Futurity Now: Bruce Sterling on Atemporality

Bruce Sterling’s keynote from the Transmediale Festival (6 Feb 2010) delivers some brilliant and provocative ideas about the role of the creative artist in the context of an increasingly atemporal culture. In this wide-ranging speech, Sterling passionately articulates how changes in knowledge production practices and shifts in the way authority is conferred in the context of network culture have permanently altered the “organized narrative representations of history in a way that history cannot recover from.”



To set up his discussion, Sterling begins with a brief hypothetical confrontation between the “Old” Richard Feynman and his present-day counterpart, the “Atemporal” Richard Feynman. Drawing on a memorable speech by the real Mr. Feynman, Sterling outlines how “Old” Feynman viewed the process of generating knowledge as having three simple stages:

  • Write down the problem
  • Think really hard
  • Write down the solution

“Of course it’s a joke,” Sterling observes. “But it’s not merely a joke — [Feynman is] trying to just make it as simple as possible.” This simplicity is confounded by the Atemporal Feynman, for whom knowledge production is at best a much more circuitous and unstable process, and at worst, a kind of upside-down hyperbolic oxymoron:

  • Write problem in a search engine, see if somebody else has solved it already.
  • Write problem in my blog. study the commentary cross-linked to other guys.
  • Write problem in Twitter in 140 characters. see if i can get it that small. see if it gets retweeted.
  • Open source the problem. supply some instructables that can get you as far as i was able to get. see if the community takes it any farther.
  • Start a Ning social network about my problem. name the network after my problem. see if anybody accumulates around my problem.
  • Make a video of my problem. YouTube my video. see if it spreads virally. see if any media convergence accumulates around my problem.
  • Create a design fiction that pretends that my problem has already been solved. create some gadget that has some relevance to my problem and see if anybody builds it.
  • Exacerbate or intensify my problem with a work of interventionist tactical media.
  • Find some pretty illustrations from the Flickr looking into the past photo pool.

Sterling: “Old Feynman would naturally object, you know: ‘you have not solved the problem. You have not advanced scientific knowledge, there is no progress in this, you didn’t get to step three, solving the problem. Whereas the atemporal Feynman would respond, you know, it’s worse than that. I haven’t even done step 1 of defining the problem and writing it down. But I have done a lot of work about its meaning and its value and its social framing, combined with some database mining and some collaborative filtering, which is far beyond you and your pencil.”

More info: Futurity Now!

[Update: A full transcript of this talk is available here.]

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