Christopher Gautam Hota
Dr. Rolf Wigand
IFSC 4350 - eCommerce
3 March 2008
Opinions on the Importance and Realization of Bruce Sterling's "Spime"
“Spime” refers a special kind of object, first envisioned by science-fiction and
cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling in 2004. These objects are, in many ways, the
culmination of six main technologies: radio frequency identification, global positioning
systems, search engines, computer-aided design, digital fabrication, and recycling
Moreover, as Sterling points out in “Dumbing Down Smart Objects,” the object
has to have been designed from the outset to integrate into a world of ubiquitous
A manufactured item may start with a digital blueprint, its specifications and
tolerances available online even before it exists. Automated production and
shipping records provide a detailed history of the materials and procedures
that went into making it. Once it’s off the production line, a global positioning
system can track it in space and time. Social software lets people critique it,
offer advice, and suggest improvements. Ad-hoc networks like Bluetooth
and Wi-Fi keep the item and the people who use it in constant
communications. And if it was designed for disassembly and recycling, the
object can be tracked well beyond the end of its useful life.
Steve Streitmatter, managing director for system design and integration at
FedEx, says “the information about the package is as important as the package itself”
(Brewin, par. 3). In much the same way, Sterling’s 2004 SIGGRAPH keynote implies
that much of a spime’s value will be derived from the information generated by and
about the object:
By making the whole business transparent... [e]veryone who owns a spime
becomes, not a mute purchaser, but a stakeholder. And the closer you get
to it, the more attention it sucks from you. You don’t just use it... I’m
supposed to tell all my friend about it. We’re all supposed to become its
darlings and its cultists, we’re all supposed to help out... We’re not
customers. We’re not consumers. (Par. 65)
This implies that the product’s entire life-cycle—from needs assessment,
interface design, and manufacturing process, through marketing, licensing, distributing,
and sales, to recycling and materials reclamation—be open and participatory. In the
FedEx analogy, it would be the equivalent of letting FedEx users set the postage rate,
schedule planes, hire the personnel, and provide overall direction to the company in a
very direct way.
One example of proto-spime in this social regard is the OpenMoko project.
OpenMoko bills itself as “the world’s first integrated open source mobile
communications platform” (OpenMoko.org). This open-source project—which includes
wiki, bug-tracking system, vertically-integrated blog aggregator with RSS feeds, a free
project-development platform for helping foster OpenMoko software development, and
email lists—is sponsored by Taiwanese electronics manufacturer First International
Computer, Inc. Not too surprisingly, FIC also manufactures the first two phones to
natively support the OpenMoko platform (among others). They sell “around a million
phones a year in China, and are in some places a mobile phone operator” as well as
funding the salaries for the four core project team members for the first year of the
Opinion on the Future Business Case for Open Source
In my opinion, this model of corporate funding of open-source projects follows a
well-established pattern of “consumer-sourcing:” letting the people who will ultimately
consume the product, work on and improve the product. This is, in fact, one of the
cornerstones of the open-source framework. But where the project managers of
yesterday’s open-source projects were lone programmers working as a hobby on the
weekends, the next wave of open sourcing will be by professional programmers and
software engineers, paid to foster community involvement by corporations or software
collectives. Sun, in particular, has embraced the open-source movement, pumping
millions of dollars into the development of OpenOffice/StarOffice, OpenSolaris,
OpenSPARC (another open hardware platform), and MySQL (open-source
It is important to note that this will not be because of any particular benevolence
on the part of these companies. In the end, the data that we provide them will enable
the spime creator to further refine the object. Klinker gives an example of a spime in
the form of a chair. In this video, the chair is destroyed by lightning, “but the arphid
[sic] tag still works.” The consumer dials up a support group of some sort, sends
pictures of the damage from her cellphone, and then is amazed when the company
offers to send a new chair—and pick up the ruined one—at no cost. The rub is, of
course, that the information the consumer provided would be invaluable to the
company, because it represents real-world use of the product and could be useful in
refining production or safety standards of the product. This shows just one way this
smart object can close the feedback circuit between producer and consumer.
Global Positioning and Geographic Information Visualization
I believe that the current rate of interest and development in geographic
information systems and spatiotemporal databases is insufficient to meet the future
demand of “spime-wranglers” who will want to appropriate and mash up the data into a
personalized readout of their personal area network of things, part of the global “Internet
of Things” (Sterling, “Blobjects”). Already this technology is being used.
On a corporate level, a healthcare system recently implemented a system
whereby they can tag physical items and, using the existing Wi-Fi infrastructure, detect
the location of an item within 15 feet. The scale of the system is astounding: 5,000
physical items tagged, in a system covering 1.4 million square feet (“Carolinas
Healthcare”). Another corporate spatiotemporal application has much to offer the fleet
industry: speed alerts continually utilize realtime four-dimensional data to determine the
speed of an object and can provide alerts when limits are exceeded. In the example of
a car, this could be used to notify a parent of a child’s over-exuberance behind the
wheel, or could be used to send data back to a traffic-monitoring and routing
service—maybe even a city-run service that then optimizes the flow of green lights in
response to heavy traffic.
In the consumer space, I discovered MapQuest Find Me, a service consisting of
a partnership between SprintNextel (and their Mobile Virtual Network Operators such as
Boost Mobile) and MapQuest to stream telemetry data, a software application that is
downloaded to the handset, and a website used for advanced interaction.
But this is only the beginning. Ernst & Young predicts that by 2010 there will be
10,000 telemetric devices for every human being on the planet (Gross, par. 3). In
BusinessWeek, Neil Gross explains how the coming global sensor web will merge with
the existing web:
In the next century, planet earth will don an electronic skin. It will use the
Internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its sensations. This skin is
already being stitched together. It consists of millions of embedded
electronic measuring devices: thermostats... pollution detectors, cameras...
glucose sensors, EKGs... These will probe and monitor cities and
endangered species, the atmosphere... highways and fleets of trucks, our
conversations, our bodies—even our dreams. (Gross, par. 2)
Already, organizations are starting to form anticipating the arrival of this new
network: self-publishing standards organizations like the Open GeoSpatial Consortium,
and businesses like AT&T Wireless, who are leveraging their existing 3G data network
for telemetry devices, providing backhaul support to the Internet or other networks.
Government entities, too, have a reason for optimizing for a location-based sensor web
architecture: the applications in homeland security and disaster management being only
two of many such uses.
In the context of Spime, the location-based services of the object could be used
by a sufficiently-advanced computer to answer the question, “where are my shoes” with
the answer, “under the bed.” This requires sensing equipment capable of monitoring
the location of multiple items and also resolving those locations into relative patterns
such as “under” or “next to.”
The location could also provide information on how often items came within
sensing range of other items; for example, how often a pair of Nike’s saw other Nike
shoes, and what the particular model of those shoes were. This could provide
tremendous amounts of information to companies.
Computer-Aided Design and Digital Fabrication
Fabbers.com describes a “fabber” thusly:
A fabber (short for “digital fabricator”) is a “factory in a box” that makes things
automatically from digital data. Fabbers generate three-dimensional, solid
objects you can hold in your hands, submit to testing, or assemble into
working mechanisms (Fabbers.com, “What is a Fabber?” Par. 1).
There is already a homebrew “scene” on the internet; users on the cutting edge
of fabbing who are experimenting and trying to formulate the future of this media, as
well as utilize it for new directions in 3D art (“Flickr Group: Digital Fabrication”).
It looks like fabbing is becoming a reality for more and more people.
Fabbers.com describes a future where there exists a “Napster of Fabbing,” which,
instead of sharing MP3 files to put on portable players, internet denizens share FAB
files for their digital fabricators. It is not currently possible to go to a “3D Kinko’s” and
print off an object. However, and perhaps more suitably, there are internet-based firms
which do just that. Toybuilders.com claims to be the largest custom toymaker in the
world, and will even accept and build plans for non-toy objects, domestically or in Asia
(for orders of 3,000 or more objects).
Spime Reclamation: Hack the Molecule, Fix the Earth
In the initial SIGGRAPH keynote address, Sterling relates the story of Steve
Jobs’ neuroendocrinal pancreatic cancer:
The disturbing substances that are in the body of this captain of your industry,
they should not be in there. They are wasted resources, they are systemic
inefficiencies, they are externalities. We need ways to keep these substances
organized and contained, and, eventually, designed out of the production
system entirely. Steve is sick for physical reasons, for metabolic reasons. We
may not know the exact chain of cause and effect, but there is one; he's not
sick because some dark angel blew on his dice wrong. He has effluent,
byproducts of industry, inside his body.
It is this reason—the health of our species—that drives the development of the
spime idea: “If knowledge was attached to every object in our possession, the objects
that were killing us would vanish quickly” (Sterling, “Blobjects”). He ends the address
with an inspiring call to action to live and produce and consume in a cleaner way. He
also bemoans the fact that none alive today will be alive to see this realized dream, and
that the people who have it will take it for granted because it will be such an integral part
of their society.
I have to agree with Mr. Sterling: it is time for the collective mind behind the
information revolution to devote some of its talent and skill to solving the problems of
earth’s environment. It is the only way we will be able to stop living reactively and start
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“Bruce Sterling.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 12 Feb 2008. Wikimedia
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“Carolinas HealthCare Launches Huge RTLS System.” RFID Update: The RFID
Industry Daily. 9 October 2007 [http://www.rfidupdate.com/articles/?id=1462].
Doctorow, Cory. "Bruce Sterling’s design future manifesto: viva spime!" Weblog
Entry. BoingBoing. 26 October 2005. 15 February 2008
“FIC.” OpenMoko Wiki. 22 August 2007. OpenMoko, Inc. 20 February 2008
“Flickr Group: Digital Fabrication.” Flickr.
Godwin, Mike. “Cybergreen: Bruce Sterling on media, design, fiction, and the future.”
Reason Magazine (January 2004).
Gross, Neil. “The earth will don an electronic skin.” BusinessWeek Online (30 August
jet. "On the Path to a Spime-Full Future." Weblog Entry. All Art Burns. 29 April
2006. 15 February 2008 [http://www.allartburns.org/2006/04/29/proto-spimes/].
Klinker, Scott and Sterling, Bruce. “The Spime Arrives.” Piemonte Share Festival
Sharecast Archive. 30 September 2007 [http://www.toshare.it/spime/].
Openmoko.org Portal Site. OpenMoko, Inc. 15 February 2008
Sterling, Bruce. “Dumbing Down Smart Objects.” Wired Magazine. No. 12.10
--. "When Blobjects Rule the Earth" Keynote. SIGGRAPH 2004. LA Convention
Center (West Hall B), Los Angeles. 9 August 2004.
Tao, Vincent. “The Smart Sensor Web: A Revolutionary Leap in Earth Observation.”
GeoWorld (September 2003).
“What is a Fabber? An Introduction to the 21st Century.” Fabbers.com: Your Digital
Fabrication Portal. Ennex Corporation.