Speeches by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling National Academy of Sciences Convocation on Technology and Education Washington D. C., May 10, 1993 BRUCE STERLING:
Hello ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for having the two of us here and giving us a license to dream in public.
The future is unwritten. There are best-case scenarios. There are worst- case scenarios. Both of them are great fun to write about if you're a science fiction novelist, but neither of them ever happen in the real world. What happens in the real world is always a sideways-case scenario.
World-changing marvels to us, are only wallpaper to our children.
Cyberspace is the funhouse mirror of our own society. Cyberspace reflects our values and our faults, sometimes in terrifying exaggeration. Cyberspace is a mirror you can edit. It's a mirror you can fold into packets and send across continents at the speed of light. It's a mirror you can share with other people, a place where you can discover community. But it's also a mirror in the classic sense of smoke-and-mirrors, a place where you might be robbed or cheated or deceived, a place where you can be promised a rainbow but given a mouthful of ashes.
I know something important about cyberspace. It doesn't matter who you are today -- if you don't show up in that mirror in the next century, you're just not going to matter very much. Our kids matter. They matter a lot. Our kids have to show up in the mirror.
Today, we have certain primitive media for kids. Movies, television, videos. In terms of their sensory intensity, these are like roller-coaster rides. Kids love roller coasters, for natural reasons. But roller coasters only go around and around in circles. Kids need media that they can go places with. They need the virtual equivalent of a kid's bicycle. Training wheels for cyberspace.
Simple, easy machines. Self-propelled. And free. Kids need places where they can talk to each other, talk back and forth naturally. They need media that they can fingerpaint with, where they can jump up and down and breathe hard, where they don't have to worry about Mr. Science showing up in his mandarin white labcoat to scold them for doing things not in the rulebook. Kids need a medium of their own. A medium that does not involve a determined attempt by cynical adult merchandisers to wrench the last nickel and quarter from their small vulnerable hands.
That would be a lovely scenario. I don't really expect that, though. On the contrary, in the future I expect the commercial sector to target little children with their full enormous range of on-line demographic databases and privacy-shattering customer-service profiles. These people will be armed and ready and lavishly financed and there every day, peering at our children through a cyberspace one-way mirror. Am I naive to expect better from the networks in our schools? I hope not. I trust not. Because schools are supposed to be educating our children, civilizing our children, not auctioning them off to the highest bidder.
We need to make some conscious decisions to reinvent our information technology as if the future mattered. As if our children were human beings, human citizens, not raw blobs of potential revenue-generating machinery. We have an opportunity to create media that would match the splendid ambitions of Franklin with his public libraries and his mail system, and Jefferson and Madison with their determination to arm democracy with the power knowledge gives. We could offer children, yes even poor children in poor districts, a real opportunity to control the screen, for once.
You don't have to worry much about the hardware. The hardware is ephemeral. The glass boxes should no longer impress you. We've shipped our images inside glass boxes for fifty years, but that's a historical accident, a relic. The glass boxes that we recognize as computers won't last much longer. Already the boxes are becoming flat screens. In the future, computers will mutate beyond recognition. Computers won't be intimidating, wire-festooned, high-rise bit-factories swallowing your entire desk. They will tuck under your arm, into your valise, into your kid's backpack. After that, they'll fit onto your face, plug into your ear. And after that -- they'll simply melt. They'll become fabric. What does a computer really need? Not glass boxes -- it needs thread -- power wiring, glass fiber-optic, cellular antennas, microcircuitry. These are woven things. Fabric and air and electrons and light. Magic handkerchiefs with instant global access. You'll wear them around your neck. You'll make tents from them if you want. They will be everywhere, throwaway. Like denim. Like paper. Like a child's kite.
This is coming a lot faster than anyone realizes. There's a revolution in global telephony coming that will have such brutal, industry-crushing speed and power that it will make even the computer industry blanch. Analog is dying everywhere. Everyone with wire and antenna is going into the business of moving bits.
You are the schools. You too need to move bits, but you need to move them to your own purposes. You need to look deep into the mirror of cyberspace, and you need to recognize your own face there. Not the face you're told that you need. Your own face. Your undistorted face. You can't out-tech the techies. You can't out-glamorize Hollywood. That's not your life, that's not your values, that's not your purpose. You're not supposed to pump colored images against the eyeballs of our children, or download data into their skulls. You are supposed to pass the torch of culture to the coming generation. If you don't do that, who will? If you don't prevail for the sake of our children, who will?
It can be done! It can be done if you keep your wits about you and you're not hypnotized by smoke and mirrors. The computer revolution, the media revolution, is not going to stop during the lifetime of anyone in this room. There are innovations coming, and coming *fast,* that will make the hottest tech exposition you see here seem as quaint as gaslamps and Victorian magic-lanterns. Every machine you see here will be trucked out and buried in a landfill, and never spoken of again, within a dozen years. That so-called cutting-edge hardware here will crumble just the way old fax-paper crumbles. The values are what matters. The values are the only things that last, the only things that *can* last. Hack the hardware, not the Constitution. Hold on tight to what matters, and just hack the rest.
I used to think that cyberspace was fifty years away. What I thought was fifty years away, was only ten years away. And what I thought was ten years away -- it was already here. I just wasn't aware of it yet.
Let me give you a truly lovely, joyful example of the sideways-case scenario.
The Internet. The Internet we make so much of today -- the global Internet which has helped scholars so much, where free speech is flourishing as never before in history -- the Internet was a Cold War military project. It was designed for purposes of military communication in a United States devastated by a Soviet nuclear strike. Originally, the Internet was a post- apocalypse command grid.
And look at it now. No one really planned it this way. Its users made the Internet that way, because they had the courage to use the network to support their own values, to bend the technology to their own purposes. To serve their own liberty. Their own convenience, their own amusement, even their own idle pleasure. When I look at the Internet--that paragon of cyberspace today --I see something astounding and delightful. It's as if some grim fallout shelter had burst open and a full-scale Mardi Gras parade had come out. Ladies and gentlemen, I take such enormous pleasure in this that it's hard to remain properly skeptical. I hope that in some small way I can help you to share my deep joy and pleasure in the potential of networks, my joy and pleasure in the fact that the future is unwritten.
Mr. Sterling and I have been invited here to dream in public. Dreaming in public is an important part of our job description, as science writers, but there are bad dreams as well as good dreams. We're dreamers, you see, but we're also realists, of a sort.
Realistically speaking, I look at the proposals being made here and I marvel. A system that in some cases isn't able to teach basic evolution, a system bedevilled by the religious agendas of textbook censors, now proposes to throw itself open to a barrage of ultrahighbandwidth information from a world of Serbian race-hatred, Moslem fundamentalism, and Chinese Mao Zedong thought. A system that has managed to remain largely unchanged since the 19th Century now proposes to jack in, bravely bringing itself on-line in an attempt to meet the challenges of the 21st. I applaud your courage in this. I see green shoots attempting to break through the sterilized earth.
I believe that the national adventure you now propose is of quite extraordinary importance. Historians of the future -- provided good dreams prevail--will view this as having been far more crucial to the survival of democracy in the United States than rural electrification or the space program.
But many of America's bad dreams, our sorriest future scenarios, stem from a single and terrible fact: there currently exists in this nation a vast and disenfranchised underclass, drawn, most shamefully, along racial lines, and whose plight we are dangerously close to accepting as a simple fact of life, a permanent feature of the American landscape.
What you propose here, ladies and gentlemen, may well represent nothing less than this nation's last and best hope of providing something like a level socio-economic playing field for a true majority of its citizens.
In that light, let me make three modest proposals.
In my own best-case scenario, every elementary and high school teacher in the United States of America will have unlimited and absolutely cost-free professional access to long-distance telephone service. The provision of this service could be made, by law, a basic operation requirement for all telephone companies. Of course, this would also apply to cable television.
By the same token, every teacher in every American public school will be provided, by the manufacturer, on demand, and at no cost, with copies of any piece of software whatever -- assuming that said software's manufacturer would wish their product to be commercially available in the United States.
What would this really cost us, as a society? Nothing. It would only mean a so-called loss of potential revenue for some of the planet's fattest and best- fed corporations. In bringing computer and network literacy to the teachers of our children, it would pay for itself in wonderful and wonderfully unimaginable ways. Where is the R&D support for teaching? Where is the tech support for our children's teachers? Why shouldn't we give out teachers a license to obtain software, all software, any software, for nothing?
Does anyone demand a licensing fee, each time a child is taught the alphabet?
Any corporation that genuinely wishes to invest in this country's future should step forward now and offer services and software. Having thrived under democracy, in a free market, the time has come for these corporations to demonstrate an enlightened self-interest, by acting to assure the survival of democracy and the free market -- and incidentally, by assuring that virtually the entire populace of the United States will become computer-literate potential consumers within a single generation.
Stop devouring your children's future in order to meet your next quarterly report.
My third and final proposal has to do more directly with the levelling of that playing field. I propose that neither of my two previous proposals should apply in any way to private education.