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Guest Post: The State of Us
Jon Lebkowsky, 17 Mar 06

Another perspective on Bruce Sterling's talk at SXSW Interactive. This piece was written by my colleague, Maida Barbour. - Jon L.

Bruce Sterling isn’t up to a big party these days. He’s feeling “introspective and literary,” perhaps a bit overwhelmed by the number of techies in the world. It used to be he could invite everyone over for a beer; now there are just too many of us.

The us Mr. Sterling was referring to were, in this instance, the attendees of this year’s SXSW Interactive Conference-- but I’m sure he means the word in the widest sense as well. His closing talk, “The State of the World,” was a variation on some themes he’s written and spoken about in the last few months (see for example,, and Mr. Sterling’s work has always appealed to me, but I have to say: lately he’s been on fire. I couldn’t miss an opportunity to hear him live.

The talk gave me shivers. I’m sure some of this was due to the fact that the talk ended with a Carl Sandburg poem I grew up on, “The People Yes,” (1936). The poem is an homage to the integrity of the human being in the midst of interesting times, and has a handy flexibility that allows it to mirror almost any social or political crux. I’ve heard the poem many times, in reference to issues such as the Civil Rights Movement or the Viet Nam War, but this time was different. This timing felt particularly right, maybe because the times we live in now are particularly interesting. Maybe the mix of awe, anxiety and vertigo everyone in the tech world is feeling these days is a new formula, an appropriate reaction to a new mix of particularly awesome and anxiety-provoking stuff. The issues and the responsibilities are all bigger, whether you’re tracking hurricane survivors, disseminating bird flu information, or just trying to get a glimpse of what makes those cartoons so deadly.

Paradox abounds. The ridiculous freedom of the web never ceases to amaze me (I came from the world of film, with all its monoliths). While it seems measures to restrict, enforce and censor are enacted every week, just as quickly they’re hacked. And no matter how tired I get of being continually delighted, I am no less continually delighted by the quality and quantity of information: I can find instructions on how to build a Jacob’s ladder linked on the same blog as plans for a Victorian House of Mirrors for cats. And the tools! Performing a search on etsy’s color engine is like an afternoon fingerpainting. The gestalt of the everything. The mashups. The feeds. I can’t help myself.

So then the question becomes: if we really are in a “bubble echo” as Mr. Sterling describes it, what should I devote myself to? Should I build something helpful, another worldchanging? Should I work on something paradigm-shifting, like unique identifiers? Or should I just try and make people happy for a moment, like cuteoverload? Each possibility is equally worthy. What would happen if I mashed them up?

I love tech, but of course it scares me too. The state of the web is like nothing that has come before. As Mr. Sterling says, even the term “cyberspace” is now period. Nannies who speak Chinese are making upwards of $60,000 a year in some U.S. cities. Ten, fifteen years ago, what we use everyday couldn’t have been envisioned, even by us. One minute the web feels like the embodiment of everything that’s chaotic and out of control, the next minute it feels like the antidote. Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe politically, the web is a metaphor.

But even that is drifting into the past. The very idea of metaphors on the web is arcane. With spimes and semantic webs and theory objects, whole worlds of movement and change happen without any referent in the outside world whatsoever. New words are coined as quickly as new ways of thinking and vice versa. Names will identify things I don’t understand yet because they haven’t been named yet. I will miss some of the words and things that will fall away. They mean something to me too.

But then again, there is us. The people at SXSWi, are too numerous to invite over for a beer anymore because the tech world is no longer simply that insolated, isolated island of nerd-dom it used to be: they’re us. The people who design simpler, smarter, smaller because bloat doesn’t work: they’re us. The people who hack and reconfigure and repurpose to get that old woman and her dog off her roof: they’re us. The people who make it work. There has always been an us, the us Carl Sandburg wrote of, and we’ve been along for the ride the whole time. Interesting times happen to us, but we’re also there to do whatever we can to make the best of them.

Perhaps the most moving thing about hearing Bruce Sterling deliver “The State of the World” on that particular day in that particular room was what happened to his voice. It broke. It cracked with emotion as soon as he read the first stanza of “The People Yes,” and cracked and re-cracked throughout. The heart-breaking horror and the heart-bursting beauty of this particular moment in time was embodied in that crack. And he’s right-- it isn’t really the right time for a big party, but we should get together anyway.

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I really did not go to many sessions and did not do much social networking while there, but hearing that speech made SXSW worth far more than the cost of the trip.

Posted by: aaron wall on 18 Mar 06

I just listened to the mp3 of this speech, and I cracked with emotion, too.

Thank you Messrs Sterling and Sandburg.

Posted by: Prog Grrl on 19 Mar 06

Where can I find the MP3?

Posted by: Emphyrio on 19 Mar 06

Please let us know how to find the MP3..thanks

Posted by: US Protection Agency on 29 Mar 06



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