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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

Bruce Sterling has written a book about everything; and, considering the breadth of its topic, the book is a tiny one, not to mention an enjoyable read. Designed by Lorraine Wild, Shaping Things is the latest release in the MIT Press Mediawork Pamphlets series, which also includes texts by Brenda Laurel, N. Katherine Hayles, and Paul D. Miller. Like the series pamphlets preceding it, Sterling's book is a visual delight about the in-between -- a site where science and art meet, and nature and culture converge. If the book is indeed about everything, then it is also aimed at everyone, or at least those who are curious about the future of human interactions with technology. At the beginning of Shaping Things, Sterling acknowledges that although historically unprecedented forms are continually coming into being, their modes of production remain unsustainable. Accordingly, his aim is to conceptualize and encourage processes by which technological possibility is promoted while simultaneously curbing the negative consequences of archaic, rubbish-making manufacturing. That is, Shaping Things is about virtually designing and fabricating relationships, or what Sterling calls "spime," that are uniquely identifiable, recyclable, prototypical, and trackable in SPace and tIME (11). You consume products and end-use gizmos, whereas you "wrangle" spime. Instead of muscling it like an artifact, you negotiate with it. Thus, spime is performative and dynamic. You are lured by it; you measure it; and it does not materialize prior to your desire for it.

Consider a visit to Amazon.com. You search for Shaping Things. You find a virtual representation of it, and you see the author is Bruce Sterling, the publisher is MIT Press, and the publication date is September 1, 2005. You can also read a description of the book in addition to customer reviews. Perhaps you buy Shaping Things. Then an actual, physical version arrives at your doorstep. You read it, type your own Amazon.com review of it, and even sell it used to another Amazon.com customer. After all of your Amazon.com "technosocial interactions," you are very much a part of the gizmo, end-user world (111). The primary differences between this world and that of spime are that, in the gizmo world, you still do not know the "full composition" of Shaping Things and the actual, physical book, Shaping Things, may have been printed prior to your purchasing it. In the spime world, on the other hand, Shaping Things remains virtual until someone expresses interest in its material instantiation or hard copy, which is rapidly produced in a single button-click. Moreover, as a "wrangler" in the spime world, you always want to know why and how others are attracted to, intersect with, and invest in spime. Hence, spime has a complete account, is tagged, and is recognized as "a set of relationships first and always, and an object now and then" (77). In other words, as spime, Shaping Things would tell you how and when you bought it, how much you paid for it, how long it will last, what are its ingredients, and where it is on your bookshelf, among others.

Consequently, with the advent of spime, you are immersed in an "internet of things," arguably the most fascinating aspect of Sterling's book (93). The internet of things is driven by radio frequency identification (RFID) and global positioning satellites (GPS). You can find anything anywhere and anything about anything anywhere (92). Better yet, you need not worry about your stuff -- how you discovered it, where you last placed it, or its bluebook value. Your possessions are "inventoried through an automagical inventory voodoo, work done far beneath [your] notice by a host of machines" (93). You are just the manager, and when you no longer want Shaping Things, you easily deactivate it and turn it over to specialists, who disassemble it, recycle it, and still retain its complete account in a database. Granted, true spime has yet to be realized. However, it could soon make explicit both informational patterns and your stake in them. In the spime world, information, cost, and opportunities are made visible. You know your consumption habits, you can search the tracks of other people, and, most significantly, you save time. Therefore, the advantage of spime is that it provides a precise and accessible history of technosocial interactions. In the spime world, the archive counts and is counted.

As if responding directly to Hal Foster's Design and Crime, which criticizes contemporary design's lack of historicity, Shaping Things inserts documented identity directly into design. In fact, Sterling writes, "The key to the spime is identity. A spime is, by definition, the protagonist of a documented process" (77). The documented process, of course, can be both good and bad, and spime design must involve certain precautions. For instance, spime immediately evokes questions about individual privacy, abuse, control, and surveillance. Nevertheless, Shaping Things emphasizes what can be gained from information as opposed to what could be lost. Positioning himself as neither a utopian thinker nor a technological determinist, Sterling argues for historical awareness and summons those "who want to be active agents in a technosocial world" (13) [1]. Even if a documented process is not always safe, and even if it entails risks, the prospect of spime promises a more sensible, sustainable society with rich recordkeeping. Sterling calls such a society "synchronic," implying that every technosocial interaction is treated as an important resource. He notes: "Every object worthy of human or machine consideration generates a small history," which is recorded, catalogued, and synchronized with other histories (45). Details and everyday relations are crucial, and the first step toward a synchronic society is history-based design, one which readily accesses information through RFIDs and GIS yet does not require a dualistic distance between stable subjects and static objects. The spime world sees "human-beings as process" with objects as dynamic "shaping-things" (50, 52). Relationships, then, are thought in terms of trajectory and capacity -- what has happened, what is happening, and what can happen. The spime archive gathers no dust.

Furthermore, in the penultimate chapter of Shaping Things, Sterling gives his future a future. The consequence of repeated technosocial interactions is the "biot," who is "in a position to micromanage and design the processes that shape his own anatomy" (134-135). A distinct boundary between the wrangler and spime will be blurred. Actually, as Sterling notes, "this is happening now, but we can’t perceive and measure it ... A human body can be understood as a sponge of warm saltwater with a shell of skin; so everything we emit ends up partially within ourselves” (134). In a science-fiction-esque move, Sterling even dates the arrival of biots to "around the year 2070" (135). Nonetheless, what is important for a reader in 2006 is Sterling's shift away from both the human-environment and subject-object divides and toward technosocial intermediation and theories of emergence. Technology and human beings exist only in relation to one another. Granted, some readers may object that the language in Shaping Things, particularly when Sterling regards spime as "material instantiations of an immaterial system," does not always dissolve the assumption that actualized things are independent from their virtual design. After all, as N. Katherine Hayles's contends in her most recent book, My Mother Was a Computer, through either storage or transmission, electronic media are already materialized prior to when they are, say, printed as physically embodied texts. The "material instantiation" is not a mere copy of the "immaterial" concept. Still, Shaping Things is less a book about arguments and more a book of ideas. Sterling's proclivities are not theoretical unpacking or in-depth, historical critique. Alternatively, Shaping Things is Sterling’s little experiment, his shot at social activism, his attempt to inspire people to re-envision how they routinely function with their environment, and his chance to collaborate with a designer instead of simply talking about design; and, in tandem with his appealing writing style, sense of humor, and technical know-how, it succeeds.

[1] As part of his emphasis on historical awareness, Sterling provides useful, cogent distinctions between artifacts, machines, products, gizmos, and spime in the second chapter of Shaping Things.

Foster, Hal. Design and Culture and Other Diatribes. London: Verso, 2002.

Hayles, N. Katherine. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.

Jentery Sayers:
Jentery Sayers is currently pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Washington. His interests include the intersections of design, technology, embodiment, and spatial phobias in 20th and 21st century literature and culture. Daily, he dreams of auto-googling and mopedding across the U.S.  <jentery@u.washington.edu>

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