Bruce Sterling On Artifacts, Machines, Products, Gizmos and Spimes

Passage taken from the Bruce Sterling book ‘Shaping things’. Concretely the chapter 2: Tomorrow composts today:

I’m using idiosyncratic terms that might become confusing outside this context of discussion So, I’m going to CAPITALIZE them: “Artifacts”, “MACHINES”, “PRODUCTS”, “GIZMOS”. “SPIME” is a flat-out neologism, but central to the thesis of this book so I’ll CAPITALIZE that too. This will emphasize that I’m talking about classes of objects in varying object-human relationships, rather than some particular Artifact, MACHINE, GIZMOS or SPIME.

By using this special terminology. I want to emphasize the continuing interplay between objects and people. I’m describing an infrastructure of human support irrevocably bound to and generated by the class of people who are necessary to create and maintain that infrastructure. It’s mentally easier to divide humans and objects than to understand them as a comprehensive and interdependent system: people are alive, objects are inert, people can think, objects just lie there. But this taxonomical division blinds us to the ways and means by which objects do change, and it obscures the areas of intervention where design can reshape things. Effective intervention takes place not in the human, not in the object, but in the realm of the technosocial.

So, by capital ‘A’ “Artifacts” I mean simple artificial objects made by hand, used by hand, and powered by muscle. Artifacts are created one at time, locally, by rules of thumb and folklore rather than through any abstract understanding of the principles of mechanics. People within an infrastructure of Artifacts are ‘Hunters and Farmers.

By “MACHINES” I mean complex, precisely proportioned artifacts with many integral moving parts that have tapped some non-human, non-animal power source. MACHINES require specialized support structures for engineering skills, distribution, and finance. People within an infrastructure of MACHINES are “Customers”.

So what’s the difference?

How does one draw the line between a technoculture of Artifacts and a technoculture of MACHINES?

I draw two lines of division the first line is the Line of No Return. The second is the Line of Empire.

We know there has been a revolution in technoculture when that technoculture cannot voluntarily return to the previous technocultural condition. A sailor can become a farmer, but if the sailors from the MACHINE era of iron and steam return to the earlier Artifact era of wood and sail, millions will starve to death. The technosociety will collapse, so it’s no longer an option. That’s the Line of No Return.

We know that this revolution has become the new status quo when even the fiercest proponents of the earlier technoculture cannot physically overwhelm and defeat the new one.

The new technocultures physical advent ages in shaping objects make it impregnable. The imperial technoculture can spew its object s and processes abroad, more or less at will.

Those who lack that productive capacity are forced into colonial or defensive postures. That’s the Line of Empire. I’m therefore inclined to date the advent of MACHINE technoculture to the eclipse of the Mongols in the 1500s.

Before that time an Artifact culture with bows and horses could blacken the earth with its rampaging hordes. After that date, the world is at the mercy of the West, as mechanization takes command.

By “PRODUCTS” I mean widely distributed, commercially available objects, anonymously and uniformly manufactured in massive quantities, using a planned division of labor, rapid non-artisanal, assembly-line techniques, operating over continental economies of scale, and sup-ported by highly reliable transportation, finance and information systems. People within an infrastructure of PRODUCTS are “Consumers”.

I would date the advent of PRODUCT technoculture to the period around World War One.

“GIZMOS” are highly unstable, user-alterable, baroquely multifeatured objects, commonly programmable, with a brief life span. GISMOS offer functionality so plentiful that it is cheaper to import features into the object than it is to simplify. GISMOS are commonly linked to network service providers; they are not stand-alone objects but interfaces. People within an infrastructure of GISMOS are “End-Users”.

Unlike Artifacts, MACHINES, and PRODUCTS, GIZMOS have enough functionality to actively nag people. Their deployment demands extensive, sustained interaction: upgrades. grooming, plug-ins, plug-outs, unsought messages, security threats, and so forth.
The GIZMO epoch begins in 1989.

SPIMES” are manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. SPIMES begin and end as data. They are designed on screens, fabricated by digital means, and precisely tracked through space and time throughout their earthly sojourn.

SPIMES are sustainable, enhanceable, uniquely identifiable, and made of substances that can and will be folded back into the production stream of future SPIMES. Eminently data-mineable, SPIMES are the protagonists of an historical process.

People within an infrastructure of SPIMES are “Wranglers”.

I would date the dawn of to 2004, when the United States Department of Defense suddenly demanded that its thousands of suppliers attach Radio Frequency ID tags, or “arphids”, to military supplies. If this innovation turns out to be of genuine military advantage, and if it also spreads widely in commercial inventory systems, then a major transition will likely be at hand.

SPIMES are coming sooner or later, for SPIMES are here in primitive farms already. We can’t yet know if this is an import ant development, or just a visionary notion. The technical potential seems quite large, but how much design energy will these opportunities attract?

Who will dare to use these potentials as a means of technasocial intervention? Is there a Line of No Return and a Line of Empire? And if so, where are those Lines?

When will we realize that we need these structures in order to live—that we can’t surrender their advantages without awful consequence? And when will polities infested with SPIMES realize that they can lord it over those who refuse or fail to adapt them?

If I had to guess, I’d say 30 years. In 30 years, things properly understood as SPIMES will be all around us. Mind you, this is by no means an entirely happy prospect. It’s important to explicit acknowledge the downside of any technological transformation—to “think of the under-side firs”, to think in a precautionary way. In engaging with a technology so entirely friendly toward surveillance, spying privacy invasion and ruthless technical intrusion on previously unsoiled social spaces, we are playing with fire. Nothing new there—fire is two million years old. It helps to learn about fire and its remarkable affordances. Nat a lot is to be gained by simply flinging lit matches.

Design thinking and design action should be the proper antidotes to fatalistic handwringing when it comes to technology’s grim externalities and potentials for deliberate abuse. This book is for designers who want to be active agents in a technosocial world. I can’t make you into a moral angel (because I’m not one myself and have little interest in being one), but I might help you understand that the future can be yours to make.

Of course that’s not the end of the story. The story, if it’s successful, fails to end because we have created SPIMES and can manage them successfully. By handling challenges properly, we’ve enjoyed life without spoiling it for our descendants: as a culture, we’ve obtained more future. That would be the victory condition and the paint of writing books of this kind.

I’ll be spending most of the rest of this little book exploring what a SPIME might be, or become, and how people will interact with SPIMES. There are no such things as true SPIMES yet—these are still speculative, imaginary concepts. I will try to make the case that SPIMES are genuine prospects for genuine objects in the future, and worthy of designers’ attention. I hope to persuade you that clever young people had better get used to these ideas.

In other words, technocultures do not abolish one another in cleaner comprehensive ways. Instead, new capacities are layered onto older ones. The older technosocial order gradually loses its clarity, crumbles and melts away under the accumulating weight of the new.

The coming advent of SPIMES will not “abolish” the dominant technoculture we see today, which is the GIZMO, Artifacts, PRODUCTS, and MACHINES are still plentiful and flourish in today’s GIZMO world—but, influenced by the pressure from on high, they do tend to take an a pervasive flavor of GIZMO. Let’s see how.


Posted on May 5, 2011, in Reference. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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