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Bruce Sterling on Shaping Things through SPIMES: Technosocial Transformations for a Sustainable World

Shapingthings_1Bruce Sterling's keynote at UbiComp 2006 inspired me to go back and re-read his book Shaping Things, in which he introduces the notion of SPIMES -- physical objects with digital histories that can be recorded and tracked through SPace and tIME. I didn't think all the ideas from this book shined clearly through in his talk, so I thought it would be helpful [for me] to revisit some of them.

The subtitle of this post is intended to convey the motivation that Sterling articulates: using technology to help ensure a sustainable future (or futures).  He starts out by offering a brief history of technosocial epochs:

  • Artifacts: objects made by hand, powered by muscle, used by hunters and farmers, startring around the dawn of humanity.
  • Machines: complex, precisely proportioned artifacts with many moving parts that have tapped some non-human, non-animal power source, used by customers, starting around the eclipse of the Mongols in the 1500s.
  • Products: widely distributed, commercially available objects, anonymously and uniformly manufactured in massive quantities, used by consumers, starting around World War One.
  • Gizmos: highly unstable, user-alterable, baroquely multifeatured objects, commonly programmable, with a brief lifespan, used by end-users, starting around 1989.
  • Spimes: manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system; they are sustainable, enhanceable, uniquely identifiable and made of substances that can and will be folded back into the production stream of future Spimes (this last feature is one that I don't entirely believe -- during his keynote, he referred to organic plastic semiconductors as the substance of choice).  Spimes are used by wranglers, starting around, well, now.

The technology that will power the spime revolution is a combination of radio frequency identification (RFID) chips -- he calls arphids -- to tag objects, the global positioning system (GPS) and various local positioning systems (such as we heard about at UbiComp 2006, especially day 2) to track those objects, backend processing and storage systems to maintain their informational microhistories, and various "wands" (reminiscent, perhaps, of Andy Wilson's Xwand developed at Microsoft Research) and "monitors" with which we can interface with the spimes.

Among the many issues that must be addressed to realize this vision is the granularity of tagging (Chris Oakley's brilliant short video, The Catalogue, comes to mind), and the provisioning of all the supporting equipment. Sterling seems to place a great deal of faith in designers to figure all this out. I suspect that as it becomes increasingly valuable to tag and track objects, more designers will find ways to hack or game the system, in the same way that Google has spawned an entire industry of designers devoted to search engine marketing, splogs and click fraud.
 
Describing the spime revolution, Sterling notes that Spimes form the core of what he calls a synchronic society, wherein every entity has informational microhistories:

The truly sustainable society has to be sustainable enough to prevail against the unforeseen ... [so] serendipity is necessary ... accessing knowledge you didn't know you possessed is both faster and more reliable than discovering it.  This is the new form of knowledge at which a Spime world excels. It is not doctrine, but the school of experience -- not reasoning out a solution a priori, but making a great many small mistakes, and then keeping a record of all of them.

And, I would add, making those records available to everyone. This notion is reminiscent of David Brin's book, Transparent Society, wherein he argues that in a future society filled with [fixed] cameras, it is better to make their output accessible to all than to restrict the output to the "authorities" (and my recent revisitation of George Orwell's 1984 makes me ever more supportive of Brin's opinion on the preference of the former policy). Spimes would presumably subsume cameras, and encompass nearly every physical object in existence, meaning our lives could be far more open and vulnerable than ever before, a state not likely to be welcomed by many.

Sterling argues for transparent production, where the legal, social, ethical and environmental factors involved in the production of any thing (spime) is encoded in its microhistory (a theme being explored through Marc Smith's AURA prototype at Microsoft Research). Transparent consumption would also add a layer of accountability for -- or on --those who invest in spimes, moving well beyond the values being exhibited ostentatiously by those who purchase modern products such as a Hummer or Prius.

I'm not sure that most people -- or businesses -- would welcome such transparency. Sterling wants a world that is "auto-Googling", but this would require significant wrestling, or wrangling, with privacy and intellectual property issues, which he appears to believe are insoluble.

This ownership question in Spime can never be settled. The fact that it's unsettleable is why there is money in it. There are no permanent solutions to Spime questions. Only customers and consumers imagine that there are permanent solutions to physical ownership and intellectual property issues: end-users know it's all a shell-game, while Spime wranglers don't even bother with the shell-they are the shell.

Wherever there is an insoluble intellectual-property question, there is a Spime career. That's where I wrangle. When and if it gets more or less figured out, I bump up the S-curve and I go wrangle somewhere more advanced.

I suppose that if one is a science fiction writer, then proposing insoluble issues is part of your business, but it leaves me with a less than satisfying impression. The book certainly succeeds in sparking ideas and raising important issues, the early hints of which are visible today. And, just as Sterling loves the neologisms he reads about in UbiComp, I enjoyed the neologisms he writes about in Shaping Things ... but naming things isn't the same as shaping things, although as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, naming things can go a long way toward shaping the conversation about things.  It will be interesting to see whether and how spimes penetrate the discussions about -- and actions toward -- technosocial futures.

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