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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

Now I want to begin again, en/folding the review; consider this later, a future returned to the present. Because I want to begin situating Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things, which is part of a fundamental change in the world, one which is also reflected, for example, in such things as species and dialects, which were, vis--vis classicism/modernity, considered as fixed as any fundamental particles. Now we see -- we discover -- that the species concept is problematic, that DNA is far more complex than coding discrete organisms, just as dialects and languages and languaging all intermingle. So product, entity, thing, production, network, virtuality, flux, organism -- all are interwoven, interacting. This book is one of the first, quite possibly the first, to describe this phenomenology, in terms of daily-life, what we use and live with around us. Now I begin again:

I'm not sure how to review Shaping Things -- which means I'm not sure what language, what approach out of many, what genre of approach, would be either adequate or sufficient. The author states "That is to say, this book is for designers and thinkers, engineers and scientists, entrepreneurs and financiers, and anyone else who might care to understand why things were once as they were, why things are as they are, and what things seem to be becoming" (5). And by "thing" he means, by and large, entities, entities of design, communication, dispersed and linked entities, organic entities, artifacts, products, arphids, gizmos, spimes, biots...

It is that sentence that I find disturbing, against the multiplicity of multiplicities that constitute this book (thinking through Alan Badiou, 2003, 2006), that multiplicity which refuses reduction, which remains fuzzy (in the technical sense of the term), a dynamics close to Luce Irigaray's fluid phenomenology. I've too have worked with designers (Sterling is currently "Visionary-in-Residence" at Pacific Design Center), and simply don't find them any more enlightened than any other segment of the population; if anything, their goal-directedness (both in career and project) can become problematic. But then I'm one of the Greens Sterling disparages (and hence quite likely not the target of this book) -- "It's no use our starting from the top by ideologically re-educating the Consumer to become some bizarre kind of rigid, hairshirt Green. This means returning to the benighted status of Farmers with Artifacts. End-Users will always legally and politically evade any effort to reduce them to the status of Consumers, and even Consumers will stoutly refuse to become Customers or Farmers; they know that any such effort of repression is the path of the Khmer Rouge and the Taliban" (131). I don't really want to unpack this; it does a disservice to the book -- but I wince at the connection which many readers will draw (and which I worry that Sterling draws) between the Greens and the Khmer Rouge; there's no indication for example of who will do the reducing -- which is part of the problem for me with the book -- ignoring the geopolitical in favor of vision -- which doomed, I think, both Plato and More. For example, in the paragraph just above the one quoted, Sterling says (in relation to the environmental crisis): "It is the legacy we received from world-shaping industrial titans such as Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller -- basically, the three 20th century guys who got us into the Greenhouse effect" (131). One just has to look at the geopolitical history of the planet to discover: a) The crisis goes back at least a millennium; and b) We're the guys who got us into the effect, and we continue to be so. The US has the world's largest ecological footprint per capita, and the history of coal, pollution, and so forth -- a history of damage -- goes back to prehistoric times.

I have to return to the book, with apologies. Of course with apologies. For I also love the book, and as a reader, I tend towards this veering which is the result of Sterling's coherent vision -- that of a transformation, a fundamental transformation, of the world and its objects, as electronic and biological networkings deepen, disperse, multiply.

There are many stages, all interwoven, of this transformation, which is occurring at a dizzying pace; Sterling identifies Artifacts, Machines, Products, Gizmos, Spimes, and Biots. There are social structures and receptors (Consumers, Farmers, Wranglers, etc.) connected with each of them -- again, the future embodies but transcends (Aufgehen?) the past -- just as Artifacts have been transformed into folk culture, and Machines themselves are becoming collectibles.

Artifacts are productions of a Farmer technoculture; Machines exist within a Customer technoculture; Products are twentieth-century within a Consumer technoculture (which includes "incessant advertising"); and Gizmos exist within an End-User technosociety -- I'd place Ipodification/E-culturalization (my terms) here -- a network and networked culture whose RFIDs (radio frequency identity passive or active tags) or "Arphids" (Sterling's term) already tend towards Spimes, those part-virtual part-fabbed (fabricated) objects which aren't objects in the traditional sense, but part-objects, nodes, imminences, transformations. The Spime exists within a Wrangler subculture; we'll get to Biots in a minute.

At this point I want to say that I find the above analysis utterly brilliant -- it reminds me of Thorstein Veblen (1899) in its social momentum and prescience. It also gives designers of course an enormous opportunity. Spimes exist within networks ranging in size from a few inches through planetary; they're tracked, encoded (the future of barcodes in a sense); they're inventoried -- you can locate for example your misplaced wallet through a local GPS or other electronic system. The world -- the world of objects such as they are -- is under continuous surveillance (although somehow people seem to escape this for the most part -- Sterling recognizes the danger). This is happening, this is happening now. For me (displaced Green, Peta member who surveils, however), the vision is unnerving; the paths of losing, lost objects, broken or thwarted objects/plans/processes are part of creation itself, critical to our survival (Winograd and Flores (1987) move in this direction in their work on computer cognition). The lost reflect our lack of omnipotence, our faltering in the path of whatever remnants of wilderness remain, on earth, in space, within. The other path, however fragmentary it appears, the path of the tracked and networked, is also a path towards an Absolute, which always should be problematic; the Panoptical political implications are disarming. And I hardly think that designers or engineers should be trusted here, any more than any other group.

Spimes are always already recycled; they're oddly insubstantial in this regard: "At the end of its lifespan the SPIME is deactivated, removed from your presence by specialists, entirely disassembled, and folded back into the manufacturing stream" (77). (Yes, but we can hardly recycle the simplest electronics now -- trashed computers are a major pollutant.) Sterling continues: "The data it generated remains available for historical analysis by a wide variety of interested parties" (77). (But whose analysis, what parties, what of privacy or autonomy here? Since Sterling brought up the Khmer Rouge and Taliban, I should mention that one of the earliest numerical classification systems of human beings occurred in the concentration camps.)

From Spimes, Biots. And Biots are interesting: "A Biot would be the logical intermeshing, the blurring of the boundary between Wrangler and SPIME" (134).

"If the Consumer/PRODUCT epoch lasted from World War II to 1989, and the End-User/GIZMO epoch from 1989 till 2030 or so (another forty years), and if the Wrangler/SPIME epoch managed about the same time span, then the advent of the Biot would arrive around the year 2070. I would guess that 2070 is a reasonable date for a situation in which human biochemistry is well enough understood to become a medical-industrial complex. In a Biot world, the leading industries are not Artifacts, MACHINES, PRODUCTS, GIZMOS or SPIMES, but technologies for shaping human beings. The people who do this are both the shaper and the thing shaped, the user and the tool in one" (135). I'd personally date this transformation much earlier, but I agree with Sterling here.

In fact, I agree with Sterling almost everywhere, which is what I find so irritating. At least within the post-post-industrializing of segments of the planet, the changes he describes are on the way. My worry is the accompanying ethos; Sterling's vision embraces economics, design, engineering, networking, biotechnology, etc, but ethics isn't really discussed in any detail. Sterling trusts designs and designers, I think. I don't. There's a gung-ho attitude about the work that seems to overlook the accompanying social problems -- as if they, too, will be worked out by designers. One has only to look at current waste management issues -- and less of something doesn't necessarily mean less pollution -- to find problems that will continue to haunt us. Of course this is presuming that there is a future, that planetary extinctions don't extend to us. I admire Sterling greatly -- I just can't follow his optimism; somewhere, I'm huddling with the Greens.

VERDICT: Read this book. It's essential and overwhelming. I have the sense that anything I say here is already answered on his website. The book is already popular, already a classic. The design, the stylee, is itself illuminating. And I have the feeling that my objections are somehow always already wrong. Meanwhile, I'm writing this in the Mule Cafe in Brooklyn, and the guy next to me is saying, "You know I hate to go into someone else's studio. I mean you just don't do that. I'm just nervous about this." And he's taking the call outside.

POSTVERDICT: And do check out Sterling's article in Make magazine, I think issue 05, on mobiles and design and everything -- it's wonderful and brings Shaping Things home in a serious and playful way.

Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003

_____, Being and Event. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.

Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Penguin Classics, 1899 [1994].

Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley Professional, 1987.

Alan Sondheim:
Alan Sondheim is a writer/theorist/artist whose work is found at http://www.asondheim.org and http://nikuko.blogspot.com, among other sites. He has published and recorded widely; his video and soundwork has been shown internationally.  <sondheim@panix.com>

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