Another South by Southwest (SXSW) interactive has just finished wrapping up. As tradition would have it Bruce Sterling, Sci-Fi writer, Visionary in residence and Transglobal Futurist gave his annual closing keynote address, this year labelled as “The Ultimate Bruce Sterling Talk”. His thoughts on the current and future state of technology and it’s intersections with people and politics are always something I look forward to hearing.

This year was just as special with Sterling opening his address by lamenting that the state of the world was even worse than last year which he described as a horrible, shameful thing to watch. He talked of the current burden of debt placed upon students who had no possibilities of employment at present calling it a “smart tax on the population”. Moving on from a discussion of Mexico which despite being plagued by Narco-cultura was becoming a new hot bed of artistic talent through to his thoughts on fabricators. His attitude being that now was the time to get on board with 3d printing and fabrication likening it to investing in your first 300 baud modem back in the 80’s way before the internet explosion.

After a conversation about geek art and aesthetics destined to become dominant in mainstream culture Sterling got to the main point of his speech with a discussion that affects everyone on the internet, companies he describes as “The Stacks”. The Stacks are companies that are setting out to build vertically integrated media empires. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon. These companies he says, want to lock you into their stack and they see their future as taking over and replacing the internet. While they are not inherently hostile to the internet they are in favour of their own situation preferring for you to use their eco-systems, a-la Facebook and Apple’s Facetime, making the rest of the internet irrelevant.

These Stacks, he says, offer no prosperity, security or wellbeing to participants, other than shareholders. The internet had users; Stack users are livestock. The Stacks want to reduce you to “dog status” which they see as the easiest way of handling you. People like the Stacks because the internet scares them and the walled garden is a more comfortable experience. While he believes the “lords of the stack are not bad guys” we shouldn’t be so dependent on these Stacks which he thinks are leading to the life blood being drained out of other forms of expression such as music, literature and film. Each stack thinks it’s the future and they think the other four are doomed and irrelevant. Sterling predicts that all five will be rendered irrelevant and be destroyed but he doesn’t think that when the end comes for them it will be pretty.

Sterling’s keynote as usual gives plenty of food for thought. Will his predictions turn out to be true? Will the internet prevail? Let us know what you think.

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