Aug 27th, 2006 Joshua Klein Book Review; _Shaping Things_, by Bruce Sterling, 2005
Shaping Things recontextualizes our stuff - all of it - within the context of self-aware, chronological trajectories. The concept is an alternative to participating in an economy where a long, harmful supply chain supplies you with a good you know nothing about, which you use for a very limited time, and which you then discard into an equally long, harmful waste chain.
Sterling instead introduces the idea of a "spime" by first tracing the history of designed items from artifacts (farmers' tools) to machines (customers' devices) to products (customers' purchases) to gizmos (end-users' platforms). The culmination of these "things" is the Spime. As Cory Doctorow describes it;
"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."
This is, to my mind, a shadow of the truth. Anyone who is familiar with fundamental concepts of data mining, or even the latest news in google/flickr/myspace data privacy scandels has a good inkling of the foreshadowing of spimes we're already experiencing. Those scandals are based on large, centrally held, individually conglomerated data sets. Imagine your shoes being able to contain similar self-aware data, or your cigarette packet, or your wallet or jacket or satchel or car hubcaps. Then imagine what you could do as an owner and purveyor of information about all these items - information as detailed as carbon particulates encountered down to the picosecond over the object's lifetime. That, also, is the future of spime's.
This contributes to sustainability in that it enables everyone to examine, collaborate, and analyze in depth how our collective objects behave (or misbehave) over time. For example, what happens to purchasing patterns of running shoes when it becomes possible to determine how quickly they degrade into aerosoled carcinogens during our runs? Or what they're worth to recylcing plants in Malaysia? Spimes make the negative aspects and hidden costs of current industrial practices available to everyone for analysis. Moreover, Sterling suggests that these objects be made such that they can be folded back into the production stream - and if you're able to track exactly what your objects are made of in addition to their relative value over time, it makes sense that they would be. Secondary markets will sprout like grass after rain once it becomes possible to quantify the value, sources, and buyers for each component of your stuff.
There are some things that are missing to my mind - the massive privacy implications being foremost among them. I also take umbrage with the idea that 3-D "fabricators" will soon exist as the real-world alternative to Star Trek's replicators. For one, providing the raw materials needed would require access to and distribution of heavy metals and dangerous components. Despite these criticisms, Sterling's concept of "an internet of things" is a groundbreaking context shift that should be required reading for all ITP students, past and future, who intend to participate in the creation and and design of things, both real and virtual.