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The Shape of Things to Come

BOOK
Bruce Sterling has enlightened emerging-technology watchers for almost 30 years, first as a science fiction author and later as a journalist. His latest nonfiction book, Shaping Things, is a rambling, rambunctious exploration of the future of humanity and its relationship with technology. Sterling describes two scenarios: one where technology helps establish social justice and create a cleaner, safer, richer world, and another where we lose control over how technology is used. Which scenario we end up with depends on how we, as a society, design future information networks and the devices connected to them.

In much of the book, Sterling describes how we are approaching the new age of “Spimes,” which he defines as free-flowing data that can be easily plucked and processed by “Wranglers” (what we call end users today) wherever and whenever they are needed. The networks and machines that store and carry the data will be so intelligent that interacting with them will be automatic. Maintaining this constant, free flow of information will require that everyone is able to interact with, modify, and rerelease applications within the network. If governments and corporations are made responsible for designing future networks, technological development will slow drastically, and the few, rather than the many, will control access to information.

Despite Sterling’s insistence, near the conclusion, that he isn’t arguing for a utopia, the book reads like a religious primer, one meant to appeal to the emotional ideals of hackers and help them redouble their open-source and free-software development efforts. Sterling’s arguments are quite different from the legal framework Lawrence Lessig presents in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Richard Stallman’s advocacy of free soft-ware, and Nicholas Negroponte’s technology-for-all stance. While all of these utopian visions tend to be idealistic, Sterling’s is the most practical. He doesn’t completely rule out governmental and corporate control of information technology; he just calls on citizens to exert greater influence over its design, which, if done correctly, should free us from the drudgery of maintaining networks and machines and give us time to work toward the common good. The book will be released in October and sells for $21.95.

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