The importance of constraints

XVI.3 May + June 2009
Page: 25
Digital Citation

(P)REVIEWHe’s at it again

Ryan Jahn

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Bruce Sterling's The Caryatids is a masterful, though at times haphazard, collection of egos, high-tech devices, and immersive environments that paint a terrifying picture of the future for anyone familiar with the potential of technology. Sterling takes on a massive scope, depicting a world nearing apocalypse by pollution, a supervolcano, and solar flares (pick your poison), plus all the sloppy politics, pop culture, environmental work, and "business think" that comes with it. Sterling's delivery is descriptive and chaotic—you'd better keep up.

It is bittersweet entertainment when the fate of the world is in the hands of four women driven by hatred. I don't mind putting my salvation in the hands of a Will Smith or a Lara Croft when apocalypse draws near, but instead, in 2065, the world is stuck with the relentlessly frustrating shells of women with no aim or direction, united only by contempt for their mother and for each other. Their impulsive behavior becomes truly unsettling when Sterling illustrates how the personal dilemmas of individuals with power can so easily change the course of history. They're the type of characters you will love to hate. Eventually, I severed my sympathy for these wandering souls and was struck with the sobering realization that there is nothing romantic about a dying Earth. It's the kind of world you can imagine, but don't want to, because it's horrifying.

Clone copies of their war criminal "mother," the surviving Mihajlovic sisters—the Caryatids—each serve as a figurehead for a particular sociocultural corner of the Earth. Vera is an environmentalist workaholic bent on saving her childhood homeland, the Croatian island of Mljet, from toxic pollution. Vera's group, the Acquis, is a controversial environmental refugee camp that has completely integrated Mljet with "sensorweb," an interface that mediates human interaction with the physical world by projecting informational tags onto almost everything. Each cadre is given a pair of "spex" in order to see this mediation interface.

The book opens with Vera strapped in "boneware" (a body suit reminiscent of Obidiah Stanes's "Iron Monger" armor from the Iron Man series) working to pump toxic ooze from the Earth. She also wears a "neural helmet," which reveals the emotional states of individuals in order to build transparent community and monitor collective emotions. This type of work is a daily activity on Mljet. Radmila, a second clone sister, is a powerful Hollywood pop icon propped up on stardom and scandals. She is the head of the Family-Firm, a Western organization of socialites that use their prestige and power to control California and the American economic market. Not much detail is offered around this group of individuals save that they spend lots of money and act absurdly. Sonja is a medical expert and rogue war hero in China, the only superpower nation-state left in the world. Biserka is a villainous force of vengeance, who appears to be a Luddite, roaming the "blackspots"—areas void of sensorweb. It's a futuristic version of today's cell phone dead zones. The story culminates when Radmila's husband, a highly networked global mastermind named John Montgomery-Montalban, must pull the sisters together in order to—you guessed it—save the world. It's hard to say if Sterling is making any serious commentary on the world's current state by offering this vision of the future because, although entertaining, the situation is grim. Sterling's apocalypse is slow, dark, and depressing.

The satire of their plight becomes screamingly obvious in lines like, "Vera, I'm here from Hollywood! I'm here to help you!" But there is no comic relief when, sadly, you realize that in the world of the Caryatids there's nothing and no one worth saving. These women are so annoying, I couldn't care less what happens to them or the people who are incompetent enough to follow their lead. Sterling writes with an eerie certainty about the future, not in ifs but in whens, indicating that perhaps the human race is fated to fulfill the dark side of its imagination. Even after eradicating AIDs and Alzheimer's, we will still be plagued by our hunger for power, money, and fame.

Sterling is a master of dreaming up a myriad of techy gadgets and gizmos with his usual quasi-prophetic, matter-of-fact style. Never mind the lack of description for these devices; there is no need, because the objects are closely tied to current technological trends and pervasive ideas that his readers already understand. Think e-commerce websites tracking your every move in order to serve you a custom experience; such motive is explored by Sterling: "Like any other commons-based peer-production method, an Acquis attention camp improved steadily with human usage. Exploiting the spex, the attention camp tracked every tiny movement of the user's eyeballs... Comparing the movements of one user's eyeballs to the eyeballs of a thousand other users, the system learned individual aptitudes."

If you're tempted to question the plausibility of these devices, you've missed the point. Sterling spells out how easily year 2065 technologies could be adopted no matter how unthinkable they may be today. Take the following and imagine a time before cell phones: "At first, they'd been bewildered. Soon they had caught on. Within a matter of weeks, they were adepts. Eventually, life became elite." I like to read this line and think of any product you might see on QVC or the Home Shopping Network. Is a society that buys into "attention camps" and "neural helmets" so bizarre, when the ShamWow won the best "As Seen On TV" tournament on Sterling meshes existing technologies with plausible creations that appear just beyond our current capabilities, and he excites (or annoys) the creative mind in the process.

While I do not think Sterling's technological devices are novel, the apocalyptic context he creates to make neural helmets and spex raises interesting questions: Were these technologies developed before or after the need to save the planet came to the fore? Would they be useful in today's political, economic, or environmental climate? Can we live in the future world without them? Do we need them to sustain us in the world we have created? As breezily as Sterling conjures up his gadgets, he destroys them: "Those technologies advanced so fast that they vanished. The languages, operating systems, frameworks of interaction, the eyeball-blasting laser-colored neural helmets... all that stuff is more primitive than steam engines now." He reminds us that our creations are not permanent, that there are always unforeseen consequences to our efforts. "I mean, you can tell how a steam engine works by just looking at it, but a complex, distributed, ubiquitous system? There's no way to maintain that!"

The book culminates with the sisters huddled face-to-face, forced to reconcile their hatred for each other or continue alone with their own futile efforts. In this moment it seems Sterling is speaking directly to the reader: "You have a decision to make; is this the world you want in the future?" By expanding his reach to address the state of the natural world, the role of individuals in societies, and the proliferation of modern technology, Sterling constructs an intellectual playground for the thinkers and makers of technological marvels to not only paint a world we should avoid, but also to challenge our imaginations, our actions, and what is worth our time.

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Ryan Jahn is an interaction designer with Empathy Lab in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, where he advocates for contextual research methods and user-centered design processes for Fortune 500 clients. Jahn has a diverse set of design experience and skills ranging from financial and pharmaceutical software systems, to branded e-commerce websites, to researching truancy among teens in Savannah, Georgia. He is also co-founder of Moat Design Studio and a member of Part-Time Studios in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/0500  $5.00

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