Bruce Sterling at SXSW on Passionate Virtuosity

Millennials represented at South by Southwest this year. We the are building tools that are changing the way people interact with the world and have cobbled together our own conferences about Internet culture with passion and love. And we are a generation that’s seriously thinking about our personal data and our relationships to the Internet companies with which we share that data.

Bruce Sterling‘s closing remarks at SXSW brought to light just how important Millennials are to the future of technology and society. He made the apt observation: “There are young people here. There are people here younger than the event,” which just celebrated its twenty-fifth year.

As the father of cyberpunk science fiction and an Internet critic, Sterling traditionally offers his self-described “rant” to a rapt audience at the end of the conference. Last year I found it to be one of the most eye-opening and refreshing sessions I attended, so I was sure to make it again this year. And he did not disappoint. While the majority of the talk focused on political criticism, he also exerted some positive encouragement to incite the up-and-coming generation to act.

Passionate Virtuosity

As a futurist, Sterling “criticizes things that don’t exist yet.” Because he’s always looking forward, he knows the next wave of innovators is coming up from the rear, but the primary focus of his talk argued that society today is lacking a driving force for action, which he referred to as “passionate virtuosity.”

Passionate virtuosity is the combination of having innovative ideas and the extraordinary capabilities to see those ideas through. The passionate virtuoso not only cares deeply about what he’s doing, but is also capable of mastery. Sterling argued, through a number of political critiques, that this passion is lacking today, and that it’s something for which we all should strive.

Solidarity with Millennials

Sterling concluded with a battle cry, shouting a formal declaration for his “passionate solidarity with the Millennials.” He berated the “gerontocracy” of the older generation of politicians, and declared the generation as incapable of “focused action and intentional innovation.” He suggested that those under 25 are the victims of a decaying status quo. With vivid vampire imagery, Sterling stated that the older generation is “sucking the blood of your children,” and argued, “there’s a reason why Twilight is the fable of your time.”

He ended with a call to action: “You need to take power, Millennials…Don’t listen to any gray haired professors explaining how change is impossible.”

Women of SXSW

Sterling also gave a special shout-out to the ladies of SXSW and pointed out the uniqueness of the conference demographics, compared to the rest of the tech conference circuit. (And I agree – I’ve been to the RSA Security Conference, where I felt like I was not only one of the 1% female attendee population, but also the only one under the age of 30.) Sterling proclaimed: “SXSW looks like a new world instead of a meetup for geeks, because it’s got women in it. It’s because it’s got women that it looks like a model of civilization.”

That’s what makes SXSW such an interesting place for ideas, because there is such a robust diversity of attendees — from start ups to agencies, and venture capitalists to academics and futurists like himself. Of course there’s a little bit of an echo-chamber affect of technologically-savvy people attending, but I would argue that the demographics of technologically-savvy are changing up right now.

He further warned the women of SXSW, borrowing from a battle cry from Garibaldi, “Women of SXSW: Do not embrace a coward. I’m not saying they are not cute, but you’ll want to choose another decade for that project.” The comment hearkened back to his earlier critiques of the situation in Italy, but it also put weight behind the idea that we all have our own projects to take on in these times.

What’s Next

Sterling was just one of many inspiring speakers at SXSW. Scan the archives for inspiration. SXSW has already posted audio for many of the sessions, and there will be more video to come.

Sara Marie Watson I work at Brightcove, the leading online video platform where I manage our inbound marketing content strategy. I'm also a Lead Researcher for the Web Ecology Project. I previously researched and wrote for a Fortune 500 CIO audience as a technology analyst at The Research Board, a subsidiary of Gartner, Inc. Twitter: @smwat

View all posts by Sara Marie Watson

One Response to “Bruce Sterling at SXSW on Passionate Virtuosity”

  1. Jon Kohrs

    Thank you so much for the recap of his closing remarks. Ever since I heard him speak last week, I’ve been searching for blog recaps, audio snips and video. Thanks again for capturing such an inspirational 40 minutes!


Leave a Reply