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Trilogy Part III -Future of the World

DESIGN FICTION
1299trl

USER-CENTRIC
by Bruce Sterling


From: Team Coordinator
To: "Design Team" [Engineer, Graphic Designer, Legal Expert, Marketer, Programmer, Social Anthropologist & Team Coordinator]
Subject: New Product Brainstorm

Another new product launch. Well, we all know what that means. Nobody ever said that they're easy. But I do believe the seven of us --given our unique backgrounds and our proven skills--are just the people to turn things around for this company.

Things aren't as bad as the last quarterly report makes them look. Despite what the shareholders may think, we've definitely bottomed out from that ultrasonic cleanser debacle. Sales in muscle-gel apps remain strong.

Plus, the buzz on our new product category just couldn't be hotter. People across our industry agree that locator tag microtechnology is a killer app in the intelligent-environment market. MEMS tech is finally out of the lab and bursting into the marketplace, and our cross-licenses and patents look very solid. As for the development budget--well, this is the biggest new product budget I've seen in eight years with this company.

My point is--we've got to get away from our old-fashioned emphasis on "technology for tech's sake." That approach is killing us in the modern marketplace. Yes, of course MEMS locator chips are a "hot, sweet" technology--and yes, "If you build it, they will come." Our problem is, we do build it, and they do come, but they give all the money to somebody else.

We can't live on our reputation as a cutting-edge engineering outfit. Design awards just don't pay the bills. That's not what our shareholders want, and it's not what the new management wants. No matter how we may grumble, this company has got to be competitive in the real world. That means that it's all about Return-On-Investment. It's about meeting consumer demand, and generating serious revenue. So let's not start with the product qua product. Our product is not a "commodity" any more, and the consumer is not a "user." The product is a point of entry for the buyer into a long-term, rewarding relationship.

So what we require here, people, is a story. That story has got to be a human story. It has to be a user-centric story--it's got to center on the user himself. It's all about the guy who's opening his wallet and paying up.

I want this character, this so-called "user," to be a real person with some real human needs. I want to know who he is, and what we're doing for him, and why he's giving us money. So we've got to know what he needs, what he wants. What he longs for, what he hopes for, what he's scared of. All about him.

If we understand him and his motivations, then we also understand our product. I want to know what we can do for this guy in his real life. How can we mold his thinking?
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From: Design Engineer
To: Design Team
Subject: Re: New Product Brainstorm

FYI, User specs: Classic early adapter type. Male. Technically proficient. 18-35 age demographic. NAFTA/Europe. Owns lots of trackable, high-value-added, mobile hardware products: sporting goods, laptops, bicycles, luggage, possibly several cars.
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From: Marketer
To: Design Team
Subject: User Specs

I just read the Engineer's email, and gee whiz, people. That is dullsville. That is marketing poison. Do you have any idea how burned out the Male-Early-Adapter thing is in today's competitive environment? These guys have digital toothbrushes now. They're nerd-burned, they've been consumer-carpet-bombed! There's nothing left of their demographic! They're hiding in blacked-out closets hoping their shoes will stop paging their belt buckles.

Nerds can't push this product into the high-volume category that we need for a breakeven. We need a house-keeping technology. I mean ultra-high volume, in the realm of soaps, mops, brooms, scrubbing brushes, latex gloves, lightbulbs. An impulse buy, but high-margin and everywhere.
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From: Programmer
To: Design Team
Subject: [no subject]

I can't believe I agree with the Marketer. But really, I'd rather be dipped in crumbs and deep-fried. Than grind out code for some lamer chip. That tells you where your lawnmower is. I mean, if you don't know by now. READ THE FRIENDLY MANUAL. I mean, how stupid are people out there supposed to be? Don't answer that. Jeez.
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From: Social Anthropologist
To: Design Team
Subject: Creating Our Reality Model

People, forgive me for this, but I don't think you quite grasp what Fred, our esteemed Team Leader, is suggesting to us approach-wise. We need a solid story before we consider the specs on the technical MacGuffin. A story just works better that way.

So: we need a compelling character. In fact, we need two characters. One for the early-adoption contingent who appreciates technical sweetness, and the other who is our potential mass-market household user. To put a human face on them right away, I would suggest we call them "Al" and "Zelda."

Al is a young man with disposable income who lives in a rather complex household. (Perhaps he inherited it.) Al's not really at ease with his situation as it stands--all those heirlooms, antiques, expensive furniture, kitchenware, lawn-care devices--it's all just a little out of his control. Given Al's modern education, Al sees a laptop or desktop as his natural means of control over a complex situation. Al wants his things together and neat, and accessible, and searchable, and orderly-- just the way they are on his computer screen.

But what Al really needs is an understanding, experienced, high-tech housekeeper. That's where "Zelda" comes into the story. Zelda's in today's 65+ demographic, elderly but very vigorous, with some life-extension health issues. Zelda has smart pill-bottles that remind her of all her times and her dosages. She's got cognitive blood-brain inhalers, and smart orthopedic shoes. Zelda wears the customary, elder-demographic, biomaintenance wrist-monitor. So I see Zelda as very up-to-speed with biomedical tech--so that her innate late-adapter conservatism has a weak spot that we might exploit. Is this approach working for the Team?
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From: Coordinator
To: Design Team
Subject: Alright!!

The Social Anthropologist knows just what we want: specificity. We're building a technology designed for these two characters--who are they, what do they need? How can we exceed their consumer expectations, make them go "Wow"?

And one other little thing--I'm not the "Leader." It's nice of Susan to say that, but my proper title is "Coordinator," and the new CEO insists on that across all divisions.
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From: Graphics Guy
To: Design Team
Subject: My Turn

Okay, well, maybe it's just me, but I'm getting a kind of vibe from this guy "Albert." I'm thinking he's maybe, like, a hunter? Because I see him as, like, outdoors a lot? More than you'd think for a geek, anyway. Okay? (continued)
From: Engineer
To: Design Team
Subject: Story Time

Okay, I can play that way, too. "Albert Huddleston." He's the quiet type good with his hands. Not a big talker. Doesn't read much. Not a ladies' man. But he's great at home repair. He's got the big house and he's out in the big yard a lot of the time, with big trees, maybe a garden. A deer rifle wouldn't scare him. He could tie trout flies, if he were in the mood.
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From: Marketer
To: Design Team
Subject: The Consumables within Al's Demographic

A bow saw, an extendible pruner. Closet full of extreme-sports equipment from college that he can't bear to get rid of.
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From: Graphics Guy
To: Design Team
Subject: What is Albert really like?

So he's, like, maybe, a Cognition-Science major with a minor in environmental issues?
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From: Marketer
To: Design Team
Subject: [none]

Albert's not smart enough to be a "cognition science major."
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From: Legal Expert
To: Design Team
Subject: So-Called Cognition Science

In a lot of schools, "Cognition Science" is just the Philosophy Department in drag. (cont.)
From: Team Coordinator
To: Design Team
Subject: Brainstorming

It's great to see you pitching in, Legal Expert, but let's not get too critical while the big, loose ideas are still flowing.
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From: Legal Expert
To: Design Team
Subject: Critical Legal Implications

Well, excuse me for living. Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but there are massive legal issues with this proposed technology. We're talking about embedding hundreds of fingernail-sized radio-chirping MEMS chips that emit real-time data on the location and the condition of everything you own. That's a potential Orwell situation. It could violate every digital-privacy statute on the books.

Let's just suppose that you walk out with some guy's chip-infested fountain pen. You don't even know the thing'sbugged. So if the plaintiff's got enough bandwidth and big enough receivers, he can map you and all your movements, for as long as you carry the thing.

Legal issues must come first in the design process. It's not prudent to tack on anti-liability safeguards, somewhere down at the far end of the assembly line.
 
From: Engineer To: Design Team Subject: Correction

We don't use "assembly lines." Those went out with the twentieth century.
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From: Marketer To: Design Team Subject: Getting Sued

Wait a minute. Isn't product-liability exactly what blew us out of the water with the ultrasonic cleanser?
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From: Social Anthropologist
To: Design Team
Subject: The Issues We Face as a Group

There are plenty of major issues here, no one's denying that. In terms of the story though--I'm very intrigued with the Legal Expert's views. There seems to be an unexamined assumption that a household control technology is necessarily "private."

But what if it's just the opposite? If Al has the location and condition of all his possessions cybernetically tracked and tagged in real time, maybe Al is freed from worrying about all his stuff. Why should Al fret about his possessions any more? We've made them permanently safe. Why shouldn't Al loan the lawnmower to his neighbor? The neighbor can't lose the lawnmower, he can't sell it, because Al's embedded MEMS monitors just won't allow that behavior. (continued)

So now Al can be far more generous to his neighbor. Instead of being miserly and geeky "labeling everything he possesses," obsessed with privacy--Al turns out to be an open-handed, open-hearted, very popular guy. Hedoesn't even need locks on his doors! Everything Al has is automatically theft-proof--thanks to us. He has big house parties, fearlessly showing off his home and his possessions. Everything that was once a personal burden to Al becomes a benefit to the neighborhood community. What was once Al's weakness and anxiety is now a source of emotional strength and community esteem.
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From: Team Coordinator
To: Design Team
Subject: Wow

Right! That's it. That's what we're looking for. That's the "Wow" factor.
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From: Graphics Guy
To: Design Team
Subject: Re: Wow

So here's how Al meets Zelda. Cause she's, like, living next door? And there's a bunch of Al's dinner plates in her house, kinda "borrowed"? Someone breaks a plate, there's an immediate screen prompt, Al rushes over.
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From: Legal Expert
To: Design Team
Subject: Domestic Disputes

Someone threw a plate at Zelda. Zelda owns the home next door, and her son and daughter-in-law are living in it. But Zelda sold the home because she needs to finance her rejuvenation treatments. It's a basic cross-generational equity issue. Happens all the time nowadays, with the boom in life-extension. Granny Zelda comes home from the clinic looking 35. She's mortgaged the family wealth, and now the next generation can't afford to have kids. Daughter-in-law freaked because dear old mom suddenly looks better than she does. It's a soap-opera eruption of passion, resentment and greed. Makes a child-custody case look like a traffic ticket.
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From: Engineer
To: Design Team
Subject: Implications

Great. So listen. Zelda sells her house and moves in with Al. He's a nice guy, rescuing her from her family. She brings all her own stuff into Al's house--60 years' worth of tschotschkes. No problem. Thanks to us. Because Al and Zelda are getting everything out of her packing boxes and tagging it all with MEMS tags. Possessions are mixed up physically--and yet they're totally separate, virtually. With MEMS, unskilled labor can enter the house with handheld trackers, separate and re-pack everything in a few hours, tops. Al and Zelda never lose track of who belongs to what--that's a benefit we're supplying. They can live together in a new kind of way.
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From: Graphics Guy
To: Design Team
Subject: A&Z Living Together

Okay, so Zelda's in the house cooking, right? Now Al can get to that yardwork he's been putting off. There's like squirrels and raccoons and out there, and they're getting in the attic? Only now Al's got some cybernetic live-traps, like the MuscleGel MistNet from our Outdoor Products Division. Al catches the raccoon, and he plants a MEMS chip under the animal's skin. Now he always knows where the raccoon is! It's like, Al hears this spooky noise in the attic, he goes up in the attic with his handheld, it's like, "Okay Rocky, I know it's you! And I know exactly where you're hiding. Get the hell out of my insulation." (continued)
From: Legal Expert
To: Design Team
Subject: Tagging Raccoons

Interesting. If Al really does track and catalog a raccoon, that makes the raccoon a property improvement. If Al wants to sell the house, he's got a market advantage. After all, Al's property comes with big trees, that's obvious, that's a given -- but now it also comes with a legally verifiable raccoon.
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From: Engineer
To: Design Team
Subject: Squirrels

They're no longer vermin. The squirrels in the trees, I mean. They're a wholly-owned property asset.
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From: Team Coordinator
To: Design Team
Subject: This Is Real Progress, People

I'm with this approach! See, we never would have thought of the raccoon angle if we'd concentrated on the product as a product. But of course Al is moving his control-chips out of the house, into his lawn and eventually into the whole neighborhood. Raccoons wander around all the time. So do domestic dogs and cats. But that's not a bug in our tracking technology--that's a feature. Al's cat has got a MEMS tag on its collar. Al can tag every cat's collar in the neighborhood and run it as a neighborhood service off his web-page. When you're calling Kitty in for supper, you just email Kitty's collar.
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From: Programmer
To: Design Team
Subject: [no subject]

AWESOME! I am so with this! I got 8 cats myself, I want this product! I can smell the future here! And it smells like a winner!!
 
From: Engineer
To: Design Team
Subject: Current Chip Technology

That subcutaneous ID chip is a proven technology. They've been doing that for lab rats for years now. I could have a patent-free working model out of our Sunnyvale fab plant in 48 hours, tops.

The only problem Al faces is repeater technology, so he can cover the neighborhood with his radio locators. But a repeater net is a system administration issue. That's a classic, tie-in, service-provision opportunity. We're talking long-term contracts here, and a big buyer lock-in factor.
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From: Marketer
To: Design Team
Subject: Buyer Lock-In Factor

That is hot! Of course! It's about consumer stickiness through market-segmentation upgrades. You've got the bottom-level, introductory, Household-Only tagging model. Then the mid-level Neighborhood model. Then, on to the Gold and Platinum service levels, with 24 hour tech support! Al can saturate the whole suburb. Maybe even the whole city! It's totally open-ended. We supply as many tags and as much monitoring and connectivity as the guy can pay for. The only limit is the size of his wallet!
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From: Team Coordinator
To: Social Anthropologist
Subject: ***Private Message***

Susan, look at 'em go! I can't believe the story-telling approach works so well. Last week they were hanging around the lab with long faces, preparing their resumes and emailing head-hunters.
 
 

(continued)
To: Team Coordinator
From: Social Anthropologist
Subject: Re: ***Private Message***

Fred, people have been telling each other stories since we were hominids around campfires in Africa. It's a very basic human cognition thing, really.
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From: Team Coordinator
To: Social Anthropologist
Subject: **Private Message Again**

We've gotta hit, Susan. I can feel it. I need a drink after all this, don't you? Let's celebrate. On my tab, ok? We'll make a night of it.
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From: Social Anthropologist
To: Team Coordinator
Subject: Our Relationship

Fred, I'm not going to deny there's chemistry between us. But I really have to question whether that's appropriate business behavior.
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From: Team Coordinator
To: Social Anthropologist
Subject: ***Private Message***

We're grown-ups, Susan. We've both been around the block a few times. Come on, you don't have to be this way.
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From: Social Anthropologist
To: Team Coordinator
Subject: Re: ***Private Message***

Fred, it's not like this upsets me professionally -- I mean, not in that oh-so-proper way. I'm a trained anthropologist. They train us to understand how societies work -- not how to make people happy. I'm being very objective about this situation. I don't hold it against you. I know that I'm relationship poison, Fred. I've never made a man happy in my whole life.
 
 
From: Team Coordinator
To: Social Anthropologist
Subject: **Very Private Message**

Please don't be that way, Susan. That "you and me" business, I mean. I thought we'd progressed past that by now. We could just have a friendly cocktail down at Les Deux Magots. This story isn't about "you and me."
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From: Social Anthropologist
To: Team Coordinator
Subject: Your Unacceptable Answer

Then whose story is it, Fred? If this isn't our story, then whose story is it?

* * *

Albert's mouth was dry. His head was swimming. He really had to knock it off with those cognition enhancers--especially after 8 p.m. The smart drugs had been a major help in college--all those French philosophy texts, my God, Kant 301, that wasn't the kind of text that a guy could breeze through without serious neurochemical assistance--but he'd overdone it. Now he ate the pills just to keep up with the dyslexia syndrome--and the pills made him so, well, verbal. Lots of voices inside the head. Voices in the darkness. Bits and pieces arguing. Weird debates. A head full of yakking chemical drama.

Another ripping snore came out of Hazel. Hazel had the shape of a zaftig 1940s swimsuit model, and the ear-nose-and-throat lining of a 67-year-old crone. And what the hell was it with those hundred-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald novels? Those pink ballet slippers. And the insistence on calling herself "Zelda."

Huddleston pulled himself quietly out of the bed. He lurched into the master bathroom, which alertly switched itself on as he entered. His hair was snow-white, his face a road-map of hard wear. The epidermal mask was tearing loose a bit, down at the shaving line at the base of his neck. He was a 25-year-old man who went out on hot dates with his own roommate. He posed as Zelda's fictional "70-year-old escort." When they were out in clubs and restaurants, he always passed as Zelda's sugar-daddy.

That was the way the two of them had finally clicked as a couple, somehow. The way to make the relationship work out. Al had become a stranger in his own life.

Al now knew straight-out, intimately, what it really meant to be old. Al knew how to pass for old. Because his girlfriend was old. He watched forms of media that were demographically targeted for old people, with their deafened ears, cloudy eyes, permanent dyspepsia and fading grip-strength. Al was technologically jet-lagged out of the entire normal human aging process. He could visit "his 70s" the way you might buy a ticket and visit "France."

Getting Hazel, or rather "Zelda," to come across in the bedroom --the term "ambivalence" didn't begin to capture his feelings on that subject. It was all about fingernail-on-glass sexual tension and weird time-traveling flirtation mannerisms. There was something so irreparable about it. It was a massive transgressive rupture in the primal fabric of human relationships.

Not "love." It was a different arrangement. A romance with no historical precedent, all beta pre-release, an early-adapter thing, all shakeout, with a million bugs and periodic crashes.
(continued)

It wasn't love, it was "evol." It was "elvo." Albert was in elvo with the curvaceous bright-eyed babe who had once been the kindly senior citizen next door.

At least he wasn't like his Dad. Stone dead of overwork on the stairsteps of his mansion, in a monster house with a monster coronary. And with three dead marriages: Mom One, Mom Two and Mom Three. Mom One had the kid and the child support. Mom Two got the first house and the alimony. Mom Three was still trying to break the will.

How in hell had life become like this? thought Huddleston in a loud interior voice, as he ritually peeled dead pseudoskin from a mirrored face that, even in the dope-etched neural midnight of his posthuman soul, looked harmless and perfectly trustworthy. He couldn't lie to himself--because he was a philosophy major, he formally despised all forms of cheesiness and phoniness. He was here because he enjoyed it. It was working out for him. Because it met his needs. He'd been a confused kid with emotional issues, but he was so together now.

He had to give Zelda all due credit--the woman was a positive genius at home economics. A household maintenance whiz. Zelda was totally down with Al's ambitious tagging project. Everything in its place with a place for everything. Every single shelf and windowsill was spic and span. Al and Zelda would leaf through design catalogs together, in taut little moments of genuine bonding.

Zelda was enthralled with the new decor scheme and clung to her household makeover projects like a drowning woman grabbing life-rings. Al had to admit it: she'd been totally right about the stark necessity for new curtains. And the lamp thing--Zelda had amazing taste in lamps. You couldn't ask for a better garden-party hostess: the canapés, the Japanese lacquer trays, crystal swizzle sticks, stackable designer porch chairs, Chateau Neuf de Pape, stuff Al had never heard of, stuff he wouldn't have learned about for 50 years. Such great, cool stuff.

She was his high-maintenance girl. A fixer-upper. Like a part-time wife, sort of kind of, but requiring extensive repair work. A good-looking gal with a brand new wardrobe, whose calcium-depleted skeletal system was slowly unhinging, requiring lots of hands-on footrubs and devoted spinal adjustment. It was a shame about her sterility thing. But let's face it, who needed children? Zelda had children. She couldn't stand 'em.

What Al really wanted --what he'd give absolutely anything for-- was somebody, something, somewhere, somehow, who would give him a genuine grip. To become a fully realized, fully authentic human being. He had this private vision, a true philosophy almost: Albert "Owl" Huddleston, as a truly decent person. Honest, helpful, forthright, moral. A modern philosopher. A friend to mankind. It was that Gesamtkunstwerk thing. No loose ends at all. No ragged bleeding bits. The Total Work of Design.

canCompletely put together, Al thought, carefully flushing his face down the toilet. A stranger in his own life, maybe, sure, granted, but so what, so were most people. Even a lame antimaterialist like Henry Thoreau knew that much. A tad dyslexic, didn't read all that much, stutters a little when he forgets his neuroceuticals, listens to books on tape about Italian design theory, maybe a tad obsessive-compulsive about the $700 broom, and the ultra-high-tech mop with the chemical taggant system that Displays Household Germs in Real Time©™...But so what.

So what. So what is the real story here? Is Al a totally together guy, on top and in charge, cleverly shaping his own destiny through a wise choice of tools, concepts, and approaches? Or is Al a soulless figment of a hyperactive market, pieced together like a shattered mirror from a million little impacts of brute consumerism? Is Al his own man entire, or is Al a piece of flotsam in the churning surf of techno-revolution? Probably both and neither. With the gratifying knowledge that it's All Completely Temporary Anyway ©. Technological Innovation Is An Activity, Not An Achievement™SM. Living On The Edge Is Never Comfortable®.

What if the story wasn't about design after all? What if it wasn't about your physical engagement with the manufactured world, your civilized niche in historical development, your mastery of consumer trends, your studied elevation of your own good taste, and your hands-on struggle with a universe of distributed, pervasive and ubiquitous smart objects, that are choreographed in invisible, dynamic, interactive systems. All based, with fiendish computer-assisted human cleverness, in lightness, dematerialization, brutally rapid product cycles, steady iterative improvement, renewability, and fantastic access and abundance. What if all of that was at best a passing thing. A by-blow. A techie spin-off. A phase. What if the story was all about this, instead: What if you tried your level best to be a real-life, fully true human being, and it just plain couldn't work? It wasn't even possible. Period.

Zelda stirred and opened her glamorous eyes. "Is everything clean?"
"Yeah."
"Is it all put away?"
"Yep."
"Did you have another nightmare?"
"Uh. No. Sure. Kinda. Don't call them 'nightmares,' okay? I just thought I'd...you know....boot up and check out the neighborhood."

Zelda sat up in bed, tugging at the printed satin sheet. "There are no more solutions," Zelda said. "You know that, don't you? There are no happy endings. Because there are no endings. There are only ways to cope."

***
Other works by Bruce Sterling can be found at
http://www.well.com/conf/mirrorshades


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