THR Web Features   /   November 26, 2013

"Where's the Betterness?"

Chad Wellmon

Bruce Sterling at SXSW

A lot of our society's overblown technophilia goes on fulsome display at Austin's annual gathering of the hip and innovative, South by Southwest Interactive.  Jacob Silverman, an independent writer, travelled to the 2013 festival to cover it for the fiercely contrarian review, The Baffler.

Bruce Sterling at SXSW

While dismayed by much that he witnessed, Silverman found some solace on the last day of the event. Science fiction author Bruce Sterling, self-proclaimed futurist and no luddite, delivered the closing talk and offered some pointed criticism of the festival's underlying celebration of "disruption"  and its belief in the boundless promise of technology:

About “disruption,” a term that in Silicon Valley receives sacramental treatment, he said: “The thing that bugs me about your attitude toward it is that you don’t recognize its tragic dimension.” That is, e-books and online shopping killed off bookstores, digital music and file sharing wrecked the music industry, Google and Craigslist upended newspapers. New technologies don’t just supplant the old; they change our culture and society; sometimes they destroy more jobs than they create. In his reproof was an echo of Rebecca Solnit: wealth can be cruel and destructive.

Turning to the festival’s undercurrent of techno-utopianism, Sterling said that SXSWers who talk about making the world better “haven’t even reached the level of hypocrisy. You’re stuck at the level of childish naïveté.” He cited author Evgeny Morozov and his critique of technological solutionism—the belief that new digital technologies like smartphone apps and social networking can fix a range of social and political problems. “A billion apps have been sold,” Sterling declared. “Where’s the betterness?”

A new blog on The Hedgehog Review website, the Infernal Machine, will begin tackling similar issues around technology, knowledge, and culture when it launches in the coming weeks.