June 28, 2002

Bruce Sterling on Grand Research Challenges in Computer Science

Bruce Sterling is always amusing, nearly always insightful, and at least half the time is profoundly wise. This time he wants to goad computer scientists into cleaning-up cyberspace, which has become "...a diseased slum, festering with Microsoft Outlook viruses... "

From: Bruce Sterling <bruces@well.com>
Date: Fri Jun 28, 2002 11:23:50 AM US/Pacific
Subject: Viridian Note 00319: Grand Challenges

Key concepts: computer science, computer research, grand challenges, ubiqitous computation, geneticalgorithms, corruption, spam, Internet, civil society.

Attention Conservation Notice: it's not particularly likely that a loud, angry, impassioned, rambling 6,000-word speech by the Viridian Pope-Emperor is going to change the future course of American computer science. No harm in trying, though!...

Speech at "CRA Conference on Grand Research Challenges in Computer Science and Engineering"
Airlie House, Warrenton, Virginia
June 23, 2002

"Without Vision, the People Perish"

   Hi, I'm Bruce Sterling.  I write novels.

    Ladies and gentlemen, I bring unique qualifications to 

this computer-science gathering, because unlike the rest 

of you, I have the sublime creative freedom of not knowing 

what I'm talking about.   Besides, I am the only man in 

this house who is wearing a tie.  So I must be keynoting.

   I am a science fiction writer and I am 105 percent 

vision thing.  The very idea of the likes of me, at this 

august event of yours, blue-skying it with the legendary 

likes of Gordon Bell, and Rodney Brooks, and Alan Kay...  

And Bob Metcalfe... okay, granted, I can handle Bob 

Metcalfe with no problem.

    Imagine the sheer gall, the chutzpah this requires on 

my part.  Anyone with common sense and a smaller ego would 

quail, but I am up for this grand challenge!  I am totally 

with the program.   I am cocking my shotgun and I am going 

to give you both barrels.  I just wanted to take a second 

to relish the rich literary irony of this situation.   

Folks, I am really going to enjoy this.  I am enjoying 

this already.

    Okay, so what's the story with this "Grand Challenges" 

theme, huh?  How come the computer revolution,  so mighty, 

so high-tech, so all-encompassing, is on a quest for new 

spark plugs?  Well, I can tell you.   That subject is 

within my bailiwick.  The computer industry is my favorite 

industry.  She is my heart's darling.   I have been 

watching her for a long time, and I'm all used to her 

weird little vagaries.   

    This is happening because computer science is the only 

major branch of science that is named after a gadget.  And 

gadgets get old.  It doesn't matter how lithesome and 

charming and sexy they were in their youth.  They get old.  

They settle down.  They get domesticated.  They have 

mouths to feed and socks to wash.  Machines lose their 

aura of the technological sublime.  

    The computer is a gizmo, and it's a great gizmo, but 

it's not an ultimate gizmo.  Computer science has been the 

slave of metaphysics ever since Alan Turing invented the 

Turing Test, but a computer is not a metaphysical entity.  

It's not free of objective reality.  Its bits are bits of 

atoms.  The only ultimate gizmo is a clock.  The clock 

never stops ticking.  The clock has been ticking for the 

computer for quite a while.

     It's not just that the pace of basic innovation has 

slowed in your field, although it  has.  It's not just 

that computers have lost the lipstick of their geek gadget 

romance, although they have.   That which was accomplished 

in the 1980s and 1990s is under attack.  There is a 


      This ought to be obvious to anybody who uses the 

Internet.  All you need to do is examine your email.  

Where is Al Gore's idealistic, civilized Information 

Superhighway?   It's a red-light district.  A crooked flea 

market.   A nest of spies.  An infowar battlefield.  That 

is the state of cyberspace 2002.  There are fire sales on 

every block.  It has anything but grandeur.   It's 

decadent and sinister.

      I've had the same email address for 13 years, and 

I'm not budging.  That's where I staked my little claim on 

the electronic frontier, and by gum, I remember the Alamo 

and I ain't a-goin' to go.   Therefore, my email in 2002 

is full of 419 fraudsters from Nigeria.  And unsolicited 

porn ads.  And a galaxy of farfetched medical scams from 

malignant, unlicensed quacks peddling Viagra and growth 

hormone.  With unreadable, unicode, collateral bomb-damage 

from the gigantic spam mills in China, Korea, Thailand and 


     Let me put this to you straight: cyberspace has 

become a slum.   It's a diseased slum, festering with 

Microsoft Outlook viruses.  The viruses turn people into 

unwilling, unwitting agents of corruption and destruction.   

If you dare to use Microsoft's web products,  which are so 

easily and cruelly sabotaged, then you run a gruesome, 

unconscionable risk of doing horrible virus damage to your 

best friends and your closest collaborators.  You can give 

AIDs or herpes to the people who choose to have sex with 

you, but you can give Klez.E to people you don't even 

know.  That is a pretty far cry from the antiseptic 

Euclidean vistas of virtual reality.  Cyberspace in 2002 

is a high-tech low-life slum straight out of William 

Gibson's NEUROMANCER.  That's a great book, but the people 

who have to live in that book are pretty damn far from 


     If you could find all these busy people who are 

ruining the Internet for us, all these swindlers and 

vandals and porn-whores and stock kiters and so forth, and 

you could get them to surround this beautiful little gated 

community of ours here, man, would they look scary.   

You'd never physically choose to hang out with the likes 

of these malefactors, but the Net ships 'em right into 

your office or bedroom, rain or shine, 60-60-24-7-365.   

So, you know, where is the civility?  Where is the law and 

order?   Where is the government?  There ain't any.  

Spies, that's what we've got instead of any legitimate 

government.  Man oh man, there are a lot of spies on the 

Internet.   More every day.   The place is crawling with 


    Consider last week's British Internet scandal.  The 

British government declares, "Well, we're going to store 

everybody's websurfing records and their email, so if any 

government official wants to spy on what you're doing, 

they can make that happen pronto!"  What a grand vision, 

eh?  Wonderfully comprehensive: Orwell would blush.  

     So the British press and citizenry are like, "What?  

You're storing *everything* I do on the Net, and you want 

to filter it and mine it and show it to *anybody*?   Oh my 

God, doesn't that contravene the Helsinki Declaration, and 

the UN declaration of human rights, and fifteen leventy-

dozen European privacy statutes, and even the Magna 

Carta?"  But the British government and their happy spies 

say, "Aw come on!  It's just the Internet!"   They expect 

everyone to accept that, because really, could the 

standards there be any lower?  How could *spies* make it 

worse?  Spies are as happy as a pig in slop!

     People think I make this stuff up.  And it *is*  like 

science fiction.   Because it's all about "the 

technological sublime."  It's all about the sense of 

wonder, and its limits as a political and industrial 

policy.   The Vision Thing.  You are supposed to have a 

vision thing, even if you are one of our President Bushes.  

Because without vision, the people perish. Without vision, 

the means always dominate the ends.  Without vision, the 

least little shock to the system is an existential crisis 

of confidence. 

     A "sublime" thing inspires awe and wonder.  It's 

fantastic, amazing, and astounding.  It has grandeur, it 

ruptures the everyday.  The sublime is a liberating 

spectacle that lifts the human spirit to the plateaus of 

high imagination.  Science fiction dotes on this practice.  

You can go back to the historical roots of science 

fiction, and you can see science fiction methodically 

using the technological sublime as a kind of all-purpose 

cleanser.   It's rooting out the sewers of a stale 

civilization by making extravagant promises of better 

things to come.   Railroads, photography,  aviation, giant  

dams, rural electrification (I know that sounds corny to 

us, but the Soviets used to be very big on that),  atomic 

power and atomic weapons, space flight, lysergic acid, 

television, computers, virtual reality, and the 

Information Superhighway.   All grist for the mill, folks.  

The clock never stops ticking.

     The true grandeur of technology is not to be found in 

any actual technologies.  It's AM/FM, the severe 

difference between Actual Machines, AM, and Fantastic 

Magic, FM.  A grand challenge is a grand challenge because 

it's not an actual machine but a sublime concept, a goal, 

an aspiration.  Once it's a machine, it's no longer a 

challenge, it is hardware.  Science-fiction is crammed 

with imaginary technologies:  time machines, 

interplanetary starships and human-like robots.   They 

stay sublime, they don't get stale.  Because they're never 

made real.

     Due to human nature, familiarity breeds contempt, 

especially for technology.   Technologies that are 

integrated into the fabric of everyday life can no  longer 

be perceived as "technology."   No matter how grand and 

elaborate and complex they may be.  My teenage daughter 

has a Pentium III running Windows 95.  She knows it's a 

piece of junk.   Because it is.  It's stale and old.  It 

doesn't matter how much fantastic press it got in 1995.

      Many technologies of profound cultural importance, 

such as immunization, plumbing, recycling and the birth 

control pill, never become sublime.  They are high 

technology without the high.  The height within high 

technology has very little to do with the scientific 

principles involved or any inherent difficulties of the 

engineering.  The height is entirely a social judgement.  

It has distinctly metaphysical overtones.  Science fiction 

is one of the arenas in which these judgements are cast, 

in which some forms of technological advance are valorized 

as marvelous and worthy of mass attention, while others 

remain the obscure work of specialists or even die off 

entirely.  And the clock never stops ticking, especially 

for science fiction.  Sublimity is as thin as lipstick, it 

wears off at a kiss.  The sense of wonder has a very short 


      The Space Shuttle  is still  sublime, even though it 

is three decades old.  It's clunky, and it's rusty, and it 

has severe software and hardware problems,  and it kills 

people, and it has no destination to which to "shuttle".  

But the Shuttle is still romantic and futuristic.  Why?   

Because it's not familiar.  You can't buy one on eBay or 


      We need the technological sublime.  The 

technological sublime is a narrative, it's a cultural 

story.  It's something we tell ourselves to get out of bed 

in the morning.  It has its difficulties and its 

shortcomings, but the other narrations are *worse.*  Like 

the  narrative of Al Qaeda necromancy, which boldly claims 

that history will stand still, and we'll all be holy and 

sacred forever, just like in the mythic early times of the 

Koran, if only enough of us blow ourselves up.  

     I'm not going to overdo it here with my literary 

topics, ladies and gentlemen. Osama bin Laden may be a 

noted poet, but we American pop authors have some 

interesting technical challenges of our own.  Here's a 

good one:  how the hell do you write a thriller novel in a 

world that has cellphones?  I happen to be writing a 

thriller novel right now: in fact, I'm here researching 

it, not that you'd ever guess. I'm not really here to 

pontificate at you. I'm here to soak up your grand ideas 

for use in fiction, because I need them even worse than 

you do.  

     It's amazing how little technical room is left for 

the customary cliches of a thriller novel, in this, our 

modern, digitized, networked society.  No more car chases 

== because I just use my cellphone and I call the cops in 

the next town.  No more gunfights in deserted warehouses 

== I just use my cellphone and I call the cops.  No more 

trailing the spy to his sinister lair == I just use my 

cellphone and I call up the cop's video monitors.  

     I'm an author,  but I get it about about gizmos.  I 

have to, but I don't mind that much.  I'm eager to get 

with the machinery.  I've got a feverish literary need to 

step closer to the techno-fire here.  I'm blissfully 

yielding to the hands-on imperative. 

    So let get right down to some brass virtual tacks 

here, shall we?  Let me demo a couple  of my favorite 

blue-sky notions out of your field of endeavor.  Nothing 

up my sleeves, but I'll pull us a couple of  sci-fi 

rabbits from way outside of the box here.  We'll see if 

they interbreed.

    Here's my first pitch.  It may be slightly familiar to 

those of you who watch Jordan Pollack's lab, because 

heaven knows I do.   Jordan Pollack is into genetic 

algorithms, he likes to evolve  machines.  He had some 

do all their research and development as virtual objects, 

and when they get good, then you make them real.

    Yes, I know this notion is farfetched, but I wrote a 

science fiction story about this.  It won an award and was 

widely anthologized, so hey, that concept is definitely 

paying off for me.

    Maybe you start small, by simulating and evolving, 

say, some primitive, simple tools, like can-openers and 


     It's pretty easy to scan and input a can-opener or a 

mousetrap.  You might seed your artificial physics with 

the design of some conventional mousetrap, and see how 

they evolve.    But it's yet more interesting to simply 

litter the simulated landscape with objects that act like 

mice, and attack them with soft, helpless, gelatinous 

blobs.   You don't want to pre-judge the phase space of 

the problem by making any human decisions about possible 

methods of trapping mice.  Get the human out of the loop 

entirely, that's the scheme.  Reward any possible 

mechanical entity that can grab or mangle a simulated 


    Let them crossbreed.   Like the mice themselves, I 

guess.  Kind of a genetic-algorithm, arms race thing.    

Have an overseer program keeping tabs.   Whenever a mouse 

gets whacked, a bell goes off.  You  run to the screen, 

and you see this hour's brand-new mousekiller doing its 

virtual stuff.  

    Human beings rush over and stare with eyes like 

saucers and == man, they can't believe it!  Nobody would 

*ever* have thought that a device like that could ever 

catch a mouse == but you know, we got the complete design 

specs for it right here in memory!  We just hit 'print' 

and this unprecedented mousetrap will be smelted out for 

us on the spot!  We'll see how it works in real life!  

Maybe we can put our logo on it and sell a million of them 

on eBay!  Ralph Waldo Emerson, stand back!  We *grew* a 

better mousetrap!  The world's beating a path to our door!  

Call the reporters!  Put it on the website!

    Once we've got that part of the grand challenge 

  Whenever a mouse 

gets whacked, a bell goes off.  You  run to the screen, 

and you see this hour's brand-new mousekiller doing its 

virtual stuff.  

    Human beings rush over and stare with eyes like 

saucers and == man, they can't believe it!  Nobody would 

*ever* have thought that a device like that could ever 

catch a mouse == but you know, we got the complete design 

specs for it right here in memory!  We just hit 'print' 

and this unprecedented mousetrap will be smelted out for 

us on the spot!  We'll see how it works in real life!  

Maybe we can put our logo on it and sell a million of them 

on eBay!  Ralph Waldo Emerson, stand back!  We *grew* a 

better mousetrap!  The world's beating a path to our door!  

Call the reporters!  Put it on the website!

    Once we've got that part of the grand challenge 

down... and hey, I'm not claiming it's easy ==  we want to 

extend the process to the big stuff.   Heavy iron. For 

instance, internal combustion engines.   

      We go over to Bill Ford's River Rouge plant.  Bill 

Ford is a grandfather himself by now, but you know, Bill 

Ford is still a visionary.  And we tell him: Bill, Mr. 

Ford, my good man, let's put a big piece of Detroit iron 

in this computer here.  That's right, Bill, here in this 

titanium laptop.  We're running Linux in this baby and not 

only is it freeware,  we actually *grew* all the code in 

this laptop.  So there.  You can trust us with your 

industry and your revenue stream, Bill, we're computer 

scientists, we know what we're doing.   You just stick the 

manufacturing specs for the latest Ford engine in here, 

and we start systematically disturbing its components in 

random ways.  We'll see which configuration delivers the 

most horsepower for the least fuel consumption. 

    Ladies and gentlemen, I know that simulating an entire 

automobile engine at very low granularity would be a 

rather difficult task.  But once you've done that, you 

ought to be able to subject this virtual engine to all 

kinds of unprecedented indignities.  You can explore huge 

regions of the possible design space that would never 

occur to any merely intelligent human being.  If evolution 

can bring us pterodactyls and coral reefs, why can't it 

make us a car?   

     Or for you DARPA types:  what happens when you 

crossbreed a Predator aircraft with an Israeli Bulldog 

drone?  Of course, billions of these bastardized spy 

aircraft will be total junk, they won't fly at all and 

can't communicate their data from sensor-to-shooter, but 

who cares?  Computers are great at sorting.   An exaflops 

machine just keeps remorselessly grinding out new models, 

like monkeys typing Shakespeare.   You never see the 

billions and trillions of failed mutants.  You'll only see 

the lottery winners. 

    Let's go just a little further with the concept, shall 

we? One more dainty step down the garden path.  Suppose 

you simulate the human body.   Human bodies usually have 

pretty good on-site system administrators, but just how 

well have their capacities really been exploited?   It's 

pretty amazing how long it took people to devise the 

Australian crawl in swimming.    There may be aspects of 

human body movement that never occur to us == because we 

live inside human bodies.  We lack the proper objectivity, 

that's the problem.   What we need is a kind of New 

Economy, new business model breakthrough for moving our 

own bodies.

     How many undiscovered judo throws are there, for 

instance?   It's all corny, mystical Eastern handicraft, 

judo, and karate, and yoga, and such; we never digitized 

all that, we never worked it out methodically as a problem 

in physics.   Imagine a soldier trained in forms of hand-

to-hand combat that had been discovered in computer 

searches of the entire phase space of the physical 

mechanics of combat.   He might perform weird but deadly 

movements that are utterly counterintuitive.  He's simply 

stun the opponent through sheer disbelief. When he got 

wound-up, it would look like outtakes from THE MATRIX.

    Ladies and gentlemen, yes,  I know that THE MATRIX is 

a sci-fi movie.  In my game, you get the good stuff where 

you find it, okay?  I don't have to name-check sci-fi 

movies up here.  I could have stolen you something nice 

and exciting from the many bright and accomplished people 

at Microsoft Research and Development.   I pay attention 

to them, too.  I know they're into stuff like a Sensory 

Pocket PC that that detects touch, tilt and motion; and 

Chinese text-to-speech software that probably detects 

Chinese piracy in real-time.   So I tried that.  I Googled 

it.  I surfed over to the Microsoft Research "Archived 

Headlines", but since they are a modern computer company 

instead of a big-budget science fiction movie, this is 

what I got off their web page:

    [Microsoft][SQL Server Driver] Invalid object name    


     Drivers error '80040e37'

     So, back to the science fiction.  Now I'll tell you 

what's really got my attention lately, the stuff in your 

field that I consider really groovy and with-it and hip.  

Ubicomp.  Oh yeah.  I know it's got a million names.  All 

kinds of jargon.  Pervasive computing.  Wearable  

computers.  Intelligent environment. Wireless internet. 

Peripheral computing. Self-configuring, adaptively 

coordinated Embedded Nets.  Things That Think.  Locator 

Tags.  JINI.  Wearware. Personal Area Networking.  And so 

forth.  This kind of disruption in my beloved English 

language is like the rumblings of a tectonic fault.  The 

signs are very good that something large, expensive and 

important will tear loose there.  

   I personally prefer the word "ubicomp" because it 

sounds so cheap.   Ubicomp:  that sounds like you go down 

to the hardware store and buy a few gallons.  You don't 

have to genuflect to it, but it's still a grand challenge.   

Because ubicomp is truly a profound  idea.  It has 

grandeur, and better yet, it's not metaphysical.  You 

don't have to handwave with any big  verbal catch-all 

terms like "artificial intelligence".  Or "evolution."  Or 

"nano-" anything.  Or "virtual" anything.  And that's 


     Ubicomp is about physicality.  So ubicomp's got what 

my friend and colleague Judith Berman likes to call an 

"empirical referent."  When you've got an empirical 

referent, you can't just make it all up and sell stock in 

it.  You have to demo or die.  You're got an anchor point 

in consensus reality.  This is, of course, the very 

opposite of what Judith Berman and I try to achieve when 

we are writing science fiction, but that's why we're not 

in your industry.

   Suppose that ubicomp really took off.  What would that 

mean, how would that feel?   Well, the first suggested 

uses for ubicomp are pretty primitive: because the chips 

are too big and they need a lot of power.  A refrigerator 

is always plugged into the wall.  So maybe my ubicomp 

refrigerator reads the bar-codes on all the groceries that 

enter and leave it.  It answers my cellphone when I call 

it from the grocery, and it gets me up to speed how old 

the yogurt is.

    Cars have plenty of onboard power.  So my ubicomp car 

gets to become a dangerous, highly distracting, mobile 

office on wheels.  It's reading textfiles aloud over its 

radio speakers.  It's taking voicemail. It asks for handy 

directions from satellites overhead and the local street-

signs.  The tires complain when the tread gets low.  The 

gas tank knows all its favorite gas stations in the area. 

     These innovations just add a sexy blink and smile to 

products that already exist. They aren't grand ubicomp 

challenges.  The grand challenge in ubicomp is to reform 

the basic, primal relationships between humanity and 


    If physical objects misbehaved as badly as modern 

computer software does, then human life would become 

hellish.  It would be murderous.  This is definitely a 

grand challenge, because it is also the kind of nightmare 

one reads in the darkest tales from RISKS DIGEST.  "Risks 

to the Public in Computers and Related Systems" from the 

ACM == I love that publication, I read it faithfully.  The 

comic potential alone makes it more than worth my time as 

a novelist.

    Well, when *everything* public is a "computer related 

system," then there's no limit to the risk.     A single 

instant's bad driving can kill you and your family. 

Automated kitchens can slice, dice and fry the unwary.  So 

those aren't good places to start.

     So what is a good place to start with ubicomp?   

Let's talk about express shipping.  Here we have a nice 

big camel's nose in the tent for a break-out ubicomp 

scenario.  With the modern express package, chip-function 

is added to a portable object in a way which is not only 

convenient, but a definite competitive advantage.  I can 

follow a package via Internet from distant New York right 

to the doorstep of my business. 

     If I could keep that schedule for all raw materials 

that down to the minute, then I could reschedule my 

inventory, keep stockpiles low and lean, do just-in-time 

assembly, and make a whole lot of money.  

    I don't need a "smart" package or an "agent" package. 

I don't much want to "talk" to a package. I don't want a 

package tugging my sleeve, stalking me, or selfishly 

begging for attention and commitment.  If a package really 

wants to please me and earn my respect, it needs to tell 

me three basic things: What is it? (It's the very thing I 

ordered, hopefully).  Where is it? (It's on its way at 

location x).  And what condition it is in? (It's 

functional, workable, unbroken, good to go).  The shipping 

company already needs to know these three things for their 

own convenience.  So they might as well tell me, too.  So 

I don't have to swallow my ubicomp like castor oil. My 

ubicomp arrives in a subtle way, as a kind of value-added 


    So the object arrives in my possession with the 

ubicomp attached. It's a tracking tag.  When I sign for 

that object, I keep the tracking tag.  It's mine now.  Ho 

ho ho!

    Let's say that it's something I'm really anxious to 

have: it's a highly evolved mousetrap.  The mice in my 

house are driving me nuts, because I'm a programmer.  I 

eat nothing but take-out Szechuan food, and everything in 

my house is fatally disordered.

     Luckily my new, computer-designed mousetrap quickly 

and horribly slaughters all my mice.  Not one vermin is 

left alive.  That's great service, but now I'm anxious to 

get rid of it.   I really don't need a super-mousetrap 

attracting attention, if I get lucky and a hot date comes 

over to help me play "The Sims."   

    Given that I'm a congenital slob, of course the mice 

soon return.  But by then, I've already forgotten my 

mousetrap.   Out of sight, out of mind.  I paid a lot of 

money for it, but I already forgot where I put it.

    But suppose that my mousetrap still has that shipping 

chip.  That means that the mousetrap answers when called. 

I just look up its location on my home tracking network.  

The mousetrap is still responding to my three basic 

questions: (1) it's a mousetrap, (2) it's in the northeast 

corner of the attic, and (3) it still works fine!  Those 

mice are in peril of their lives!

    Having benefitted once or twice by this, I take the 

logical next step.  I tag everything that I already own, 

lawnmowers, garden rakes, tennis shoes, carkeys, remote 

control, my eyeglasses, the works.  Now I have a ubicomp 

menagerie.  I even tag the mice.  After all, if I know 

where the mice are at all times, then I don't have to kill 

them.   I just haul the mice out of the walls and I 

sterilize them.  Then the mice become a kind of tame 

garbage disposal system. 

   Other huge benefits ensue.  I no longer need to sweat 

and struggle to put my possessions into order.  My things 

can never get lost or misplaced. They can't even be stolen 

from me, because the ubicomp tags are too small to see, 

and any thief just becomes a kind of large mouse to be 

tracked down by bored cops and annihilated. 

     Ladies and gentlemen, I am a ubicomp groupie.  I 

regard ubicomp as a really nifty, high-concept scheme.  If 

it were just a matter of intellectual sexiness, sci-fi 

appeal, and technical brio, man, we could breeze for this 

technology.  We'd be rolling out the old IPOs, and getting 

cover stories in WIRED magazine, and  Dell would be 

underpricing us, and hoo boy, the sky's the limit.

     But that's not the way your industry works these 

days.  Because people, your industry is showing its age.  

And it has pulled that old Grand Challenge hat trick a few 

times too many.

   Okay, check this out. Here is a clear precursor to 

ubicomp, poking its head above the trench here, getting 

ready to charge the no-man's-land.  Ultra-wideband.  Wi-

fi.  Airport.  802dot11.  802 dot 11 b and g. AirHead. 

Nokia Rooftop. Mesh Network SkyPilot I-Burst base-station 

smart cells.   Ladies and gentlemen, we are having a 

classic, distributed, heavily networked, spontaneous, 

logarithmic orders of magnitude, early-Internet style, 

popular eruption here.  

    This is the computer community at its anarchic, 

inventive finest, this ultra-wideband scheme.  Only this 

time around, the clock has been ticking.  The Digital 

Revolution has a track record, and it's not entirely 

pretty.  The Non-digital Counter-revolution really gets it 

about the menace that a disruptive innovation like this 

represents to the status quo.   They don't fight fair, 

because, frankly, neither do computer geeks.  Fairness was 

never an issue here.  Because "fairness" is a political 

word, it's not a technical word.  There's no such thing as 

"technical fairness."

     But there are still huge, severe issues of power and 

access and money.   So, the many frightened opponents of 

ultrawideband are not sitting still like the wallflowers 

at the sock hop.  On the contrary, they are going for the 

throat of this young thing.  They are going to wallop that 

little genie on the back of the head with a blackjack and 

stuff it right back in the bottle.  Check this out:

    The U.S. Federal Communications Commission approves 

the technology for limited commercial use in February.  

But in come some heavy operators: all the major wireless 

carriers, the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. 

Department of Defense, satellite radio companies, and the 

entire global positioning system community.   They want to 

strangle ultra-wideband in its crib == to kill it while 

it's still stuck in the standards.

    Okay, just like the Internet, ultra-wideband is 

something used for decades by the military.  It's spooky 

stuff.  It is used to communicate wirelessly without being 

detected by opposition forces.  All of a sudden the 

Silicon Valley crowd gets it about the raw potential.  Not 

the "commercial" potential, really, because there doesn't 

seem to be a business app for it == but, you know, the 

good old-fashioned *potential* potential.  Build it and 

they will come, right?

     Ultra-wideband is  low-cost, low-power, high-speed, 

and best of all, it is the number-one alternative to a 

whole crowd of normal-wideband,  stocks-on-fire, money-

losing technologies run by guys like Gary Winnick of 

Global Crossing, and Bernie Ebbers of Worldcom, and the 

Rigas family of Adelphia Communications. 

    So, ultra-wideband is a grand challenge with a lot of 

deadly enemies.  Experienced enemies who are sick of being 

burned by disruptive new technologies.   Out comes the 

Fear Uncertainty and Doubt.  Nine hundred companies file 

concerns with the FCC. The GPS will fritz, they say; 

airplanes will fall out of the sky.  This is cynical 

baloney.  Everybody knows that, but evil stuff like that 

has to be said; because these are classic not-in-my-back-

yard tactics.  Cynical, tooth-gritting tactics that people 

use when their backs are against the wall.   

    This is the sort of civil-disobedience fervor that we 

see from anti-genetics campaigners and anti-nuclear 

activists.  Except that instead of being hippie zealots, 

it's guys the likes of ABC Disney and the music recording 

industry.   Wi-Fi isn't Al Qaeda, they're not going to 

knock down any airplanes.  But this is common or garden 

competitive practice for your industry these days. 

Obstructive incumbents. Monopolization.  Vicious 

infighting.  Phony-baloney regulatory obstacles. 

    Computation doesn't lack grand ideas.  There's nothing 

gone wrong with Moore's Law.  People in Nature magazine 

this week are making transistors out of single atoms!   

But it doesn't much matter how pretty these ideas are, 

because your industry has been debased.   The heavy 

players in your industry gave up expecting any justice 

from the Justice Department, or any civility from civil 


    They are having a civil war, where guys who own the 

operating system and guys who own the intellectual 

property go for each other like Lebanese militia factions.   

It is war to the knife inside the box.  In the eyes of the 

public, your captains of industry have no honor.  They are 

either fatcat swindling behemoths ruthlessly trampling the 

public good, or else they are self-appointed digital fire 

ants giving Mickey Mouse the death of a thousand bites.  

This is not a pretty sight.  

    Your best friends won't tell you == but I'm a science 

fiction writer, and most of you guys are academics or in 

government, so I'll tell you.   The computer industry is 

full of smart geeks who never took out their garbage. They 

were so busy that they forgot about elementary business 

hygiene.  They smell.  They are becoming repulsive.

    Now, computation is my favorite little industry.  But 

you know, if you never take out your garbage, and the 

clock keeps ticking, then you've got vermin.   It rots 

from the head down, the computer industry.   The moguls in 

computing aren't knights in shining armor, these are some 

of the meanest robber barons anybody has ever seen.  These 

guys are like ninja assassins armed with rusty stilettos. 

They are stealing each other's market oxygen.  They are 

stabbing each other's babies.  They went straight from 

Internet anarchy to feudalist monopoly domination.  They 

went straight from the barbarism of the garage startup to 

the decadence of bribing the government, suborning 

accountants, and paying themselves with stock options that 

aren't on the company books.  And oh my goodness did the 

chickens come home and start roosting.

    They never clean anything up.  They just dump the last 

box and start over.  The Internet stinks right now because 

we are getting the Internet we deserve.  

   Ladies and gentlemen, it doesn't give me any pleasure 

to tell you these things.  They are painful things, and 

they are ugly things, and they are shameful and demeaning 

things, things unworthy of a healthy industry, things 

unworthy of a functional government, things unworthy of a 

free people.  But I'm telling you the truth, and you know 

it.  You know it *better* than I know it. 

     Okay == to be painfully, totally honest == maybe it 

*does* gives me a little pleasure to tell you these 

things.  But to have a garbage problem is not the end of 

the world.  If you're a lazy hacker slob who lives on 

take-out Chinese and Cheetos, you can reform.  I've seen 

it done.  You grow up, that's the secret.  You get older, 

you take responsibility, you face up to it.

    Arthur C. Clarke, a great science fiction writer, made 

up an interesting aphorism once.  "Any technology that is 

sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic."  

But that doesn't mean that any technology ever *is* magic 

== just because the rubes up in the gallery  can't tell 

the difference.  You want to see an industry with a 

serious garbage problem, check out the *nuclear* industry.  

The computer industry is still young.  It's not as young 

as it thinks it is, but at least it's still kind of 

imaginative and dreamy, it hasn't become a byword for 

warfare, radiological dirty-bombing and permanent 


    The truth is that ALL technologies have garbage.  

Until they can pick up after themselves, they are 

immature.   Any garbage that is sufficiently advanced is 

also indistinguishable from magic.  It may look magic, but 

it's still garbage.

    Ladies and gentlemen, although I've been harsh with 

you, I am bringing you a message of hope and aspiration. 

What if it's *smart* garbage?   When ubicomp become 

garbage (as all gizmos and gadgets are inherently likely 

to do) it can be smart garbage!  It's garbage that knows 

that it's garbage.   It's garbage that can identify itself 

to the junk recycler.  It doesn't go out of sight, out of 

mind, where it's allowed to fester like a leftover 

computer virus.  Without vision, the people perish; but 

*with* some vision, what the heck, let's live it up!      

The gizmos fold themselves right back into the production 

stream.  They don't spew toxins or waste, because even the 

trash is computational.  We've got a gizmo that is smart 

enough to make its peace with the clock.  It truly got 

ahead of its time.

    I see by my digital wristwatch here that time stops 

for no man, and I am out of time too.  That's all I have 

to tell you tonight.  Thanks for entertaining my 

speculations. I hope you have a great, productive 


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Posted by DeLong at June 28, 2002 05:21 PM | TrackBack

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