Viridian revisited: An interview with Bruce Sterling

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Viridian revisited: An interview with Bruce Sterling

Joi Ito / Freesouls collection

Bruce Sterling made his name in science-fiction, part of the wave of "cyberpunk" writers working in the late 1980s and early ‘90s — other names include William Gibson and Neal Stephenson — whose work seemed more predictive than speculative. I enjoyed his novels (they won a number of awards), but I especially enjoyed being part of a movement he launched in 1998, called Viridian.

Being Viridian, in the way Sterling originally conceptualized it, was like being green, except that "there's something electrical and unnatural about our tinge of green." A key aim of the movement was to reinvent products, services, technologies, whole economies, so that they were ultra-environmental — but still resoundingly cool.

"We're an art movement … an ad campaign, a design team, an oppo[sition] research organization, a laboratory and, perhaps most of all, we resemble a small feudal theocracy ruled with an iron hand by a Pope-Emperor," wrote Sterling in his launch speech.

The last bit was about himself: Part of the Viridian ethos involved having some high-spirited fun and being less predictably eco-dour. The mix was attractive, and I had the pleasure of serving in the Pope-Emperor’s advisory group, which he called the Curia. (I also ended up running an international Viridian Design Competition, complete with $10,000 in donated prize money, that generated a wide range of prototypes for the world’s first smart electricity meters. But that’s another story.)

The Viridian movement also had an arch-enemy: the Global Climate Coalition, an industry lobbying organization, filled with prominent corporations and business associations, whose sole (and shameful) purpose was to oppose action on carbon emissions reduction. But the GCC went extinct in 2001, "after membership declined in the face of improved understanding of the role of greenhouse gases in climate change," stated Wikipedia — before tacking on, "and public opposition."

Viridian persisted until 2008 when, in the throes of the global financial crisis, Sterling decided to shut it down. But he left a great deal of parting Viridian advice, such as "Do not economize. Please. That is not the point." The point was to reinvent stuff, because "the economy is clearly insane."

Viridian may be gone, but Sterling is still very much around, still prone to the provocative, most recently in a keynote at the SXSW conference in his former hometown, Austin, Texas (where he urged techies to become more artistic). Sterling no longer lives in Austin because, well, he followed his own advice. He reinvented himself as a futurist (among other things). Married to Serbian author and activist Jasmina Tešanović, he divides his time between cities such as Belgrade and Turin, where he curates an annual tech-art fair.

Personally, I see echoes of Viridian thinking all around me in the global sustainability movement. I can trace a trail of historical impact from Viridian, through various websites and books of the 2000s, to today’s renaissance in sustainable design. But I’m a biased optimist. I was curious about how Bruce saw it. So, I caught up with him by email interview.

Alan AtKisson: Bruce, it’s been nearly 20 years since you launched the Viridian movement. I can personally attest that it was fun and inspiring, and it felt disruptive. What kind of impact do you think it made?

Bruce Sterling: Well, I would cynically say that it had a very modest effect on the culture, but it had a major personal effect on me. I was a science fiction writer when I started it, but 20 years later I’m a lot more at ease with designers, artists, architects, engineers, activists — and not in some speculative, writerly way. I really rub shoulders with them now; we lost the Lusitania, but we’re in the same lifeboat.

AtKisson: So, you’ve been closely observing design and architecture for two decades, in multiple locations around the planet. How would you sum up the direction of change? How much greener or sustainable have they gotten? What’s stopping designers from going full Viridian?

Sterling: I wouldn’t say there was one direction of change in design in 20 years. It’s more like the situation of general change in politics or pop music.

One might imagine all politics would become green politics, and that’s not true at all. Pop music might exclusively be ballads about sustainability, but that won’t happen either.

Most design that’s very self-consciously sustainable and green is packaged for a demographic segment called "lifestyles of health and sustainability." Its aficionados are all over the place — in Germany, everything that is loudly labelled "bio" is aimed at them. They’re about 7 percent of the U.S. consumer population. They never go away, but they never take over the world, either.

Probably the biggest single change is that, 20 years ago, guys in the fossil-fuel business were uneasy about developments, but they considered themselves normal people who were being maligned. Nowadays, they’re actively evil and they know they are evil, they’re very overt in their depredations. Their global business has been de-normalized, it’s chaotic, criminal and even genocidal in places. They could have designed their way out of that if they’d wanted a soft landing, but they chose to die ugly.

AtKisson: You don’t sound wildly optimistic. What’s your expectation — forecast, not hope — about what’s going to happen in the design world over the next 20 years, relative to sustainability, green, climate-friendly or anything remotely "Viridian"?

Sterling: I appreciate that people like motivational sermons and some pep-talk from a futurist, but I always shy away from "optimism" and "pessimism." This is 2018, and you’re asking me to talk about 2038. If you asked me to talk historically about what happened in 1998, you would never ask if I was an "optimist" about 20 years ago.

We do best in anticipating events if we understand that 2038 and 1998 are two sister years and that the future is a kind of history that hasn’t happened yet. If we’re optimistic, we’re just putting on rose-tinted goggles so as to ignore half the facts.

Twenty years is a good long time. I’m thinking we’re probably in for some big, black-swan discontinuities that make most design ideas of the present day seem pretty silly. It’s like guys in 1938 trying to outguess 1958, in the style of Norman Bel Geddes.

If I had to sum it up in a bumper sticker, I’d guess that design in 2038 would regard most anything we adore as "digital" as being backward, blinkered, dangerous or corny.

AtKisson: People like me see you as a mover and shaker in the Maker and alternative technology movements, as well as "technology as art" [the subject of Sterling’s talk at the SXSW conference in 2018]. To what degree is Viridian-style thinking — serious engagement with climate and other global sustainability challenges — present in those movements? How does it express itself?

Sterling: You’re flattering me here. I’d say that Viridian was a cultural sensibility that never caught on — it died on the vine something like the cleantech of the same period, which might have made sense but was outflanked by other forces.

The 1990s really were a Belle Epoque, like its sister decade the 1890s, but neither one of them came to fruition. We haven’t had a Great War yet, but we’ve had plenty of war, and now climate disasters have outpaced political response and mass disasters are surprising everybody. We’ll have some cultural sensibilities that respond to this situation, but they’re not going to look or act very Viridian. That opportunity is simply gone with the wind.

[Interlude: Bruce and I briefly debated whether he is actually a "mover and shaker." He took the last word: "I’d be a mover and shaker if there were fewer glaciers melting and I could put Rex Tillerson in jail."]

AtKisson: OK, so let’s dial back the timeline to the coming year or so, and shift from prediction to practical advice. Viridian may have "died on the vine" as you put it, but the motivation behind it remains as pressing as ever. We need to aim design — mainstream design, not just the committed-green-lifestyle variety — in ultra-climate-friendly and sustainable directions. Fast. Assume designers are actually going to read this. What are your suggestions to them?

Sterling: If I were a designer I’d worry about becoming a handmaiden to ultra-wealthy offshored oligarchs, tech moguls and sovereign wealth funds, because they’re the guys who have all the money nowadays. Designers are generally "on the side of the user," but when the user’s broke because there’s no middle class, there’s a real threat that you’re either some kind of courtier to the super-rich or else you can’t get the resources to do anything.

The East Germans of the DDR had some really well-trained and meticulous designers, but boy, did they ever make a heap of ugly rubbish. A bad political environment blights everything.

Personally, I like hanging out with open-source design guys, because there are a lot of them in the academy and in the electronic art scene. But I wouldn’t claim that open source is anybody's path to utopia; people who are in that scene tend to shrug off the money but then they argue about the prestige. There’s a lot of palace intrigue; it’s like literary politics, almost. But, then again, I’m a novelist.

AtKisson: So, what’s your next book about?

Sterling: It’s a historical fantasy about the glory days of the city of Turin in the remote 1640s. I spend a lot of time in Turin and always wanted to write a regional novel about the city and its strange heritage, so this seems to be my chance.

You can revisit the halcyon days of the Viridian movement through its archived website, ViridianDesign.org. Bruce Sterling’s blog, Beyond the Beyond, is a regular feature on Wired.