Subject: Viridian Note 00422: The Spime
- Key concepts:
- Spimes, Gizmos, Products, Machines,
- Attention Conservation Notice:
- the Pope-Emperor
trouts out his latest hobbyhorse for the delectation
of the end-using masses.
"When Blobjects Rule the Earth"
by Bruce Sterling
SIGGRAPH, Los Angeles, August 2004
The last speech at an awards ceremony can't be too short.
I'm Bruce Sterling, I'm a science fiction writer. I write
novels. This is the first time I've ever been to SIGGRAPH.
I always wanted to go.
My closet is full of old SIGGRAPH demo tapes. They're on VHS.
I like to haul them out and play them for people at house parties.
These are romantic icons of a lost world, these antique SIGGRAPH demo reels.
I love them for their precious, irreproducible qualities.
These tapes are slices in space and time that cannot be recaptured.
It is literally impossible to do computer graphics that badly
any more. No more cheesy teapots, no more amazingly bad digital hair
and fur treatments, no no, it's all about the "Stanford Bunny"
now, Triceratops, Chinese dragons.... when once upon a time
a chess pawn was a big volumetric deal!
You might think, now that Hollywood slums around your gig,
and even novelists show up, and Pixar drags Disney around
by its big financial nose, that there were no new worlds
to conquer for SIGGRAPH. But there's one world that you
direly need to conquer anyway. Even if hobbits win Oscars
by the bushel full.
Having conquered the world made of bits, you need to reform
the world made of atoms. Not the simulated image on the screen,
but corporeal, physical reality. Not meshes and splines,
but big hefty skull-crackingly solid things that you can
pick up and throw. That's the world that needs conquering.
Because that world can't manage on its own. It is not
sustainable, it has no future, and it needs one.
It is going to get one from you.
Now let me briefly tell you how I think this process will play out.
Listen to this: ProE, FormZ, Catia, Rhino, Solidworks.
Wifi, bluetooth, WiMax. Radio frequency ID chips.
Global and local positioning systems. Digital inventory systems.
Cradle-to-cradle production methods. Design for disassembly.
Social software, customer relations management. Open source manufacturing.
These jigsaw pieces are snapping together. They create a picture,
the picture of a new and different kind of physicality. It's a
new relationship between humans and objects.
If you can bear with me a while today, and kind of oil and
loosen the joints of your incredulity, I'm gonna suspend
some disbelief for you here.
You see, the future is already here, it's just not well
The future does feature some brand-new stuff that was
technically impossible before, but, more importantly,
the future has a different take on matters that are already here.
There's a change of emphasis. The future is like another
culture, another country. We have to come to terms with the
So what's a Blobject? And why might they rule the Earth?
Since I write about design quite a lot, sometimes people think
I made up that word, "blobject". If you Google it, my name pops
right up, but I didn't coin the term. A famous industrial
designer named Karim Rashid made it up, and he wrote about
it in a book aptly called "I Want to Change the World."
A good book, very educational, you should buy it and read it.
I did. Karim's not kidding.
A Blobject is commonly defined as "an object with a curvilinear,
flowing design, such as the Apple iMac computer and the
Volkswagen Beetle." But computers and cars are just end products,
they're not the process. The truth about a blobject is that
is a physical object that has suffered a remake through
computer graphics. It was designed on a screen with a
graphics program. A blobject is what a standard 20th century
industrial product, a consumer item, looks like after your
crowd has beaten it into shape with a mouse.
Blobjects are blob-shaped objects, because of NURBS and
meshes and splines and injection molding and CAD-CAM.
They're highly curvilinear consumer items designed on
workstations, and then they're generally blasted into
being in a burst of injection-molded goo.
Blobjects are the period objects of our time. They are
the physical products that the digital revolution brought
to the consumer shelf.
Blobjects were impossible until the early 1990s. Then they
got cheap. Nowadays they're commodities. Our contemporary
world is absolutely littered with these things, these blobjects.
Blobjects are so entirely common now that they are passe'
and showing their age. I'm wearing three blobjects right now,
and I've got two more stuffed in my pockets. Not that you
need to notice. You can offshore a blobject in distant Taiwan
for a seven percent return on investment. Blobjects have
become the cheap and easy way to make stuff. Blobjects
are as common as dirt.
But they haven't started ruling the Earth yet. Because
they're still too primitive. They're not sustainable,
so they're merely optimizing the previous system.
They are a varnish on barbarism.
So now you know what a blobject is, if you didn't already.
Now I'm going to lean way back at the podium, and really
wave my big visionary futurist hands here, and invoke
the full grandeur of my vision: Blobjects, Ruling the Earth.
Not just littering it: ruling it. This is an imperial paradigm,
a grandiose myth, a historical thesis, a weltanschauung and a grand schemata.
So this will require me to get kind of cosmic on you here.
But this is California. The Governor here is a cyborg.
You remember that movie where Schwarzenegger was a cyborg robot,
with big shotguns, and he beat up a blobject? That big, formless,
digital, silvery, supervillain guy? Somebody in your enterprise
made a lot of money from faking up that big silvery guy and
putting him on a movie screen. That was some SIGGRAPH-style
industry dude hard at work there, making that silvery blobject
guy in TERMINATOR 3. And now that actor, Arnold, he is signing
the state budget of California.
The things I'm about to tell you, they may sound mindblowing,
but they're a lot more plausible than California politics.
In my grand vision, there's a history of the relationship
of objects and human beings. It goes like this. Up to the
present day, during previous history, we humans have had,
and made, four different classes of possible objects.
These classes of objects are called, in order of their
historical appearance, Artifacts, Machines, Products, and Gizmos.
The lines between Artifacts, Machines, Products and Gizmos
aren't mechanical. They're historical. The differences between
them are found in the material cultures they make possible.
The kind of society they produce, and the kind of human being
that is necessary to make them and use them.
Artifacts are made and used by hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers.
Machines are made and used by customers, in an industrial society.
Products are made and used by consumers, in a military-industrial complex.
While Gizmos are made and used by end-users, in whatever today
is – a "New World Disorder," a "Terrorism-Entertainment Complex,"
our own brief interregnum.
Blobjects tend to be a subset of the class of Gizmos. Not all
blobjects are Gizmos, but most gizmos have insane amounts of
functionality in them, and they are designed on computers.
If you're the kind of guy or gal who attends SIGGRAPH, then
you are best described as an end-user of Gizmos. You're not
here just to shop, to buy stuff in styrofoam blocks. You come
here to participate in your industry. Your parents were consumers,
back in the 1960s. But you are here to add value and advance the
state of the art, so you are some kind of participant. Not a
consumer. An end-user. An end-user is the historically evolved
version of a consumer.
A Gizmo is not manufacturable by any centrally planned society.
A Gizmo is something like a Product, but instead of behaving
predictably and sensibly for a mass market of obedient consumers,
a Gizmo is an open-ended tech development project.
In a Gizmo, development has been deputized to end-users.
End-Users, who are people like practically everybody in
this audience, do a great deal of unpaid pro bono work in
developing Gizmos. The true signs of a Gizmo are that it has
a short lifespan and more functionality crammed into it than
you will ever use or understand. A Gizmo is like a Product
that has swallowed a big chunk of the previous society, and
contains that within the help center and the instruction manual.
A Gizmo, unlike a Machine or a Product, is not efficient. A Gizmo
has bizarre, baroque, and even crazy amounts of functionality.
This Treo that I'm carrying here, this is a classic Gizmo:
it's a cellphone, a web browser, an SMS platform, an MMS platform,
a really bad camera, and an abysmal typewriter, plus a notepad,
a sketchpad, a calendar, a diary, a clock, a music player,
and an education system with its own onboard tutorial that
nobody ever reads. Plus I can plug extra, even more complicated
stuff into it, if I take a notion. It's not a Machine or a Product,
because it's not a stand-alone device. It is a platform, a
playground for other developers. It's a dessert topping, and
it's a floor wax.
Now, I could redesign this Gizmo to make it into a simple Product.
But then this Gizmo would become a commodity. There would be
little profit in that; in an end-user society like ours,
Products come in bubblepak or shrinkwrap in big heaps,
like pencils. There is no money in them.
So there are good reasons why a Gizmo is almost impossible to use.
It's because a Gizmo is delicately poised between commodity and chaos.
It is trying to cram as much impossible complexity as it
can, into an almost usable state. It is leaning forward into the future.
This is what our society does for a living now. This is what
you do here at SIGGRAPH. You use Gizmos to eat complexity,
and you try to sell it at a premium. A Gizmo Society of End Users
is always pressed up hard against the limits of the usable.
That's why rendering time always takes almost too long,
no matter how much RAM or ROM you've got.
This is not an oversight, this is an inherent part of
our contemporary civilization. A Gizmo is the classic form
of our society's material culture at this point in time.
That's how it is, and we need to accept that. This is the
apotheosis, the crystallization, of what we are up to right now.
But that is not the end of the story. Because the next stage is
coming on fast.
The next stage is an object that does not exist yet. It needs
a noun, so that we can think about it. We can call it a "Spime,"
which is a neologism for an imaginary object that is still
speculative. A Spime also has a kind of person who makes it
and uses it, and that kind of person is somebody called a
"Wrangler." At the moment, you are end-using Gizmos. My thesis
here, my prophesy to you, is that, pretty soon, you will be
The most important thing to know about Spimes is that
they are precisely located in space and time. They have
histories. They are recorded, tracked, inventoried, and
always associated with a story.
Spimes have identities, they are protagonists of a documented process.
They are searchable, like Google. You can think of Spimes
as being auto-Googling objects.
So what would it be like to encounter a spime in your
future real life? How if you know if you stumbled over one
in the street? Scott Klinker, a teacher at the Cranbrook
design school, envisions it as something like this:
Scenario: You buy a Spime with a credit card. Your account
info is embedded in the transaction, including a special email
address set up for your Spimes. After the purchase, a link is
sent to you with customer support, relevant product data,
history of ownership, geographies, manufacturing origins,
ingredients, recipes for customization, and bluebook value.
The spime is able to update its data in your database
(via radio-frequency ID), to inform you of required
service calls, with appropriate links to service centers.
This removes guesswork and streamlines recycling.
Today, most consumers know little or nothing about their possessions.
They might know the brand, because brand awareness has been forced
on them for years, at great expense, by massive product advertising.
A Spime, by contrast, is an object that can link to and swiftly
reveal most everything about itself. It might as well do this,
since Google is perfectly capable of telling you everything anyway.
Managing that becomes a competitive advantage for spime makers.
A true Spime is going to get ahead of the curve by bringing you
inside the tent of the designers and developers and engineers,
and the sales and marketing people. A true Spime creates spime wranglers.
Wranglers are the class of people willing to hassle with Spimes.
And it is a hassle. An enormous hassle. But it is a fruitful hassle.
It is the work of progress. Handled correctly, it can undo the
harm of the past and enhance what is to come.
The people who make Spimes want you to do as much of the
work for them as possible. They can data-mine your uses of the
spime, and use that to improve their Spime and gain market share.
This would have been called "customer relations management,"
in an earlier era, but in a Spime world, it's more intimate.
It's collaborative, and better understood as something like
open-source manufacturing. It's all about excellence. Passion.
Integrity. Cross-disciplinary action. And volunteerism.
When you shop for Amazon, you're already adding value to
everything you look at on an Amazon screen. You don't get paid
for it, but your shopping is unpaid work for them. Imagine this
blown to huge proportions and attached to all your physical
possessions. Whenever you use a spime, you're rubbing up
against everybody else who has that same kind of spime.
A spime is a users group first, and a physical object second.
I know that this sounds insanely complex, because it is.
The reason this is necessary is a simple one. The reason is
the passage of time. Entropy requires no maintenance. Artifacts,
Machines, Products, Gizmos, they all die. The material objects
that we human beings use and make, they wear out, get consumed,
and get thrown away. Unfortunately, this process is reaching
limits and is doing us serious harm. We're getting permeated by trash.
We are filling the atmosphere, and the seas, and the
surface of the planet, and our own bodies, with our
industrial emissions and our dead junk. In a world with
6.3 billion people, trending toward 10 billion, there is no
"Away" left in which we can throw our dead objects. Our
material culture is not sustainable. Its resources are not renewable.
We cannot turn our entire planet's crust into obsolete objects.
We need to locate valuable objects that are dead, and fold them
back into the product stream. In order to do this, we need to
know where they are, and what happened to them. We need to
document the life cycles of objects. We need to know where
to take them when they are defunct.
In practice, this is going to mean tagging and historicizing
everything. Once we tag many things, we will find that there
is no good place to stop tagging.
In the future, an object's life begins on a graphics screen.
It is born digital. Its design specs accompany it throughout
its life. It is inseparable from that original digital blueprint,
which rules the material world. This object is going to tell you –
if you ask – everything that an expert would tell you about it.
Because it WANTS you to become an expert. If you become an expert
in wrangling that object, then, just like the gurus of SIGGRAPH,
you will contribute to the advancement of the industry.
The object will evolve faster, the industry will evolve faster.
It's like a SIGGRAPH that never ends.
So – as long as you could keep your eyes open – you would be
able to swiftly understand: where it was, when you got it, how
much it cost, who made it, what it was made of, where those
resources came from, what a better model looked like, what a
cheaper model looked like, who to thank for making it, who to
complain to about its inadequacies, what previous kinds of Spime
used to look like, why this Spime is better than earlier ones,
what people think the Spime of Tomorrow might look like, what
you could do to help that happen, the history of the Spime's
ownership, what it had been used for, where and when it was used,
what other people who own this kind of Spime think about it,
how other people more or less like you have altered or
fancied-up or modified their Spime, what most people use
Spimes for, the entire range of unorthodox uses of Spimes
by the world's most extreme Spime geek fandom, and how much
your Spime is worth on an auction site. And especially –
absolutely critically – where to get rid of it safely.
That is the reality that already underlies all
manufactured objects. An event like SIGGRAPH will tell
you those things already, only in slow motion. A Spime
is today's entire industrial process, made explicit.
That is the whole shebang, explicitly tied to the object
itself. A Spime is an object that ate and internalized
the previous industrial order.
Some of this information might be contained inside the Spime,
and some of it might be conjured up on the Web by, say,
a barcode or an RFID chip – but in practice, you wouldn't
notice the difference.
The upshot is that the object's nature has become
transparent. It is an opened object.
In a world with this kind of object, you care little
about the object per se; that physical object is just
a material billboard for tomorrow's vast, digital,
interactive, postindustrial support system. This is
where people like you, your evolved successors,
rule the earth. This is a world where the Web has
ceased to be a varnish on barbarism, and where the
world is now varnish all the way down.
By making the whole business transparent, a host
of social ills and dazzling possibilities are exposed
to the public gaze. Everyone who owns a spime becomes,
not a mute purchaser, but a stakeholder. And the closer
you get to it, the more attention it sucks from you.
You don't just use it, any more than I can pick up
this Treo and just make a simple phone call.
This device wants to haul me into the operating system;
I'm supposed to tell all my friends about it. We're all
supposed to become its darlings and its cultists,
we're all supposed to help out. Sometimes we do that
willingly, sometimes we just fight for breath.
We're not customers. We're not consumers.
And with spimes, we're not even end-users.
We spend our time wrangling with the real
problems and opportunities of material culture.
We're wrangling spimes for a living. More than that,
it's a reason to be. It's like networking.
Networking is another word for not-working.
But boy, we sure have to do a lot of it.
This is not a vision of utopia. This is a historical thesis.
Like all previous history it is fraught with titanic struggle.
We are facing a future world infested with digital
programmability. A world where our structures and
possessions include, as a matter of course,
locaters, timers, identities, histories, origins,
and destinations: sensing, logic, actuation, and
displays. Loops within loops. Cycles within cycles.
Are there dark sides to this vision? Oh yes indeed.
Genuine menaces. You can see them right now in a
website like stoprfid.org, a site I recommend highly.
Spiming is an ideal technology for concentration camps,
authoritarian regimes, and prisons.
We'll have to wrangle with:
- spime spam, pushiness, abuse of customers, intrusion
- spying and eavesdropping capabilities
- brooms that bellow ads, mops that demand money
- subtle software faults that make even a simple shovel unusable
- unstable software
- security flaws, hacking, theft, fraud, malware, vandalism and pranking
- identity theft
- Industrial hazards: spime kitchens that fry the unwary, spime cars that follow
outdated software maps and drive right off broken bridges
- technological lock-in, wicked monopolists, corrupt regimes in on the take
*Intellectual property hassles
- Organized spime crime
- unpredictable and emergent forms of networked behavior from clouds of objects
- bad interface design
- underclasses of illegals not allowed to use spimes
- legal, ethical and social responsibilities for semi-autonomous objects
- objects that used to be inert, and are now expensive, fussy, fragile unpredictable,
too fluid, hopelessly complex, and subversive of established values
- And just plain ugliness: tacky, goofy, tasteless, cheesy, lethal, vulgar, dirty,
worthless, obscene, impractical, and dangerous spimes.
And that list is by no means complete. That is a lot of work.
That is more than enough work for ten billion people.
Spimes are coming anyway, because every one of those menaces
is also some kind of opportunity. Spimes will change
everything, because everything needs to change.
Things need to change quickly and radically,
because the industrial system we have today cannot persist.
It cannot find enough energy and raw materials.
Instead of moving forward, our civilization is
surrounding the oil wells with fixed bayonets and
settling into a smog-shrouded Dark Age.
The shape of things today is condemning our world
to steadily increasing poverty, degradation, and turmoil.
Four planets couldn't supply the material and energy
to let the world live the so-called advanced world lives now.
We're pretty advanced, but we're nowhere near advanced enough.
This may sound a bit alarmist and theoretical, so let me
phrase it to you in a way that holds your own feet to the fire.
Steve Jobs is a pioneer of personal computing and the head of
Pixar. Apple is the biggest vendor here. It's hard to get any
more SIGGRAPH than Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs has neuroendocrinal
pancreatic cancer. That's because, like everybody else in the
world, like you and like me, Steve Jobs is carrying a load
of carcinogens in his flesh. Silicon Valley, as an
industrial clean-up site, is rather well known for its mutagens.
The disturbing substances that are in the body of this
captain of your industry, they should not be in there.
They are wasted resources, they are systemic inefficiencies,
they are externalities. We need ways to keep these substances
organized and contained, and, eventually, designed out of the
production system entirely. Steve is sick for physical reasons,
for metabolic reasons. We may not know the exact chain of
cause and effect, but there is one; he's not sick because
some dark angel blew on his dice wrong. He has effluent,
byproducts of industry, inside his body.
It's painful. But we need to understand that our
bloodstreams are our dumping grounds. So are our lungs
and our livers. If we could visualize that, if we knew
and could prove what had gone wrong inside of ourselves,
if we could put a digital medical imaging screen on our
bellies, our lungs and our livers, and make those
invisible problems visible, then everything would
become different. If that knowledge was attached
to every object in our possession, the objects that
were killing us would vanish quickly.
That wouldn't be easy to do. But in the year 2004
it is no longer unimaginable. It could be done.
It's possible to live in a cleaner way. We live in
debris and detritus because of our ignorance. That
ignorance is no longer technically necessary.
Those who know, know. Instead, our problem is becoming
obscurantism, which is a deliberate hiding of the facts
by vested interests who know they are injuring us.
Such acts of evil must be combated. Sunlight is the
Wanting to know, wanting to do it, that's half the
struggle right there. Our capacities are tremendous.
Eventually, it is within our technical ability to
create factories that clean the air as they work,
cars that give off drinkable water, industry that
creates parks instead of dumps, or even monitoring
systems that allow nature to thrive in our cities,
neighborhoods, lawns and homes. An industry that is
not just "sustainable," but enhances the world.
The natural world should be better for our efforts
and our ingenuity. It's not too much to ask.
You and I will never live to see a future world
with those advanced characteristics. The people
who will be living in it will pretty much take it
for granted, anyway. But that is a worthy vision
for today's technologists: because that is wise
governance for a digitally conquered world. That
is is not tyranny. That is legitimacy.
Without vision, the people perish. So we need our
shimmering, prizes, goals to motivate ourselves,
but the life is never in the prize. The living part,
the fun part, is all in the wrangling. Those
dark cliffs looming ahead – that is the height
of your achievement.
We need to leap into another way of life.
The technical impetus is here. We are changing,
but to what end? The question we must face is:
what do we want? We should want to abandon that
which has no future. We should blow right through
mere sustainability. We should desire a world of
enhancement. That is what should come next. We should
want to expand the options of those who will follow us.
We don't need more dead clutter to entomb in landfills.
We need more options.
It needs to happen. It must happen. It is going to happen.
That's all I have to tell you today. Let's go see the state of the art!
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STAY TUNED FOR FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS
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