Though they are slowly disappearing, the city where I live in Poland (Wrocław) still has street-side kiosks. The socialist version of 7-11, the metal or fiberglass huts open daily and sell the little necessities of life—magazines, chocolate, tissues, apples, cheese, etc.—and were once a key part of daily shopping in Poland and Eastern Europe. Having spied one in his travels or been told of their existence, Bruce Sterling decided to write a story about one such kiosk—a near-future one. The resulting novelette called simply “Kiosk” (2007), it is a satirical look at new industrial production techniques and the products which result on the market. Never overtly stated, there are strong overtones regarding the dissemination of material, pirated, virtual, tangible, and otherwise.
Borislav is the owner of a kiosk in a fictional Eastern European town. Alert to his client’s needs, he stocks what people want, but is also on the lookout for new items to keep his inventory fresh. Brought a fabrikator one day, the local children fall in love with the temporary wax shapes it spits out. Uncaring that the objects dissolve a week later, it’s so popular the children even start collecting and trading the cards which activate the machine without using them. Boris approached by one Dr. Grootjans of the European Unified Electronic Product Coding System one day in the aftermath of the fabrikator’s success, she waves her shopping wand at Boris’ kiosk and decides to purchase the entire inventory. Though settling in with his new pocket of cash, things are only just beginning for Boris and his kiosk.
The shopping wand just the beginning, Sterling goes on to describe the market effect of the fabricator as seen through Boris’ eyes. A black market device stolen from Poland, how the technology and the products it creates evolve, drawing in the lives of the small community, is the cornerstone of the story. Sarcasm forever lurking just beneath the surface, the dorsal fin of satire slices the waters, humanity’s innate desire and talent to create and trade revealed in the wake. Ignoring conflicting economic ideologies, the story hones in on something deeper in the currents of the market as technology evolves and would seem to point out that no matter what, piracy is standard no matter whether socialism, capitalism, or any other economic paradigm is the name of the day.
In the end, “Kiosk” is a clever look at the manner in which humans approach and react to the market. A serious piece as well, Sterling has his finger on more than one pulse—the actions and reactions of Boris, his colleagues, and the government come straight from the newspapers of our day dealing with internet piracy. The fabrikator an idea borrowed from buddy William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, the novelette is a lightly humorous yet insightful read that presents a fundamental viewpoint on commerce in the day of the internet.