Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling
Image: Creative Commons (Wikipedia)

Bruce Sterling & Jon Lebkowsky on the future of media and the death of poetry

Article by News Team.
Published 14 January 2014

A fascinating discussion about the future of the media, the publishing industries, and journalism took place yesterday over at The Well, with some fascinating commentary from futurist, SF writer and technologoical prognosticator Bruce Sterling, and web consultant and developer, author, and activist Jon Lebkowsky, who was the co-founder of FringeWare, Inc. The conversation will continue throughout this week.

Sterling, who was one of the breakthrough writers and founders of the 'cyberpunk' movement, is a well-known futurist, and commentator on everything from technological change to the mass media. In the conversation, he speculates about the shape the future mass media market might take, and offers comparisons between the era we are living through, and past periods of technological upheval.

Lebkowsky, following commentary from Sterling about the efficacy of 'pay walls' on mainstream news sites, commented: "My impression, more of a hunch, not evidence-based, is that the era of free is behind us, that we're seeing successful strategies for payment and a consumer expectation that worthwhile content will have a cost. Not that journalists will be rolling in dough, but I dare to hope that professional writers and other creators of content in various forms can make a living after all."

A discussion about the 'long tail' model of free internet content followed, after which Sterling admitted: "I'm a very 'dead media' guy, so I never bought into that early-blogger ideology, even though I was an early blogger... I happen to be a novelist as well as a journalist, and we're inside a situation nowadays where novels are as disrupted as the news is. But I'm hard put to say that novels, or even literature, are 'needed' any more than journalism."

Sterling continues: "I've been in lots of minority-language societies where 'novels' exist – they do get written sometimes, but only occasionally, and among small groups of enthusiasts, and where novelists never, ever make money. These novelists don't 'starve' or anything quite so drastic – they just teach high school, or they work for insurance bureaucracies... If you walk around the streets, the local people aren't gasping for lack of air because they lack novels."

He continues the comparison, creating a parallel between the death of journalism and the decline of poetry's popularity: "If you'd asked John Keats if there was any 'truth' in the journalism of his day, Keats would have said no, that all the newspapers were organs of party faction, and that the 'truth,' and also the beauty, was in poetry. Our own society doesn't have 'Poetry.' Poetry is already gone. We don't miss it any more than those un-novelled societies miss novels. That's a major cultural loss we've already experienced through media transition. I mean, we do still have oodles of poems around of course, but it's all of that unpaid-enthusiast, unsorted, so-what variety. We no longer rejoice in that huge and ponderous cultural institution of Capital-P Poetry, where the great poets were vastly read and hugely honored, even by people who didn't speak their language."

He concludes: "'Poetry' is certainly much, much older and more 'needed' than 'Journalism.' Poetry is probably pre-human in its origin, while Journalism is only three or four centuries old. So I think it's unwise of us to conclude that there's some metaphysical need within society for an institution like Journalism to exist."

Chairman Bruce then goes on one of his fantastic, and scarily plausible, speculative rants: "What's more: much bigger changes in communication are coming, much bigger than those we have already experienced. They're not merely economic changes about journalists getting health insurance and a regular salary. I can imagine a future situation where we don't even have 'media.' At least, no 'medium' in that strict sense of some visible, distinctive channel of communication."

With that, he's off: "I'll get a tad sci-fi here. Suppose that the NSA was acquired by Google, let's say, and suppose that Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Amazon pooled all their databanks, maybe through legislative fiat, or through open-source... and then we spiced-up that huge Cloud of Big Data with some massive real-time data flows from 'smart cities' and 'wearables'…  and then we attacked that amorphous post-mediated mass with Siri, and Watson, and such…  Well, that would no longer be 'media.' That would be something very sci-fi, very 'ubiquitous computing,' very pervasive and ambient. But it would also be what was just plain going on in real life."

He continues: "We'd be living inside all that, teaching with it, courting, preening ourselves, all the usual stuff. Of course there would be some news within the fetid ambient mass there, some new events would be happening that would properly be of public interest. But why would that be five hundred words of text, due on Wednesday, with a byline?  That wouldn't make much sense, would it? You might as well write a sonnet about it. I'm not saying that this conjectured future situation would be 'better' than what we have today. Likely a lot of the prized values of Journalism, such as objectivity, relevance and fact-checking, might take an ever worse beating than they already have. But a situation like that seems much more plausible to me than some return to the status quo ante; journalism as it was taught to me by my professors in journalism school in the late-middle 20th century."

Read the rest of the fascinating discussion, and take part, over at The Well.