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Shaping Things

Author: Bruce Sterling
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005
Review Published: July 2006

 REVIEW 1: Teodor Mitew
 REVIEW 2: Jentery Sayers
 REVIEW 3: Alan Sondheim
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Bruce Sterling

Let It Rip

I'm touched that my modest effort is regarded by Cyberculture reviewers as "a conceptually fresh technology pamphlet-manifesto which is actually fun to read." This assessment makes me happy.

I wouldn't claim that the core idea in this pamphlet -- ubiquitous computation in the service of sustainability -- is a fine idea. It's not yet fine. I can claim that it's a new idea. It's so new that it's beyond my ability to develop.

It's a novel and disturbing concept, and therefore it's going to require a whole lot of widely distributed labor if it is to flourish, and to enter everyday practice as anything more than an eccentric conceit. Any idea this brazenly radical is frankly unlikely to survive. If I had the clout of the MIT Auto-ID Lab, I might well have chosen the tactic they did: instead of trying to enlighten the public with a design-centric discourse, I'd just get the Pentagon and Wal-Mart to scatter RFID chips on pretty much everything, and never tell the press a word about it. After all, that under-the-radar approach certainly worked for the early Internet.

However, mere science fiction writers rarely have that kind of clout unless our name is Newt Gingrich. I therefore decided to launch this idea anyhow, and dress it up with some clown paint. My little book is a capering declaration of raw possibility. It's still raw, for it's not a political program, a business plan, or a philosophical system. It likely can't survive without incarnating itself as those three other things, but first, it has to be heard.

I do believe that something genuinely innovative and useful might be done along the lines I describe in this little book. I don't expect that useful thing to use the idiosyncratic terms that I myself used to describe it. Furthermore, should it work out in the way I hope it will, I don't expect to get much credit for it. I haven't thought it all up. I've thought up maybe five percent of it.

If ubiquitous computation really does get used in the service of sustainability, nobody who really does that will use such corny terms as "ubiquitous" or "sustainability." Those words will become period jargon from a lost epoch. They will have, at best, the cranky, surreal prescience of Albert Robida's "Electric Life."

Albert Robida (1848-1926) was less well-known but even more prescient than his older contemporary Jules Verne. As a satirical cartoonist, Robida consistently became more prescient as he became more satirical. The contemporary reviewers of Shaping Things sometimes seem properly disconcerted at the comic wisecracking in my book, but if things do turn out as I hope, in sixty years or so, it's precisely those jokes of mine that will seem the most prescient parts of the work. We'll all be long-dead by then. Our successors will have to recast our semantics in their own terminology. The neologisms we ourselves fully understand will be archaeologisms they dismiss as long-extinct. The things that hit home for them will be uncanny descriptions of their own time that are somehow crammed into our vocabulary. Just as is the case with Robida today.

A raw neologism like "spime" sounds frankly weird now, whereas the tamer "Internet-of-Things" sounds pretty much A-OK for the year 2006. That situation won't last. That problem is temporal: the "Internet-of-Things" is a period coinage very much like the convenient term "Horseless Carriage." We are imposing the term "Internet," that nicely stuffed horse's head of ours, onto the much more radical concept of digital relationships among physical objects. If physical things somehow do seriously get internetted in the decades to come, I can promise you that nobody will remember today's Internet. It'll be deader than the telegram.

Robida had the blazing insight that the 20th century would be all about "Electric Life" (Le Vingtième siècle. La vie électrique (1890)). When it arrived, the 20th century definitely had "electric life," but nobody living it thought to call it as Robida did. Only the 19th century could have construed the 20th century in that way.

Science-fictional ideas -- and "spime" is definitely one of these -- cannot enter popular practice if they are still identifiable as "science-fictional." Ideas deemed "science-fictional" are those still restricted to the murky tide-pool of the sci-fi subculture. Such ideas become attractive to other areas of discourse when they seem inventive and promising, yet obviously have major intellectual pieces missing. So a science fiction writer who seriously wants his ideas to spread generally has to spread them with an implicit architecture of participation. These ideas need to show a dire need for further construction. Then the constructors can feel comfortable in pitching in some honest effort.

I wrote the book for designers, because designers have so little trouble doing exactly this sort of deft appropriation. This book could likely be re-cast in many other forms: as, say, a military strategy manual, a political tract, an anthropological treatise in material culture, or a business-advice book. Somebody else should write those books. I wish 'em luck.

My three reviewers are absolutely right to mention Stengers, Stiegler, Latour, Heidegger, Veblen, even Badiou and Iragaray, but I wrote the book for designers because designers asked me for it. Philosophers rarely ask me to drop on by and philosophize, but my friends in design asked me to expand my ideas about design, they strongly encouraged me to go through with that despite many well-founded doubts, and they have proved able to read it in the spirit in which it was offered. So the book belongs to them. And by right.

If these ideas do get a foothold in design (and there are some encouraging signs there), then I would predict that they will move into the art world, computer gaming, and Internet practice. Suitably refined, expanded, mutated, and better-financed, these raw, clownish concepts will leap into the already well-prepared fields of commerce, politics, environmentalism, and the military. Should that happen, these ideas will have successfully discarded all their tell-tale visionary crankiness. They won't be far-fetched any more, but simply part of tomorrow's sensibility.

At that point, I am no more likely to recognize them than anybody else is.

I do hope that these ideas will penetrate as quickly as possible into the wildest, most inventive nooks and crannies that our troubled society has to offer. Consistency and logic are not the strong-points of this book. That approach will not help us at this historical juncture: instead, we need to make a whole lot of fresh mistakes really fast. Design is not a method of vision; as Charles Eames said, design is a method of action. We need action. We need action because we are in deep trouble. We need to find many new ideas like this, and blur and spread them in the way that a bowl of spaghetti is blurred and spread when it's flung against a wall. If they spatter hard enough, some are sure to be used.

Let it rip.

Bruce Sterling


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