Sterling’s “The Interoperation”

“The Interoperation” is a short story by Bruce Sterling, award-winning science fiction author and futurist. Sterling has always been one of the most canny and entertaining prognosticators of architectural futures, and this latest work does not disappoint. “The Interoperation” deftly and fondly sends up starchitecture, obsolescence, digitization, networking and the vagaries of fame. It explores the design process more deeply than his previous fiction. Like most works by Sterling, the story is shambling, episodic and lacking in coherent structure.

While Sterling has in the past been skeptical of Peak Oil and Kunstler’s Long Emergency thesis in particular, note that “The Interoperation” is set firmly in an imagined post-Peak Oil era. Travel is mostly by bike and train; cross country trips are rare; recycling is a pillar of the economy; and sustainability saturates business practices thoroughly.

A few excerpts are below the fold.

The Interoperation
By Bruce Sterling
Technology Review, November/December 2007 issue
Single page, printer-friendly version

The Costa Vista Motel was the first, last, and only building that Yuri Lozano had created as a certified, practicing architect. It had been “designed for disassembly,” way back in 2020. So today, some 26 years later, Yuri had hired the giant deconstruction-bot to fully reclaim the motel’s materials: the bricks, the solar shingles, the electrical fixtures, the metal plumbing. The structure was being defabricated, with a mindless precision, right down to its last, least, humble hinges.

Nowadays, Preston spent his lonely hours grooming architecture websites. There he gamely removed the moronic popular commentary and tried to drum up some intelligent interest in the doctrines of Arts & Crafts, Futurism, the modern movement, the postmodern movement, and New Urbanism.

These were architectural schemes that long-forgotten people had created with pencils on paper. No proper 21st-century person could tell these primitive notions apart. Still, some critic was bound to take a keen interest in such efflorescences of human genius, and it was bound to be some weedy obsessive like Preston Mengies.

The Church of Computer-Human Symbiosis was an aging group of California hacker cranks who had inherited the vast fortune of a vanished social-software company. They had long been Roebel’s ideal patrons

, for they were crazily rich, all-forgiving, and incapable of judgment.

Over the decades, Roebel had built the cult an awesome set of monumental churches. His temples were top-end architecture glamour hits; glossy photo books about them weighed down coffee tables on six continents.

Nobody ever worshiped in the amazing churches Roebel had built, because the cult was too crazy and scary. Furthermore, the roofs leaked and all the utilities malfunctioned. Still, that didn’t much matter to the cultists. They were serenely indifferent to such earthly concerns, since they spent most of their waking lives playing immersive simulation games.

Yuri recalled that ClearWorks had been programmed by just one guy. It was the brainwork of a single geek, some embittered dissident from the early CAD business. The name of this lonesome genius was Greg Something, or Bob Something, or Jim Something, and he was the type of arrogant, self-aggrandizing, utterly unworldly, Unix-bearded software-genius figure who wanted to create a programmatic universe all by himself.

Greg-Jim-Bob had never managed that feat, but he’d managed to create ClearWorks. That program had become a legend among its users. All the cognoscenti and digerati and designerati vied to praise ClearWorks. Of course, nobody actually used it. If you gave people the tools that were perfect for their jobs, they’d have nothing to do but their jobs.

The whole secret of the network revolution was that it connected everybody, and it therefore caused everybody to do everybody else’s jobs.

Yuri had begun to sense the way the programmer thought. No geek from 30 years ago could ever think like a modern builder. Though he had a cunning intuitive arsenal of cool ways to assemble his sand, he lacked any cool ways to disassemble his sand.

It was as if he thought that real buildings went up in some Platonic cyberspace where gravity, friction, and entropy had never existed. Where the passage of the years was just an abstraction. The author of ClearWorks was pure geek, so he didn’t realize that when you meshed bits and atoms, you had to respect the atoms. Bits were the servants of atoms. “Bits” were just bits of atoms.

Bits came and went at the flick of a switch

, but atoms had deep and dark and permanent physical laws. Atoms didn’t go away when you shut down the screen. When you lacked a responsible way to deal with the atoms, you were a menace to yourself and all around you.


Bruce Sterling’s blog, Beyond the Beyond

Sterling’s Viridian Design movement with its very own manifesto and design principles. (Here I’ll flog my own website design that was the initial design used for the Viridian website.)

Shaping Things by Sterling, a nonfiction pamphlet about the future and sustainability of industrial design. Table of contents and sample chapters.

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