Global Algorithm 1.9: Unstable Networks

Special Issues: Global Algorithm

Editors’ Note: Bruce Sterling vectored through Canada a few weeks ago to give the following “State of the Digital Nation” address at a conference in Vancouver, BC.

Global Algorithm 1.9: Unstable Networks

The commentary at cyberspace events often comes from a surprisingly wide area of the political and social spectrum, especially considering that most of the principals dress alike, look alike, and all use the same machinery. Still, the widely various people who speak at events like this have a bedrock of agreement. They will all declare that these are unprecedented and revolutionary times for computer communications, and that the decisions we make right now are going to drastically affect society for dozens, if not hundreds, of years to come.

And there’s a lot of home truth in that assessment. We really have been involved in a revolutionary epoch – during the past seven years the status quo has taken a terrible battering, not just in the world of computation, but across the board, economically, politically, socially. There is a level of instability loose at the end of the 20th century that has not been around since at least 1945. Computer communications is one of most powerful, most influential, and least stable areas in the new world disorder.

However, it seems to me that finally, now, in the summer of 1996, we may have attained a comparative breathing-space. The flash-bulb of cyber-novelty has begun to fade from the retina of the public eye.

The bloom of apparently unlimited possibility has receded a bit. We’ve begun to get a grip on our dumbfounded wonder. This process may be disillusioning, but one needn’t feel cynical about it. It’s not a cause for despair. That’s the lovely thing about unlimited possibility and its down-and-dirty interaction with the human condition.

There you are, you see – facing the marvelous unknown – all those possibilities. And, being human, you just have to make one little decision. Take one little action – just to show that you can, really. And there’s a reaction to that action, and that’s gratifying, so you take another step. Then another, and another, and another, and pretty soon you’ve got kids and a mortgage. You’re committed. That’s life.

We’ve managed to take some very important and very consequential actions in the past seven years. They may not have been wise actions, but we’re not wise; we’re just blundering about and doing the best we can. And what was the upshot? Basically, we’ve bet the farm on the digital imperative.

In the year 1996, everything aspires to the condition of software. Art, politics, music, money, words-in-a-row, even sex wants to be digital and on a network. Everything aspires to the nebulous and liquid quality of moving digital information. We’re getting used to this prospect in 1996. We can spare ourselves the exhilarating sense of hysteria that this new reality provokes. We should seize this chance to get a little mental oxygen. We’ll need it.

The year 1996 is nicely poised between the world-shattering events of 1989 and the onrushing specter of the year 2000. The planet is still visibly recovering from 1989, the year the cold war ended, and maybe the first year in which computer networks came creeping out of technical obscurity to seriously menace the status quo. Unless I miss my guess, the year 2000 will also be a truly extraordinary historical moment. The year 2000 will be an excellent opportunity to deny and dispose of the deeply repugnant twentieth century. In the year 2000 there will be a general erasing of the memory banks, a bitter scorn for the hopelessly outdated, a firm and somewhat frantic rejection of a great deal of cultural baggage. Like most New Year’s Parties, it’ll feel so good that none of us will be able to resist. In the year 2000, we’ll all be engaged in a general frenzy of bright-eyed denial.

So there’s not much point in raising the black flag and rushing the barricades in 1996. That’s always a natural temptation, but we might be better advised to gather our wits and save some strength. Anything that we decide is electronic gospel right now will simply be kicked out of court in 2001. So even though we are all computer enthusiasts here, just for once let’s try not to get completely worked up. There’s sure to be plenty of time and reason for panic later.

Because now, in 1996, we really have an Information Society. We used to talk about having an information society, and dream ardently of living in one, and now we’ve actually got one. In 1989 it was still theory and vaporware, but this is 1996, and we’re in bed with it. We have to watch it eat crackers, we have to launder its sheets.

Now that we’ve got it, what can we say about it? The very first fact to bear in mind about our Information Society is that this too shall pass.

We live in the Information Age now, but there are people walking around in this city who have lived through the Aviation Age, the Radio Age, the Thousand-Year Reich, the Atomic Age, the Space Age, the New Age, the Aquarian Age, not to mention the sexual revolution and the epoch of New Soviet Man. And trust me, a lot of these geezers and geezerettes are going to outlive the Information Age as well. In the old days history used to leave people behind, but now the pace of innovation is so savage that individual human beings can leave history behind. This “age” stuff comes pretty cheap to us nowadays. We postmodern types can burn out an age in ten years.

There’s nothing more grotesquely temporary than a computer. I, personally, have two perfectly functional Apples and an Atari in a storeroom. I have no idea what to do with these computers. They cost me a great deal of money. Learning to use them was very complex and tiresome. It seemed like a very hip and groovy idea at the time, but now those high-tech gizmos are utterly obsolete and worthless. If I leave them on the sidewalk outside my house, together with the software and the manuals, nobody will bother to bend over and pick them up.

I moved house recently. This caused me to make a trip to the Austin city landfill. Austin has a very nice landfill actually, it’s manned by well-meaning Green enthusiasts who are working hard to recycle anything usable. When I went there last month I discovered a heap of junked computers that was two stories high. Dead monitors, dead keyboards, dead CPUs, dead modems. The junk people in my home town get a stack that size once a week.

I had to pay some close attention to that mighty heap of dead computers. It had all the sinister lure of the elephants’ graveyard. Most of those computers looked like they were in perfect working order. The really ominous part of the stack was the really quite large percentage of discarded junk that was still in the shrinkwrap. Never been used, and already extinct.

Sometimes I talk to audiences who aren’t computer enthusiasts like you, people who are deeply and genuinely intimidated by computers. I urge them not to worry too much. I urge them to think of a computer as something like a dragonfly. Yes, a dragonfly can do many impressive things that no human being can do, such as hover in midair and eat gnats. And yes, a dragonfly might even bite you. But you see, a dragonfly is a very temporary thing. In the height of summer, there will be whole clouds of them up there, sunlight glinting off their diaphanous wings, just flitting by, eating those gnats.

But then the winter will come. And the snow will pile high. And every one of those lovely dragonflies will be cold, and stiff, and dead. But you – you’ll be cozied up in your bathrobe and bunny slippers, sipping hot chocolate and reading Danielle Steel novels.

Gordon Moore says that a computer generation lasts about eighteen months. He says that computer chips double in power every eighteen months, roughly speaking. That means that a computer in 2010 is about 150 times as powerful as a computer in 1990. Roughly speaking. I had a computer in 1990. With any kind of luck I’ll probably be around in 2010, and I rather imagine I’ll have a computer then, too. So exactly how impressed am I supposed to get about a 1996 computer? It’s maybe five percent of the computer I’ll eventually be using. That’s like comparing a matchbox car to a Rolls Royce.

Even paperback books have a far longer lifespan than computers. It’s a humble thing, a book, but the interface doesn’t change and they don’t need software upgrades and new operating systems. A five dollar paperback book will dance on the grave of a five thousand dollar computer.

Nothing that is real is absolute. In anything real there is good news and there’s bad news. The Information Society has become a reality. There’s good news, ladies and gentlemen, and there’s bad news. The good news is, the digital revolution is over. The digits won hands down. Casualties were low, considering. We now live in the early days of the digital provisional government.

The bad news is that the provisional government is inherently unstable. Its powerbase is a giant virtual castle made of bits. Bits of sand.

It’s a very mixed bag, the information age. Don’t get me wrong; I love living here. Like a lot of my generation, I grew up more or less expecting nuclear armageddon, and with that prospect off the front burner, life for me is a carnival. In the Information Age, every day’s an adventure. I’m never bored.

The Information Age has many stellar virtues. It is market driven and extremely innovative. It’s high-tech, hip and fast on its feet. People who work in this field are deeply opportunistic and will seize on the slightest chance at daylight.

The bad news is, if you survive every day by agile broken-field running it’s easy to lose sight of your goals. In fact, you can forget the very concept of goals; you can run incredibly hard every day just to remain in the same place.

The Information Society has basically forfeited any democratic control over its own destiny. No one’s opinion is ever asked, nobody is ever polled. If we’d been asked to vote in a digital revolution, it almost certainly would never have happened. We were never offered that chance, it never occurred to us to ask for it or take it. Our lives have been turned upside down by a series of obscure technical events that transpired in a nearly perfect political vacuum. The moral idea of informed consent was never raised. Weird homemade machinery that was full of bugs and never worked very well burst out of garages in California and destroyed the modern capitalist order. That’s the story, basically. Like it or lump it.

There are vast fortunes to be made overnight in the Information Society. It’s the hottest economic game on the planet. Vast fortunes can be lost just as quickly. Worse yet, there’s no good safe place to store your loot if you make a pile and decide to jump off the jampacked no-brakes information bus. Thanks to computers, the stock market and bond market and currency markets are aswarm with sophisticated capital instruments that have created a seething global casino economy. There’s more money in the thrash of leverage, futures and derivatives than there is in rational capitalist investment. In an Information Society, even oil companies want to act like Hollywood.

Thanks to modems, cellphones, cell-faxes, laptops, beepers and satellite dishes, we’re never out of touch. I can read my email (which I happen to store in San Francisco) whenever I’m in Vancouver. The bad news is that, yes, I can read my email in Vancouver. I could be doing great British Columbia-type things instead: having the BC sushi roll, shopping in Chinatown, spiking the old growth forest. But I’ll deny myself those harmless, life-enhancing amusements, because I feel compelled to mind my business and read my email.

There might be some kind of urgent message from a publisher in Italy. I’ve had publishers in Italy for years now, but they never, ever sent me urgent messages, because they used to know full well that it was useless. Now they can reach me fast and cheap and by golly, they expect to reach me and they expect a response. Can’t neglect that email. It’s got global reach! I might get fanmail from some cypherpunk in Finland. Some teenage hacker in Abu Dhabi wants me to tell him how to break into Saudi mainframes, so he can get his hands chopped off by the authorities. I’m never out of touch. I’m never allowed to be, because there’s no place left to hide.

When I’m not changing diapers, I fancy myself quite the hip globetrotter Information Age kind of guy. That’s because I have friends in Prague. People in Prague are very friendly, they have a lovely town and a unique culture. They’re also very hospitable, and it’s a good thing, because since 1990 or so they’ve been getting about 80 million people a year through that city.

This influence of rampant globalization is hitting a little country which was deepfrozen behind the Iron Curtain for forty years. The Web throws down its virtual threading all over the world, and what does this do to indigenous cultures? I don’t think there’s a lot of use in mincing words here. I think it’s pretty clear that the Information Society engulfs and devours the little unique places.

It’s wonderful to visit Prague, but if you’re a citizen of the Information Society, you can’t touch that place without denting it. Every quiet and hidden place in the world bears our fingerprints now. As the seasoned travel writer Pico Iyer likes to put it, it’s Video Night in Katmandu.

For me this situation is great. Basically, I live and breathe and thrive through cultural imperialism. I have four books out in Denmark this year. You see, I got interviewed by some stranger over the Internet, and it turned out he worked for a major newspaper in Copenhagen. Suddenly and quite without my own intention, I became rather well-known in Denmark. This October I’m flying to Copenhagen to do my one-man corporate multinational thing.

I’ll be an American science fiction writer living it up in Denmark. How many Danish science fiction writers do I know? Zero. I know they must exist, so I hope I’ll meet some. For me to get published in their country – it’s easy, it’s something I can do by accident. For a Danish science fiction writer to get published in my country – they’d have better luck trying to ooze face-first through a one-way mirror.

Is the Internet really a many-to-many, egalitarian network? Is a guy with a modem in Copenhagen or Montreal really on the same level as a guy with a modem in Austin or San Francisco? I’d like to think that is the case. Although it clearly isn’t.

Personally, I like to talk to remote strangers on the Internet. I always go out of my way to reply politely to these odd characters around the planet with their unlikely Internet addresses and their entertainingly broken English – English which, by the way, is always a million times better than my French, my Russian, my Czech, my Danish, or my Japanese.

The good news is that I can chat with distant strangers. The bad news is that while I’m on the Internet, I’m not chatting to my next door neighbor. I’m not going to any neighborhood rallies, I’m not throwing parties for local friends, I’m not babysitting other people’s kids. It may be that I’m not even talking to my own children, who are off in the living room being raised by Nintendo. Sure, I can trade digital video clips with hackers in Borneo over World Wide Web, but for all I know my next-door neighbor is a serial killer with an icebox full of his acquaintances.

Is this a pernicious aspect of the Information Society? Well, how will we know? Who can tell? Who’s keeping track? Suppose it were pernicious – how would they stop me? Are the police supposed to unplug and confiscate my modem, tell me to go to the local Rotary Club and stop typing messages to people in Djakarta and Vladivostok? By what right?

There’s always something new in cyberspace circles. It’s unfailingly entertaining, you’ve got to give it that. There’s a scandal a week, sometimes two. I wrote a nonfiction true-crime book about one of these cyberspace scandals once – it took me a year and a half to do it. I could write a similar book once every week if there were fifty-two of me.

Let’s just dip our fingertips into this brimming cornucopia of digital bounty, shall we? Government abuse of confidential files. Software piracy on pirate bulletin boards. Canadian judicial gag rules on cases flouted by people on the Internet. The CIA, the NSA trolling the Internet for anything they might find useful. The French secret service bribing and supplying money to the Chaos Computer Club. Cryptography scandals, just no end to those; crypto has more scandals and screw-ups and bonehead moves than a 24 hour festival of the Three Stooges.

Oceans of money sloshing around. Telephone companies buying cable companies, software companies buying cellphone companies, computer companies buying parts of the radio spectrum. Internet startups offering voice phone software, telephone companies offering Internet hookups. Software patents, algorithm patents. Computer search and seizure practice. Spamming scandals, virus scandals. Poisoned JAVA applets – bad applets – rotten applets.

I’ve watched this stuff going on for years now. A pattern is emerging. It’s amazing how little is ever decided, how little there is to show at the end of the day. Everything is temporary, all band-aids and toothpicks. Every once in a while there’s a solemn edict from on high, something like America’s Communications Decency Act, a ridiculous gesture with absolutely no connection to reality. Quite often some small and innocent person is inconvenienced, insulted or even crushed by the blind mechanisms of the powers-that-be, but that changes nothing. Events that might become case law or policy are treated merely as traffic accidents on the Internet. “What, they arrested him? Too bad! What, they might arrest me too? Ha ha ha! Forget it!”

People who like computers are really smart. They’re bright, imaginative and inventive people. They also work hard, they are quick studies and they tend to have quite a lot of money and to deploy it with gusto and relish. Despite these manifest virtues, these bright, inventive computer people are some of the worst organizers in the world. They can’t organize a bridge party without wanting to change the cards half-way for a colorful graphic-intensive Tarot deck. Everybody wants to be the symbolic analyst, nobody wants to empty the ashtrays and make the hors d’oeuvres. They’re hungry all right, but they don’t want to fill the sink, roll up sleeves and do the dishes. Too slow, too dirty, too analog. Can’t we just order Chinese take-out and have it faxed in?

Instability is the congenital disorder of the lords of the Information Society. It’s their version of the mark of Cain. Even the pathetic brainwashed victims of corrupt Christian televangelists can out-organize computer people. They don’t want to build their own system, fill the potholes and root out the sewers. They want to hack the old system overnight and scamper off with unearned rewards. That’s why Ross Perot, a textbook case of a megalomaniacal computer tycoon, thinks he can make himself President by skipping any actual political career and making gestures on a TV talk show.

Computer activists react in deep existential horror at the thought of political scutwork, patiently testifying to subcommitees, lobbying legislators. Actual politics is beneath them. They want to sit down at the console, hit alt-control-F2 and have a law come out. The price of liberty is said to be eternal vigilance – but that’s a pretty steep price, isn’t it? Can’t we just automate this eternal vigilance thing? Maybe we can just install lots of 24-hour networked videocams.

The Information Society is not at all a friendly environment for the knight in gray flannel armor, the loyal employee, Mr Cog, the Organization Man. This guy is dwindling like the bison, because we can’t be bothered to support him and yet we still want his territory. We don’t want to guarantee this guy anything, because we probably won’t be around ourselves when he needs us. We Information Age types lack the patience for actual corporations, so we prefer nice, flimsy, gilded-pasteboard virtual corporations. In virtual corporations, there are no corporate power pyramids and no lines of accountability. That’s exactly why people like virtual corporations in the Information Society – amazing stuff happens and huge sums change hands, and yet no one can be held responsible. Your average high-tech start-up is one of those decentralized, empowered, Third Wave organizations. Something like a mafia. Not the old-fashioned mafia where people swore loyalty till death, though. No, it’s new and postmodern, like the Russian Mafia.

It’s the Silicon Valley ethos. People in Silicon Valley prefer to work for a company for two years and then bail. They don’t want to creep up dull and tiresome corporate ladders. I don’t blame ’em, because I sure never did it, but they have developed a hack for this. They place their bets on a bunch of different start-ups, and then have one hit big and dump a load of cash in their laps. The idea of being morally, fiscally and socially responsible for your professional activities over a twenty or thirty year period is completely anathema to Silicon Valley people, to electronic frontier people. They really do have a frontier mentality – a brave, optimistic, can-do, strip-mining, clear-cutting mentality. They don’t eat what they kill.

People as bright as really bright computer people just can’t stand to do boring things for a long boring time. They fear and despise concepts like political party discipline, institutions, armies.

That’s why the Internet is not at all like an army. An army is a vast machine for forcing somebody’s unwilling flesh into the meatgrinder. It gets results by forcing results with blood and discipline and bayonets. The internet is a vast machine for finding somebody else to write your term paper for you. It gets results by mechanically sifting through enormous heaps of useless gibberish. You pay your money and you take your choice.

The Internet is out of control. No one is responsible for it. This is its most charming aspect. It’s that sense of wizardry, that dionysian quality, the spontaneous way it accretes, the way it spreads on the wind all over the place, much like bread mold. People really enjoying watching phenomena that are out of control, especially when they’re at a safe distance, like behind the glass of a computer screen. It’s a fine spectacle, a truly noble spectacle, a 105% genuine vision thing, one of the very few aspects of contemporary society which isn’t transparently motivated by bald greed and ruthless opportunism. People lean on the Net and believe in it with a conviction all the stronger because there is so little else left for them to believe in. They don’t mind that it’s out of control, when the things that are in control are commonly bent to such sordid ends.

Of course, living in a way which is genuinely out of control is a rather different business. People like to be out of control for, like, the space of a Mardi Gras weekend. After that they want a back rub and some money. They start looking around for their house shoes. If they can’t find them they start getting anxious. And justly so.

People in the Information Society are adaptable and fast on their feet. They’re all road warriors with laptops. They don’t need a big clunky ranch house with a white picket fence; they’re living out of the back of a Ferrari. Which is very cool. Unless your grandmother loses her ranch house because the entire economy has downsized and devolved into a viral mess. Then your grandmother decides that she has to move into the back seat of the Ferrari with you. Then you and your fleet-footed highly wired lifestyle look a tad less cozy. It becomes a tad hard to tell the jetsetters from the gypsies in that situation.

All this free-floating anxiety you’ve been feeling suddenly comes home to roost. Who’s logging those frequent-flyer miles, and who’s merely homeless? It’s great to cut fine distinctions between the keyboard punching virtual class and the rust-belt lumpenproletariat, but a real no-kidding aristocracy has a host of ways to tell Us from Them. The Information Age doesn’t have that, it moves too fast for elegant manners. In the Information Age, you can be a physicist with four post-docs and still drive a cab. It’s market-driven this and market driven that, market-driven dog and market-driven cat. In the Information Society, the invisible hand of the market isn’t a human hand. It never was, but now its nature is obvious. It’s some kind of spastically twitching titanium-coated manipulator.

In the Information Society we like to believe that knowledge is power. Because it is, sort of kind of. On alternate Tuesdays, maybe. People like to say that the so-called knowledge found on the Internet is empowering to the individual. Is it really?

Let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s imagine you have a brain tumor. You’re in big trouble, but luckily, you’re on the Internet. You could try to find a brain surgeon in your home town, but why risk this old-fashioned, limited, parochial solution? Instead, you do an Alta Vista search for the term “brain surgeon.” Sure enough, you get an Internet entrepreneur. You go to an IRC channel to have a chat with this guy.

“So, can you tell me a little about your qualifications?”

“Sure! I’ve memorized the Brain Surgery Frequently Asked Questions list. I always read netnews from alt.brain.surgery. I’ve ftp’d and gophered hundreds of files about human brains. Plus, I have fifteen CD-ROMS about brain surgery. In fact, I’ve even put on a headset and goggles and performed virtual brain surgery, rehearsing the procedures hundreds of times in computer simulations. Plus, I work cheap! No union! When can you come on down to the lab?”

“So you’re not an actual MD, then?”

“Sure I got a degree, I’ve got a nice printout diploma from Dr. Benway’s Online College of Virtual Medical Knowledge. It’s based in a website in Grenada. I downloaded and read every one of the lessons, so you don’t need to worry. Software engineers don’t have licenses, politicians don’t have licenses, journalists don’t have licenses either, and those are all important knowledge-based professions, so I don’t see why you need to get all fussy about cutting people’s heads open. This is the Information Age, and thanks to the Internet I possess all the photos and words and documents that any doctor has. Why should I go through a a lot of tiresome pro forma nonsense before I hang up my shingle? Let’s do business.”

“How about the Hippocratic Oath?”

“Look, that documentation is over two thousand years old. Get up to date, pal. Your pathetic nationalist government may not approve of our healthcare methods up there in stuffy socialist Canada, but not everybody has your health system. Here in the Turks and Caicos Islands everything we do is perfectly legal.”

There’s a word for people who can learn all the buzzwords of medicine without getting a diploma, serving an internship, or joining a professional medical association. We call these people “quacks.” Quacks are a very interesting class of people. They’re inventive and clever and make a lot of money. They’ve always made a lot of money, but with the free flow of specialized information on the Internet, incredible new vistas open up for quacks. I haven’t seen many of these vistas fully exploited yet, but I rather expect to.

Information Society people may not be quacks exactly, but they sure do wear a lot of hats. I know people personally who are CD-ROM designers and software entrepreneurs and system administrators and security consultants and conference organizers, and that’s all in one week. They are clever, inventive people who are quick studies and can brush up on the jargon of several widely different occupations and convince their clients that they are genuinely skilled and experienced.

If you do that in the world of computers it’s called access to information and self-guided education, but if you try it in law or medicine or civil engineering you are best described as a “charlatan.” The Information Age may be the golden age of charlatanry.

This is the way that system-cracking hackers act, the way that hackers learn things. When system cracker people use convincing language to get people to give them access that they really shouldn’t have, they call that practice “social engineering.” It’s very powerful and very corrosive.

Hackers are very evangelical about liberating other people’s secrets. It’s a core myth of the era. There have been several Hollywood movies that hinge on gallant Robin Hood hackers breaking into a system and finding out some terrible and important secret. The baddies try to grab them and shut them up, but in the last reel the hackers always blow the hidden information all over the network and it ends up in the New York Times or CNN. End of story.

It’s a beautiful idea really, one of the central romantic myths of the Information Age. No one can shut up the heroic hacker dissidents, and the bad guys always crumble and scamper off like whipped dogs when the truth comes out. A beautiful myth. I’ve been following the hack-phreak scene for years now, hoping that someday, just once, something like that would actually happen. Some hacker kid breaks into the sinister corporate mainframe and he finds and distributes the secret and hideous data files that prove that rich guys in suits are deliberately poisoning us with dioxin. Or maybe they’ve got the aliens from the Roswell incident or just a few of the 47 guys who shot John Kennedy. If a hacker really did something like that would make up for a lot of annoyances.

Never happens. Never ever. Actually, horrible secrets come up all the time, but they’re usually found out by journalists and cops. And even that finishes up with a happy ending about one time in twenty. Does the free flow of information on the Internet help? I wonder. I do know of one revelatory scandal that broke on the Internet, the Pentium chip bug. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an example of people on the Internet unearthing and distributing a real-world non-computer-based scandal.

Something really embarrassing. The truth comes in over the modems and governments fall. Maybe that’ll happen someday. I don’t think it’s happening now.

Let me give you what seems to me to be a swell real-world example of this. I think this story is the single weirdest story I’ve ever heard over the Internet.

This story has been happening in the country of Slovakia over the past year. Slovakia used to be the right half of Czechoslovakia, but the Czech Republic ended up in the hands of Vaclav Havel, and the Slovak Republic ended up in the pockets of a gentleman named Vladimir Meciar. Meciar became Prime Minister of his new little republic, but he got into a nasty power-struggle with Slovakia’s President, a guy named Michal Kovac. Kovac and Meciar were from different parties and they just didn’t get along.

Well, President Michal Kovac has a son named Michal Kovac Jr, and this younger man was involved in some shady business deals in Austria. Meciar knew this, he was making a big deal of it. Nothing much was happening there though, his son’s financial scandal wasn’t destroying Kovac politically.

So last August eight guys jump Michal Kovac Jr in his Mercedes limo. First they handcuff him, then they put a black hood on him, then they beat him up, then they torture him with electric shocks, then they force him to guzzle half a liter of whiskey so he gets completely plastered. Then they bundle the president’s son into his own Mercedes limo, and they drive him across the border into Austria. Then they dump him and leave.

So the Austrian cops, all surprised, find the son of the President of Slovakia dead drunk in his car. So they arrest him and take him to the hospital to patch up his wounds.

So after a while the Austrian cops figure it’s kind of embarrassing to have the Slovak President’s son in the slammer, especially under these circumstances with the electric shocks and all. It’s sort of as if Hillary Clinton had been beaten up and dumped in Canada and accused of shady dealing in Arkansas real estate. I mean, maybe you Canadians would have your suspicions about Hillary, but I figure you would probably want to give her back pronto. So the Austrians let Kovak Jr go back to Slovakia. He goes back plenty mad.

Well, the Slovaks get a cop to investigate this kidnapping, but the cop gets fired right away. You see, the cop swiftly discovered that these kidnappers were members of the Slovak Intelligence Service, which is a secret police agency in the pocket of the Prime Minister. Another cop took the job, he found out the same thing, and he got fired too. The head of the Slovak Intelligence Service arranged both of these firings. He complained that the police were being too rough on his secret police agents and endangering national security.

This is all a true story, ladies and gentlemen. I’m not embroidering this, in fact I’m sparing you some of the real Prisoner of Zenda elements because they’re too melodramatic even for a science fiction writer. The scandal is looking pretty bad for the Prime Minister at this point, so he gets some of his allies in the Parliament to accuse the President of high treason.

That doesn’t work out. The treason impeachment trial doesn’t get off the ground, because the Prime Minister hasn’t figured out how to swing votes in his own parliament. And also because the President himself has actually done anything.

At this point one of the original kidnappers becomes disgusted. He’s a secret policeman and a torturer, but he just can’t take it any more. He goes to the press and confesses everything. He testifies repeatedly, to the newspapers, to the radio, to the cops, that the head of the secret service was on the radio personally directing the whole affair.

Prime Minister Meciar and his secret police boss loudly deny this. They swiftly come up with an alternate story. They declare that the President’s son kidnapped himself, tortured himself with electrodes, and dumped himself in Austria dead drunk, just to make the Prime Minister look bad.

Secret police agents then find the family of this guy whose confessed to the kidnapping, and they start beating them up. Later the guy’s best friend is blown up by a car bomb. When the autopsy is performed the coroner finds a bullet in the dead man’s stomach. The Prime Minister’s stooges claim that the car blew up by accident and the bullets was an accidental bullet in the stomach that came from the victim’s own gun when it accidentally went off in the terrific heat from the car’s accidentally blowing up, and that it’s terribly shocking and even libellous to allege that this was a political murder.

The President’s out of patience now. The President openly accuses the secret police of kidnapping his son, so the head of the secret police sues him for libel. He also sues the local newspaper for saying the same thing, and then he sues a priest who presided over the blown-up guy’s funeral. The Prime Minister puts yet another stooge on TV who claims that the President’s son rigged the whole thing.

Then the Slovak Parliament gets into the act. They’ve got an independent commission which has been investigating. Got some results too – the committee gives out the names of the eight kidnappers and the cars they were driving and exactly how they went about kidnapping the President’s son.

And I’m watching this whole thing take place, week by week, day by day, in amazed fascination. Because I’m on a couple of central European Internet mailing lists.

There’s even a tasty phone phreak angle in this, because at one point somebody taps the phone calls coming out of the limo of the chief of secret police, and the chief spook is laughing evilly at the investigators and calling them a bunch of idiots who’ll never prove anything. They got the tape and they play it on the radio. The secret policeman says the tape is forged. He refuses to resign. He’s still in power right now.

Now – if having the truth splashed across the Internet was enough to bring down a government, wouldn’t this do it? This looks like a pretty whacking good scandal to me. It’s quite a story, it’s too weird even for Hollywood. It’s got kidnappers and electrodes and carbombs and secret policemen and embezzlement and thugs and politicians. At the risk of being sued for libel by angry Slovak authorities, I would have to conclude that the country’s highest officials are – well, let’s just say they’re strongly implicated. So is the Prime Minister going to resign? Do the decent thing? Skulk off in shame? Bow to public opinion, roused to righteous fury by these unsavory revelations?

Of course not! He’s simply gonna brazen it out in the broad light of day. People from outside Slovakia will simply be ignored, and troublesome people inside Slovakia will be sued, pursued, beaten up, zapped with electrodes and dumped in Austria if not blown sky high. The Prime Minister is like a wolverine with his foot nailed to a board. Except that it’s not his foot, and that’s not a board, and it’s not a big bloody nail, and anybody who says different had better be real careful around an ignition key.

You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free, right? Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Well, maybe.

We might learn a lot of truth about a lot of things off the Internet, or at least access a lot of data about a lot of weird junk, but does that mean that evil vanishes? Is our technology really a panacea for our bad politics? I don’t see how. We can’t wave a floppy disk like a bag of garlic and expect every vampire in history to vanish.

Isn’t it far more likely that we’ll get the Internet that we deserve? Cyberspace isn’t a world all its own like Jupiter or Pluto, it’s a funhouse mirror of the society that breeds it. Like most mirrors it shows whatever it’s given: on any day, that’s mostly human banality. Cyberspace is not a fairy realm of magical transformations. It’s a realm of transformations all right, but since human beings aren’t magical fairies you can pretty well scratch the magic and the fairy parts.

Sometimes computers really are empowering. On the days when they’re new, and the days when they really work, which are pretty much contradictory times, actually. When computers do work, it’s the power to be your best. It’s also the power to be your worst, which doesn’t get quite so much publicity in the ads. But you know, a power that was only the power to do good would not be power at all. Real power is a genuine trial. Real power is a grave responsibility and a grave temptation which often causes people to go mad. Technical power is power. When you deal with power you have to fear the consequence of a bad decision before you can find any satisfaction in a good one. Real power means real decisions, real action with real consequence. If that weren’t true then we would be puppets devoid of will, permanent children always spared temptation by machinery in the role of the adults.

It saddens me to say these things, because it goes so much against my nature. I’m a science fiction writer. People pay me to dream stuff up. People have to have their dreams; without vision, the people perish.

It’s not that fabulous possibilities aren’t real. They are real. In the cold objective eye of eternity, everyone who has ever flown across the Atlantic has done something just as marvelous as Lindbergh did. Lucky Lindy was met by cheering crowds who heralded the mighty dawn of the new age of flight. But if you were met by cheering crowds on the far side of the Atlantic when you flew to France in 1996, this would not be good. You would not be pleased to see that their sense of wonder about the act of flight was still intact. You wouldn’t congratulate the French on their lack of disillusionment. On the contrary, you would know full well that something had gone terribly wrong with the human beings who were witnessing this event. It would be a sign of psychopathic disruption, a society stuck in an infinite loop, jaws always agape, learning nothing, experiencing nothing.

We shouldn’t blame ourselves when the wonder fades, much less blame our machinery. Instead, we should come to appreciate the way that human beings give ideas their substance. We can take fantastic abstractions and personify them, make them real. We’re not disembodied intellects; that was a powerful dream of the last millennium, but a new millennium is at hand now, and our machines can play that dismal role for us. Infinity and eternity are not our problems.

Science fiction writers say a lot of silly things, but H.G. Wells once said a very wise thing. “If anything is possible, then nothing is interesting.” It’s not the center of ideas that are interesting, these bloodless Platonic concepts of bogus purity and lifeless rigid order. It’s the living, seething mess out there, where actions have consequences, where the street finds its own uses for things. That is our arena. And it’s up to us, not just to imagine it, but to inhabit it. Not just to admire it and make gestures, but to judge it and take action.

The future is unwritten.

Bruce Sterling, science-fiction writer extraordinaire, is the author of, among others, Islands in the Net and The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. He is a member of the Editorial Board of CTHEORY.