March Magic Memories: Bruce Sterling

Writer, speaker, futurist, design instructor, Bruce Sterling is one of the founders of the cyberpunk movement in science fiction. He has published more than 10 books ranging from “The Hacker Crackdown: Law And Disorder On The Electronic Frontier” to “The Difference Engine” (which was co-authored with William Gibson). Based in Austin for much of his adult life, Sterling has been a huge part of the first 25 years of SXSW, often delivering the Closing Remarks on the last day of the event. This spring, see him speak on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 13. Finally, if you missed his “The Future: History That Hasn’t Happened Yet” talk at SXSW 2017, then click here to listen to the audio from that amazing presentation.

Can you give us a preview of what you will be talking about at SXSW 2018 on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 13?
It’ll be whatever is bothering me at the moment. That’ll probably be some of the many large things that are bothering me already, but I don’t know which ones yet.

You’ve given Closing Remarks at SXSW for almost every year over the last 10 years. Which of those speeches were your favorites and why?
Hard to say. I think the ideal public speech should be hilarious, but the audience never leaps up to their feet at the end unless they think they’re about to cry.

Over the many years you have attended SXSW, who has been the most memorable speaker you have seen?
I’d have to say J. Craig Venter talking about his work in DNA in 2011. He’s not a glittering, facile orator, but I left with the uneasy conviction that mankind was gonna change a lot because of his well-focussed schemes.

What was the best thing about the end-of-SXSW parties that were a tradition at your house in the late 90s?
Probably the best part was that a lot of the attendees didn’t know I was the host, so we got to have some interestingly sincere discussions about my taste in art and furniture.

What was the worst thing about the end-of-SXSW parties that were a tradition at your house in the late 90s?
Well, there was the night the cops showed up at 2AM and we had to shovel the raucous crowd off the lawn and into the house itself. Not a riot scene in there, exactly, but it turned into something other than just a “party.”

As a longtime Austin resident and a longtime SXSW speaker / attendee, was the massive growth of both entities inevitable?
Money changes everything.

Do you think you will ever return to the United States? If so, what city?
Unfortunately my cedar-fever allergy, which is at asthma-levels of severe, has pretty much punched out my Austin card. I could do Boulder, Portland, Raleigh, Ann Arbor. They’re all pretty much Austin analogs, just well out of range of the mountain-junipers.

Speaking of returning, do you think Edward Snowden ever gets back to the US?
Snowden’s a young guy. I’ve seen political exiles outlive a lot of regimes.

You moved away from the US before Trump happened. What has it been like watching this administration unfold from afar?
It’s definitely less distressing to live outside the US now. For whatever it’s worth, I think Britons are suffering more from the Brexit government than Americans are from Trump.

What is the last great book you read and what did you like so much about it?
I like the 19th-century “great Italian novel” titled “Promessi Sposi” or “The Betrothed” by Alessandro Manzoni. Every time I re-read that novel, which is often, I’m more impressed by how Italian it is and how much I had missed earlier.

What is the last great movie you saw and what did you like so much about it?
I’m not a horror fan, so I was surprised how complex “Bride of Frankenstein” is. Elsa Lanchester plays both the hideous undead Bride and the novelist Mary Shelley. The authoress comes off spookier than her own dark fantasies, which is probably the right way to play that.

What podcast are you listening to now and why?
I like Stacey Higginbotham’s “Internet of Things” podcast. I stream some talky stuff off Soundcloud, mostly science and politics.

What current world leader gives you hope about the future?
The Pope’s an interesting guy. Emmanuel Macron is unusual. I keep track of what Xi Jinping is up to. Generally I don’t ask politicians to give me any “hope,” I kinda prefer them as competent technocrats.

What is the most over-rated tech trend at present and why?
Probably “Artificial Intelligence,” though “blockchain” is not what most people imagine it is, either.

What is the most under-rated tech trend at present and why?
Global warming. It’s always that one.

Have you invested in cryptocurrency yet?
I’m not an investor. I’m not surprised that the cryptocoin racket is popular. The banking situation is bad everywhere, and truly terrible for some huge populations.

Elon Musk thinks it is likely that we live in a simulation. Your thoughts about this observation from one of the world’s most prominent entrepreneurs.
Elon likes to get headlines and some viral traction. His businesses would die fast without his star power.

Bruce Sterling photo above by Jasmina Tesanovic. Want more Bruce? Read his ongoing State of the World 2018 conversation with Jon Lebkowsky at the Well.

Other installments of the March Magic series include interviews with Amir Husain, Tim O’Reilly, Guy Kawasaki, Robyn Metcalfe, Stephanie Agresta, Andrew Hyde, Brad King, Gary Shapiro, Chris Messina, Yuval Yarden, Jenny 8. Lee, Aziz Gilani and whurley.

Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.

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