Bruce Sterling: Sterling Work

This article by Blather’s Dave Walsh first appeared in The
Irish Times of Monday, August 27, 2001, as Doing Sterling Work

Remember Morse Code and electric typewriters? Before that there were silent movies and wax cylinders. These are the things that fascinate author Bruce Sterling, whose ‘Dead Media’ movement believes we can learn from the past. He talks to Dave Walsh about ‘martyred media’ and environmentalism

In the suburbs of Austin, Texas, there is an antique shop called Radio Ranch, piled high with unfathomable pale green and chrome kitchen appliances, mysterious Bakelite communication equipment, “old medical quackery devices” and strange quasi-industrial artworks. A few miles away, across the Austin sprawl, lives author Bruce Sterling.

Sterling, along with Richard Kadrey, author of The Covert Culture Handbook, is
one of the creators of the Dead
Media Project
, variously described as “a media book of the dead”
or “a naturalist’s field guide for the communications paleontologist”.

Since its inception, Sterling, Kadrey and another key Dead Media “Necronaut”, Tom Jennings, have been compiling an awesome catalogue of “freakish and hideous media mistakes that we should know enough now not to repeat . . . media that have died on the barbed wire of technological advance, media that didn’t make it, martyred media, dead media”. A Dead Media book by Sterling is still expected, “If I’m not dead myself . . . But I have no urgent plans, and I think historical perspective will be required to describe the current epoch, which is truly the Golden Age of Dead Media”.

The Dead Media Project is a digital, methodical, media-only version of Radio Ranch, albeit without the vibrometers and 1950s vacuum cleaners. But the Dead Media Project is not just obsessed with late 20th century electronics. The online working notes include Morse Code, silent movies, magic lanterns, the heliograph, phonographic dolls, Japanese puppet theatre, clockwork wall animations, Spartan code-sticks, pigeon post, pneumatic typewrites, wax cylinders, monastic sign-languages, horse post and fire beacons – they all qualify as Dead Media, among the more obvious digital white elephants.

But is there really such a high media body count? How many defunct examples are lurking out there – and are the Dead Media posse in step with the death rate?

“That depends on how you count them,” explains Sterling. “Say, a dead computer. Is it a dead chip, a dead operating system, a dead language, a dead set of applications, a dead set of peripherals? What about its protocols and Net connections? So is that one dead medium, or 20? You could argue for years . . . are dying faster than we can count them, but I think we have a pretty good grip on the dead media of previous centuries. Still, it’s a bit like shovelling the sidewalk before it stops snowing.”

Sterling seems a little melancholy about the success of the project. “I was hoping to discover some master key to the death of media that was about media. But I reached the conclusion that media don’t die because they are media. They die because they are instantiated as physical, technical objects, and their mortality isn’t generally related to the fact that they carry messages.”

Of all the Dead Media, the two mourned most by Sterling are the Incan quipu (their only symbolic means of communication, using knotted cords) and the Parisian balloon post – common during the Franco-Prussian War. About the former, he says: “It was murdered. It’s a very strange and pitiful story”. When Incan society was destroyed by the Europeans, there was large-scale, long-term destruction of any quipu that could be found, as well as the execution of quipu interpreters.

Another ambitious project of Sterling’s is the Viridian
, which aims to exploit the fashions of environmentalism
by targeting the “short-sighted sociopathic morons who don’t want
to lose any money”. Viridian’s sell-by-date is 2012, when the Kyoto
accords are either working . . . or they’re not.

According to Viridian literature, “it should be considered a mark of stellar ignorance to be unaware of the source of one’s electric power. Solar and wind power should be sold as premiums available to particularly affluent and savvy consumers . . .

“Environmental awareness is currently an annoying burden to the con-sumer, who must spend his and her time gazing at plastic recycling labels . . .”

The manifesto of January 3rd 2000 demands “a form of Green high fashion so appallingly seductive and glamorous that it can literally save people’s lives. We have to gratify people’s desires much better than the current system does. We have to reveal to people the many desires they have that the current system is not fulfilling”.

Sterling was driven to start Viridian by “the galvanizing spectacle of watching blazing Mexican rain forests spew dense smoke over my home town in a giant plume that reached Chicago”. Since then, a magazine has emerged as well as a growing mailing list, and Kyoto and Greenhouse issues are back in the news. “Plus,” says Sterling, “I’ve educated myself and the people who’ve been willing to listen; I’m a lot more up to speed with these issues and its major players than I was when I got started.

“I’m pretty content with the situation as it stands: Viridian is three years old, and I’m looking forward to the day when I can declare victory and dissolve the Movement. That’ll be the day when CO2 emissions begin an actual decline. With a combination of European diplomatic credibility on the line, subsidies for sustainable power and a general global recession, that could happen pretty rapidly.”

The Internet seems perfect for Viridian – or perhaps Viridian is the perfect Internet movement. Has the new dotcom sobriety helped Viridian’s case? “That remains to be seen. There are a lot of serious organisational difficulties in an open-source, information-wants-to-be-free schtick like Viridian. I managed to finesse a lot of management problems by declaring the Viridian Movement to be a ‘feudal theocracy’, but these one-man shows have inherent weaknesses. There are only so many hours in the day.”

At the moment, there are only 1,600 people on the e-mail list, but Sterling feels that “more expansion, say 16,000 people, would kill us off. It would be as much work as running a magazine, and that’s too much work for me”.

Viridian literature speaks of an achievable balance, using methods for which the Internet was originally used – “reputation economics”, and “attention” economics, referring to the spreading of one’s own ideas to a relevant peer group, and walking the fine line between informing people and bombarding them. Viridian tries to avoid swamping people in information.

“People enjoy reputation economics, but if you see how it plays out in practice so far, you find that it always rewards people willing to play the rating game, rather than people advancing the goals of the group. People reviewing books on Amazon, for instance, are people who enjoy reviewing books, not people who know anything about literature.

“As for the difference between informing and bombarding, that’s overrated. People on the Internet don’t draw fine distinctions between propaganda and information. Mostly, they’re looking for an excuse to stop reading. The real appeal in the Viridian Movement is in what we don’t tell people, not our torrent of news and weblinks.” Despite the rejection of the Kyoto Accords by President Bush as a “threat to the economy”, Sterling doesn’t see Bush as fundamentally un-green, so much as he is for sale.

“The ‘threat to the economy’ is severe: it’s a direct threat to the pocket-books of Bush’s major backers”. Sterling suggests that a stiff Kyoto regime, or even popular awareness of the Greenhouse threat, could mean death for the major oil companies and probably jail for their leaders. “So they have little to lose; they might as well ante up everything, outbid the other players, buy the administration and squeeze out as much cash from the consumers as they can.”

He does not, however, feel that an outraged populace will overturn this situation, his reckoning is that other power players who have little to gain from the current US economic situation and who are feeling ripped off by the oil business will challenge them. But is there a future for sustainable, non-polluting industry?

“We’ll get to sustainable capitalism; it’s technically do-able and it will end up being cheap. The question is how many of us survive and what is left of our environment.”
Sterling, who describes himself as “a fantasist”, suggests that people “buy green power” in order to effect positive change. On the future of Viridian, he says that “it would be nice to do some more physical outreach – tables, panels, conventions . . . and maybe some museum work. And I dearly wish we had a retail arm. But it’s a much better strategy to do interesting things consistently than to overdose and burn out,”

Chief Bottle Washer at Blather
Writer, photographer, environmental campaigner and "known troublemaker" Dave Walsh is the founder of, described both as "possibly the most arrogant and depraved website to be found either side of the majestic Shannon River", and "the nicest website circulating in Ireland". Half Irishman, half-bicycle. He lives in southern Irish city of Barcelona.