Bruce Sterling, who gave the opening keynote, went on his typical rant about how artists are forced to create work from things they can’t control, such as GPS and data surveillance networks. He then explained that the NSA was present at the birth of computation as a form of information gathering and as a control system. Sterling believes that this methodology has now transferred over to corporations such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, who are mining their customer’s data to feed into a growing advertising algorithm that will ultimately target us for ads before we know what we want. This realization was coupled with the prognoses that “the rot of data is our heritage, stop pretending that bits don’t decay, the internet of things is at hand, and that corporations such as Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Facebook, and Google are impositions that destroy [one’s] self-respect and self-esteem.” This type of prophecy was evident in most of the panels, speakers, and overall discussions around the conference floor. It is precisely the fact that these kinds of future-facing topics abound at Transmediale that makes the festival a much more interrogative platform and exchange layer for visitors, artists, and attendees than most of the other big media art festivals around the world.
Bruce Sterling’s keynote at the Transmediale conference in Berlin is one of his best-ever outings (and I say that as a person who dropped out of university and totally upended his life after reading a transcript of one of Bruce’s speeches). Sterling addresses the bankruptcy of tech giants, who have morphed themselves into intrusive presences that carry water for the surveillance industry, and lays out a credible case for a future where they are forgotten footnotes in our history. In particular, I was impressed by this speech because it corrected some serious errors from Sterling’s essay “The Ecuadorian Library,” which, as Danny O’Brien pointed out completely misattributed a kind of optimistic naivete to technology activists past and present. In this speech, Sterling revisits the origins and ongoing reality of the project to remake technology as a force for freedom, and corrects the record. As Sterling says, John Perry Barlow didn’t write the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace because he thought the cops couldn’t or wouldn’t try to take over the Internet: he wrote it because the cops were trying to take it over, and he was “shouting through a megaphone” at them.