Bruce Sterling and the Transition Web

Blogosphere Says Huh?

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Best I can gather, Bruce Sterling just spun everybody’s head around from a New Zealand pulpit with a fantastic blizzard of words about the silly vagueness of Web 2.0, and offered up as its replacement a monumentally vaguer futuristic apparition he calls the Transition Web. And nobody’s really sure if they like that or not.

Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling

Okay first question is: who is Bruce Sterling? I looked him up and if you can believe Wikipedia he’s a science fiction writer famous for defining the “cyberpunk” movement in modern Western literature. If his books are like the text of the speech he gave at Webstock 09, called “The Brief But Glorious Life of Web 2.0, and What Comes After,” then his writing might be described as sarcastic, shoot-from-the-hip, lightning-fast-and-rhythmic-witticism-laden futuristic mind-screwing bizarrely juxtaposed technobabble in the style of Monty Python meets Douglas Adams meets Robot Chicken, a style I’ve tried just now very poorly to emulate in my own description of what I know about him, which, seeing as I’m not much of a science fiction guy, is next to nothing beyond what I just told you.

Which wasn’t much. But I may be a kindred spirit. It takes a special talent to say a lot and nothing at the same time and Bruce Sterling’s speech is proof of it. Or maybe I’m just dense, which is entirely possible, I’m on cold meds after all and a little off anyway. He made quite a bit of fun of Tim O’Reilly, and I can respect that.

What I’ve got it boiled down to is that Sterling says Web 2.0 is done, over, finished, even if it was a great success propped up by “useful, sound ideas that were creatively vague,” and by the sounds of it the Transition Web won’t be any clearer of purpose. That’s okay because we’ve proven that creatively vague is a good enough conglomeration of loosely connected make-it-now-find-a-point-later-Twitter-esque conceptual netting on which to run forward and on which to cushion the fall once one has the Wylie Coyote epiphany moment he’s running on clouds and concepts and a foolhardy devotion to the idea that roadrunners taste good. He’s going to be very disappointed, and he’s going to have find something else to chase. That’s called a transitional moment.

Beyond that, Sterling’s presentation is very quotable, and one imagines sometime in the future we’ll understand what the famed futurist meant after some event with a vague ring to it sends us to Google or Twitter or whatever the preferred source of the Transition Web is to remember what it was he actually said about it. That’s how Nostradamus got famous you know. 

Tell me this part doesn’t need to be in a series of quatrains:
Stacked Internet Turtles
“The World Wide Web sits on top of a turtle, and then below that is an older turtle, and that sits on the older turtle. You don’t have to feel fretful about that situation — because it’s turtles all the way down.”

Here are some other quotes to illustrate what I mean, and by that I mean what Sterling meant, which is to say that nobody has any clue where we’re really going because the future is inconsiderately unwritten:

There’s gonna be a Transition Web. Your economic system collapses: Eastern Europe, Russia, the Transition Economy, that bracing experience is for everybody now. Except it’s not Communism transitioning toward capitalism. It’s the whole world into transition toward something we don’t even have proper words for.

The Web has always had an awkward relationship with business. Web 2.0 was a business model. The Transition Web is a culture model. If it’s gonna work, it’s got to replace things that we used to pay for with things that we just plain use.

In the Transition Web, if you’re monetizable, it means that you get attacked. You gotta squeeze a penny out of every pixel because the owners are broke. But if you do that to your users, they will vaporize, because they’re broke too, just like you; of course they’re gonna migrate to stuff that’s free.

And what does that mean exactly? Well that’s not a fair question during or prior to a transition now is it? You think the Antebellum South knew what was next after General Lee returned home from Appomattox Court House? Likely some slick-talking carpetbaggers had some creatively vague ideas—and I betcha one of their names was Bernanke.

What do bloggers have to say about Sterling’s speech? Well, a few of them aren’t sure they liked it. And others said nothing, just quoted a few of the more interesting sounding parts. I think he’s saying we’re gonna need something besides money and old ideas to run this new Transition Web thing, but what that’s going to be is unclear. Maybe he’s talking a hundred years in the future. The immediate future, as I rub my crystal ball, is built on more money and megaconglomerate machinery than we can currently imagine, propped up by billions of digitally empowered human digits, the owners of which spend much of their time trying to figure out how to be a wheel instead of a cog.

In short, the Web swallows everything we can’t hold in our hands and appears in things we can hold in our hands, things that used to be on paper, vinyl, and large pieces of living room furniture, and we’ll likely have some mixed feelings about it, concern for our children, and general anxiety about a future we have no real control of.


Bruce Sterling and the Transition Web
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