[iDC] The "electricity" of near future participation (p1)

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Tue Sep 12 12:49:44 EDT 2006

A few months ago, when we started to work on the Architecture and
Situated Technologies symposium it took me a while to get into the
language and the unfamiliar context of architecture. I was more into all
things networked and did not immediately see the connection. But soon I
realized that The Internet of Things offers a captivating angle on the
"electricity" of future participation in sociality online (accessed
through the hardwired or the wireless Internet).  

Over the past months we started to talk about networked objects and "The
Internet of Things." Things? Things are not a species of their own
making. Web applications don¹t ³mate² and produce ³offspring.² So, why
talk of "things" instead of objects? There must be more than semiotic
cuteness at play; the term Internet of *Things* can't just be about
anthropomorphizing artifacts, machines, products, and gizmos. 

The sandbox of the future. Not long ago only few people saw much of a
future for reading, writing and video production. It was a consumer's
world in which we were all "end-users." 

("I have to shut up and settle for what comes out of the assembly line."
Sterling in Shaping Things, p78) 

But that has changed with what some call the relationship revolution.
There is a participatory turn under way. Bang!!! and you have 100
million MySpace members, 600 billion web pages online, and half of
American youth contributing content online. (Well, it was not quite so
sudden.) Now, the anticipation expands to participation/content
production beyond the screen engaging humans with networked objects.

Do you have a good ear for restless manufactured environments (?); do
you hear objects whisper to other networked objects? (A tête - à - tête
of things?) Are we drifting amidst airwaves filled with feeds, streams,
permalinks, and blog posts exchanged between these objects? Do they fly
through the ether with only the password-empowered being able to
interpret these "voices" (and get access)? Are we facing a ³Babel World
of Things² that puts up new fences in the public sphere(s)? Are we blind
to the miracle of The Internet of Things or is it just for the geek
elite? Do we all fail to see what is going on? Or, do we look for
answers about the future in the wrong places?

Well, we already co-inhabit, co-perform in one world with all these
networked objects. We experience the convergence of web technology,
wireless networks and portable devices. We take our online friends with
us whenever we are leaving the house. Online resources traditionally
accessible only through "heads-down computing" on our desk, now become
available in the urban context.

When I walk through the streets of Brooklyn my cell phone gets short SMS
reminders from the land of Google calendar that get me going.
In Brooklyn, an older Hassidic man makes his way up the road on a bike.
It's dusk and the dark suit of the man blends into the background of
trees, the street and the park. But suddenly when the man is already
fairly close to me, a blue shine radiates through the curls that cover
up his ears. A cyborgian-looking mobile phone antenna is clipped on the
man's ear. His thing talks to the object on the next cell phone tower.
Sitting on my desk at home I can follow the flickering of my wifi
signal, almost as if the machine is breathing, I sense the presence of
my neighbor sharing our bandwidth.
A symbol of a strange translucent object appears in the middle of my
screen signaling that my computer lost touch with my wireless mouse. The
mouse is out of range.
I take my online sociality with me in my bag, a bit like Vilem Flusser,
who describes a bag full of files. The device is right there, in my
reach, always. I take my online pen pals with me when I wander the
streets or when I pass through airports or foreign cities. I may be
writing them on my "Personal Data Assistant" in the subway and shoot out
the message when the train surfaces going over a bridge.
Then I sit in the park or cafe and enjoy the availability of a free
wireless network. Its node just communicated with my laptop, both are
amenable to each other until there is a stronger commercial signal that
may overwhelm them. This battle over free or for-pay wireless network
matters- free networks set expectations. Why would I go to elsewhere
when I can get access here for free?
The Fedex delivery guy brings up that package from the gallery and I
sign for it, meeting him half way down the stairs (the heat must kill
the poor guy). I sign on a magic device that beams my signature right to
the Fedex mother ship.
Walmart tags all their merchandise with little RFID tags. Containers are
moving and are tracked globally. Or, put little tags on Coke cans and
the world of computers would wake up to their presence, wherever they
migrate, a CNN article suggests.  
For the obscenely wealthy- Rem Koolhaas' Broadway Prada store offers a
service that charges the object of your desire to your credit card
merely by exiting the store with it. 
A friend from Delhi told me that in India biometric identification
currently becomes popular in the context of large religious events,
pilgrimages.  'Crowd control' is enabled through objects that talk to
each other.

Objects are deeply informed by the social understanding of those who
programmed them, technology is soaked with ideology: Technologists shape
things in the way that they know the world. 

>Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things
Futurity is good business ("the future is yours to make"). The market
thrives on feelings of excitement about novelty and near-future
scenarios. An in-depth criticque of that is surely needed. On the other
hand, there is honest concern about a sustainable world coupled with a
hope for a future in which objects and humans stand united for a better

"The 20th century's industrial infrastructure has run out of time. It
can't go on; it's antiquated, dangerous and not sustainable" 
Shaping Things, p131. 

That may be so but consumers love to get entrenched in speculation
forgetting the clumsy reality of the technology at the bottom of their
feet or on their desk. ("[T]he industrial system cruelly sacrifices
human flesh for the sake of dysfunctional machinery." (p. 133) Sterling
calls the evolved ³descendents² of artifacts, machines, products, and
gizmos: "Spime." The artist and technologist Julian Bleeker later
introduces the term ³blogjects,² perhaps attempting to frame a kind of
feasibility study of future-day ³spimes² for his present-day practice.

Datablogging is a collaborative blogging platform that allows for
extended data fields to be added to blog posts.

Objects are "impregnated" with understanding, sensors; they are tracked,
they "remember" their own histories of movement and encounter with other
objects. We deeply engage with these objects; we interact, we feel them.
Sterling talks of dogs injected with radio frequency tags (RFID: finally
a technology that the Chinese government loves). Bleeker talks of kids
with RFID tags (ŠIt's 10pm: do you know where your child is?). 

Sterling pushes us further into tomorrow's tomorrow: 

³The only sane way out of technosociety is throughout it, into a newer
one that knows everything the older one knew. And knows enough new
things to dazzle and dominate denizens of the older order. That means
revolutionizing the interplay of human and object." 
Shaping Things, p132 

Wireless Location Services

Kids buy lunches with scans of fingers

Sterling is aware of the netherworld of networked labor when he draws
parallels to coal miners, clarifying that today's coal miners of sorts
may well have pristine white skin. 

"They sit, type and stare at screens. All day, every day. It ends up
hurting them. It hurts them in ways that are slow enough and subtle
enough to steal up on them." p134 

Sterling appropriately emphasizes the downsides of Spimes: 

"in engaging with a technology so entirely toward surveillance, spying,
privacy invasion, and ruthless technical intrusion on previously
unsoiled social spaces, we are playing with fire." 
Shaping Things, p. 13

But while there is outspoken consumer skepticism, eco-awareness, and a
very genuine questioning of true societal progress throughout the
Shaping Things, this is pretty much where Sterling stops. Is that all
there is to be cautious about? 

The Pew Internet and American Life Projects surveyed more than 1200
professionals in 2004 about their prediction of the next decade of the
Internet. They saw a more ubiquitous Internet embedded in miniaturized
devices, clothes, cars, appliances, and they thought that "these
networked devices will allow greater surveillance by governments and

CCTV cameras to track passenger movements in busy airports

Will objects carry our histories reflected in their own? Author and
technology journalist Kevin Kelly says:

 "What will most surprise us is how dependent we will be on what the
Machine knows - about us and about what we want to know. We already find
it easier to Google something a second or third time rather than
remember it ourselves."

Will my PDA remember my life better than I do? Will the memory of the
linked-up collectivity of devices challenge the way history is written?
Things become the fly on the wall with a brain of an elephant. 

Kelly continues: 

"The more we teach this megacomputer, the more it will assume
responsibility for our knowing. It will become our memory. Then it will
become our identity. In 2015 many people, when divorced from the
Machine, won't feel like themselves - as if they'd had a lobotomy."

Bruce Sterling, with marvelous heartfelt language, dreams of an Internet
of Things that links to satellites, sky-high. They could eye down on
myriads of networks of Things. The Internet of Things promises that we
can outsource our memory; but not to Flickr and Archive.org or
Del.icio.us but to our material companions: the objects of our everyday
life could keep track of our travel photos. Things, in Sterling's
proposal, know what they cost; they know who they are and where they are
and they know when it is time to check themselves in at the junkyard to
face their (by then) biodegradable destiny. 

I like Sterling's book but I question his reliance on design(ers) and
the things they create as key determining force for a future world. For
now, it rather looks like most objects are rather "intentionally
restricting the way the user can behave, or enforce certain modes of

Networked objects are not 'baloney" but they are also not the sole
future hope. What is missing for me in Sterling's quite wonderful,
inspiring book is a deep socio-political analysis. While I agree that
the interaction between humans and networked objects is important, I
lack gripping examples that convince me of its power in changing the

Already in 1776 the Atlantic Telegraph posed that the electric telegraph
will "make muskets into candlesticks." Two authors at the time wrote: 

"It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer
exist, while such an instrument has been created for the exchange of
thought between all the nations of the earth." 
The Victorian Internet, p 83 

And in 1858, upon completion of a transatlantic telegraph cable, the
British ambassador at the time said: 

"What can be more likely to effect [peace] than a constant and complete
intercourse between all nations and individuals in the world?" (p90)

The belief that more information, more connectedness, more communication
will somewhat automatically make for a better world is not new and
should be questioned. Also caution in elation  to an overemphasis of
networked objects as being part of a larger converging sociality is
called for.   

This is not a lament of a ³thing-ly,² Bladerunner takeover. Sociality
between networked objects and humans is a core question. Who is served
by such mythologizing rhetoric with terms like "co-inhabiting"? These,
___ (fill in the blank) are just pieces of metal and silicon... They are
around and they make some things easier and they (will) join our
conversations by contributing data. What is perhaps most interesting is
that we attach affect to these networked things. How do all these things
make us feel? Will children demand even more ³screen time² from their
parents? What¹s the ethics of love in relation Aibo or Paro (³the mental
commitment robot for psychological enrichment²) are endlessly

What would an emancipatory relationship with a networked object look
like? Should we assume that there would be no exploitation of labor, no
class differences, no poverty, no people without heath insurance, and no
people without access to hardware or the network of networks in that
near future scenario? What would a "unaligned alliance" of networked
objects look like? 

In a 2nd grade art class we were asked to visualize the world in the
year 2000 (³Die Stadt im Jahre 2000²). I made a drawing that I was fond
of: liquid shaped buildings connected through intertwining tubes, cars
that looked like a combination of 1950s chevies (fueled by rocket
engines) and dragons. In 2000 I looked back and realized that things
more or less looked the same. 

The future, today, is just what it just used to be, to borrow from
"historian of the future," Barbrook.

Trebor Scholz 

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