Farewell to Beyond the Beyond, by Bruce Sterling (2020)
Farewell to Beyond the Beyond
by Bruce Sterling
So, the blog is formally ending this month, May MMXX.
My weblog is a collateral victim of Covid19, which has become a great worldwide excuse to stop whatever you were doing.
You see, this is a WIRED blog — in fact, it is the first ever WIRED blog — and WIRED and other Conde’ Nast publications are facing a planetary crisis. Basically, they’ve got no revenue stream, since the business model for glossy mags is advertisements for events and consumer goods.
If there are no big events due to pandemic, and nobody’s shopping much, either, then it’s mighty hard to keep a magazine empire afloat in midair. Instead, you’ve gotta fire staffers, shut down software, hunt new business models, re-organize and remove loose ends. There is probably no looser-end in the entire WIRED domain than this weblog.
So, in this extensive and self-indulgent conclusion, I’d like to summarize what I think I’ve learned by messing with this weblog for seventeen years.
When I first started the “Beyond the Beyond” blog, I was a monthly WIRED columnist and a contributing editor. Wired magazine wanted to explore the newfangled medium of weblogs, and asked me to give that a try. I was doing plenty of Internet research to support my monthly Wired column, so I was nothing loath. I figured I would simply stick my research notes online. How hard could that be?
That wouldn’t cost me much more effort than the duty of writing my column — or so I imagined. Maybe readers would derive some benefit from seeing some odd, tangential stuff that couldn’t fit within a magazine’s paper limits. The stuff that was — you know — less mainstream acceptable, more sci-fi-ish, more far-out and beyond-ish — more Sterlingian.
Eventually my WIRED column stopped, when WIRED had one of its customary dusting and cleaning episodes. That cessation was okay by me; I was always in favor of the mag moving with the times. I went on blogging for WIRED anyway, because by then, I was used to using the platform, and I had a routine. Also, the blogging activity somehow seemed to help me, though I wasn’t sure why.
Unlike most WIRED blogs, my blog never had any “beat” — it didn’t cover any subject matter in particular. It wasn’t even “journalism,” but more of a novelist’s “commonplace book,” sometimes almost a designer mood board.
It was extremely Sterlingesque in sensibility, but it wasn’t a “Bruce Sterling” celebrity blog, because there was scarcely any Bruce Sterling material in it. I didn’t sell my books on the blog, cultivate the fan-base, plug my literary cronies; no, none of that standard authorly stuff.
Although I wrote tons of “original content” elsewhere, long text-form essays like this were vanishingly rare on “Beyond the Beyond.” The blog never trolled for any viral hits, or tried to please any patrons. Also, I never got paid anything for my blogging, which was probably the key to the blog’s longevity. This blog persisted with such ease, because there was so much that I didn’t have to do.
I keep a lot of paper notebooks in my writerly practice. I’m not a diarist, but I sometimes write long screeds for an audience of one, meaning myself. That unpaid, unseen writing work has been some critically important writing for me — although I commonly destroy it. You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them.
It’s the writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought that seems to helps me. That’s what I did with this blog; if I blogged something for “Beyond the Beyond,” then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head. Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use.
Also, the ideal “Beyond the Beyond” reader was never any fan of mine, or even a steady reader of the blog itself. I envisioned him or her as some nameless, unlikely character who darted in orthogonally, saw a link to some odd phenomenon unheard-of to him or her, and then careened off at a new angle, having made that novelty part of their life. They didn’t have to read the byline, or admire the writer’s literary skill, or pony up any money for enlightenment or entertainment. Maybe they would discover some small yet glimmering birthday-candle to set their life alight.
Blogging is akin to stand-up comedy — it’s not coherent drama, it’s a stream of wisecracks. It’s also like street art — just sort of there, stuck in the by-way, begging attention, then crumbling rapidly.
A blog evaporates through bit-rot. Yet even creative work which is abandoned and seen by no one is often useful exercise. One explores, one adventures by finding “new ground” that often just isn’t worth it; it’s arid and lunar ground, there’s nothing to farm, but unless you venture beyond and explore, you will never know that. Often, it’s the determined act of writing it down that allows one to realize the true sterility of a silly idea; that’s how the failure gets registered in memory; “oh yes, I tried that, there’s nothing there.”
Or: maybe there is nothing there yet. Or: it may be ‘nothing’ for me in particular, but great for you. “Nothing” comes in many different flavors.
It’s rather like Edison’s legendary labor, testing possible filaments for use in light-bulbs. Edison tried thousands of these newfangled little threads, and he used to say that everybody but him got tired of the fruitless labor. I’m inclined to believe that Edison secretly enjoyed that work, that he tried a lot of filaments that were just private jokes; that he really enjoyed watching weird materials glow and fry in an electric arc.
I used to toss a lot of stuff into the blog that looked “funny,” but a lot of it was testing the very idea of significance. “Does this odd thing I found matter to anyone in any way whatsoever?” Will there be a public response of some kind to this? You can never get that response from a diary, a notebook, a studio corkboard. A blog, though, has an alternating current; so maybe some little meme will catch on and glow.
From the beginning of BEYOND THE BEYOND, I always thought that blog comments were fatal. So I swiftly shut down any notion of any “electronic community” on the blog. That was wise, because the cocktail party for trolls soon proved unbearable for everyone at Wired. Just because you’ve coded an “architecture of participation,” that doesn’t mean that it’s livable.
The quirky and personal blog was quite public, and even well-known for a while; it never had vast hordes of followers, but many other early bloggers knew about it. Also, it was attractive to search engines because WIRED had sponsored it. So the blog had some moments of social fertility.
There was a lot of Augmented Reality coverage when that small, strange industry was first getting its legs under it. The Beyond the Beyond blog was also a cradle of “design fiction,” because it was an early clearinghouse where design fiction people could have a contemplative look at the efforts of other design fiction people.
Nowadays, though, I wouldn’t claim that the blog much helps those enterprises. Augmented Reality and Design Fiction are grown-ups that will both do fine without the old blog here. Also, a genuine industry-booster blog needs to knuckle down and actually boost some industry — it should be of journalistic help. That’s something that my own blog was way too self-indulgent and scatterbrained to do.
In the early days of this blog, it sometimes brought me some business as a touring celebrity. I would get invitations to go speak at events, because someone noticed themselves in my blog. They felt flattered by that, and they thought, “Hey, let’s get that Wired guy to talk to us!” So the blog acted as a form of commercial self-promotion, sort of — but in later life, I noticed something remarkable.
People often paid me to write, and to speak, too, but the pay was never commensurate with the impact of the work. What people cheerfully paid for, and what they actually cared about, were different things.
That pay wasn’t even commensurate with my fame, because although I was a successful novelist, I was always more famous for writing texts that had paid me nothing.
So I came to understand that creative work that pleased the markets did not much affect people personally. The money from writing didn’t even affect me personally; whenever I wrote a book that was a commercial success, I never wrote any hasty sequel to cash in. That idea felt tedious and stifling to me, like being paid a salary as a typist. Throwing spaghetti at the wall of a blog to see if anything would stick, that kept my interest up, it was motivating. It wasn’t drudgery; I was willing to get up in the morning and do that, it seemed fun, life-enhancing.
Also, novels of mine rarely changed anyone’s life. It’s rare for a book-length commercial entertainment to galvanize somebody. Instead, people are stirred by exhortations, manifestos, and urgent commands to action. Also, critical recommendations are powerful: “If you think you like this thing, then you should look at that other, better thing, because that’s the real deal!” Nobody ever paid me for this countercultural guru activity, but man, that action really messed with people.
I got rather a lot of cultural traction through writing that never paid anyone. For instance, my xeroxed cyberpunk fanzine, “CHEAP TRUTH,” famously cost readers nothing. At its peak of subscription, that paper fanzine had a mere 300 readers. Also, the brief critical assessments in CHEAP TRUTH were fully understood by maybe ten people, tops. So this WIRED blog was colossal compared to that fanzine. However, I’ve never done anything so widely influential as that double-sided single sheet of paper. “Cyberpunk” is a genuinely planetary cultural phenomenon. I stumble over its artifacts everywhere. Somebody kills it or revives it once a year, yet it never seems to properly die.
Then there was the “Dead Media Project,” which I diligently labored on for years on end, and which often saw sustained attention on this blog. There is next to zero public or commercial interest in dead forms of media. Often, resuscitating dead media is even illegal, as in the obsolete pirated-game hobby. And yet, I learned plenty by doing that project, and I became a better artist, and a better critic, for that effort.
Even if I couldn’t package the things I knew in any way that any publisher would ever find viable, I simply knew things most people didn’t know. That feat was good in itself. “Real artists ship,” and yes, they do have to ship something, or else they’re not artists. But they don’t have to ship everything they know. That’s because they’re artists, and they’re not a shipping service.
It was pleasant to work so many years for the WIRED enterprise, because I felt kindly toward them and their aims, and I still do. They may have made a little money from the many ads that festooned my blog, but I doubt that. Mostly, they put up with the blog out of sheer noblesse oblige. Also, thanks to WIRED and their extensive resources, I knew that my blog would never get hacked and vandalized. This was a risk for me, especially since I had rather a lot of darkside hacker coverage on my blog. I doubt I would have paid so much sustained attention to Russian and Chinese cyberwarriors without WIRED standing by.
I wrote a successful true-crime book once, a book which brought me a truckload of loot — especially after I gave away that book for nothing, on the Internet. Through my study of crime, I learned many things that most people don’t know. I wouldn’t recommend that research, though. I learned ugly things that darkened my temperament.
It also taught me my lasting sympathy for the police, who are of a profession much given to acid black humor, and whose lives are sadly imperiled, and haunted by suicide. When I look at certain blog-posts on Beyond The Beyond — the posts that seem particularly dark, bleak and sardonic — I recognize the tone of a policeman in them. Not the stern tone that the police use with the public, but the black-humor tone they use with each other: “What are ya gonna do?”
This is not dismissive punk sneering, although, since I’m a punk, that’s something I naturally enjoy doing. No, it is the thin-blue-line attitude of world-weary battles against endless, depressing, chaotic wickedness. My blog often had the sensibility of some midnight rookie patrolman with a flashlight, poking a night-stick into trash-heaps, watching rats and raccoons scatter. Cops know where the trouble is; they have to stay with the trouble; it’s their duty.
My blog was often darkly suspicious in tone, and keen to look for undersides and downsides. In retrospect, I can see that my blog promoted the blogger’s own personal anxieties. Often, he wasn’t “informing the readers” so much as chasing half-seen wolves from his own doorstep. This wary, edgy view of life got a little monotonous sometimes, in the way that endless suspicion commonly does.
In public, cops are full of stoic dignity. But I’m not a cop, for I’ve never been a servant of the public peace and safety. My gift from the police was a lasting, burdensome awareness of dark motives, vulnerabilities and attack surfaces. That’s wisdom, but it costs an eye to get it.
In the period when I started this blog, two decades ago, through an impulse I didn’t quite understand, I began wearing the clothes of a policeman. Not to resemble a cop myself — nobody ever mistook me for a police officer — but to function more effectively in my own life. The police have rugged, ergonomic clothing which is well-suited to travellers and journalists. I had an active, inquisitive lifestyle with much multicontinental road work; so my cop cargo-pants were crammed with electronica. I even deployed cop socks, which I recommend highly to anyone who slaps as much shoe-leather as I do.
I seemed to need to dress myself in this way; in performance clothes that were guarded, stain-proofed and street-smart. For decades, routinely, I stepped into those ruggedized pants in the morning, one leg at a time. Now that I’m quitting my blog, though, I can recognize the opportunity to set aside this personal uniform. I’m not patrolling any combat zone, for I’m a cultured cyberpunk gentleman of retirement age; I no longer need a functional carapace to get through my daily life; instead of combatting bleak downside-scenarios while tensely listening for sirens or fire alarms, I’m better suited to some bespectacled garage tinkering, some pottering in gardens, and whatever serene hobbies might grace a cyberpunk’s golden years.
That feels good. I knew from the beginning that my weblog would surely cease some day, and I frequently warned readers that “blogs,” the “internet,” desktop computers, browser software and so forth, were all passing historical phenomena. They were indeed period artifacts, some with the lifespan of hamsters. The content of my blog “rotted” quickly too, since most things I talked about, or linked to, are long gone.
I always understood that, but I hopped right into the ditch anyhow. I appreciated, and I even savored, the risks; I knew that, for a guy who theoretically was a professional novelist, I was spreading myself thin, acting the dilettante, and commonly sticking my nose into scenes and situations that were none of my business. Often, I had little to offer, too, other than some quip and a link. But that was my good fortune; I chose the bohemian downsides, the life of archaic niches and avant-garde clutter; I preferred the dead factory and the palace attic. They were kind to me, for that was my milieu.
This magpie ragpicking that I did within this blog, it was never scholarship; it wouldn’t educate anyone or make the readers morally better people; it was sometimes funny, but often just arcane, an autodidactic effort by some eccentric guy teaching himself things probably better not known by anyone. So I wouldn’t call the blog a “success,” yet it was still a success. As the late Mark E Smith used to say, back in the heyday of punk, “You don’t have to be weird to be weird; you don’t have to be strange to be strange.” That is good advice; if you want to become original, you should keep an eye out for whatever you don’t-have-to.
I’m even proud and happy that I managed to spare the readers so much of my own mental compost in this blog. The chosen, curated material that made it on to this blog was maybe one percent of the vast heaps of rubbish I was overturning. I could have stuffed this blog with two hundred times as much “content,” and if I’d lived for two hundred years, I would never have lost interest in my sky-blackening sandstorm of off-the-wall topics. Every day was a gift, and full of grist for the mill.
In conclusion, people may wonder “what next” — well, I’m still active, or even hyperactive, on Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, Pinterest, Medium and Ello. But those platforms are not my “weblogs” — they’re social media, or image-sharing sites. I find them cozy mostly because I’m indolent, and they’re not as much work as a weblog. It’s easier to quip about the same-old same-old than it is to explore the frontiers.
If I was a young person, and starting over today, I would not experiment with a weblog supported by a West Coast US technology magazine. Instead, I would try something more youthful in spirit, less conventional, more beyond-the-beyond. This blog was an experiment when I started it, but in modern conditions, it’s technically archaic; I’ve got a blog here that’s old enough to vote.
So I might well have gone on blogging here indefinitely, through dint of mature habit, but I can recognize that fate has handed me a get-out-of-jail-free card. The post-Internet may even be a different Monopoly board-game. So I will accept the situation graciously, and with a sense of contentment.
So thanks for clicking, ladies and gentlemen. Hasta la vista, and ave atque vale.