Re: A Push Media Critique

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Posted by Bruce Sterling on March 08, 1997 at 12:18:10:

In Reply to: Re: A Push Media Critique posted by Mark Stahlman on March 07, 1997 at 11:26:39:

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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