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Bruce Sterling

The difficulty there is that, unless corporations have a stable democratic government to offer them a level playing field, they really behave in many ways that are menacing to their own self-interest. Microsoft has grabbed a lot of the operating system market, and they really are a monopoly. But the fact that Microsoft managed to choke off so much innovation through monopoly, merely means that their industry as a whole is now being shipped off to India and China as rapidly as computers can be flung off the docks.

So that’s turning out to be counterproductive behavior. The computer industry got all its cachet from being profoundly innovative, but if you have complete corporate dominance–from a plutocracy and a monopoly–then nobody’s going to innovate, because that simply makes no sense. If you innovate when you have a quarter of the market, maybe you’ll get half the market. But if you already have 95% of the market there’s no reason to do anything much, except post armed guards and clip stock coupons. So the fact that the U.S. Justice Department was too weak to break up Microsoft has had a shattering effect on the computer industry. A corporate monopoly is inherently unstable. It’s just not going to work.

David:  Why do you think it’s important to question authority?

Bruce: It’s kind of hard to find anybody who doesn’t do that now. (laughter) I can’t think of anybody, really, who doesn’t pose as questioning authority. I can’t even think of any social actors right now who don’t consider themselves revolutionaries, and people who really think outside the box. You know, even the Bush Administration considers themselves to be democratic revolutionaries. So do Al Qaeda, the Holy Freedom Fighters. Certainly nobody in the former Soviet Union has even a shred of credibility in anything that looks like authority. The Europeans are really quite cynical about what they’re doing; they’re certainly not being spoon-fed anything by any authorities in Brussels. I don’t know, you might find some really dedicated Catholics who think that the Pope is infallible–maybe, if they don’t have email or something. Everybody questions authority, but that activity per se doesn’t really get you anywhere.

David:  Can you talk a little about the Dead Media Project?

Bruce: Yeah, that was an effort of mine that bore fruit in a lot of peculiar ways. It was something that Richard Kadrey and I cooked up once over his kitchen table in San Francisco. It was during the height of the 90’s tech boom. Kadrey and I were both quite close to that, and we were disgusted by the silly P.R. mess around new media–as if media were somehow inherently better, simply because they were new. It occurred to us that nobody was keeping track of all the forms of media that were no longer new, that were being exterminated.

So we decided we would use new media–the internet being a newfangled thing at the time–to try and keep track of defunct media. We wanted to accumulate a list of the dead media, and see if we could figure out something about the nature of technological change in the media world, because that’s something of profound interest to science fiction writers of my generation. How are things changing? What are the driving forces? And so forth. So I worked on this for about four years, and I did assemble a pretty good list of dead forms of media. It’s certainly the most extensive list I’ve ever seen. It’s by no means complete, but it’s the most complete I was able to do. And I even came up, finally, with a driving theory as to why media die.

David:  What was the theory?

Bruce: I like to call it the Dairy Product Theory of Dead Media. The reason media die has nothing to do with their being media. That was the central problem with the Dead Media Project, because it’s a category error. Media don’t die because they carry messages from one person to another, in an effective way or a less effective way. They die for the same kind reasons that dairy products die.

In other words, with dairy products there’s always a need for milk. Milk is one of the oldest consumables that the human race has ever created, packaged, and sold. But every epoch comes up with its own methods of delivering milk. The mistake would be to think that the milk was causing the changes–that it’s because of milk that you no longer see, say, a horse-drawn wagon with big hammered-steel milk jugs in the back. That horse-drawn wagon, with the really big jugs of milk in the canisters, are gone now. But it’s not because of anything to do with milk. It’s because of new modes of transportation and storage.

The same is true for media. Media aren’t evolving because of their innate “media-ness”. They’re evolving because of other reasons–electronic ones, mechanical ones, means of production, means of distribution, forms of wavelength regulation. In other words, there’s very little that’s media-like about media. They’re not becoming more “media-ish”. (laughs) The fact that they are media is not their driving force. The driving forces come from other aspects of technological development.

David:  When I interviewed Douglas Rushkoff a few weeks ago, he told me that he thought the media is alive–that it’s actually a living entity of sorts, with an agenda to perpetuate itself.

Bruce: Yeah, well, that’s not too hard to imagine, given their behavior. There’s Manuel DeLanda’s book on the machinic phylum and so forth. But that’s not a new notion, and it’s not really going to get you very far as a serious mode of analysis, I don’t think. It might be best described as a colorful metaphor. Believing that media is alive is like believing that the milk is alive in the can and the bottle. You know, sometimes milk really is alive. Yogurt has got living bacteria in it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s all some kind of amazing scheme by which little yogurt canisters are multiplying and spreading themselves around. There’s no agenda there. It’s just milk, okay?

David:  What do you think corporations in the future will be like, and do you think that the multinational corporations of the future will have as much political power as they do today?

Bruce: That’s a real difficulty there. People say “corporations” as if there’s only one kind of them. There’s the small regional ones, and there’s the big multi-nats. Then there’s NGO’s (non-governmental organizations), and there’s the quangos (quasi-governmental organizations). There’s the defense companies that are really close to the government, and so forth and so on. Corporations are very ductile forms of organization.  A profit-driven private sector doesn’t necessarily have to look very much anything like today’s corporations look.

If you look at current corporations, they no longer look very much like they did in, say, the 1980’s. They tend to be very stockholder-dominated now. It’s become easier for them to paste on new logos, spin off entire divisions, or engage in mergers and acquisitions. And fraud–that, too.  Through these other kinds of peculiar activities, you get these virtualized structures, and the offshore set-ups that are hanging on to some management corps in the developed world. They’re no longer the classic, solid, white-collar mega-corp notion–you know, the silk hat Monopoly guy from the board game. I guess you might call them “rhizomatic.”

But when I look at the trend there, and try to figure this out, I think there’s some kind of bleed-over between big corporations and non-governmental organizations–because we really have a lot of problems that can only be dealt with successfully on a global scope. The nation-states are having a hard time getting their heads around that. But I think that, compared to governments, corporations are actually quite vulnerable. It’s really kind of pitiful to see what happens to a McDonalds, or a Coca Cola, or a Wal Mart. Increasingly, they do get politically and socially polarized, and relentlessly attacked, and they’re losing market share. Coca Cola is not selling as well as it did. McDonalds is kind of dead in the water. Wal Mart is a source of increasing political controversy.

It’s tough to find anybody who will actually loyally work for a modern corporation. Stockholders day-trade them, and the CEO’s rip them off. People come up with golden parachutes. Besides California rate payers, the primary victims of Enron–which was a malignant corporation by anyone’s standards–are Enron employees. Those loyal employees got really burned by their own outfit there. So if you claim that corporations are dominating everything, and then ask: what are they going to be like? I don’t know. That notion is subject is to question. I mean, maybe, like Enron,

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