Bruce Sterling

This post combines part 1 and part 2 of “Technocultures”. These posts are observations made during recent field work in the Ashanti region of Ghana, mostly in the city of Kumasi.

Part 1: Technology as Achievement and Corruption

An Ashanti enstooling ceremony, recorded (and presumably shared) through cell phone cameras (marked).

The “digital divide” is a surprisingly durable concept. It has evolved through the years to describe a myriad of economic, social, and technical disparities at various scales across different socioeconomic demographics. Originally it described how people of lower socioeconomic status were unable to access digital networks as readily or easily as more privileged groups. This may have been true a decade ago, but that gap has gotten much smaller. Now authors are cooking up a “new digital divide” based on usage patterns. Forming and maintaining social networks and informal ties, an essential practices for those of limited means, is described as nothing more than shallow entertainment and a waste of time. The third kind of digital divide operates at a global scale; industrialized or “developed” nations have all the cool gadgets and the global south is devoid of all digital infrastructures (both social and technological). The artifacts of digital technology are not only absent, (so the myth goes) but the expertise necessary for fully utilizing these technologies is also nonexistent. Attempts at solving all three kinds of digital divides (especially the third one) usually take a deficit model approach.The deficit model assumes that there are “haves” and “have nots” of technology and expertise. The solution lies in directing more resources to the have nots, thereby remediating the digital disparity. While this is partially grounded in fact, and most attempts are very well-intended, the deficit model is largely wrong. Mobile phones (which are becoming more and more like mobile computers) have put the internet in the hands of millions of people who do not have access to a “full sized” computer. More importantly, computer science, new media literacy, and even the new aesthetic can be found throughout the world in contexts and arrangements that transcend or predate their western counterparts. Ghana is an excellent case study for challenging the common assumptions of technology’s relationship to culture (part 1) and problematizing the historical origins of computer science and the digital aesthetic (part 2). more...

Stacks of Kente and cotton cloth sit in piles, waiting to be stamped with Adinkra patterns. Note the “pixelated” patterns in the center stack.

In part 1 I opened with a run down of the different kinds of “digital divides” that dominate the public debate about low income access to technology. Digital divide rhetoric relies on a deficit model of connectivity. Everyone is compared against the richest of the rich western norm, and anything else is a hinderance. If you access Twitter via text message or rely on an internet cafe for regular internet access, your access is not considered different, unique, or efficient. Instead, these connections are marked as deficient and wanting. The influence of capitalist consumption might drive individuals to want nicer devices and faster connections, but who is to say faster, always on connections are the best connections? We should be looking for the benefits of accessing the net in public, or celebrating the creativity necessitated by brevity. In short, what kinds of digital connectivity are western writers totally blind to seeing? The digital divide has more to do with our definitions of the digital, than actual divides in access. What we recognize as digital informs our critiques of technology and extends beyond access concerns and into the realms of aesthetics, literature and society. I think it is safe to say that most readers of this blog think they know better: Fetishizing the real is for suckers. The New Aesthetic, a nascent artistic network, is all about crossing the boarder between the offline and the online. Pixelated paint jobs confuse computer scanners and malfunctioning label makers print code on Levis. The future isn’t rocket-powered, its pixelated. Just as the rocket-fueled future of the 50s was painstakingly crafted by cold warriors, the New Aesthetic of today is the product of a very particular worldview. The New Aesthetic needs to be situated within its global context and reconsidered as the product of just one kind of future. more...

This is the complete version of a previously posted two-part essay. Part one is here; part two is here.

Photo by Matthew Christopher

Objects have lives. They are witness to things. –This American Life, “The House on Loon Lake”

Atlantic Cities’ feature on the psychology of “ruin porn” is worth a look–in part because it’s interesting in itself, in part because it features some wonderful images, and in part because it has a great deal to do with both a piece I posted previously on Michael Chrisman’s photograph of a year and with the essay that piece referenced, Nathan Jurgenson’s take on the phenomenon of faux-vintage photography.

All of these pieces are, to a greater or lesser extent, oriented around a singular idea: atemporality – that the intermeshing and interweaving of the physical and digital causes us not only to experience both of those categories differently, but to perceive time itself differently; that for most of us, time is no longer a linear experience (assuming it ever was). Technology changes our remembrance of the past, our experience of the present, and our imagination of the future by blurring the lines between the three categories, and introducing different forms of understanding and meaning-making to all three – We remember the future, imagine the present, and experience the past. The phenomenon of “ruin porn” is uniquely suited to call attention to our increasingly atemporal existence, and to outline some of the specific ways in which it manifests itself.


This is the second part of a two-part essay; the full version of the essay — both parts — can be found here.

Photo by Jim Potter/Blind Owl Underground

In part one of this essay, I focused on the atemporality of the physical spaces from which “ruin porn” images are made. This may have seemed like a bit of an aside from a take that purports to be technology-focused, but I want to emphasize the importance of physicality here–one of the crucial – if not the most crucial – ideas behind atemporality in the sense in which I use the word is the profound connection between our perception and understanding of time and our relationship with the enmeshed physical/digital world that our technology is increasingly helping to create. In short, we cannot discuss the digital in this case without first establishing why and how the physical matters.

But now I want to focus on that move from physical to digital, the point of entanglement where one shades into another and the relationship between the two becomes truly complex. I want to talk about the image itself, both in terms of its production and its consumption.


It’s a notable coincidence that Steve Job died exactly two decades after Neil Stephenson completed Snowcrash, arguably, the last great Cyberpunk novel. Stephenson and Jobs’ work exemplified two alternative visions of humans’ relationship with technology in the Digital Age. Snowcrash offers a gritty, dystopian vision of a world where technology works against human progress as much as it works on behalf of it. Strong individuals must assert themselves against technological slavery, though ironically, they rely on technology and their technological prowess to do so.

Apple, on the other hand, tells us that the future is now, offering lifestyle devices that are slick (some might say, sterile). Despite being mass produced, these devices are supposed to bolster our individuality by communicating our superior aesthetic standards. Above all, Apple offers a world where technology is user-friendly and requires little technical competency. We need not liberate ourselves from technology; there’s an app for that.

YouTube Preview Image

Values and style are inextricably linked (as Marshal McLuhan famously preached). So, unsurprisingly, the differences between Apple’s view of the future and that of Cyberpunk authors such as Stephenson run far deeper. The Cyberpunk genre has a critical mood that is antithetical to Apple’s mission of pushing its products into the hands of as many consumers as possible. The clean, minimalist styling of Apple devices makes a superficial statement about the progressive nature of the company, while the intuitive interface makes us feel that Apple had us in mind when designing the product—that human experience is valued, that they care. Of course, this is all a gimmick. Apple invokes style to “enchant” its products with an aura of mystery and wonderment while simultaneously deflecting questions about how the thing actually works (as discussed in Nathan Jurgenson & Zeynep Tufekci’s recent “Digital Dialogue” presentation on the iPad). Apple isn’t selling a product, it’s selling an illusion. And to enjoy it (as I described in a recent essay), we must suspend disbelief and simply trust in the”Mac Geniuses”—just as we must allow ourselves to believe in an illusionist if we hope to enjoy a magic show. Thus, the values coded into Apple products are passivity and consumerism; it is at this level where it is most distinct from the Cyberpunk movement. more...

“The future is there,” Cayce hears herself say, “looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become. And from where they are, the past behind us will look nothing at all like the past we imagine behind us now.”
–William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

“This is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.”
–Bruce Sterling, “Slipstream”, SF Eye #5, July 1989

I first read William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition almost a year ago, after a long hiatus from his work. I’ve long loved his books, but went through the kind of distance that time and life just sometimes put between a reader and an author. Pattern Recognition was the return, and I went into it cold, knowing nothing about it except for the author–an experience that I always find somewhat refreshingly like exploring a dark, richly appointed room with a small flashlight.

And then something rather interesting happened. The book contains a description of the memories that the protagonist retains of the events of September 11, 2001, and as I read, I experienced a curious kind of vertigo–something that I have since come to understand as the mirror-hallway perception of reading a fictionalized account of a real event in my own memory, remembered as past in a near-future context. In that moment, what I experienced as vertigo was the collapsing of a number of categories–past, present, and future, fiction and non-fiction, myself and other. It should be noted that Pattern Recognition is not actually set in the future; nevertheless, I processed it that way at the time because of how I’m used to reading Gibson. But that’s not the only reason for the vertigo. It was an intense case, but in fact this implosion of metaphysical categories is one of the things that speculative fiction (SF) essentially does.


In his Beyond the Beyond blog (hosted by WIRED magazine),  cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling recently made some comments on my post, “Cyborgs and the Augmented Reality they Inhabit.”

Here’s how he describes the piece:
[…] an argument about the definition of Augmented Reality and the definition of Cyborgs, until you can get ‘em to click together like puzzle pieces. But so much debris is left on the floor when they’re done with the theory tin-shears, that the debris looks more interesting than the remainder.
Though it may appear quite critical, I actually agree with Sterling on this point—authors on this blog have rendered augmented reality (and the cyborgs that inhabit it) quite banal.  Or, rather, the techno-saturated world that has emerged in the 21st Century appears to us far more mundane than the exotic dystopian imagery that enveloped the famous cyberpunk novels of yesteryear.  The fantasy of ocular implants and digital immersion have given way to the seemingly unremarkable reality of smartphones and Facebook. Through the “theory tin-shears” futurist art of the past becomes the sociology of the present.  But, the study of present realities will never be as exciting as the imagining of future possibilities. more...