Bruce Sterling has written a fantastic nonfiction book about the future of industrial design and society, and it's the most thought-provoking thing I've read all year.
Sterling is a brilliant science fiction writer. Virtuoso novels like Distraction have earned him an indelible place in the field.
But as good as his novels are, I like his essays and nonfiction even better. It was his address to the Computer Game Developers' conference that convinced me to drop out of university and write funny multimedia software. His Hacker Crackdown, which chronicles the events that led up to the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is one of the primary reasons I ended up working for the organization.
Bruce's latest nonfiction is a short book from MIT Press called Shaping Things, and it's grounded in a theory of design, technology and history that analyses how the tools that designers deliver change society, and how that changes us, and that changes design. Sterling traces the history of tools from artifacts (farmers' tools) to machines (customers' devices) to products (customers' purchases) to gizmos (end-users' platforms) and to the future, which is defined by what Sterling calls Spimes.
A Spime is a location-aware, environment-aware, self-logging, self-documenting, uniquely identified object that flings off data about itself and its environment in great quantities. A universe of Spimes is an informational universe, and it is the use of this information that informs the most exciting part of Sterling's argument.
In Freakonomics, we learn how accidental collections of fortuitously arranged information allows economists to measure and understand the impact of complex social interactions. A lottery to pick which students can go to what school in Chicago generates data that can be treated as the outcome of a random-selection experiment to investigate the impact of different environments on scholarly achievements, and so on.
A universe of Spimes is a universe of millions of these experiments in potentia. Hackers, activists, advocates, competitors, designers — all of us — can query the data-stream to find out what, for example, happens to the high-impact rubber on our sneakers' soles at the end of their life — are they being recycled into schoolyard playgrounds or are they becoming aerosol carcinogens? Spimes, in Sterling's view, are the hactivist's ultimate tool — an evidentiary rallying point for making the negative outcomes of industrial practices visible and obvious so that we can redress them.
There are some areas of the book's thesis that need fleshing out still. I think that Sterling glosses over the privacy concerns of location-aware, self-identifying, always-on devices. I also think that the solution of embedding legal restrictions in code is more harmful than beneficial, since so much of law hinges on intangibles, like intent. DRM can't model copyright because copyright gives great leeway to unauthorized users, provided that those users' intentions are good ones — a critic can legally copy and transmit parts of a work in a way that a satirist can't. A computer can't tell the difference between critics and satirists. Embedding all kinds of laws in code is intractable because law hinges as much on the why of a deed as the what.
That said, this book had me scribbling all over the margins, underlining juicy passages (no one turns a provocative phrase like Sterling, e.g., "The future composts the past") and dog-earing the corners. I can tell that this is a book I'll return to again and again and get more out of it each time I do. It's a wonderful and timely work that is a must-read in an age of ubiquitous computation, universal information resources, and hacker-activist renaissance, there's no better primer for putting it all together.
You first encounter the Spime while searching on a Web site, as a virtual image. The image is likely a glamorous publicity photo, but it is also deep-linked to the genuine, three-dimensional computer-designed engineering specifications of the object — engineering tolerances, material specifications and so forth.
Until you express your desire for this object, it does not exist. You buy a spime with a credit card, which is to say you legally guarantee that you want it. It therefore comes to be. Your account information is embedded in that transaction. The object is automatically integrated into your spime management inventory system. After the purchase, manufacture, and delivery of your spime, a link in established through customer relations management software, involving you in the future development of this object. This link, at a minimum, includes the full list of spime ingredients (basically, the object's material and energy flows), its unique ID code, its history of ownership, geographical tracking hardware and software to establish its position in space and time, various handy recipes for post-purchase customization, a public site for interaction and live views of the production change, and bluebook value. The spime is able to update itself in your database, and to inform you of required service calls, with appropriate links to service centers.
At the end of its lifespan, the spime is deactivated, removed from your presence by specialists, entirely disassembled, and folded back into the manufacturing stream. The data it generated remains available for historical analysis by a wide variety of interested parties.