petrified for 60 minutes solid at the sight of an oncoming tidal wave.
But the talk was the opposite of a preacher’s bombastic sermon that manipulates, mesmerises and undermines independent thinking. Rather, it was questioning, often provisional and truly exploratory of events and ideas in the world today.
Afterwards the throng shuffled out silently, reliance on small-talk fully undermined, the waves of aftershock pulsating through the hall.
A laser beam of Texan foresight…
That he achieved this while also speaking so passionately that he wept on stage was visibly discomforting for some (mostly young, mostly male) in the audience. The irony of course being that Sterling could out-ironise any wisecracking kidult in a nano-second, but sometimes, as he understands, you have to fly by those nets.
I took only partial notes on this talk, relating to his perspectives on his new concept of SPIME.
However other things crept in and overlaid these segments, so the effect is a little kaleidoscopic and sometimes obtuse, removed as it is from the fuller context of everything he said. It’ll take some unpacking, which is partly what made it so tantalising and resonant…
The comic artist is becoming the public intellectual Sterling asserted, citing warrenellis.com. Shortly afterwards, he noted that “the unimaginable does not mean catastrophic”, citing how the economic growth of China is often construed. We should remember, he stressed, that it’s *people* who are doing this in China.
A tag and a theory object…
SPIME is not a word but a tag, he continued, a theory object! As such, it depends on the popular consensus on what it means. Likewise, William Gibson’s “cyberspace” is a consensual hallucination, a brain experience, and already it has a period feel to it.
This is the SPIME elevator pitch, but it’s not the shape the tag SPIME will eventually take as it’s thrown out into the blogosphere churn of information.
SPIME has an RFID chip in it and a tag, it has a local precise positioning system, it’s Google Maps and a powerful search engine, it’s involved in cradle-to-cradle recycling because you can break it down and re-use the junk. It was virtually designed, a product of CADCamp; it’s rapidly prototyped; it’s a fabject.
Alex Stephen at WorldChanging.com has a new book coming out, an index of the ways out of the smoke-filled cinema, he noted by way of analogy. People will interact with this object in ways we can’t imagine or describe. SPIME because it’s trackable in space and time.
Building an internet of things…
Open and participatory, SPIMEs begin and end as data because they’re virtual objects first and physical objects second. We want to build an internet of *things*.
The real reason we’ll do it, if we ever do it, is because of the way it *feels* – automatic magical inventory voodoo. A lot of people are at work on the internet of things. What it needs is distributed intelligence; it will only work if people find it useful and get value from it.
It’s a new world and a new tag, the semantic web is turning into the wetlands of language. A theory object is a word for a platform of development… it’s just a different type of social activism.
Become the change we want to happen…
People who read the papers and watch TV and don’t engage with all the other stuff, linkages and trackbacks, these are *legacy* people. Words that turn on their creator like Frankenstein – but the creator *is* Frankenstein…
Later, at the end of his talk he emphasised that if we’re going to get anywhere, we need to become the change we want to be. Make no decision out of fear. What is required is a great regional novel about the planet earth, he concluded. And the cure for the panic stampede is to be found in historical perspective.
Sterling grew up in Austin and is a regular fixture at the festival. In 2007, in addition to another talk (yipee!), he is taking part in the EFF/EFF-Austin SXSW Futures of the Past Steampunk Extravaganza after-dark event. Verily the SXSWi massive are spoiling us and we like it 😉
[For more Sterling brainfood – this time on the environment, alpha geeks, media, technology and Web 2.0 – check out the podcast of his New Statesman-hosted talk in London, April 2006. Sterling was *so* on form that night and this is pure quality]
My other SXSW Interactive 2006 session reports:
What’s In A Title?
Beyond Folksonomies – Knitting Tag Clouds For Grandma
Book Digitisation & The Revenge Of The Librarians
James Surowiecki on The Wisdom Of Crowds
Running Your New Media Business
SXSW notes: The Perfect Pitch
What People Are Really Doing On The Web
Commons Based Business Models
Danah Boyd – Current TV interview
DIY Media – Consumer Is The Producer
See all SXSW Interactive 2006 daytime panels here:
See the SXSW Interactive 2007 website