While everyone else is over there with that video with the blokes with the beards and the david foster wallace obsession and the tennis and the twee hats and the cardigans, I’ll be over here.
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.
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“.
“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.
But now I feel ‘Unproduct‘ is a bit one-sided.
The stuff I was struggling towards in negroponte switch has become more important.
Matter is important.
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.
I tried to pick at this with ‘Mujicomp‘.
A product design language for the tips of large service-icebergs: normalising legibility, fluent and thresholding.
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.
“I’m interested in the unknown and the unknowable and the role they have in our understanding,” says Kunzru. And perhaps how irrationalism and faith thrive in such conditions. Throughout he seems to be arguing that the quest for meaning is a human projection on to the void. In a novelistic echo of the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, Kunzru suggests that religion – especially Christianity – is best understood as a projection of human longing.
Cue intriguing gnostic confabulation. From the entry on The Holographic Principle on wikipedia
In a larger and more speculative sense, the theory suggests that the entire universe can be seen as a two-dimensional information structure “painted” on the cosmological horizon, such that the three dimensions we observe are only an effective description at macroscopic scales and at low energies.
Which might make one think of The Barbelith. One of the central characters in Hari’s novel is a ‘contactee’ called ‘Schmidt’
“Kunzru’s almost self-defeatingly ambitious fourth novel is about the human quest for transcendence – not just encountering big-brained Venusians, but the hope of finding a thing that sometimes goes by the name of God.”
Deserts and the ‘immense’ feature in “Gods Without Men” – In the interview, Hari talks about the role of the desert and vision-quests. That we’ve tended to find ourselves there looking for things painted on the cosmological horizon.
Which physics seems to think might just be us.
But, before we get carried away Dr. Jonathan Miller reminds
“The cosmos is a deeply dangerous thing to think about – into it, vacant minds expand…”
And I’m reminded again, of a Giles Foden article from 2002 about the links between Al-Qaida and Asimov’s Foundation. In it, Foden quotes Kunzru’s fellow Wired UK 1.0 alumnus Oliver Morton, in turn quoting Gaston Bachelard:
…the space opera sub-genre of science fiction offers the possibility of a massive expansion of self-mythologising will-to-power. In a 1999 New Yorker article on galactic empires, Oliver Morton beamed up French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, author of The Poetics of Space, to explain all this: “Immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.”
Back to the interview, and following on themes from Curtis’ “Machines of Loving Grace”:
“In the middle of all these storylines, Kunzru finds a way of working in the financial meltdown as Jaz’s Wall Street wheeler dealing goes hideously awry. Kunzru is torn about speculative finance, finding it intellectually thrilling and socially disgusting. “I think how the high priests of abstraction work is fascinating. I’m really interested, for instance, in a postwar Wall Street speculator called WD Gann who used astrological techniques. The idea of predicting and controlling is quixotic. It’s all about the will to believe.”
Especially when confronted with the immense…