Big Mama, Greifswald, Rebel kids, Brixels: The People of kashklash

by Bruce Sterling

Let’s imagine four possible futures, based on two important variables.

The first is the stability in exchange systems. It’s a given that these are already unstable. So our range of variability is from “confusing mess” — today’s condition — to some radical condition of “massive change“.

The second variable is telecommunication technology. That can plausibly range from “old and broken,” true in most of the world today… legacy landlines, shared and rented handsets, basic Third World conditions… toward blooming, high-tech handset technologies — with everyware, urban informatics, GPS, sensors: what we can call the “new cloud.”

So this gives us a classic futurist quadrant.

KASHKLASH 1. Low and low, or “a confusing mess with old, broken technology.”

KASHKLASH 2. Low and high, “a confusing mess in the new cloud.”

KASHKLASH 3. High and low, “massive change with old, broken technology.”

and KASHKLASH 4, the high and high scenario, “massive change in the new cloud.

It’s a mistake to play favorites in scenarios
. Don’t try to privilege one of these possible futures against any other. The benefit comes from imaginatively entering all these worlds and making them your own. Could you thrive in all four? What strategies and tactics would work in all four possible worlds, and which would fail? What would it really be like to live there? What’s in it for you?

KASHKLASH #1. low-low. Amanda “Big Mama” Botero is from the sprawling border town of Tijuana/San Diego. Officially, she calls herself a “fortune teller” and a “spiritual guide.”

She lives in a southern California “McMansion” that was broken up, shipped over on trucks, then patchily reassembled in a squatted part of the gigantic Mexican border town.

This rambling place is swarming with Big Mama’s many “guests,” who rely on her for food and shelter in her huge home, which is a thriving station in the semilegal Underground Railroad.

Big Mama, who is always on the phone, is a truly superb fortune-teller. She and her extensive international coven of net-savvy Santeria witches use search engines to puzzle out the secrets of her superstitious and easily-impressed clientele. This informational advantage makes Big Mama a pillar of the border’s shadow economy.

She deals in gossip, in secrets, in reputations, and in confidences. She’s also a police informant, though you’d never guess that when you saw the many happy faces gathered round the brimming tables at her underground hotel. Big Mama is calm, wise, and possessed of deep insights; even hardened cynics find themselves confessing their life stories to this generous, deeply spiritual woman.

Serenely indifferent to real jobs and the taxman, she has no visible connection with the conventional economy. Yet, “magically,” she never lacks for resources — ask her nicely, do her a favor, and Big Mama can find you a roof over your head, used shoes, clothes… a holy blessing, an effective curse for an enemy… A car ride across the border… a parole hearing, a favor at the Immigration office, a house-cleaning job, and even a husband.

And there’s not just one of her. There are thousands of her.

KASHKLASH 2. Low and high. Gerhard Knodel has always lived in East Germany. Life hasn’t given him many breaks, but he’s still an optimist. With very low birthrates and massive outmigration, beautiful Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is stubbornly mired in economic recession.

In the bucolic Baltic sea-town of Greifswald, the gas pipeline between Russian and Germany has long since shut down for ecological reasons. Except for the little university and the church, there’s just not a lot going on. The people are gray, the streets are quiet, and every day is much like the next. Can technology change that? Really?

EU policy keeps trying to “stimulate development” in lonely, drowsy Mecklenburg. Greifsvald has become a “test-bed” for weird technologies, which fall on the silver heads of the unresisting population as if they’d been dropped from Mars. Tracking systems in the groceries… talking refrigerators… RFID pay-toilets with sewer networking… Zigbee built into doorways, pigeons with tiny videocams… print-on-demand silverware… Even the cats and dogs in the town have their own social networking sites. Yet nothing seems to catch fire there.

Gerhard rather enjoys the unsought parade of exotic gadgetry… at least it breaks the tedium of tending to his 91 year old formerly-Marxist mother. But all this high-tech boosterism seems detached from his personal reality. You can’t make an exciting, vibrant place without some exciting, vibrant people; a marketplace can’t bustle without human desire. After all, machines can’t get excited about themselves. Can they?

KASHKLASH 3. High and low.

Dhani “Donny” Tedjasukman has one thing on his mind: fame. Nobody’s going to call Djakarta a high-tech capital; it’s never shiny like Singapore, it’s hot, grimy, sordid, overcrowded and hectic. But once the oil business finally collapsed and a new generation took power, something ignited in the streets of Indonesia. The baby-boom of Moslem kids is sick of decades of hijab shrouds and life-denying jihad ranting. They’re a new generation, baby! They want bright lights, multimedia, booze, fabulous motorcycles and girls in short skirts. The rebel kids have run amok!

Donny is a party animal. Intellectual property doesn’t work the way it did, so he can’t make money from recording music. Instead, he’s an Indonesian rave party organizer, a Malay electro political folk-singer.

Wherever there’s a get out the vote effort, a labor union rally, or a chance to intimidate aging Moslem puritans, he’s there with a stack of amplifiers. Donny doesn’t see a lot of money, not directly — but kids dress like him, everybody copies his dance moves, and boy does he ever get a lot of girls. Even guys who stand next to Donny, with their hands in their pockets, get girls. Indonesia’s got several million girls, and they all network on fan sites.

Donny doesn’t write his own material — that’s up to his political handlers, who say they want a revolution so they can seize the economy for the people. Donny’s fine with that idea — to the extent that he cares. He’s a hero popstar: it’s about web-hits, limos, phones, satellites, sound-checks and streaming video. The bean-counters are smiling; the band manager nods from the shadows.… the celebrity endorsement tactic is paying off. The posters, T-shirts, betel-nut and associated merchandise have got traction. Now if he can just brush up on his Cantonese and crack the China market…

KASHKLASH 4. High and high.

When his son simply “grew himself” a new house, Luigi Monaco decided it was time to retire.

Luigi had been in construction his whole life. It seemed like such a sensible line of work, real estate. After all, real estate was “real.” It wasn’t one of these made-up cybernetic things, some virtual reality without groceries or toilets. People needed shelter. The eternal truth of the human condition.

But when the real estate market broke for no sane reason and then *stayed* broken, people stopped believing that houses had to be real. A city like Torino — it seemed conservative on the outside, but huge acreages of it were abandoned car plants. Or abandoned railway repair yards. There were empty Baroque churches where Italian sunlight slanted over the nesting pigeons. Torino was a city with a lot of available nothingness.

The trouble had started when the Turinese moved into these echoing, gloomy halls to do “design events.” Little tents… constructions of cardboard, sheetrock, fabric, foamcore… artists’ lights… no more substance to them than the props in an opera. At first they hadn’t seemed like any kind of threat to the builder’s status quo. But then his son — who had gone into “cloud design“, God help him — started referring to bricks as “brixels.”

A brick house was a byword for solidity. “Solid as a brick house.” For a brick house to be malleable, temporary, gaseous, was a weird, crazy, extreme idea — as crazy as a trip to the moon. But a brixel was a brick: a mobile brick. A smart brick that was also a phone. A brick built around a phonechip, phones so high tech, so cheap, that they were cheaper than bricks. So that yesterday’s crown jewels, mobile phones, because building blocks.

Brixels locked together like children’s toys, and they were picked up and dropped, not by honest union bricklayers, but by little blind robots like an iPod lashed to Roomba. It took very little machine intelligence to move “brixels” around or to stack a huge wall out of “brixels.” A wall of brixels grew overnight. It was extravagantly patterned, like a computer screensaver. It was gorgeous. It was magnificent. It was very Italian.

Real estate had melted. It had melted into the air. Shelter “wanted to be free.”

Every trouble Luigi understood had gone away. Housing regulations — subcontractors — safety inspections — the supply chain, and especially the banking and financing — they had crumbled, gone away like the telegraph and the lire. Huge institutions, vaporized, unremembered. The things Luigi thought were common sense had simply failed him.

This didn’t mean Utopia. His son’s world had new troubles Luigi had no words to describe. Luigi was surrounded by bewilderment. He had no troubles.

To have no troubles did not mean that he was free. It meant that he was old.


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Putting people first » Bruce Sterling’s brixels 11/12/2008 23:50:58

[...] Sterling looked at the KashKlash questionnaire results and condensed it all into four narrative future scenarios. An excerpt from the last one: But then his son — who had gone into “cloud design,” God help [...]

a thousand tomorrows » Blog Archive » kashklash or the future of value 12/12/2008 05:53:47

[...] Check out the stories of the scenarios’ main characters Big Mama, Greifswald, Rebel kids and Brixels. [...]

Experience Lab » Big Mama, Greifswald, Rebel kids, Brixels: The People of kashklash 23/12/2008 13:51:30

[...] Big Mama, Greifswald, Rebel kids, Brixels: The People of kashklash [...]

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