Tomorrow Now - Bruce Sterling

Tomorrow Now
Envisioning the next 50 years
Bruce Sterling
Random House
ISBN: 0679463224 (Amazon link)

Bruce Sterling is one of the most influential novelists of the last couple of decades - might not be immediately apparent, but I think Schismatrix could have been written yesterday, and is a clear influence on many newer SF writers. In Tomorrow Now he turns to writing non-fiction of a sort, reining in the wilder excesses of his imagination and turning into " a full-blown pundit, a brow-wrinkled journalist who attends the Davos Forum, networks with Californian corporate forecasters, and mourns the tragic loss of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment."

This isn't really a new side to Sterling, he's got several journalistic pieces under his belt. I am particularly fond of his The Hacker Crackdown, which once read like cyberpunk, and now reads like a quaint historical document.

Sterling chooses a nice framing device for his book - he chooses to take Jaques famous "seven ages" speech from As You Like It, and write a chapter on each age of man. He wisely avoids being too concrete in his predictions - in the future all drinks will be blue! And we'll all wear spandex! - and instead muses on the disruptive technologies and trends on the horizon. However, his constant referral back to the late 90s as a technological belle epoque strikes me as forced, and rather silly. There was no belle epoque. I worked in the telecommunications sector at the time - we all knew nonsense when we saw it, perhaps because we were outside the US?, and years later I'm still waiting for my industry to recover from the horrific collapse thanks.

Yes, certain key technological advances were made - but they were made long before the silliness. What the 90s did was make certain technologies like the WWW known to the public with a promise that there was unlimited money to made from them - and for that I now live in a world of restrictive ISPs which barely support basic protocols like FTP, constant spam, a daily onslaught of viruses and constant privacy concerns. This is not the future we were working on. The belle epoque Sterling sees looks to me more like a traffic accident. Oh, where did that rant come from?

Back to the essays. I think the highlights include:
- The chapter on bio-technology ("The Infant"), but let's face it, saying "Biotechnology is the next big thing" isn't a particularly daring prediction. I did enjoy this essay a lot though.
- The chapter on design ("The Lover"), I particularly liked the comparison between modern blobjects and art nouveau.
- The chapter about The New World Disorder ("The Soldier"), in which Sterling muses on the career of some of the more infamous [terrorists/freedom fighters/patriots/soldiers/warlords/criminals] [* please choose one according to your own politics] of the recent past. These case studies from Chechnya, Serbia and Kurdish Turkey are fascinating, but feel disconnected from the rest of the book. Sterling, perhaps wisely, shied away from reconciling the lessons of the these studies with the US obsession with a high-tech "battlespace", something that interests me currently as I watch the 'peace' in Iraq on the news and wonder how "battlespace dominance" can possibly help in a terrorist situation. Perhaps my opinion on these matters is coloured by growing up in Northern Ireland and living in Belfast for about a decade.

However, I think the lowlights include:
- A constant USA bias. I found this surprising from Sterling, who until now has always shown a refreshing global village bias.
- The chapter on design again; I really took against his comments on functionality of modern devices, or rather his implied approval of the creeping featurism. Form is important, but function is more important. I'm convinced I'm one of a great many people who don't want modern functionality, one of those who wants a phone that is, well, a phone. But what do I know? I'm writing with vi on a Macintosh so presumably I wouldn't know the first thing about design.
- The chapter on education ("The Student"). Personally I thought this chapter was utter nonsense.

I have conflicting opinions about Tomorrow Now. It is well written, well researched, amusing to read, and contains some marvellous material (biotech, Stuart Brand, fossil fuels), but it seems like a diluted tincture of Sterling's previous writings. It's thinner, more mainstream, less radical, less enthusiastic - less interesting and thought provoking. I'd be happy if Sterling had reined himself in to make a point, if he was as cynical about the future as I tend to be, but as it stands Tomorrow Now sounds like a pitch for a commercial investment portfolio.

Maybe I'm the wrong target audience, or maybe Sterling really has lost some of his edge and become a rich, complacent addition to the middle class establishment, or maybe I'm just grumpy. For whatever reason, I'm disappointed in Tomorrow Now which shies away from many controversial areas and ultimately offers no more insight than a Wired article. However, I really liked the framing device of Jacque's speech.

Posted: Wed - November 26, 2003 at 01:09 AM