Bruce Sterling: The Hypersurface of this Decade 21.12.09

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image: Angela Moore

A geek makes up for his girlfriend "leaving" him by embracing life without objects.

Today, as of right now, this time-stamped moment: I dwell in the Silicon Roundabout. I live just ten minutes from Old Street Station, amid a swarm of overheated Hackney warrens, which foster seething social-software communities of my fellow London creatives.

My new flat features rapid access to my work, iconic architectural form, and location, location, geo-location!

Deirdre imagines that she has "left our marriage," but thanks mostly to Dopplr, Deirdre can never really "leave me." I know exactly where Deirdre and her iPhone are, right now. Deirdre is attending "Mobile Monday" in that recycled church in Amsterdam with that cheese-eating Dutch start-up guy, that big blond loon who always boasts about his lunches on Twitter.

Deirdre also imagines she has "taken everything that we own," but Deirdre fails to comprehend that I have transcended yesterday's stifling consumer clutter!

Henceforth I shall dwell in the densest cluster of interaction-design talent in Europe. My new abode is rugged, bracing, confrontational: the seductiveness of masculine red brick walls, the bull's-blood hue of rivet-stained Edwardian girders! I take courage in the brisk removal of my building's entire second floor. Even the structure's splinters and splashes of Blitz shrapnel have a surprising delicacy and charm.

Great iron driving wheels used to rumble above my netbook dock. Those crumbling architraves strongly suggest awesome steampunk rookeries, industrial sweatshops, lacy bordellos even: a ghost-host of time-layered East End urban phantoms, which were likely never here in the first place, but could all be re-created promptly with some muslin and laminated fibreboard.

As yet, I possess no stove, no toilet, no bathtub and and no bed. In fact, there are no physical objects in my flat whatsoever, except for my two roll-aboard suitcases, this Taiwanese netbook, and one metric tonne of natural ABS plastic on a giant wooden cable reel. The cable reel doubles as the coffee table on which I write this informative blogpost.

But consider this: a searing, transformative Hertzian wave of broadband permeates everything around me!

Those narrow, chilly holes up there may not be "windows" as windows are conventionally defined, but what a relief to escape the glass-and-steel lucidity that is the standard Norman Foster approach to reconversion! My truncated portico, where the door used to have hinges ... yes, perhaps there is some small loss of dignity in the fact that any odd customer of the Gothic Bondage shop next door can waltz in and out of here, "stealing" my possessions. But the key insight is – they're not possessions. Possessions are over. They are data! Data which sometimes manifests itself as my possessions. This refuse then folds itself right back into the social streams of eBay and Freecycle. Light-of-footprint. Door-to-door. Peer-to-peer.

Freedom is just another word for nothing! There is no dead weight in my urban spatiality. No clotted semiotics, cajoling me to behave in the stereotyped haute-bourgeois manner that Deirdre once used to stifle me.

Dematerialisation is defined by its interfaces. That which was product will become a service. That which was a service will accelerate at warp speed toward de-monetisation on the Path-to-Free. So this is not so much a post-divorce flat as a vibrant zone of interactive transaction.

It is crucial to avoid superimposing the dead past's invisible hand onto my new Web-Squared situation, stunting the techno-possibilities of the approaching twenty-teens through some sordid desire to make my life comprehensible.

Just what is it that makes today's crises so different, so appealing? How can I superimpose the starkly contemporary onto this rich, multimodal urban landscape of abject financial, moral, infrastructural and marital collapse?

The answer is simplicity itself: No effort need be made to reconcile the differing scales of the virtual and the material. They can simply coexist in raw potential.

Pardon me: that rumbling and that toxic reek suggest another delivery truck. I think this one must be for me. Let me save this text now.

Thank you for waiting. My overnight shipment has indeed arrived. Let's get straight to the great unboxing, shall we?

This device (see my Flickr set for detailed photos) is the Eclair numerically-controlled home fabricator. I happen to know the Eclair's developers personally – we've never "met," but we're all huge on Facebook together – so please don't use my user experience as an exact guide for your own version of the Eclair.

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image: Angela Moore

This sleek and sturdy overnight parcel contains everything one might need for do-it-yourself, open-source digital home fabrication.

How is this even possible? In this precise manner:

First, I rip the cables out of the bubblepack. One USB2TTL cable to talk to all my new machinery. Various cat5e cables to wire the fabricator system, and to enable me to screen a galaxy of global video entertainment through poorly-policed peer-to-peer sharing services.

One standard ATX power supply, made in China; its lavish carbon-footprint will also serve me as my hotplate.

A toolkit with a glittering host of aluminium tongs, tweezers, spanners, hex keys, and Ikea-knockoff assembly tools. These items will double as my cutlery, since I'll be living mostly off ramen noodles from the local Korean grocery, when not grabbing a tasty plate of feijao maravilma over at the "Favela Chic" Franco-Brazilian bar and techno niteclub.

I also possess three NEMA 17 stepper-motors to drive my fabricator. This nifty Tyvek bag contains all the nuts, bolts, belts, pulleys and bearings. These gleaming rods are high-quality precision-ground steel shafts for the X and Y axes.

This device also boasts pre-assembled 3rd-generation electronics from the vengeful wreckage of the Ivrea interaction-design school. These bearded techno-intelligentsia were once harmless left-wing Italian academics, but now they are fully prepared to crush the planet's entire industrial order through methods even the Chinese can't comprehend.

I have a pinch-wheel plastruder to melt my giant reel of plastic cable. It extrudes that molten plastic as solid, durable, slightly warped and drippy consumer objects. I mean fruit bowls. Forks. Lampshades and hat racks. Most anything Deirdre might have found while leafing through her overpriced shelter magazines.

These pale, gormless extrusions of the formless will have no copyrights, no branding, no consumer cachet, and no Walter Benjamin "aura". They will just work, they will function practically. They will function in the same mute, ugly way that a prison shiv will work for some east London hoodlum locked up half his lifetime for knife-crime. You may imagine there's some vast class chasm between this old-school knife-waving wide-boy and me, a bespectacled, hypermodern Web geek – but let me confide this to you: he's my landlord.

Some assembly will be required. Clearly. I had better get right after that now. The instructions say that assembly will take me four hours (more, if I laser-engrave my own casing). Four hours is not too much to ask of urban futurity. It took me all day just to write this blog post ( I had to stop periodically, to check my Twitter stream).

But now I do have to stop. I simply must. I must put away the Red Bull cans, and stop clicking and typing. I have to stop, so I can print my bed.

I have to print my bed, so that I can lie in it.

This story – and others by Will Self, China Miéville, Cory Doctorow, Oron Catts, Pedro Gadanho, Ned Beauman and Committee – appears in icon 080, the Fiction Issue, out mid-January 2010.

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 Words

Bruce Sterling

quotes story

These bearded techno-intelligentsia were once harmless left-wing Italian academics, but now they are fully prepared to crush the planet's entire industrial order through methods even the Chinese can't comprehend

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image: Angela Moore

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