Re: Shaping Things


One of the most interesting books we’ve read recently at the informal Cooper Book Club is Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things

In the book, Sterling extends some salient technosocial trends to construct a prospective new technology he calls a spime. Sterling lauds designers as the only ones capable of making spimes’ (arguably) inevitable emergence into something positive and meaningful, and ultimately, save humanity from its current trajectory of self-destruction. (But no pressure.)

The spime builds on the following historical categories:

  • Artifacts are wholly handmade items, e.g. a handmade urn. Users of such objects are hunters and farmers. Artifacts were displaced by machines sometime in the 15th century.
  • Machines are complex devices that have tapped some non-human, non-animal power source, e.g. a mill. Users of machines are customers. Machines were displaced by products around World War I.
  • Products are mass-produced and distributed by a highly specialized workforce, e.g. a mass-produced bottle of wine. Users of products are consumers. Products have not passed certain cultural boundaries and so have not been displaced.
  • Gizmos are data-rich, state-based and highly configurable devices, e.g. a cell phone. Users of gizmos are end-users.
  • Spimes flip the gizmo on its head, where the data they collect is the important thing, and its physical manifestation is regarded as little more than an instance of the more important idea. Additionally, spimes are made from reusable/reconfigurable components and personal 3D printers.
  • (He also hints at a further phase he calls biots, which are spimes with intention, but doesn’t talk about them in depth.)

Sterling has a lot more juicy stuff in the book, including a fascinating introduction to metahistory, but the crux of it is this concept/prediction of spimes, which is where our discussion focused.

Our discussion

First, we were all in agreement that “spime” is a horrible neologism. It’s awkward, ugly sounding, and it unfortunately doesn’t grow on you the more you use it. Sterling doesn’t explain its etymology other than a “tip of the hat” to Scott Klinker at Cranbrook. Someone suggested it might be a portmanteau of “space” and “time,” which might make the word sensible, but doesn’t connect to the spime concept, or make it any prettier to hear. Still, this is a surface concern and we must simply lodge the complaint and move on.

More pithy conversation addressed if they will actually come to pass, and if so, how?

The group was skeptical of the social requirements needed to fulfill the promise of spimes. Sterling describes a fascinating “synchronic” society which is universally, deeply invested in data tracking—to the point where it is willing to spend its free time helping to create, track, and mine the mind-blowing amounts of data produced by a spime. Knowing as we do from personal experience that vastly fewer people want to know how the plane is flown than want to have a pleasant flight, we doubt that an entire culture would suddenly flip into geek mode to support spime culture.

A greater and more nuanced criticism comes when you realize that the spime is something of an “ultimate abstraction” of a permutable, sustainable, customizable gizmo. But ultimate abstractions, in and of themselves, aren’t extinction-level events. In fact, their very plasticity can make them more difficult to use and hinder universal adoption. The obvious example is the personal computer. Early in its development, it was hailed as a technological panacea, and in fact nowadays it can do pretty much everything that most of the other electronic devices in your life can do, but it didn’t subsume the entire electronics industry. People still enjoy and desire the benefits of specialized devices. If we’re speaking of spimes as actual things and not a loose category of thing, it will suffer the same challenges.

So ultimately, as a crowd, we think that something that can be labeled a spime is likely to occur in the future, and might even be happening right now. But to have it cross what Sterling calls the Line of Empire (i.e. it grants a significant cultural advantage) and the Line of No Return (i.e. individuals can’t survive in society without it) is unlikely. We agree and totally get the vital problems they would address, but don’t see it as inevitable as described.

This is a lossy-compression summary of what was discussed. (Hopefully if I got anything wrong, individual Cooperistas will submit corrections or dissenting opinions below.)

Still, it’s a fascinating, thought-provoking, and interestingly-designed little book that held our collective attention more than most of the other books we’ve read. I, at least, would certainly recommend it for anyone, but especially for interaction designers with an eye towards the future.

Interested in more? The MIT press has sample chapters posted online.

Chris Noessel

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