Tuesday, March 29, 2011

SXSW 2011: Bruce Sterling admonishes

If social media can be used for social good, this good can't come soon enough for Bruce Sterling, science fiction writer and a long time SXSW keynote speaker. Bruce Sterling's speech is traditionally the last SXSW session. I don't know if this is his usual habit, but for the last two years he implored 20-somethings ("some of you are younger than SXSW") to go out and be the force for a better world. He demanded to know why we aren't using social networks for political change. If Texans knew what was good for them, they would be marching in the streets and taking to social networks demanding wind power, he said.

We, the crowds, should also be funding projects to study bacteria that can convert materials to biofuel or break down pollution, said Sterling. As it is now, a certain scientist (whose name escapes me) got 300 billion from Exxon Mobile to study them, but that's because people on the street don't know what's good for them. I guess he implies that it is a job of social media-savvy people, such as SXSW'ers, to disseminate these ideas to the general public. Craig Venter, the famous biologist and entrepreneur who sequenced the human genome, may have come to SXSW this year with just this goal. Bruce told the audience that Venter's goal for coming to SXSW was "to reframe 20th century genetic engineering as 21st century synthetic biology". To put simply, it may mean that Venter was trying to create good PR for genetic engineering. Bruce Sterling has hopes for public support of synthetic biology, specifically, the kind that creates pollution-neutralizing or fuel-producing bacteria. There shouldn't be knee-jerk objections to it neither from the left (microbes are not cuddly baby seals) nor from the right (microbes are not in the Bible).

But for all his lamenting that SXSWers' tweets are all parties and name-dropping, Bruce Sterling himself is not without celebrity obsession. He spent part of his speech rambling about Italy's prime minister Berlusconi's escapades, which seemed beside the point to me. He also pointed out that Catholic Church in Italy stands with Berlusconi, supporting behavior they have condemned for centuries. Hypocrisy of the Catholic Church isn't news to anyone, but it's still an easy way to score points with the audience, which unfailingly applauded. In his Twitter feed he also regularly updates us on the lives of the failed femme fatale spy Anna Chapman and other has-beens... so I don't know how this ties into a call to use social media for greater good.

While ranting is Bruce's typical mode of speech, I noticed that over the last two years his rants have become less edgy and irony-tempered, and more plain and despairing. "Where is the moral compass of these people?" he says about the Catholic Church's support of Berlusconi. "Do they think it will make pedophile scandals look better?" But his speeches are still enjoyable because he peppers them with phrases that you can't decide whether they are too pretentious to mean anything, or perfectly capture what he's talking about -- such as "There are infinite wars on abstract now's". (Ed. -- maybe he said abstract nouns, such as terror? Then it makes more sense.)

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