When worlds collide

Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

TAKE a seat. No, not that one: That’s Bruce Sterling’s seat. You’re the consumer. You’re here because you liked the look of Sterling’s new book, “Shaping Things,” (sleek, in pale shades of green and red, with text in different fonts streaming phrases like “technosocial transformation,” “young souls,” “designers and thinkers.”) On the cover, there’s a bottle of wine with a bar code where the label should go: two different worlds, two cultures. Bar codes belong to the scary version of the future, wine to the warm and fuzzy past. You live in a world of things that create longing and revulsion at the same time. You don’t know if you want the things you want because you want them or because somebody has provoked your desire. It’s hard to tell anymore if they are bad things -- made by people under duress, bad for the environment and your body -- or good things that fold neatly back into the biosphere when they’re used up.

So here’s Bruce Sterling. We’re going to drink that wine and another bottle. By the time we finish, Sterling -- author, webmaster, designer, father of two daughters, futurist and visionary -- will have pixilated the hell out of that wine: decoding why we buy it, where it comes from, what it means and why it looks the way it does. In the end, it will become desperately clear just exactly how manipulated we are by information that we don’t really use to our own advantage, let alone that of the Earth.

“Shaping Things” is not a manifesto. Sterling has written manifestos, for the Dead Media Project (which he founded in 1995) and the Viridian Design Movement (which he created in 1996, after his novel on global warming, “Heavy Weather,” appeared). Although his roots are as a journalist, he fled quickly into science fiction with “Involution Ocean” (1977), “The Artificial Kid” (1980) and “Schismatrix"(1985). He was among the founding pioneers of “cyberpunk,” but the genre couldn’t contain his blend of aestheticism, activism and good old problem-solving.


Then came something Sterling calls “design fiction,” a hybrid genre that, he explains, “makes more sense on the page than science fiction does. Science fiction wants to invoke the grandeur and credibility of science for its own hand-waving hocus-pocus, but design fiction can be more practical, more hands-on.” Several of Sterling’s books, including “The Hacker Crackdown” (1990), a “nonfiction novel” he distributed in free electronic form and on disk, “Holy Fire” (1996) and “Heavy Weather” (1994) fall squarely in this territory. Design is where Sterling now lives. After years of science fiction, he fell in love with designers and their “low-key egos” -- a relief, he suggests, “especially compared to us authors.”

In “Shaping Things,” Sterling divides history into five eras. In the Age of Artifacts, hunters and farmers work with “simple artificial objects, made by hand, used by hand and powered by muscle.” Around 1500, the Age of Machines emerges, featuring “complex, precisely proportioned artifacts with many integral moving parts that have tapped some non-human, non-animal power source.” By World War I, we have entered the Age of Products (“widely distributed, commercially available objects, anonymously and uniformly manufactured”), which is followed by the Age of Gizmos (post-1989), a highly unstable world of end users, or people “linked to network service providers; they are not stand-alone objects but interfaces.” Finally, there is the Age of Spimes (a Sterling neologism), which is where we live now, adrift in data “designed on screens, fabricated by digital means, and precisely tracked through space and time throughout their earthly sojourn.” It sounds more complicated than it is, but Sterling is mapping out a progression, a journey from consumption to control. “Tomorrow composts today,” he repeats throughout the book, a phrase that seems dangerously reminiscent of Orwell’s flashing slogans in “1984” but which Sterling uses to remind us that “new capacities are layered onto older ones.”

“Shaping Things” is full of entirely readable large ideas, made palatable by Lorraine Wild’s clean but evocative book design. The whole project exudes a confidence-building, you-too-can-be-an-architect-of-the-future tone, much like the work of Buckminster Fuller, who like Sterling was a practical visionary and often had to create a new language to describe his ideas. Yet unlike Fuller, Sterling doesn’t move without making sure you are right there with him. As an example, he uses the bottle of wine to illustrate that what was once an artifact is now a gizmo, complete with access to information. (Remember the bar code?) Each transition “involves an expansion of information. It enables a deeper, more intimate, more multiplex interaction between humans and objects.”

In the end, “Shaping Things” asks us to consider how we can create a sustainable future, using all the information available to us as consumers, without the preachiness that accompanies the environmental and sustainable lifestyle movements.

Sterling doesn’t say so (that would be too cute and patronizing), but he believes in the power of what he calls “transparent production.” In an age of spimes -- products with websites and bar codes -- we can and will make the right decisions about what to purchase and produce. “The only sane way out of a technosociety,” he writes, “is through it, into a newer one that knows everything the older one knew, and knows enough new things to dazzle and dominate the denizens of the older order. That means revolutionizing the interplay of human and object. It means bringing more attention and analysis to bear on objects than they have undergone.”

With that in mind, Sterling does not worry about the nefarious uses of radio frequency identification chips -- the technology behind highway E-ZPasses and remote keyless entry -- arguing that they can be used to measure light, airborne pollution, pathogens and pollen counts, creating a world that’s “auto-Googling” all the time. He envisions three kinds of technology that would make our future more sustainable: one that “can eventually rot and go away all by itself”; one built to withstand the passage of time; and “a fully documented, trackable, searchable technology” that would, as it reached obsolescence, “have the grace and power to turn itself in at the gates of the junkyard and suffer itself to be mindfully pulled apart.”

In such a world, humans, who have for generations absorbed industrial effluent -- just as the natural world has absorbed fertilizers and pesticides -- will redesign themselves to have longer, more efficient life spans.

Squeezing these ideas, created on screens, into that dear old artifact, the book, is no easy task, and Sterling is game to take it on. As for the bottle of wine, he asks, “[W]hy did I touch this thing for a few moments and then doom it to an age in a landfill?” Unlike this book, the bottle belongs to that other future, the dark and ugly one.