My back pages: Spimed

Originally published 17 October 2004 on my old site. Very, very interesting for me to see how my feelings have evolved, and where they remain consistent; there are probably as many instances of the former as of the latter. Plus, all those “Sterlings” now feel so stilted and formal and unnatural. (Hi, Bruce!) At any rate: enjoy.

If spam simply isn’t annoying enough to suit your needs, or you’re the kind of person who’s disappointed by the disarming ease you encounter when upgrading your laptop’s operating system to a new version, then boy does Bruce Sterling ever have a vision of the future for you.

Refining the message of his much-linked speech from this year’s SIGGRAPH conference in a new piece for Wired, Sterling draws us a picture of a coming time when intelligent, deeply internetworked and self-authenticating objects dominate the physical world: an “expensive, fussy, fragile, hopelessly complex” world, where entirely new forms of “theft, fraud [and] vandalism” await us.

I preface my comments the way I do because Sterling isn’t warning us about this world. He’s enthusing about it.

To some degree, in the SIGGRAPH speech, Sterling’s thrown us a definitional curveball. Having previously defined a “blobject” as an artifact of digital creation “with a curvilinear, flowing design, such as the Apple iMac computer and the Volkswagen Beetle,” he now asks us to step back a level of abstraction, and understand the word instead to mean an object that contains its own history digitally. Possibly realizing that this bait-and-switch presents abundant opportunities for confusion, he rescues himself at the last moment by substituting for “blobject” a new coinage, “spime”: “an object tracked precisely in space and time.”

And then he proceeds to imagine a world in which this self-documenting, self-tracking, self-extending stuff he calls spime dominates utterly, or is allowed to become utterly dominant. (Whatever one thinks of this particular coinage and its descriptive utility, there clearly was the need for a word here. As Sterling quite correctly points out, this is a class of objects without precedent in human history.)

put this product into service

I have a lot to say about the notion of such chimeric object/product/service hybrids, both because I think Sterling’s onto something important and real, and because the direction he takes it in worries me.

He’s got unusually fine and sensitive antennae; as a novelist, fabulist, extrapolator, raconteur and ranter, he’s terrific. But as a designer and an organiser of design, oh…let’s just say Sterling’s taste leaves something to be desired. So when he starts talking about “an imperial paradigm…a weltanschauung and a grand schemata [sic],” for designed objects, my ears perk up.

And it’s when he suggests that we have little choice but to prepare ourselves for a world of

– spime spam (vacuum cleaners that bellow ads for dust bags);
– spime-owner identity theft, fraud, malware, vandalism, and pranks;
– organized spime crime;
– software faults that make even a mop unusable;
– spime hazards (kitchens that fry the unwary, cars that drive off bridges);
– unpredictable emergent forms of networked spime behavior;
– objects that once were inert and are now expensive, fussy, fragile, hopelessly complex, and subversive of established values…”

that I begin to get truly uncomfortable.

It’s not that Sterling’s identified the hazards improperly. Just the opposite: these are precisely (some of) the unpleasant eventualities we need to plan for in any setting of pervasive or ubiquitous “intelligence” (and which I discuss in an forthcoming article entitled “All watched over by machines of loving grace“). [Note: This article was essentially the genesis of Everyware.]

The problem is that he appears to be suggesting that “cop[ing] with” these headaches is about all that we can do, so obvious is the superiority of spime, and so inevitable its hegemony. Locked into technological determinism, he does little to challenge this here, beyond suggesting that, oh yeah, now that you mention it, this “imperial paradigm” might not necessarily be maximally convenient for its human subjects. This “ideal technology for concentration camps, authoritarian regimes, and prisons” is, yes, “a hassle. An enormous hassle.” But relax: “[I]t’s a fruitful hassle.”

With his unusually acute vision, Sterling can see something like this looming on the horizon and still be so cavalier as to suggest that, if we can only “cope with” these “hassles,” “spimes will be a massive improvement over the present closed, blind regime.” (Haven’t we heard all this better-living-through-chemistry noise before?) Such a stance strikes me as a not inconsiderable abdication of the role of anyone gifted with foresight. (It also strikes me as presuming a parallel abdication among designers, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)

It’s frustrating because I share, almost without exception, Sterling’s larger goals. He simply wants to save humanity from itself, from a situation in which we seem hellbent on drowning ourselves and whatever posterity we may achieve in tidal surges of our own noxious effluvia, and he’s looking for any help he can get from the technical side of the house. I get this, the essential good will undernetting the vision of spime.

But while I share a lot of Sterling’s faith in the ferment of human creativity, I’m not nearly as comfortable as he is with assuming that the results will always be “fruitful.”

the user and the used

I derive my suspicions not a little bit from what I know of the history of open-source software, in which applications that should by rights dominate their respective niches for their robustness or power or utility fail time and again to find the wider audience they deserve. I lay a lot of this to their user interfaces, which, designed by geeks for geeks as they are, almost invariably fail any other kind of user. The distributed nature of open-source creation seems to militate against the consistency required for a smooth, consumer-grade user experience.

Of course, one might point out that this inconsistency is inevitably implied in the core logic of open-source development, or anything like it: that notions of highly crafted user interfaces and content architectures are just so many farty, self-indulgent Rick Wakeman solos, bound to be cut down before the whirling DIY thresher of the new mutant thing.

Unless I’m badly mistaken, from what I’m able to gather from two decades of reading him this stance seems to capture something of Sterling’s position — that he doesn’t have much room for designers, mewling pitifully from the sidelines in all the impotence of their top-down, command-and-control obsolescence. Technology is destiny. The street will find its own uses; do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law; great shall be the rejoicing.

It’s a weird thing to find myself on this side of history, given my other interests, and I’m not sure but that it may be a strategic mistake to even accept this framing of things, but here I go:

I do not believe that we want to live in a world where the best we can hope for is “wrangling” a surge of fast, cheap, out-of-control, autocatalytic blobjects. I simply do not believe that what we give up is worth less than what we are promised, even if what we are promised is delivered in anything close to full.

Control isn’t all DRM, you know. Control also means design with compassion, which is something whose complexities I believe we are just beginning to get a handle on. Control also means permitting (some) introduction of randomness in the service of a defined end. And for sure it means getting out ahead of foreseeable problems and taking measures to prevent their emergence.

To surrender this measure of control — to insist that all bottom-up, all the time is any kind of a path to a better world, and that all we can or should do is get out of the way — is fatuous, even negligent. (Indeed, “allowing otherwise avoidable dangers to manifest” defines negligence in the Anglo-American jurisprudential tradition.) Just in the last ten minutes, as I’m writing this, a correspondent tells me that an SMS-based survey inquiring as to who users believed the 100 Greatest South Africans to be had to be abandoned by its originators because the notorious fascist Eugene Terreblanche popped out at the top.

Importantly, I don’t believe that Bruce Sterling believes any such thing, either. I don’t think for a moment that he would propose that we accept, or accept himself, a situation in which people gave up all control over the things we build.

I just know, all too well, what happens to nuanced distinctions in the wild.

i contradict myself/i contain multitudes

Let me also take this opportunity to problematize even the notion that an object can usefully contain its own history. It’s a fetching, even an intoxicating idea, and you can easily see how all the ways in which such a thing might be desirable. But whose history are we talking about, exactly?

Nurri’s work on the New York Public Library’s African-American Migration Experience project provides us with a nice capsule illustration of some of the problems involved when an item is recursively accompanied by descriptive information as it travels down through time. One of her responsibilities at the Digital Library is verifying that archival images have accurate metadata, fields describing the contents of an image.

Imagine that she’s come across a picture from 1920’s Strivers’ Row, with a scrawled annotation on the back of it: “Some prominent local Negroes.” (This is not at all an atypical example.) An accurate provision of metadata, of course, requires transcribing the contemporaneous description word for word. But obviously, “prominent Negroes” is not going to fly as an object descriptor in 2004 — and nor should it, less from any feeling of political correctness (though there is that) than from the simple reason that few in 2004 are likely to search a database using the keyword “negroes,” unless it’s in a context like “Negro League baseball.”

And here the infinite regress beckons. Say you append both contemporary and historical tags to the image: “Images – Harlem – African-Americans” and “Caption – 1927 – ‘Some prominent local Negroes'”. You may have covered the obvious bases, but that’s nothing like a full history. To ensure the full understanding of someone arriving at the object from some context external in space, time, or both, you would also have to include information about the evolution of the English language and the society in which it’s used, just to explain why the 1927 label wasn’t considered appropriate a mere seventy-five years later. You see where this is going? (Sterling himself points out that “[o]nce we tag many things, we will find that there is no good place to stop tagging.”)

Sure, memory is cheap, and will be cheaper. It’s not storing such a bottomless effusion of autodescription that I’m concerned about. It’s how useful this metadata will be, any of it, when its reliability will be hard to gauge – when different parts of an object’s record, introduced at different junctures in “space and time,” may well have differing degrees of reliability, and little way to distinguish between them!

We know from the Web and from various p2p applications that, in the wild, metadata is close to useless because it can be gamed so easily; as a result, no credible search engine relies on it nor has done so for years. Is that really the new Metallica single, or is it five minutes of Lars Ulrich telling you to go fuck yourself? Is that really a captive about to be decapitated by Islamists, or is it a commercial for a crappy movie you never would have clicked on had it represented itself honestly? (Who has the authority to append metadata? Who has the responsibility, or even the technical wherewithal, to verify it?) I’m surprised that someone as savvy as Bruce doesn’t seem to grasp the implications of this for spime.


I believe, with Bruce Sterling, that some watershed is fast approaching, past which ordinary objects will be endowed with such information-sensing ( -processing, -storage, -synthesis and -retransmission) power that both the way we understand them and the very language with which we refer to them will need to change.

Where I part ways with him, however, is in my belief that we don’t have to meekly bend over and try to “cope with” the negative consequences of any such development. As Lawrence Lessig rightly reminds us, in the destiny of any designed system, some possibilities are locked in, and others forestalled, at the level of architecture. And fortunately for all of us, when asked to submit to regimes of antihuman banality, some designers have historically had other ideas.

I can do little more than hope that this will always be the case: that those people endowed with the ability to see what’s coming over the horizon not merely describe what reaches their senses, but actively intervene to forestall the worst contingencies arising. Such an undertaking requires care and insight and discretion beyond that which we ordinarily display — myself as much as anyone else — but I firmly believe that we can choose our futures rather than have them imposed on us. In this season of decision, it is clear that in more ways than one, such a moment is now upon us.

If you want a closer look at the “spime metadata” I ginned up to serve as an illustration of this piece, it’s downloadable as a PDF here. It’s intended to represent the self-description (at time of first consumer purchase) of a notional Nike-brand t-shirt.

2 responses to “My back pages: Spimed”

  1. msheller says :

    Interesting to look back on the worries of 2004. This is what worries me now: corporate control of “spimes” and “smart cities” for mega-projects of dubious provenance. See. e.g., in which Prof. Robert Eccles of Harvard Business school proclaims about “smart cities” in the works by Cisco Systems, IBM, Siemens and the folks behind Living PlanIT. They call it “sustainable cities” but they explicitly don’t mean it ecologically, but rather as a business plan and ultimate form of governance: “So the basic notion is that you go into existing urban environments, incorporate the new technology, smart building, smart grid mobility, look at the information in an integrated way in terms of how the city is functioning economically and socially and environmentally in a way that would improve performance.” This is a garbled interview, but the closing words are indicative of where this is coming from: “So you can see major corporations have identified this opportunity. What Living PlanIT has come up with is a business model that integrates the capabilities of all of these different companies through this ecosystem and then the representation or the integration really of the technologies that these other firms have through the urban operating system is the, in a sense, kind of mental, not mental, kind of the, it’s like the nervous system, is probably the best way to think about it. The nervous system for what will make these cities be sustainable. Broadly defined sustainable, not simply in environmental terms, but in social quality of life and financial terms as well.” Hmmm, so sustainability means a good business plan, and embedded software will give corporations control over the urban nervous system… great.

  2. AG says :

    Oh, believe me, I’ve already said as much to the IBM Smarter Cities people. I can’t say I blame them for doing what they’re doing, but I find the rhetoric distasteful-verging-on-dishonest.

    And this is doubly sad, given that I’ve had some great conversations with some of the people over there — people who strike me as being every bit as skeptical about their own company’s claims as I am of Nokia’s.

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