The South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference and festival ends the same way every year: with Bruce Sterling.
Sterling made his name as a science-fiction writer, but he has also penned several nonfiction books, including the seminal The Hacker Crackdown and also Shaping Things (which I reviewed for TR in August 2005). In Austin, though, he’s more than just a writer. He’s an institution, part of the digerati that made up the hipster fringe of the town. Long before Twitter allowed people to create roaming, ad hoc social groups, geeks, nerds, and hackers would share in any way they could tidbits of information on the likes of Sterling, Paco Nathan, and Jon Lebkowsky.
In the early days of SXSW Interactive, when attendance was sparse, Sterling would close the conference with a party at his house. The must-attend events drew a collection of big-brain thinkers, garage-hacker oddities, and interested newbies. But over the years, the event grew and the parties became impractical.
Now, Sterling simply throws his party at the Austin Convention Center. He is the last speaker, and it’s simply him on the stage, alone with several thousand of his closest friends. “This thing has scaled to Google size,” his rant began this year.
There are no questions. There’s no moderator. No timekeeper. This is Sterling’s world, and what followed was a 60-minute, stream-of-consciousness brain dump. The theme this year: control and creativity.
Some of his points were relatively benign–such as his quiet attack on SXSW Inc.’s decision to include RFID chips in every wristband for every attendee in order to crack down on theft.
His harshest words, though, targeted “mash-up” culture, in which people take preexisting media, such as movie files, and then recut them into a new film. While praising MIT’s Henry Jenkins–a supporter of mash-up culture–Sterling said that celebrating digital art and production demonstrates a failure to understand the value of original creativity.
“Mash-ups are in vogue,” Sterling said. “People on the Internet like to think that mash-ups are incredibly great. Mash-ups are like novelty music. They are like The Monster Mash. It’s bad music. Just because you can do it with a laptop and find an audience for it doesn’t mean it’s a cultural advance.”
The audience sat quietly throughout much of the rant. The SXSW crowd, after all, is made up of the very people who are populating YouTube with videos, who submit mash-ups to YouTheManNowDog.com, who download music using peer-to-peer networks before reassembling it into new music. And here was one of their heroes telling them that what they were doing was no good, unworthy of being shown to sophisticated artists and craftspeople because their art–their culture–was a bad knockoff of other people’s hard work.
Sterling elaborated further. The rise of broadband and digital technologies means that the long-distinguished lines separating film, television, and computers are breaking down. If your television set becomes your computer, what is a television program, and what is streaming video? How can you critique the two media if they both run through the same medium? Are they the same? Or do they do different things?
“If you put the Internet on TV, it would eliminate the difference between the medias,” Sterling said. “It would only take a few bands of spectrum to saturate cities.”
Nobody knows the answers to these questions, so Sterling said we’re left with a mash-up culture created by people who have little formal training in art and who barely understand the digital medium themselves.
“It’s faux culture, and the thing about faux culture is that it’s for hicks,” Sterling said. “What we need is a new form of media criticism. We need to abandon film studies, art studies, media studies. The media is just going away, and we need a new way to look at these emerging forms.”
One avenue for this new criticism, he said, may come as digital business eschews traditional types of corporate interests and adopts a more artistic approach to the Internet and digital technologies. Broadband pipes continue to increase in capacity, gobbling up every zero and one being sent down the line, even as traditional media entities try to market “scarcity.” The inevitable showdown between a fully connected world, in which information flows freely through the pipeline, and the 20th-century media companies that want to arbitrarily set limits on access, content, and flexibility will change the way we interact with media.
How will that change? Sterling didn’t say because for him, like the rest of us, it’s not clear which side–free culture or big business–will have the final say. But, he said, Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, showcases the “social versus business” ideology that could have a profound influence on how we view digital life.
“If Craig was a mogul, [big business] could understand him,” Sterling said. “He’s just not interested in a business. He’s interested in having 200 million friends.”
Until that happens, Sterling said, we’re stuck with an emerging form of communication and culture that on its best days is a derivation of older cultures and on its worst days exists entirely on its own, with no way to judge what is good and what is bad.
“We don’t have any way to judge this: three paragraphs of writing, an imbedded video, a paragraph of writing, five hyperlinks, a paragraph, an imbedded Flickr set,” said Sterling. “We don’t have a vocabulary to tell if we’ve done it well.”