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AGDC: The Bruce Sterling keynote - The Future of Entertainment

Kevin Kelly

Bruce Sterling is a science fiction author, a futurist, and one of the founders of cyberpunk. He provided the tent-pole keynote for the Austin Game Developers Conference, although in all honesty it seemed more like a run through of a new short story draft. Several developers were walking out, scratching their heads and going "Wha... huh?" afterward.

The topic was "Computer Entertainment 35 Years from Today," and Sterling came out not as Sterling, but as a time traveler from 35 years in the future and a graduate student of Dr. Sterling's. He provided visual demonstrations of nanotech networks and fiber-based computers, much to the amusement of the audience, and told us how the future might seem surprising to us at first, but it's old hat to someone like him. He bastardized a quote from Sir Arthur Clarke and said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from garbage." Words to live by.

Read the full text of the keynote after the break. It'll be interesting if web surfers in the future look back on this post and laugh.

Computer Entertainment 35 Years from Today
Hello, thanks for having me into your event today, and thanks for that intro. Though there is a problem with that, I am not Bruce Sterling. He couldn't make it, he sent me instead

The reason he couldn't make it is that in 2043, Bruce is 89. Dr. Sterling is too frail to get into a time machine to talk to game devs, so he called on me to do it. I am one of his grad students. I volunteered, sort of, to journey back in time using some of our new technical methods. It wasn't exactly easy, and I am here and fully briefed

Before I get started about computer entertainment 35 years from today, even though that is a very interesting topic and I am writing my thesis about it, I think I should level with you. I should tell you a few things first confidentially.

Me, you don't know much about. You don't even know my name. All you need to know is that I am a time traveler. Bruce Sterling, he's a contemporary of yours, you might be disappointed he's not here. But you wouldn't really want this 90 year old guy making public appearances, you see. He used to write a lot of SF about biotech and life extension techniques, and in the 2040s we have some that stuff, not the lame crap he made up, not science fiction, but stuff that is real, real like Rogaine and Viagra. And Bruce was an early adopter of that stuff.

Bruce Sterling was one of the first guys to jump on that untested radical stuff. So he is kind of the bug-ridden alpha rollout guy, which is why he is 89 though he never took care of himself. So our life extension stuff is high end tech, and it does work, especially skin and hair which turned out to be the easy parts.

"[Future Bruce] is kind of deaf and half blind, and uses a walker, and a Segway, and a personal robot."

So Bruce has the fresh dewy skin of a 10 year old, and lots of hair, scary black spiky amount of hair. But he's kind of deaf and half blind, and uses a walker, and a Segway, and a personal robot. And he's not senile, but since he was a cyberpunk historically speaking, he chose to do stuff to his neurons, not plugins since he's not crazy, but if you had to pick one word to describe how he looks and acts in 2043, that word would be post-human.

Now, I know Austin has a lot of weird looking people, And in 2043, Austin is still very weird because they kept it that way. But if Bruce Sterling from 2043 was here in public, he'd get arrested, tasers and nets, it's that weird, really.

And compared to the rest of you in this room, the ones among you who survived until then, he looks pretty good, respectable and well groomed compared to you guys, all literary, my professor.

So that is why he didn't come. But he had good advice. He said "it's all completely real but they won't believe any of it. They are a technically literate crowd, but they have never heard of quantum greeble technology. They will not believe you are from the future. Unless you use technical demos, hands-on in public, they will think it is all vaporware, SF hype. They are computer folks, skeptics, that is how they survive. So show them your personal computer."

"Why would that be exciting?" I said. But I did bring some tech.

[gets stuff out of a bag]

So my PC is like a towel. Cheap and old and the dullest thing in the world, I have always had one. "2008, computer pioneers, they still think computers are exciting!" They don't get that computers in 2043 are like brick, forks, toothbrushes, towels. I researched that subject, and yeah for an old fashioned audience, a mid 21st computer is cool. So here it is [dishtowel] General Electric personal mediators, very stable, five years old. No full functionality in 2008 because we don't have the cloud here yet. It tapped into something called Window Vista when it got here and gave up, gone all limp, nothing left on here but this frozen screensaver pattern. So I will have to walk you through it instead.

"Moore's Law states that computer power doubles every 18 months, that means 23 doublings in 35 years. So my towel is about 8,388,608 of your best laptops."

Moore's Law states that computer power doubles every 18 months, that means 23 doublings in 35 years. So my towel is about 8,388,608 of your best laptops. But this is a cheap student's model. So it's feeble. No more than 32,768 times your computers. So it is a network, literally, because all its components are woven. It is fabric - charges with quantum solar nanodots, shapechanging piezo threads, it can expand, contract, fold, even flap and fly across the room when I call it.

I have speakers in here, just stiffen the fabric. And cameras, and a telephone, get news on it, run old-fashioned virtual reality apps... [puts over head]

And I can get a keyboard... nobody gets rid of qwerty.

It ate all media, there isn't any other kind left. Nobody gets rid of qwerty or General Electric. Did you know Thomas Edison founded General Electric? It was never a fancy tech company with a ridiculous name like Google or Microsoft or Yahooooooo! What on earth where they thinking? General Electric is ageless, and that is why they are still around in 2043 making commodity computers and fridges and ovens and towels.

So do people make games for this platform? Sure. Not the sort that were built for flat glass screens. We don't do those anymore, cumbersome, like a covered wagon. We don't pretend a glass screen is a window into another virtual worlds. The idea sounds silly, it's all the same world. It's always been the same world, it just changes. What we do is hang the towel up in midair and gaze through it. And all the light that hits the far side passes through it except that the image is tagged and altered. We don't call it augmented reality, because we think reality is real, but you can still have fun with a game interface is that is everything you see.

Of course reality scales, so we have body games, room games, neighborhood games, city games, world games, even space games for romantic geeks. And 70 years of games, a huge heritage we got from you. Dead platforms and dead IPs, dead stuff always gets revived. You've never heard of Tetris, ahead of your time, incredibly elegant. Pieces fall down on my mediator, and I have to jam them into holes at the bottom. Incredibly popular. I can't keep my hands off it.

"Dr. Sterling was eager I show you Tetris, he knew you would be impressed, sophisticated design. A pity my mediator is down."

Dr. Sterling was eager I show you Tetris, he knew you would be impressed, sophisticated design. A pity my mediator is down.

He also said I had to show truly advanced computing, not the stuff with the mediator, the stuff we ourselves think is impressive. So I brought you some, borrowed from the lab.

I didn't actually steal it, I just kind of traveled back in time with it. I know that is complicated, but Sterling is an SF writer, he gets it about paradox issues, everything is under control.

Let me remove the quantum shield here...

This is nanotechnology. We don't call it that, it's old-fashioned. Each of these tiny computational crystals... you see transistors? These are what we call greebles. You know what a Higgs Boson is? But you don't have a domesticated Higgs Boson industry which we do, greebles do not have bits, they have Q-bits. Nan quantum transitioning. Greebles can be in several different spaces in the same time. Atoms are mostly empty space. If you put quantum uncertainty into the position of an atom you can pack several thousand qbits into the space occupied by one bit.

"No bandwidth problem. Just created a network here, the size of the internet in 2004. Can't believe it is working here."

Watch me do this, it will blow your mind. Let me take one of these crystals, it has the power of a server farm. Let me give you tech details [spouts gobbledegook]. It does radically sensory emergent ad hoc ubiquity apps.

Demo; Just shake these extra crystal shards from the cryocore here, distribute them in a local cloud. It's up, working great! Assembling an autonomous cloud, all spread spectrum. No bandwidth problem. Just created a network here, the size of the internet in 2004. Can't believe it is working here.

Man! Can you believe the toxic load in this building? Cancer causing agents in the carpet! And who ate mexican food? How do you survive? Aren't you dying of cancer? Oh wait, you are dying of cancer. The bacteria counts...! Is that your skin. These are freaking me out, I am shutting this down.

Whoops. It has a cloud-based shutdown sequence, but there is no cloud in here. But I have a vector field. Soon as I wrap the core in this container field, I think this will cut back on the zero point radiation. Only done this twice... ow! It's getting hot.

Tricky part isn't assembling it.... zero oiint energy you know. OK, stay there. You don't see any smoke. Cooling off.

I wanted to pass this through the audience, but it isn't steady and we want it to transition back quietly, so we don't feel anything, we hope. I guess I shouldn't do this, but [squashes it]

OK, we're safe now, the hack worked.

"I wish I could stop my speech and take questions, but i already know your questions... I am from the future!"

Like Clarke said oh 100 years ago, any sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from magic. Of course, that was technology, not magic. Of course, now it is garbage. Any truly sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from garbage. We should tell Clarke. He still alive? We still read him, we think he's great.,

So I hope these demos proved my bona fides. I wish I could stop my speech and take questions, but i already know your questions... I am from the future! It's odd, you meet a time traveler and ask him to predict so you can get rich, which is very predictable. So you ask what is the part of game development that will really make lots of money? Web apps, massively multiplayer online role playing games? I don't know why you people can't invent a better word.

We just call them crowd games. The crowd on the cloud. So simple, easy. I don't get why you don't use it the easy way.

So in 2043 in computer entertainment? I can tell you that. lt's the bankers. And the financiers. Entertainers can make a lot of money but they don't keep that money, they are not money management people. Money management people make and keep a lot of money. And some games have internal economies and loans and markets and real estate holdings. So guys who make a lot of money go into those areas of money and they are not players, they are bankers.

So let me read you part of one of these games, from the game FAQ.

"Our game bank services allow online retailers to access a hosted commerce app.... our avatar checkout has a much longer list of commerce features than our main rival. It can preferentially identify fellow guild members and offer preferential one click from distant game environments on other shards, supports merchants and RFID tracking and packing slips. Our in game credit default swap with 2.9% for orders of 10k plat or more, [etc etc]."

OK, direct quote from your future. Does that sound like fun gameplay to you? No. Exactly as much fun as investment banking. Slightly better than investment banking that you have now, because financial services with graphical front ends to make it so that some people will save for retirement, not like you guys.

But basically, financial services are deadly boring, always are, not cool in games. Thrifty rich guys do not consider their work cool fun, they consider it something that gives you ulcers that you want to stop so you can have a yacht.

For some this is a torture game. But the banker guys are hella rich, much richer than your richest people. As rich as normal bankers? The gaming bankers ARE the normal bankers. The old guys are extinct. So you are a creative, will you be as rich as these guys who play on your platforms in your games? No, because they are money managers rich enough to buy you and maintain your adventure game as a front end the way old banks had marble pillars in the front.

So that is financial reality in tomorrow's entertainment industry.

[pulls out a cigarette]

Oh I know this a smoke free zone in Austin, but this is not a cigarette, we're required to smoke these to repair the lung damage from the climate change...

So other questions... can I have one of your future cigarettes? No, this is mine.

So a common question, what blindsided me, the future development, the black swan wild card. I can tell you but it will be hard to wrap your head around, but I will try.

What is computer entertainment., it has computers and entertainment. That is not in fact what you do. Two old fashioned words you still use. First, forget the computers, that word in the future holds you back, some of you get this sort of... that it means handhelds or consoles or phones, etc... so you almost have escaped from that bottle. But you hid in other bottles, when it is not about bottles. See, I have a towel, you should think about other phenomena. Traffic systems, billboards, satellites, street lights, credit cards, debit cards, drones, street based video... doorknobs. You know how many embedded chip there are in hotel doorknobs? And how many there are around you now... and then stop thinking about chips, because you must transcend that.

You must think about a Zen hippie paradigm, like paint or smoke and...clouds.

and ambient pervasive ubiquitous...

And then put your hands together like this... and say "ommm..."

Why? Because it makes you look stupid. See how gullible you all look? Well, that is how stupid everyone looks in historical years. Gosh Mr. Bushnell why would anyone want to play ping-pong on a TV?

And in 35 years you are almost that kind of stupid. No quite, because you have Google, but in that ballpark.

And that brings me to the other half. Entertainment is fun, right? If not fun, not entertainment. One of those phony game educational apps that kids have to be tortured to use. You want users to have fun.

Except for three kinds of people who do not obey your rules. Gold farmers, ripoff artists, excluded gray brown black market, the pirates. All the same guys, same crowd, invisible to you. You don't want to see them because they are ugly to you, but always there, since the very first day. They are not accidents, they are something important you do not let yourself see.

Second the griefers. They have a game, entertainment, but not your game - their game of hate, vandalism, the thrill of real conflict. And there are armies of them.

And third, the convergence culture people, the weird ones. They play while they are using 6 or 7 other sorts of media. they make no distinctions, they use the networks as a metamedium. They don't play the roles. People play the roles in D&D, which like little theater for the home. You don't see D&D people passing each other text messages and looking for cheats on wikis. Convergence guys are metamedia people looking for their metafun. You are outside the game and they want to be there too, super-knowledgeable game fanatics from whom you recruit your talent.

And these 3 kinds of people are not fun. Greed as fun, grief fun, metafun. They ambush you and beat on you. Not enemies, but deeply alien to your paradigm. So they have control over your destiny that you don't have.

And the only way to have control is to redefine computer entertainment because their fun is not computers and not entertainment, because they are cultural, more cultural than you, and they kick your ass.

So how do you make them go away? You don't. They beat you like bullies beat kids good at math. And you had to grow up and understand them better. living well is your best revenge.

I wish I could give you firm clear answers for your challenging problems. But I can't, because we have our own problems. We don't know everything about you, we forgot about you. We have deep serious mature problems, like greebles. And not just greebles and wiggets and nernies. Wiggets are kind of OK, but nernies, man, those are terrible. I wish I could explain them, but we just invented them, and we don't understand them. They are disruptive. If we really got it about greebles we wouldn't need to make up ridiculous terms like greebles.

But we made our peace with you, our respected ancestors, and we have our on problems because we are humans.

The best way to understand the future is to study the past because the future is history that hasn't happened yet. Your past involved a dark and painful prophecy from 35 years ago: towel designers. And it started 35 years go. Atari was the fastest growing company in American history so Warner bought them. And the geeks there went to confront their new boss after Nolan Bushnell got kicked out and went to sell pizza with robots.

And the geeks said "cut us in on those millions from our games!" And their new boss told them "No! You don't control the computer entertainment business! You are our towel designers.!"

What did he mean by that? That an Atari was a factory, a little factory, and he owned it, and the geeks were his factory hands who could decide what color stripes the towels had. That was the extent of their add to the value process. Everything else, marketing, etc, was in the hands of others. So they should go back to the factory and make towels!

So the geeks left and made Activision. And Atari isn't dead and Warner isn't either, but neither is as well off a General Electric who really gets it about housewares and towels.

You see, the prophet said the industry would be big and stodgy enough to employ towels designers, nameless creative guys who create... towels. Not reforming culture and visionaries. Functionaries. And I mean no disrespect to towels. Craftsmanship, I appreciate it in towels. But the future has a problem with towels. [holds up a paper towel]

Radical innovations, genuine tech change, is the problem with towel factories. They have smokestack and they suck. So what game developer is going to do a rude thing like that?

We don't even fully understand the past, what designer would make the paper towel? When the designer looks in the mirror, he does not see a towel functionary. His head is not a towel factory, he has seen them come and go.

And that is your heritage, your great struggle, what you face. And your behavior is what you owe to your predecessors and your future. You have your hours on the earth and your place in the great parade, ad live every hour.

Thank you for one hour, ladies and gentlemen, I'll be seeing you.
[Transcription courtesy of Raph Koster]

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