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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

Published as the latest in a series of MIT Mediaworks Pamphlets, Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things should be read both as a technology pamphlet and a design manifesto. It is a passionate and witty historical argument about technology as we know it in the form of shaped objects, as well as a manifesto calling for the appearance of a class of objects that does not yet exist. In eighteen broad-ranging chapters, Sterling posts two main theses, encompassing the past and the future of human-technology interaction. He argues that our current technoculture is unsustainable and its outputs have no future, and that a new class of technical objects is about to appear that will put into question our entire technosocial condition. Needless to say these are sweeping statements as Sterling admits already in the first sentence of the text -- "[this is] a book about everything" (5).

Admittedly these are the kind of theses one would expect to find in a pamphlet-manifesto by the legendary science fiction novelist who is also the Pope-Emperor of the viridian design movement, a contributor for Wired since its inception, a blogger, a futurist (see Sterling's (2002) Tomorrow Now), and a prolific conference speaker among others. However, what makes this book different from the now omnipresent ubiquitous computing and Web 2.0 hype is the positioning of humans and objects in a common hybrid-like technosocial dynamic. In this dynamic, the opposition between human and technological gives way to a constantly evolving technosocial. Sterling claims that while "it is mentally easier to divide humans and objects than to understand them as a comprehensive and interdependent system" (8), this division prevents us from fully understanding how change in the object-human relationship occurs. Furthermore, it blinds us to possible ways of intervention, thus creating the illusion of technological determinism.

Armed with the motto "the future composts today" (14), Sterling traces this dynamic in a breathless ride through the history of technology. The compost is a slowly evolving object-human relationship in which both objects and humans create and support each other in a series of technological transitions. There is a lot happening in these transitions and because of the nature of the text Sterling often doesn't attempt to argue in detail the conditions for and process of change. But that is the nature of pamphlet-manifestos.

For those closely following the work of Bruce Sterling this book has been in the making at least since his speech at SIGGRAPH in August 2004, when it appears he first floated the idea of a new type of object -- the SPIME [1]. Sterling coins this term in an effort to express a crucial quality of, according to him, a looming technological condition -- the explicit embodiment of space and time in an object. According to him, the entire history of technosocial development leads to a point where SPIMES emerge as the dominant form of objects. They are the "material instantiations of an immaterial system" (11) which Sterling spends much time describing.

Shaping Things is sprinkled with neologisms and idiosyncratic terminology with only short conceptual explanations provided by the author. This makes for a disorienting experience in the beginning of the book, when the reader is bombarded with "gizmos," "spimes," and "wranglers" in very short succession. On the other hand, this idiosyncratic terminology creates an atmosphere for a conceptually fresh technology pamphlet-manifesto which is actually fun to read. Below, I will outline the basic argument and terminology Sterling uses to advance his ideas.

The main argument of the book rests on the separation of the technological history of humanity into five chronological stages: artifacts, machines, products, gizmos, and spimes. A particular stage dominates until new technical developments lead to a point called a "Line of No Return." This is the point where a new technosocial condition has become so established that it cannot voluntarily return to the previous condition. The changes from one stage to another succeed in ever-more-rapid succession as technological developments bring demands for new objects, new infrastructures to support them, and new types of humans to create and populate those infrastructures. Therefore, each of these stages is differentiated by a human-object relationship of growing complexity.

Accordingly, the first stage of object-human existence involved simple technical objects (Artifacts), made locally and by hand in a technoculture of Hunters and Farmers. Artifacts and their dominance as a technoculture lasted until the Renaissance. At that point, the technoculture of Artifacts crossed the Line of No Return into a technoculture of radically different objects. These he labels as MACHINES, and their distinctive qualities are mechanization, some form of standardization, and a non-human and non-animal power source. Because of their specialization, MACHINES require a different support structure than Artifacts, and the humans living in a MACHINE infrastructure are Customers.

According to Sterling, around World War I, the MACHINE technoculture gives way to a technoculture of PRODUCTS, which come with assembly-line mass-production manufacturing techniques and a continental infrastructure. The humans enfolded in this technoculture are, according to Sterling, to be known as Consumers. Following that, around 1989, the PRODUCT-Consumer technoculture gives way to a new relationship which revolutionizes the object-human yet again. This is the advent of GIZMOS -- highly unstable, multifeatured, networked objects with a brief lifespan and baroque functionality. GIZMOS exist in a networked environment and because of that should not be considered to be stand-alone objects but interfaces, which in turn create their own type of humans -- the End-User.

GIZMOS are more intertwined with humans then the earlier type of objects because their infrastructure demands "extensive, sustained interaction" (11) which actively involves End-Users in a multitude of roles. This development in turn leads to the latest technocultural development, which, according to Sterling, dawned in 2004 with the introduction of radio-frequency ID labels (known as "arphids") on US military supplies. According to the author, arphids come as the functional heirs to barcodes; they are "tiny computers with tiny radios" (88), which when embedded in a GIZMO-world object will provide it with a noticeable identity. Accordingly, the advent of arphids signaled the appearance of the first, albeit primitive, SPIMES -- objects existing in a data-infrastructure traversing space and time. Today, they are objects precisely traceable in space and time and carrying their history with them. In the future, when they cross the Line of No Return into a SPIME world, they will be "a set of relationships first and always, and an object now and then" (77). SPIMES, then, will be an instantiation of an enormous information infrastructure which enfolds humans into a yet another role -- that of data Wranglers.

According to Sterling, what distinguishes SPIMES today from the previous object-human technocultures is this "making things public," the making explicit of the entire industrial process, from composition to decomposition (23). According to him, the real SPIMES are still not present but are definitely on their way, and when they finally arrive the core activity humans will be involved in will be "a constant negotiation over the nature of one's stake holding" (24) within the SPIME-network. Sterling argues that, unlike previous objects, SPIMES will actively enfold space and time into themselves. They will not only be tracked anywhere at any time, but will carry around their entire existence in space and time. A SPIME-object will store the entire chronology of its travel in physical space with the multitude of implications it may have had for its surroundings. It will explicitly represent the entire production network which brought it into being, and upon expiration it will be reabsorbed into that network.

This will be made possible, first, by the embedding of arphids into the object and the creation of a therefore historical (traceable in time) object-identity and, second, by the utilization of sustainable materials. Such an object might be the wine bottle from the cover of the book, which will be uniquely traceable from the moment of composition of its elements to its final decomposition. This will be a wine bottle that informs of the entire process of its development -- from geography, climate, grape variety and type of labor utilized, to amounts of carbon dioxide discarded into the atmosphere during its transportation and reabsorbing techniques used for the recycling of the glass and the cork. Needless to say, the SPIME-bottle will also exist as the center of an enormous network of other useful information such as exact chemical and particle contents of the liquid, links to support centers, experts, amateur enthusiasts, etc.

In effect, objects will become dynamically updated databases existing in a wider network of other such databases. In addition, they will have unique identities that will compel humans to recognize them as actors for the entirety of their existence (43).

Accordingly, what is missing for the arrival of real SPIMES is the Line of No Return, when infrastructural critical mass will force the transition of our technoculture into a SPIME-Wrangler relationship. Sterling argues that the backbone of the already developing SPIME infrastructure is the mass proliferation of networked arphids, the capacity for rapid prototyping and fabrication of objects, and sustainability.

Furthermore, when arphids are networked in an arphid management system they bring to life an Internet of Things (91). This is a concept growing in popularity [2] and with immense implications, but Sterling unfortunately glosses over it in three pages. Moreover, the only application example he provides for the Internet of Things is as a search engine for his arphid encrusted and networked shoes (94). What the possible advent of an Internet of Things actually embodies is a whole new concept of the self which Sterling doesn't explore. When objects gain a dynamic networked identity they become agents of change. To put it in another way, while on the Internet today nobody knows you are a dog, in an Internet of Things nobody will know you are Bruce Sterling's shoes. To use Sterling’s own argument, at that moment, the Internet ceases to be a GIZMO for End-users and transforms into the backbone of a new technosocial infrastructure.

This is a very broad and concept-heavy argument which can be problematized on many levels. There is the obvious problem with the historical periodization of technosocial stages and the role of objects within a technosocial network. A hammer is an artifact from prehistoric times, yet I use it in the same technosocial network as a computer. Am I then a hunter-farmer or an end-user, or both? Or maybe neither? A technical object is never stable enough to fit only one of the roles Sterling ascribes to it. If we are to use Sterling's terminology we must make the condition that an obvious PRODUCT such as a Coca-Cola bottle is also a MACHINE and an Artifact [3]. A SPIME would enfold all of the previous objects and would necessarily exhibit different object-identities in different actor-networks. The boundaries in the technosocial are much more fluid than it appears from Sterling's analysis. Yes, "tomorrow composts today," but today's compost enfolds all the past tomorrows.

There is also the obvious lack of discussion of the political. In fact, Sterling never asks the most obvious question -- What is the politics of things? What would the politics of things look like once they gain their independent identity? What would be the politics of a technosocial populated by SPIMES? Issues of surveillance and control are only the tip of much more profound questions of power relations, agency, and embodiment, not to mention the implications of instantaneous object fabrication for the painfully contingent and human concepts of space and time.

The SPIME neologism comes with its own set of problems. An obvious critique is that SPIMES will signal the arrival of total surveillance, complete information exposure, and absolute control. Sterling develops the concept of GIZMO in a brilliant example with a wine bottle which is perhaps the strongest moment in the book (Chapter 9). He makes the reader ask a series of very valid questions. What happens with the wine bottle once I throw it in the bin? How many human-hours were needed to produce the grapes and how much did the grape-pickers make? What glue was used for the label and how much carbon dioxide was released in the atmosphere when the bottle was shipped to my local store? On the other hand, SPIMES bring to light a special category of techno-social issues which are tragically absent from the issue-network of today's objects -- the "unknown knowns" which Sterling doesn't mention. There is also the short chapter on the Internet of Things which I have mentioned.

One could say in Sterling's defense that a pamphlet-manifesto demands a bold picture of as yet unexplored potentiality, with an argument which by default cannot be entirely coherent. The issues listed above are important but one could excuse Bruce Sterling for not addressing them. What I think actually exposes Shaping Things to valid critique is its underlying uncertainty as to the nature of technical objects. What exactly are the things we are to shape? As it is, Sterling's argument requires that things-objects exist both in a dynamically-shaped compost with humans, and as a stable form of continuous instrumentation. According to Sterling progress and change in the human concept of time "are not caused by philosophy but by instrumentation" (50). For the project to work, time and the logic of the instrumental must exist independently of each other. Unfortunately, this situation is, to use his terminology, unsustainable.

On the one hand, Sterling takes a theoretical approach already charted by Bruno Latour, in his description of objects as always-in-relation with humans (Latour, 1993). Sterling's call for making the space and time enfolded within an object explicit is similar to what Latour has called "making things public" in a framework of a genuine politics of things, or "Dingpolitik" (Latour & Weibel, 2005). His description of the human-object technosocial compost has been part of arguments in science studies made by Isabelle Stengers (2000), Michel Callon (Callon, Law, & Rip, 1986) and Latour (1999). In addition, Sterling’s demand for history to be "etched into the very texture of the technosocial" (42), that is, to be recognized as a part of each and every object, is in many ways similar to Bernard Stiegler's (1998) theorization of technology as a memory extension.

Finally, Sterling's claim that SPIME as an active part of its technosocial is above all a relation (77) which has to and will be made explicit, is also a main argument of actor-network theory. It claims that no human or non-human actor exists on its own, outside a network of relations, and that the correct interpretation of an actor involves making the chain of associations visible (Latour & Weibel, 2005). This line of argumentation lies within a strong trend in current science studies and philosophy of technology.

On the other hand, however, Sterling declares instrumentation to be a determining actor in human development and with that ascribes it a role similar to the logic of instrumental reason one finds in Heidegger (1977). One of the two has to go. Either objects have instrumental nature separate from humans or object-humans are completely intertwined. The SPIME idea, to which this book is a carrier, will be vulnerable to charges of technological determinism until it resolves this tension. The political, which has no explicit place in Sterling's narrative, has to be made explicit.

If instrumentality is dropped, we are left with a compost of objects-humans in which things have never ceased carrying and enfolding space and time. Objects have always been SPIMES, but we have always denied them the full rights of identity. We pretend the wine bottle ceases to exist the moment we put it in the trash bin. This is not a design choice but a political choice. The change which Sterling deems to be instrumental is actually political -- it is the recognition of the basic fact that things exist in a chain of associations which we have to fully recognize in order to live in a sustainable future. To paraphrase Latour, Sterling's project will succeed when objects migrate from being matters of fact into being matters of concern (Latour & Weibel, 2005). I think that only when things are recognized according to the archaic meaning of the word "thing" -- as an assembly of representatives -- will their thing-ness, their instrumental function, become SPIME-like.

Ultimately, Shaping Things is a very important book in that it provides a voice for a radical concept of the human-technology relationship. Radical comes from radix -- the Latin word for root, and Bruce Sterling makes an inspired attempt to reach the root of the human-object relationship and chart the way beyond. It is a book written with flair in a lucid and often humorous way, and is to be recommended for both academics and wider audience. Finally, not to be omitted is the fantastic design of the text done by Lorraine Wild which goes a long way to amplify the message of the book.

    [1] This neologism and subsequent terminology appear as in the book.

    [2] A work-in-progress bibliography on the Internet of Things compiled by Anne Galloway can be found here: http://www.purselipsquarejaw.org/2006/03/internet-of-things-working.php. See also "Why Things Matter" by Julian Bleecker (2006) and Everyware by Adam Greenfield (2006).

    [3] As depicted in the hilarious movie The Gods Must Be Crazy (Uys, 1980).

Bleecker, J. (2006). "Why Things Matter: A manifesto for networked objects - cohabiting with pigeons, arphids and aibos in the internet of things." Retrieved 10 March, 2006, from http://research.techkwondo.com/files/WhyThingsMatter.pdf.

Callon, M., Law, J., & Rip, A. (1986). Mapping the Dynamics of Science and Technology: Sociology of Science in the Real World. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.

Greenfield, A. (2006). Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing. Berkeley, CA: New Riders Press.

Heidegger, M. (1977). The Question Concerning Technology. New York: Garland Publishing.

Latour, B. (1993). We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (1999). Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B., & Weibel, P. (2005). Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stengers, I. (2000). The Invention of Modern Science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sterling, B. (2002). Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years. New York: Random House.

Stiegler, B. (1998). Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Uys, J. (1980). The Gods Must Be Crazy [Motion Picture]. Botswana: Sony Pictures.

Teodor Mitew:
Teodor Mitew is pursuing a Doctoral Degree in Internet Studies at Curtin University of Technology in Perth. His research interests lie in actor-network theory, philosophy of technology, hacktivism and pragmatist philosophy.  <ted.mitew (at) gmail.com>

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