08 July 2004

The Chairman's open house

A parable of electronic media intersecting with culture, from Bruce Sterling. Looking again years later, the only version I could find is nearly illegible, so I'm reproducing the whole thing here.

Microsoft Campus, 1:30 PM, May 21, 2004

Hi. Well, it's nice to be back with you weird crungie (?) characters once again.

Yeah, you know this book has a lot to say to people in your industry. It got blurbed...I almost said it got “blogged”...but it got blurbed by Howard Schmidt, your former chief security officer and Bill Gates is a minor character in the book. At one point, he offers my hero a job. And it is a book about computer security among other things. It's basically about a...it's a Mr. Smith goes to Washington story about a techie that decides to join federal service after 9/11 because his family has a long history of technical service to the United States government and complications ensue.

It's got a villain and a superweapon. It's a technothriller and technothrillers kind of require villains and superweapons because otherwise there is no reason to keep turning pages. But although it is a great superweapon and I stole it from the best guys in the business, I really put some intellectual effort into it and I thought it was a nifty keen kind of weapon o' mass destruction style nifty technothriller superweapon, absolutely nobody is interested in it.

Nobody is patting me on the head about my ingenious superweapon, the labor of love that I invested in this because nobody believes in WMD anymore, frankly. It is just a sci-fi vaporware notion.

What people are interested in is the book's take on Federal computer security and it is a mess. I think anybody who's got e-mail has to know that Federal computer security is a mess but I never expected in my life to see it as bad as it is now. It's just a debacle and it didn't help that the capo of cyber security for the Bush Administration was Richard Clarke, but he was. And the guy blew up like thermite right in front of the congress and every camera in the business and it's just a crying shame.

So I have some rather harsh things to say about the state of law and order in cyberspace in this book. People ask me about it. Is it really this bad and the answer is “yeah, it is pretty much this bad.” My story is a parable. It is the exaggerated, anime kind of cartoon version but it is all about real issues that people are facing online, out on the net every day.

I could go on and on about it. In fact, I am going on and on it because I've got to go to Gartner. They're doing one of their gigs, consulting gigs in Washington and I'm supposed to go down there and talk to all these people about how screwed up it is and get this off of my chest, a kind of hammer and tongs style version and it is an unpleasant task but they already paid me so I'm going to have to go.

Maybe I'll learn something. I mean, I commonly do when I go to Washington. I just went to Washington. This is the last day of a very extensive book tour to support this book. And guys are sidling up to me at these signings and saying:

“Yeah, it's worse than what you say. I've read it and you're right. It's terrible.”

“So what agency are you from?”

“I'm from under the hill...”

“You mean to say you're from the NSA, sir? You're from under Fort Meade?”

He just sort of sidles away, leaves diagonally...

Be that as it may, I want to try to get a little closer to the fire here. I don't want to spend my entire time pontificating about public affairs because I have to do that in Wired every month. I want to try to get a little more hands on with the subject and I've tried to do this with a few audiences on my way here but you guys are the absolute target demographic for this personal crisis I'm facing. You e-mail me, send me e-mail, bruces@well.com. I've actively soliciting ingenious responses to this really sort of personal crisis that I'm facing.

So now I'm going to background the problem for you here, ok? Now, in Austin, which is where I live, we have this social event every year which is called “South by Southwest.” South by Southwest has three wings. It's a cultural conference. It's a festival, I guess you would call it. There is South by Southwest Music where garage bands show up from all over America and all over the planet, really, looking for an A&R guy and a record deal. You get a wristband and you wander around in a drunken haze down sixth street listening to bands.

There is South by Southwest Film, which is kind of the coming thing in Austin lately because we have got real film directors in town. Richard Linklater lives in Autin and he's making a film adaptation of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly. Richard Rodriguez spends a lot of time in Austin. He's mister Spy Kids and he's doing all of this stuff. Sandra Bullock lives there and Quentin Tarantino shows up with his posse. It's a very odd thing, like having your town infested with Sumatran fungus. There really didn't used to be any movie people in Austin but now there is there is a little movie scene in my hometown and it's kind of adorable and fun to watch.

Then there is the third part, which is my people here, which would be South by Southwest Interactive which is the geek set in my town, right? It used to be South by Southwest Multimedia and it's not like an industry gig. These people are cyberculturati. These are weblog guys, meetup guys, vaguely political online organization characters, Electronic Frontier Foundation fellow travellers, EPIC guys, computer game designers, SIGGRAPH habitues, washed-up former virtual reality visionaries, dazed sort of half-conscious linux programmer loonie free-software characters, and science fiction writers.

So I've gone to this every year since they started it because I knew the organizers and these are just people out of my milieu. So every year I have a party here at South by Southwest. It's my Open House Party. It's a very “Information Wants to be Free” kind of party. I just go there. I'm always booked to do something: I'm on a panel. I give a speech or something and traditionally I end my speech by just inviting the whole audience over to my house for free beer. “Aw boys, we're all going over to my house for free beer!” They show up. It's not difficult to give away free beer. I don't know why people think that this is expensive. If you just price it out, a keg of beer, you can get someone really drunk for seventy-five cents. Plus people bring their own beer. They bring lots of liquor.

My organizational principle for this party, which has been going on for just donkey's years now, is that you can bring anything you can carry and anyone that you trust. Right? Strangers show up and that's kind of the point. It's not like I hand out little laminated cards and say “Yes, you can go by the novelist's house.” It's just that we literally throw the doors open and people just show up.

There's never been an incident. People have a really good time. You can't predict who's going to be there. I really enjoy talking to people that don't know that I'm the host. They are like “God, this guy's taste in art, what's with this?” I like to attend my own party and that's kind of a thrill for me.

It's just a little social thing that I do. It's fun and it's sort of our big social outreach for my wife and I. It's what we do to kind of pitch in and give back a little bit. It's pleasant and it costs us just a few hundred bucks. It's nothing like a budget breaker. It's not the cost that's any kind of trouble. You can make two or three hundred people really happy for the cost of...I don't know...a laser printer or something. Why not? Right? It's not a big problem.

Well, this year, I did have a big problem.

This year I had a problem because there were 200 people in my audience and I say “Ok, everybody is going over to my house for beer!” and they say “Yay!” and 600 people show up at my party. They weren't the people in the audience. Half the people in the audience normally attend because it's on the last day and a lot of people leave anyway. They showed up and some kind of flash mob thing occurred.

There was some kind of electronically assisted gathering happening at my house. Because people were showing up and they were showing up in buddy lists. It wasn't just the usual foot traffic of one and two people. There would be at half-past one...there were sudden clusters or armadas of taxis coming in from two or three directions and people would get out of the taxis and are name-checking each other and sort of clustering together and coming into the party in a mass.

Guys are phone-camming the party. It's like “He's not kidding, look there's a keg here!” and off they come. Actresses are showing up, which is sort of interesting because there is never much cross-over into the film thing. Guys are coming up and saying “Bruce! Your party's full of hot chicks!” There are girls in lingerie tops with stiletto heels. They aren't actually partying. They're not eating. They're there to display themselves so they kind of swan anorexically through this crowd of unix sysadmins and they're, like... They're awe-struck. Somebody had told them that it was sort of necessary to go make the scene at the novelist's house and they sort of arrived in a bloc, united by phones, I assume, and then departed.

So it was lively and they were a very well behaved group. There was no...they were very sweet, kindly people except more and more of them started showing up. So around 1:45, the cops show up and I'm in there pontificating as is my wont. Someone says “Gee Bruce, the police are out on the porch and I think you'd better come see this.”

So I go out there and it's one cop. He's an Austin cop. He's a very nice guy but he wants to see some I.D. so I'm handing this over. He says, “So Mr. Sterling, is this your home?” “Yes, officer.” “Well, Mr. Sterling, we are receiving noise complaints from your neighbors and let me just tell you the drill here. I'm giving you a verbal warning and if I have to return, I'm going to have to write you up a citation. If I have to return a third time, I'm going to have to take you downtown.” I'm talking to this guy and I say, “Well, that's very interesting officer but what if you take me downtown and people continue to arrive at the party? Because they aren't being issued invitations. They are just sort of arriving spontaneously. What are you going to tell these 600 people when there is no host and you've arrested him?”

He didn't like that question. I didn't like the question either because it was kind of loud. “Gee, Officer,” I told him, “We're not playing loud music. It's a very well behaved crowd. This is South by Southwest.” Well, it was half past one and he said, “You're not playing music but you're talking and people can hear you talking two blocks away.” They could here us talking two blocks away. There was uproar. These people had a lot on their minds. They were talking about politics and current affairs. They weren't talking about business because there isn't any in their line of work but they had a lot to confess to one another. They were crying on each other's shoulders, whatever.

So I hustled them all inside the house, got them off of the porch, it was beautiful weather. Packed them into the house, shut the doors. That was when the spontaneous self-organization happened. This was a little weird. I've never witnessed...I've had big parties. This party was 50% bigger than last year's party. Last year was maybe 350 people. This year was 600 easy. So it's half past one and I'm down to, maybe, 175 people but they're all inside the house and our house is on an open plan. There is a kitchen, a big room, a bathroom and so forth. Well, normally, people just wander from room to room with their drinks and beer or whatever. This time, they are moving en masse.

There is this outbreak of herd behavior. It's packed. It's packed like it is in here and people just start moving along the room. There is this spontaneous emergent order. They're actually... ...swirling around the house and you don't get to get out of the way. They are coming in all these groups and the people in front of them see them coming and they're moving and the whole thing begins jostling in this spontaneous crowd flow, which is hairy because if someone yells “Fire” in a situation like that, there is going to be real injuries. I'd never seen that happen in my house before.

So, this is my problem, right? I have reached some kind of critical limit in these parties. You keep adding quantity and eventually there is a qualitative phase change here. They were nice about it and finally I got them to leave. I just announced that all of the liquor had been drunk and they left. There were no casualties and it was fine.

But that's not what concerns me. What concerns me is next year's party. Because I don't have any way to define the proportions of this party nor do I have any security mechanisms in place, nor do the police. Which is kind of interesting.

So, I'm now going to read to you, some of the suggested technical solutions......for what is really a microcosm of the organizational problems with the global internet, ok? Because this is my personal incarnation of what is really a much larger problem, a problem that scales up.

What is the problem here? The benefit is that I'm bringing in strangers. It's like I'm reaching out and touching someone but the downside is that I'm bringing in strangers and they can reach out and touch me. The benefit is that I'm breaking the boundaries of my narrow circle of acquaintances but the downside is that I'm breaking the boundaries of my narrow circle of acquaintances. The plus side is: this is a really popular party but the downside is that this is a really popular party! I'm now hovering at the edge of a potential dystopian development where I can get one guy that shows up in order to wreak mischief and can hurt a lot of people in some sort of cascading effect. I don't have any...Well, let's just talk about possible solutions. I think I've defined the problem sufficiently. It's a problem that you ought to recognize. So, what do I do?

Here's one solution: Go Professional.

I'm a very popular guy. Why don't I just start a bar? It will be “Bruce's Cyberpunk Bar.” This is what you do and there are hundreds of these things in Austin. People come in and they get the beer and they pay you for the beer. You get an insurance license and you rent a building. You hire employees and you establish some kind of formal relationship with the police. You card people when they show up to make sure it is legally possible for them to drink. Maybe I could hire bands! This is like the AOL/Time-Warner version of what was formally this kind of freeware, open, loosy goosy, kind of...you know? Why don't I just do that because it's certainly been done? This is the standard way of handling the subject. Well, yeah, ok, but then I'm a bartender. I'm a guy that owns a club and I don't really want to own a club because it is a lot of hassle and most of them go broke. I don't mind doing it once a year but, Jesus, every day? Five times a day? Weekends? I've got no weekends and I'm a bar guy suddenly? I'd never get to go out in daylight because I'm down there managing all of these drunks. I don't think so. That's not really it.

Solution number two: The Party Emergency Response Team.

Well, I've got pals who basically show up for these parties. There is a hardcore set of dudes who really get it about Sterling's parties. These are sort of the core recruiters. They are the sysadmins of the Sterling scene. Maybe I could deputize these guys. They are my closest buddies. Maybe they aren't at the party but I can make an emergency response team for guys that get it about my parties. I can brief them about it and maybe I'll give them a semi-uniform style thing. I'll get a buddy list of my own and it will be like “It's getting out of control, call the PERT!” and they'll rush in. Maybe they'll just start phoning people, I don't know. They don't have the downside of being actual cops. They don't have to wear a badge or be, sort of, really accountable in any way. They're just like a private militia...there sort of like Blackwater or something. A private military company.

Basically, it's the CERT except its the PERT and they're there to react immediately when a party goes out of bounds. Well, I kind of like that idea actually because it kind of suits my organizational style but the downside is: I'd have to join it. Then I'd have to worry about their parties. Do I really want to get up out bed at 2:00 AM when I could be watching Bollywood movies and pile into my car and drive over to Sixth Street. “How did you let your friggin' party get out of control?!” Do I want to go put out the fires and other people's parties? I'm not going to able to just do it by myself. The CERT is a cooperative group. What kind of dues am I going to have to pay to belong to this org? I don't go to that many parties. I mean, I only have one. I don't want to go to parties all of the time, especially parties that are no damn good.

Ok, well, now I've got a more subtle solution. This is the Rand solution here. A sort of Arquilla and Ronfeldt groovy, Advent of Netwar, solution.

If you've ever read these Rand guys, Advent of Netwar, rockin' book! September 12, 2001, I called these guys up. “Man! You are futurists of the first water! You were predicting states would be attacking non-state actors and that all hell would be breaking loose. You guys are something else!” Well, they got a lot of credit for that: Arquilla and Ronfeldt.

So, anyway, what Arquilla and Ronfeldt say in their Rand futurist analysis of how to deal with an out of control network is we can't have a war on a network because states are hierarchical and networks are distributed. What you need is a counter network. A counter network. Just like Advent of Netwar.

So here's my plan. I have plants at the party. Who are there secretly and sort of organized with one another. And they aren't really made clear to the party members that they are there at all. They are covertly there. They are covertly organized. They have secret handshakes and recognition symbols.

What is their job? Their job is to monitor the party and see if enthusiasm is moving into an area of untoward radicalism. So they don't do anything blatant. What they do is stage small but effective party spoiling scenes. Women would be especially good for this, I think, because no one ever thinks women are capable of political organization. You get a woman from your counter-network to just sort of burst into tears spontaneously at the party and just sort of start muttering to herself something along the lines of “That bastard! I can't believe he would dump me right in the middle of Bruce Sterling's party! Call my mother!” A little cluster comes around and they are patting her, trying to bring her down and people say “Aw man, this is a bad scene here. What's with the chick over there, man?”

Or you might have a guy that gets kind of boisterous at the party and have someone who gets really boisterous at the party who joins them but feigns he's on PCP or something. So if one guy starts misbehaving, this guy's like an agent provocateur. He's just stumbling......he's taking the edge off the growing enthusiasm, sort of like the carbon rod in the nuclear pile.

Well, I'm giving serious attention to that one actually.

Ok, now there's the architectural solution.

Maybe it's a technical problem, ok? I can engineer the kegs because the kegs are the locus of the party organization. So let's just say, maybe my kegs are too low-tech and what I need is a keg firewall. It's measuring the amount of fluid that is coming out of the kegs and is the party is getting too boisterous, they just start busting out air. “Hey man, the keg's not working! The keg's not working at Sterling's house. Aw man, the keg's are dry.” and then they leave and then the kegs just spring back up. They're just sitting there, watching network traffic, and if it gets too heavy, the kegs kick out. Or you could have keg mirror sites at someone else's party and it just pops up on the keg that says “Hey, you're being slashdotted here! Why don't you go to Fourth Street? There are lots of kegs there!” Have appealing little pictures of the kegs moving around on them. Maybe webcam photos. “Oh, this party is so much fun over here! Why don't you go to that party?”

Ok, that's sort of a techy solution but then I'd have to wire up the kegs. The guys that I rented the kegs from might not like my new interface on the keg and people might accuse me of making darkness the standard. The keg tap might not interop quite right with other kegs. The guy might have badly formulated his kegs and I get sudden bursts of people from other parties and I don't really want the guys from their party to use my site as a mirror site. What if I had to debug the kegs? What if flaws are discovered and the patches have patches? I don't know.

Then there is the Transparency International solution.

This is a kind of NGO solution, the democratic solution. When I go next year and invite all of the people to my party, I could make a clean breast of it. I could say, “Look, I'd love you to come to my house and have a really nice time but I have to make it clear to you that we're facing a potential political crisis at my house. It's time for me to level with you, the party people. I'm just going to have to appeal to your personal sense of responsibility as citizens to come to my party and not screw it up for anyone else. I want you to watch one another, police one another. I trust you. I don't want to enforce anything on you. I want to devolve the party down to the grassroots level. It's up to you, you, you. This is your party, not merely my party. You are the community to whom I'm trying to appeal. You need to assemble as a community. Hold hands with one another, support one another. If you're too tired to chew, pass it on.”

Maybe, maybe.

Now there is one other possibility, and we're getting a little hairy now, this is kind of pushing the limit of parties.

If there is a bad incident at a party, I'm worried about future parties because I think it may be necessary to have a War on Parties. I might put magnetometers into the doors, check people's bags, make them take off their shoes. We'll just get some terror theatre installed around the party. We'll have orange netting, I.D. badges which have your legal name on them rather than the name by which you are known at parties. I may have to make it clear, as the host, that I carry a gun. I am allowed to carry a gun in my own home in Texas. We have an open weapons law. I could just wear a uniform and carry a gun. I don't think they'd get too out of bounds if the host had a gun. If one gun wasn't enough, I could carry two guns. That's a possibility.

Another possibility, Total Party Awareness.

I think it would be possible to install video cameras and monitoring equipment throughout the home. I think it would be good to have people sign a disclaimer when they arrive at my party consenting to be video taped and to have their remarks at the party recorded. Now, I think that this would have a very calming effect on the party. In fact, I'm not sure that that gathering would even be classifiable as a party but I could probably pack a lot of people into an area like that.

Another possibility, legal disclaimers.

I'm thinking party shrinkwrap. You just don't get a beer unless you break the shrinkwrap. There is something written on the beer that is really long and kind of inexplicable but you are required to take some small moral action before you drink the beer. Put your name on it, I don't know.

There is a literary solution. Sharecropping the party.

I did have some guys show up. “This party's great! Why don't you have our corporation sponsor your party, Mr. Sterling? We've got this really cool building downtown and there is lots of empty space. We'd love to have you put your name on our corporate party.” Bruce Sterling (C) (TM) (R) presents Intel's Blast 2005!!! I'd just be renting out my celebrity like the billboard for somebody else's organization. They'd pick up all of the tab and presumably hire thugs, give people free shit, you get mouse pads or whatever. The upside is that they'd handle all of the hassle for me and they'd probably put on a better feed than me but the downside is that all of my friends would accuse me of becoming a corporate sellout. I would be sheltering under their profit driven organization. And who knows?

The last solution, which is probably an underestimated possibility, I could ask a charity for help.

I could make my party a fund-raising event for somebody that is morally unimpeachable. Red Cross. Greenpeace. I could have my choice. There are lists of charities. Right wing charities. Left wing charities. Hip charities. Dodgy charities. Sobbing-into-your-handkerchief March of Dimes crippled kids charities. Children dying of obscure illnesses. Anti-AIDS. Whatever. Whatever demographic that you want to hit, there is some kind of NGO and you ask for money. It is a community leader thing. “Well, I have this resource among my friends and it is time for us to go out and see to it that this particular intractable social problem is somehow dealt with.” I don't know but I'm sure that it would mellow the scene out considerably. Because, (a) most people just want the free beer. They don't want to get hit up for ten bucks by some nitwit with a clipboard and (b) also it lends it a kind of moral gravity. “Oh look how mature the party host is here, he's angling for a seat on the city council. He's moving from party animal to community leader. He's going to build us a music museum or some god-forsaken thing.” Well, it works!!!

Now those are all that I've managed to think of but I'm sure that's not the entire possible gamut of methods by which I could deal with this. My situation is quite serious. It really is a conundrum. It's a security problem. It's a societal problem. It's a social, cultural, literary problem. It's a personal problem of my own. My credibility is at stake here. Although I've written a book about computer security which goes into agonizing detail of the intractability of some of these difficulties, I can't solve the problem within my own damn home. I have no solution. And who's got it?

Who has got it?

If you tell me, I will publicize it. If you will think about it, I will be happy. If you will send me e-mail, I will take you with utter seriousnesses. It's a funny problem but a real problem.

Thanks for your attention.

I don't know what solution he finally came to.

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