[iDC] re: The "electricity" of near future participation (p1)

Anne Galloway anne at plsj.org
Thu Sep 14 13:57:37 EDT 2006

I don't want to side-track an excellent post Trebor, but I would like to 
reflect a bit if I may on the role that Bruce Sterling, science-fiction 
author, is having in the current practice of pervasive computing 
research and design.  I bring this up not as a commentary on, or 
critique of, Bruce Sterling the person, but because I believe that 
traditional questions about authorship are still relevant.  I also 
consider his conference presentations (including their circulation 
online), and particularly his book Shaping Things, to be rather active 
non-human actors in the current development of thinking on these matters.

[See also:

So, here's my favourite Sterling quote about how Shaping Things came to be:

"I'd been trying to write a novel about ubiquitous computation, a 
science fiction novel, and it's set, you know, in the mid-21st century, 
and I'm trying to get it down on paper what it's like to work in an 
actually functional internet of things, and it's really a kind of 
serious ideational challenge, I mean it's just hard to make it 
convincing...I was asked to give a Toyota lecture at Art Center, because 
I knew people in the faculty..and delivered this sort of impassioned 
rant, saying, look, you know, I think this is gonna break big, and this 
is why, and I want you designers to kinda like think about this and help 
me out. What advice can you give me in kinda doing the background for my 
science fiction novel?  And they just sorta stared for a second and 
said, well, we can't do anything about that but maybe you should join 
the faculty."

[transcribed from: 

and more here:

I love that he couldn't come up with a _convincing_ story.  That someone 
else was willing to suggest that pervasive computing was not only a 
cultural myth (at least in part) , but not a very good one at that! <grin>

But seriously, the man understands that _words do things_.  He's a 
writer and a charismatic performer after all.  And even if he wouldn't 
use these terms or references, I think he definitely gets Wittgenstein's 
language games, Austin and Searle and Derrida on speech acts, and even 
(or especially) Callon and Latour's processes of translation. 

So he's been attempting to mobilise his words, his ideas, at 
conferences--and others are trying to mobilise them as well for their 
own purposes (including coining their own neologisms).  And Sterling's 
ideas are largely science fiction/social theory/design ideas, although I 
totally agree with your assessment that Sterling's perspectives lack 
"deep socio-political analysis" and give too much (strangely apolitical) 
agency to designers and design.  Not surprising, I think, since he is 
not a social researcher and he was supported by a design department 
while he wrote the book.

So what is it then, I wonder, that Sterling _succeeds_ in mobilising?  
Is it the narrative and performative aspects of technology?  Is it a 
tension between fact and fiction?  Is it a _critical_ perspective?  To 
be honest, I'm not sure.  But I do know that it focusses on things and 
environments more than on people.  In other words, I believe that it 
fundamentally lacks discussion on traditional social and cultural topics 
like race, class, gender, power (inequality) and, as you also suggest, 
history.   and it makes it very difficult to understand or appreciate my 
role as a human, as a woman, as a scholar, etc. in this brave new world 
of his.

Some of the risks I see us attribute to new technologies often rely on a 
_lack of reflexivity_ in our own positions.  Unlike Sterling, I don't 
believe our goal should be to "revolutioniz[e] the interplay of human 
and object" but rather first to acknowledge how we've never been as 
separate from objects as his position requires, and that small 
revolutions happen everyday. 

And now back to our regular programming...


Anne Galloway
Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology
7th Floor, Loeb Building
Carleton University
1125 Colonel By Drive
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1S 5B6


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