bruce sterling has an extraordinarily thoughtful piece in interactions magazine where he writes about, among many other ideas, why our current technosocial space is limited by the paradigms of previous centuries in designing our collective futures. bruce’s writing and speaking of late has resonated pretty deeply of late, it seems he simultaneously mourning, rejoicing in wonder and worriedly glancing at the state of the world. some of my favourite pieces of the article are below, but you should really go read the whole thing..
What science fiction’s user base truly desired was not possible in the 1930s. Believing their own rhetoric, science fiction users supposed that they wanted a jet-propelled, atomic futurity. Whenever offered the chance at such goods and services, they never left science fiction to go get them. They didn’t genuinely want such things-not in real life.
What the user base genuinely wanted was immersive fantasies. They wanted warmly supportive subcultures in which they could safely abandon their cruelly limiting real-life roles, and play semi-permanent dress-up. Science fiction movies helped; science fiction television helped. Once massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) were invented, the harsh limits of the print infrastructure were demolished. Then the user-base exploded.
No sane person reads science fiction novels for 80 hours a week. But it’s quite common for devoted players to spend that much time on Warcraft.
This should not be mistaken for “progress.” It’s not even a simple matter of obsolescence. Digital media is much more frail and contingent than print media. I rather imagine that people will be reading H.P. Lovecraft-likely the ultimate pulp-magazine science fiction writer-long after today’s clumsy, bug-ridden MMORPGs are as dead as the Univac.
What truly interests me here is the limits of the imaginable. Clearly, the pulp infrastructure limited what its artists were able to think about. They wore blinders that they could not see and therefore could not transcend.
The typewriter limited writers. Magazine word counts limited writers. Even the implicit cultural bargain between author and reader introduced constraints on what could be thought, said, and understood in public. Those mechanisms of interaction-the letter columns, the fan mail, the bookstore appearances, the conventions-they were poorly understood as interaction. They were all emergent practices rather than designed experiences.
We have entered an unimagined culture. In this world of search engines and cross-links, of keywords and networks, the solid smokestacks of yesterday’s disciplines have blown out. Instead of being armored in technique, or sheltered within subculture, design and science fiction have become like two silk balloons, two frail, polymorphic pockets of hot air, floating in a generally tainted cultural atmosphere.
These two inherently forward-looking schools of thought and action do seem blinkered somehow-not unimaginative, but unable to imagine effectively. A bigger picture, the new century’s grander narrative, its synthesis, is eluding them. Could it be because they were both born with blind spots, with unexamined assumptions hardwired in 80 years ago?
There is much thoughtful talk of innovation, of transformation, of the collaborative and the transdisciplinary. These are buzzwords, language that does not last.
What we are really experiencing now is a massive cybernetic hemorrhage in ways of knowing the world.
Rather than thinking outside the box-which was almost always a money box, quite frankly-we surely need a better understanding of boxes. Maybe some new, more general, creative project could map the limits of the imaginable within the contemporary technosocial milieu. Plug that imagination gap.
That effort has no 20th-century description. I rather doubt that it’s ever been tried. It seems to me like a good response to events.