[iDC] The "electricity" of near future participation (p2)

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Thu Sep 14 16:48:25 EDT 2006

For science fiction writer Bruce Sterling The Internet of Things is
about the distant future, which he does not see dominated by slick
networked "everyware" objects as Adam Greenfield calls them. 
Sterling does not believe that networked objects will be everywhere. The
future for him is not all about ubiquitous computing. And that's not
just because the word is too long and hard to spell but it has to do
with the technology being all too clumsy. 

Instead, Sterling lights up over cheap everyday objects that are
traceable in space and time, objects with unique identity (SPIME). His
vision is all about searchability. These <hype> spime </hype> objects
begin and end as virtual data. They are virtual objects first and
physical things second. His hope is that in the age of the The Internet
of Things, three decades from now, we will be able to relate deeper to
objects. This is not a call for a renaissance of objects/things. It does
not signal that "Things" are the new "Internet." It also does not
indicate that the net failed.    

Flagr, bookmark the real world and share cool places from online or
right from your mobile phone! 


It simply means that we can engage with objects in more complex ways.
From the moment of their invention to their doomsday of decay we could
sort, trace, and search objects. It's 6 am and you don't know where your
shoes are? Just google them. The Wall Street Journal talks of the Google
Economy. Now add the ability to find out everything about the objects in
our material world to this search power. When where they fabricated?
Where did they move? Which objects did they encounter? 

With Semapedia you can connect Wikipedia knowledge with relevant places
in physical space.


Link the frame of the photograph on your wall to the Internet and ask it
where it was built, where the tree came from and who designed it, how
much the workers were paid to manufacture it. Or, do you need a new
mattress because you got bed bugs (like so many people in Manhattan
right now). If you could Google all new thermopedic mattresses in your
vicinity you could call up their owner and ask if they are for sale.
It's CHEney¹s dream of Craigslist on steroids. 

BookMooch is a community for exchanging used books. It lets you give
away books you no longer need in exchange for books you really want. 

Sterling wants to outsource his brain. The best thing about the Internet
of Things is that I no longer need to inventory my possessions in my
head, he says. They are automated through an 'auto-magical inventory
voodoo' of machines, which work down far beneath my notice. I don't need
to remember things about things any longer, what something costs or
where it is located. Objects become 'auto-googleable.' Things just sit
there and 'ordinate' (from the French word for computer: ordinator). The
Internet of Things sorts, ranks, and shuffles these things and we get at
ease with them, we just ask them what we need to know about them.  

SynapseLife is an online life manager.


All this object mining and love for the object hyperlink (or: "thing
link") is of course a dream scenario for any authoritarian regime that
wants to control its citizen and their objects. (Remember the Stasi
smell archives?)   

Sterling has no problem admitting to that: The Internet of Things would
be great to run a concentration camp, he says in an interview with
RocketBoom: "You can't have the good without the bad." Perhaps the
advantages of networked objects would far outweigh the horrible
horribleness of the surveillance that would doom on us. 

Spy Chips: Russian charges against UK secret service 


When I first listened to the venerable cyberpunk Sterling I was totally
sold. He is a fantastically charismatic, superbly witty and quirky
speaker without ivy snobbiness but with a justified skepticism of
academia and an air of anti-status-quo oppositionality. Poster child of
the early Wired magazine, he is now blogging on their turf. You just
want to believe him (or write him a check) after listening for a while.
His technological projections are informed by the current-day realities
in the inventor's lab, his metaphors are sharp, his language is a joy.
His emphasis on language reaches beyond creating a new secret code for
the techno-priesthood. He wants to find trackable word containers for
new concepts that can be communicated to newbies in the field. 

But there must be a way to add to his visions of the future. Sterling
opens up some of Al Gore¹s concerns (i.e. ability for reuse, eco-aware
tracking of fabrication history of a shoe). 

Let¹s add 360 degree awareness to Sterling's techno-snapshot of the
future. What does The Internet of Things do about the AIDS crisis,
unemployment, wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, __, minimum wages, and  47
million U.S. citizens without health insurance? Just look at the stark
economic differences in Mexico or Brazil. The poor and ridiculously
oppressed in these countries will kick out the fat bastards who keep
people in such conditions! What do philosophers of The Internet of
Things have to say about ­ that --? 

In addition, The Internet of Things is merely one more piece in the
puzzle of Howard Rheingold¹s sketch of the landscape of Technologies for
Cooperation; the concept of The Internet of Things does no more (and no
less) than adding another component to this picture.  

What does really matter about the future? Is the ecology of a thing,
like a shoe, all we can come up with? How realistic is it to think of
networked objects sneaking into refugee camps to report human rights
abuses? How could networked objects make us understand that mutual aid
gets us further than any "killer app"? How we can we reach beyond the
usual corporate drill of optimizing things for higher efficiency? How
can the Internet of Things make life more spontaneous, disordered (!),
unpredictable and emotionally rich? How can we learn to collaborate and
dump social Darwinism for Free Cooperation?  

These questions don't have the bitter California ideology aftertaste
that I get from Sterling. They don¹t sound like the semiotically trained
techno-insurgence (with a good sense for commerce) and these questions
are not sexy or punkish at all. These questions don't pump semiotic
adrenaline into your veins.

I'm certainly not asking for any one-fits-all answer to these
humanitarian problems: technology will not be our savior; I don't expect
it to be. However, I deeply wish that technological insight could be
coupled with social vision that goes beyond the recycling of shoes. 

For the Architecture and Situated Technologies symposium I hope that we
can start to squat the techno-social imaginary of tomorrow¹s tomorrow in
this field before American ³values² like convenience,
efficiency/optimization, surveillance in the name of liberty and
competition dominate these discourses completely. 

Trebor Scholz

[correction for part 1: The telgraph networks of Europe and North
America were first connected in 1858. (thanks Charlie)]

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