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systems

I really enjoyed Andrew’s book. I thought I knew about the structure (and structures) of the Internet, but this is is a detailed, critical and fun illumination which quickly proved me mistaken. It’s also a travel book, about an unreal place that spans/permeates real places, lives, spaces. And a wonderful one at that. Highly recommended.

(My emboldening below)

Everything you do online travels through a tube. Inside those tubes (by and large) are glass fibers. Inside those fibers is light. Encoded in that light is, increasingly, us. [Location 94]

The Internet is everywhere; the Internet is nowhere. But indubitably, as invisible as the logical might seem, its physical counterpart is always there. [Location 276]

TeleGeography in Washington was asking a computer science department in Denmark to show how it was connected to a university in Poland. It was like a spotlight in Scandinavia shining on twenty-five hundred different places around the world, and reporting back on the unique reflections. [Location 418]

You can demarcate a place on a map, pinpoint its latitude and longitude with global positioning satellites, and kick the very real dirt of its very real ground. But that’s inevitably going to be only half its story. The other half of the story comes from us, from the stories we tell about a place and our experience of it. [Location 485]

“If you brought a sophisticated customer into the data center and they saw how clean and pretty the place looked—and slick and cyberrific and awesome—it closed deals,” said Adelson. [Location 1211]

But it wasn’t the machine’s mystery or power that terrified Adams most. It was how clearly it signified a “break of continuity,” as he puts it. The dynamo declared that his life had now been lived in two different ages, the ancient and the modern. It made the world new. [Location 1826]

He counted off the zeros on the screen. “This point is the millisecond … this point is the microsecond … and this one is usually expressed as nanoseconds, or billionths of a second.” I mulled all the zeros on the screen for a moment. And when I looked up, everything was different. The cars rushing by outside on Highway 87 seemed filled with millions of computational processes per second—their radios, cell phones, watches, and GPSs buzzing inside of them. Everything around me looked alive in a new way: the desktop PCs, the LCD projector, the door locks, the fire alarms, and the desk lamps. [Location 2045]

Nearly universally, they wore black T-shirts and zip-up hooded sweatshirts, handy for spending long hours on the hard floor of the server rooms, facing the dry exhaust blast of an enormous router.[ocation 2378]

The Internet “cloud,” and even each piece of the cloud, was a real, specific place—an obvious reality that was only strange because of the instantaneity with which we constantly communicate with these places. [Location 3159]

The Internet had no master plan, and—aesthetically speaking—no master hand. There wasn’t an Isambard Kingdom Brunel—the Victorian engineer of Paddington Station and the Great Eastern cable ship—thinking grandly about the way all the pieces fit together, and celebrating their technological accomplishment at every opportunity. On the Internet there were only the places in between, places like this, trying to disappear [location 3183]

The emphasis wasn’t on the journey; the journey pretended not to exist. But obviously it did. [location 3186]

“Want to see how this shit really works?” he asked. “This has nothing to do with clouds. If you blew the ‘cloud’ away, you know what would be there?” Patchett asked. “This. This is the cloud. All of those buildings like this around the planet create the cloud. The cloud is a building. It works like a factory. Bits come in, they get massaged and put together in the right way, then packaged up and sent out. But everybody you see on this site has one job, that’s to keep these servers right here alive at all times.” [location 3268]

“If you lose rural America, you lose your infrastructure and your food. It’s incumbent for us to wire everybody, not just urban America. The 20 percent of the people living on 80 percent of the land will be left behind. Without what rural America provides to urban America, urban America couldn’t exist. And vice versa. We have this partnership.” [location 3299]

Is the things.

Or to be more specific, the fetishisation of the things.

To be clear, I like things.

I even own some of them.

Also, my company enjoys making and selling things, and has plans to make and sell more.

However, in terms of the near-term future of technology – I’m not nearly as interested in making things as making spimes.

NEED SETUP

Spimes and the Internet Of Things get used interchangeably in discussion these days, but I think it’s worth making a distinction between things and spimes.

That distinction is of course best put by the coiner of the term, Bruce Sterling – in his book which is the cause of so much of this ruckus, “Shaping Things“.

I’m going to take three quotes defining the Spime from Shaping Things as picked out by Tristan Ferne in, coincidently, a post about Olinda.

“SPIMES are manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. SPIMES being and end as data. They are designed on screens, fabricated by digital means and precisely tracked through space and time throughout their earthly sojourn.” [Shaping Things, p.11]

“The key to the SPIME is identity. A SPIME is, by definition, the protaganist of a documented process. It is an historical entity with an accessible, precise trajectory through space and time.” [Shaping Things, p.77]

“In an age of SPIMES, the object is no longer an object, but an instantiation. My consumption patterns are worth so much that they underwrite my acts of consumption.” [Shaping Things, p. 79]

“…the object is no longer an object, but an instantiation” – this sticks with me.

A spime is an ongoing means, not an end, like a thing.

As I say, I enjoy things, and working in a company where there are real product designers (I am not one).

A while ago, back when people used to write comments on blogs, rather than just spambots, I wrote about the dematerialisation of product through the expansion of service-models into domains previously centred around product ownership.

It was partly inspired by Bruce’s last Viridian note, and John Thackara‘s writing on the subject amongst others.

But now I feel ‘Unproduct‘ is a bit one-sided.

The stuff I was struggling towards in negroponte switch has become more important.

The unmet (and often unstated) need for a physical ‘attention anchor’ or ‘service avatar’ as Mike Kuniavsky puts it in his excellent book ‘Smart Things‘.

Matter is important.

For Bryan Boyer

To which you quite rightly cry – “Well, duh!”

It is something we are attuned to as creatures evolved of a ‘middle world’.

It is something we invest emotion, value and memory in.

Also, a new language of product is possible, and important as the surface of larger systems.

Icebergs & Photons

I tried to pick at this with ‘Mujicomp‘.

A product design language for the tips of large service-icebergs: normalising legibility, fluent and thresholding.

Making beautiful seams.

Things that are clear, and evident – unmagical (magic implies opacity, occulting of meaning, mystery and hence a power-relationship) but delightful, humble, speaking-in-human, smart as a puppy.

And perhaps, just perhaps – by edging them toward being spimes, they can become fewer-in-number, better made, more adaptive to our needs and context, better at leaving our lives and being remade.

Another thing I’m re-evaluating are glowing rectangles.

I’ve long held somewhat of a [super]position that the more we can act and operate in and on-the-world rather than through a screen – the better.

I’m not sure it’s as clear as that anymore.

The technological and economic momentum of the glowing rectangle is such that, barring peak-indium or other yet-unseen black-swans getting in the way, personally-owned screens full of software and sensors reacting to a ‘dumb’ physical world seems to be a safer bet for near-to-mid-term futures, rather than ‘ubiquitous’ physical-computing based in the environment or municipal infrastructures.

A lot of friends are at an event right now called “Laptops & Looms”, debating exactly these topics.

Russell Davies, who organised it, wrote something recently that prompted this chain of thought, and I wish I could have been there to chat about this with him, as he’s usually got something wise to say on these matters.

Work commitments mean I can’t be there unfortunately, but I know they are querying and challenging some of the assumptions of the last decade of interaction design, technology and punditry as much as possible.

The hype about 3d printing, ubiquitous computing and augmented reality could really be grounded by the personal experiences of a lot of people attending the event, who know the reality of working within them – they have practical experience of the opportunities they afford and the constraints they present. I really hope that there will be lots to read and digest from it.

Personally, returning to the source of some of these thoguhts, Bruce’s Shaping Things – has been incredibly helpful. Just reminding oneself of the wikipedia clift-notes on Spimes has been galvanising.

Physical products are fantastic things to think about and attempt to design.

And, bloody hard to do well.

But a new type of product, a new type of thing that begins and ends in data, and is a thing only occasionally – this is possible too – along with new modes of consumption and commerce it may bring.

The network is as important to think about as the things.

The flows and the nodes. The systems and the surface. The means and the ends.

The phrase “Internet Of Things” will probably sound as silly to someone living in a spime-ridden future as 1990s visions of “Cyberspace”, as distinct realm we would ‘jack into’ seem to us now as we experience the mundane-yet-miraculous influence of internet-connected smartphones on our ‘real’ geographies.

In that sense it is useful – as a provocation, and a stimulus to think new thoughts about the technology around us. It just doesn’t capture my imagination in the same way as the Spime did.

You don’t have to agree. I don’t have to be right. There’s a reason I’ve posted it here on my blog rather than that of my company. This is probably a rambling rant useless to all but myself. It’s a bit of summing-up and setting-aside and starting again for me. This is going to be really hard and it isn’t going to be done by blogging about it, it’s going to be done by doing.

This is just what I what I want to help do. Still.

Better shut-up and get on with it.


Kenfig Nature Reserve, originally uploaded by moleitau.

“‘Culture!’ Vergil said, peering around the kitchen wall at me. I said good-bye and hung up the phone. ‘They’re always swimming in that bath of information. Contributing to it. It’s a kind of gestalt thing, whatever. The hierarchy is absolute. They send tailored phages after cells that don’t interact properly. Viruses specified to individuals or groups. No escape. One gets pierced by the virus, the cell blebs outward, it explodes and dissolves. But it’s not a dictatorship, I think they effectively have more freedom than in a democracy. I mean, they vary so differently from individual to individual. Does that make sense? They vary in different ways than we do.’”

- Blood Music, Greg Bear.

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Which I’ve written a little bit more about over at the S&W Pulse Laser.

I felt I rushed the talk, which was probably not wise as I was giving it in English to an Italian audience, but there’s stuff in there I want to dig into further in the coming months for sure. If you for some reason feel the need to punish yourself and want to see my lack-lustre performance it’s captured forever here, but deep thanks to (most of) the audience for indulging me and not falling asleep or wandering off chatting into the gorgeous Italian sunshine… I know I would have…

The concept of “Thingfrastructure” in the talk is something I’ve found myself scribbling in the margins of my moleskine for a few months now, and it’s something I want to come back to: resilience in services, especially when connected to things – and whether it’s possible to design ‘things’ that generate resilient services for themselves. I think it’s been in the back of my mind since Ryan Freitas gave an excellent talk on the subject at MX last year in San Francisco. Anyway – as I say, I’ll keep scribbling, and hopefully others will too.

Thanks very much indeed to Leander, Matteo, Manuela and all the team behind Frontiers for the kind invitation to speak and a wonderful time in Rome.

UPDATE:
The good folk at Adaptive Path have pointed out that (unbeknownst to me) Brandon Schauer was walking this path a few months ago. He’s a smart cookie is Brandon.

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