It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Friday, April 7, 2006

Thoughts on Shaping Things

I’ve been trying to categorize Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things. Is it a design manifesto? A well-informed rant? A bit of SF prognostication based on a basic understanding of technology and comprehensive knowledge of how the world works?

Or does its effect on the reader matter more than which Dewey decimal digits get taped to the spine? Shaping Things gave me a well-needed kick in the head and got me thinking about some realities of ubiquitous computing in the near future.

When I think about past predictions for life in the age of omnipresent computing power — wearable PCs, portable VR, “smart”-whatevers — I’m reminded of why so much science fiction is utter drek. Instead of reaching out and thinking about how the future of technology will change our current life, too many authors take our current (or past) culture and spackle on future techno doodads without thinking about how that tech would actually change everyday life. (You know what I’m talking about: “It’s WWII, but with hover-tanks and grav-guns” or “It’s urban gang warfare in the gritty streets of the astroid belt.”)

The high tech business world suffers from the same sort of limited creativity, but I think it’s even more fundamentally ingrained in the culture and, unfortunately, rewarded more often than it is punished.

There’s a extended metaphor about a business cutting a path through a dense jungle. The workers cut down trees; the managers make sure the workers have sharp machetes and enough food and water and are cutting where they are supposed to be cutting; the leader is out climbing trees and telling the managers which way to go.

The problem is that I first heard that in a project management seminar for software development. When’s the last time anyone cleared a road through a forest with hand-tools and people climbing up trees? Why on earth is this being used as a metaphor for project management in a software development environment? How can one prognosticate about the effects of near-future technology on our life while still mired in 19th century management theory?

This is where I think Sterling’s experience in writing science fiction pays off in the design world. He’s able to leap ahead from what we have now based on what could be and not gussy up the present (or the recent past) in skiffy doodads and present it as THE WORLD OF THE FUTURE!.

Pat Cadigan has this to say:

“One of my favorite examples is people could have probably predicted a road system from the invention of the automobile and you might have been able to predict parking lots and difficulty in finding parking spaces, but you probably would not have necessarily predicted drive-in movie theaters, or making out in the back seat and people becoming parents in the back seat. “

This is the sort of thing Sterling is up to in Shaping Things: given the automobile and the motion picture, predict the drive-in. If not the drive-in, then at least driving school safety films, using cars as mount points for movie cameras, or at least POV movies like “Rendezvous”.

(Note: I’m going to handwave over a fair amount of the book and focus on the bit that kicked me in the head: the formal definition of the “spime”. There’s a lot of words about how we get to spimes, who handles spimes, what they do in the context of a future culture and what comes after, but I’ll leave that for some other time.)

A spime is an object capable of collecting information about its interaction with the world, track its own metahistory, and make that information available in a form useful to others. Sterling uses a familiar, ancient and decided non-technological object as the basis for his future spime: a wine bottle. He also spends a lot of time telling us how we got to spimes, what might follow, and how culture will change to adapt to these new inventions but that’s part of the stuff I’m handwaving over.

Whether or not we call these new objects “spimes”, “blobjects” or some other self-consciously coined word, the base concept is the same: a smart object that can observe its surroundings; collect, filter and store environmental data; report that data and even make decisions. This is a huge step forward in how we perceive the world and how it operates. Yes, it’s a huge step forward in the ability of conglomcos to refine their marketing messages but it’s also a huge step forward in tracking where garbage actually comes from and goes, finding inefficiencies in transportation (“my package sat how long on a loading dock in the rain?”), and learning the secret lives of everyday objects that most of us ignore.

Again we have the problem of “predict the drive-in”, but using the what-if tactics of science fiction in an iterative method might get us a bit further than the history-based product planning and market prediction routines from the past century used by the corporate world. We have a little experience of how simple information flow and collection can change the political, business and media landscapes and we can iterate on that for the next level of granularity with objects helping us manage those data flows.

For my part, this kick in the head has lead to my documenting “proto-spimes” in an effort to get my head around what a real spime might actually look like some day. Once I’ve got a few of those written up I’ll be able to go back and see what was wrong with the first and what they all have in common, re-read Shaping Things, then let it sink in again.

So be it manifesto, rant or design document, Shaping Things achieves the goal of kicking people (or at least me) in the head and getting them to think about the immediate future.

I only have one complaint about Shaping Things and it is a minor one: I do not like the layout nor the color selections used in the book. I’m not color blind but I did read most of it in low light on airplanes, conditions for which the book was apparently not designed. The combination of glossy paper and low-contrast colors made it more difficult to read than it should have been.

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posted by jet at 23:16  

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