The Poet Laureate of Web 2.0

17 September, 2007

Bruce Sterling is The Zombies of cyberpunk.

If 80s cyberpunk authors were British Invasion bands then William Gibson and Neal Stephenson would be The Beatles and The Rolling Stones -- big sellers with broadly acknowledged reputations as innovators and geniuses. For a long time, Sterling has been, like The Zombies, mostly an obsession of the completist: a whispered name, rumored to have put out an obscure masterpiece or two and known to have been around when It All Went Down, but usually encountered only through a single hit almost so mainstream as to be invisible. Coining 'cyberpunk' is Sterling's "Time of the Season".

But, recent events are starting to make him look a lot more like The Velvet Underground about whose monumental influence, Brian Eno famously quipped: "Only five thousand people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but every single one of them started a band."

The world is finally starting to catch up with the issues that have been Sterling's long-standing focus:
the danger of environmental devastation and global warming (Heavy Weather),
engagement with interactive media and online communities (like The Well), and the effect of digital networks on
censorship, intellectual property, and free speech (The Hacker Crackdown).
Quietly, in the background, for years, Sterling's played a major role in shaping the thinking of people and organizations who are starting to have a visible influence in these fields: from WorldChanging to Wired Magazine to Cory Doctorow. And these bands whose start he inspired are really starting to get popular.

As a result, Sterling has become the poet laureate of Web 2.0. The last few years, through a series of public speeches in support of his most recent non-fiction book, Shaping Things, he's become the spokesman of the current generation of tech developers. He gives voice to our passions, ambitions, and secret dreads. And, as an elder and wiser statesman, he puts our successes and problems in proper perspective, helping us avoid irrational exuberances and overcome crippling fears.

Sterling's masterpiece in this genre was his SXSW 2006 Keynote, a beautiful, inspiring, frightening, heart-wrenching, hilarious rant that ends with him reading an actual poem aloud and weeping. It's an amazing piece of public oratory, which will serve, I predict, as a better monument to its time than almost any piece of punditry or over-hyped magazine cover. It feels like 2006 the way Jimi Hendrix's Woodstock cover of the Star-Spangled Banner feels like 1969.

Another significant work was the talk he gave last September at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. At the invitation of Cory Doctorow, Sterling discussed the impact of the changing media environment on authors. His take was terrifically cynical in a very writerly way, deflating all the wide-eyed hopes for the revolutionary changes in media distribution -- like blogs and "commons-based peer production" -- to do anything to improve the basically hopeless conundrum of the long-suffering author: it's very difficult to monetize literature when most of the audience for it won't be born until a generation or two after the author's death.

While Google will yield any number of other great examples, one final talk worth highlighting directly is Sterling's SXSW 2007 Keynote. A great bookend to the optimism, focus, and gravitas of his 2006 performance, this year's keynote had a hungover, cold-light-of-day-after-the-party quality to it. Stretching my earlier musical metaphor past its breaking point, if 2006 felt like the summer of love, this most recent speech felt distinctly post-Altamont: everything that mattered before still does, but it doesn't quite seem to add up in the way it did for that one effervescent moment. It's a pretty perfect capturing of this waning moment of Web 2.0.

Tagged: , , , , , , ,