Opinion on the Realization of Bruce Sterlings Spime

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Opinion on the Realization of Bruce Sterlings Spime Powered By Docstoc
					Christopher Gautam Hota

Dr. Rolf Wigand

IFSC 4350 - eCommerce

3 March 2008

         Opinions on the Importance and Realization of Bruce Sterling's "Spime"

Smart Objects

       “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)

Participatory Life-Cycle

       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” ( 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

project (FIC).

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 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 (, “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. 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. 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
living proactively.
                                        Works Cited

Brewin, Bob and Rosencrance, Linda. “Follow That Package!” Computerworld. 19

       March 2001 [].

“Bruce Sterling.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 12 Feb 2008. Wikimedia

       Foundation, Inc. 15 Feb 2008 [].

“Carolinas HealthCare Launches Huge RTLS System.” RFID Update: The RFID

       Industry Daily. 9 October 2007 [].

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

       1999) [].

jet. "On the Path to a Spime-Full Future." Weblog Entry. All Art Burns. 29 April

       2006. 15 February 2008 [].

Klinker, Scott and Sterling, Bruce. “The Spime Arrives.” Piemonte Share Festival

       Sharecast Archive. 30 September 2007 []. Portal Site. OpenMoko, Inc. 15 February 2008


Sterling, Bruce. “Dumbing Down Smart Objects.” Wired Magazine. No. 12.10

      (October 2004).

--. "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.” Your Digital

      Fabrication Portal. Ennex Corporation.


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