Behold the “spime”: a new way of thinking about objects that presents them as immortal, evolving data rather than just physical, disposable stuff. It’s an idea that could help save the world. We go in search of the meaning of spimes, with a little help from their creator, Bruce Sterling.
I’m supposed to be talking to Bruce Sterling about spimes but all I can think about is the stuff in my apartment. There’s mounds of it. I’ve been meaning to organise it since I moved, but I haven’t had time and things are piling up. This has a lot to do with how things accumulate if you aren’t careful.
Sterling might also be a little distracted. He’s in Austin, and Texas is currently on fire. “It hasn’t rained seriously here in central Texas for about a year,” he tells me. “Everything is flammable; we’ve got fire indexes that are off the scale.” This has a lot to do with the changing climate.
Both of our situations have a lot to do with the future of design.
In 2005, Sterling wrote a book called Shaping Things. It begins like this: “To Whom is Ought to Concern: This book is about created objects and the environment, which is to say, it’s a book about everything. Seen from a sufficient distance, this is a small topic.”
Shaping Things is a manifesto for a different kind of sustainability, written partially in opposition to an environmentalist approach that Sterling calls “hairshirt green”. The book is organised around spimes, a neologism that Sterling invented especially for the occasion. “The idea about spimes is that the killer app of ubiquitous computing is sustainability,” Sterling says. “Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. There’s nothing fated there, I’m just pointing out in this book that it might be.”
Spimes are a hypothetical future designed entity, consisting primarily of data. They may be instantiated as an object from time to time, but physical things are never their native form. You can catch a glimpse of what that might be like in the way modern offices deal with documents.
Documents used to be precious. Scrolls were jealously guarded by monks and scholars. Valuable tomes were literally chained to desks. Today, recycling bins sit near most desks, ready to accept reams of crumpled paper. These lost libraries aren’t mourned. The real action is on the computer. A document opened in a word processor is more real than its temporary physical instantiation. The fall of the physical document coincides with the rise of composition and layout software, paired with inexpensive printing hardware.
The pitch for spimes is that the forces that dethroned the scroll are coming for objects. Contemporary rapid prototyping tools still aren’t very good, but neither were dot-matrix printers. They got better. Desktop fabrication is getting cheaper and more capable on a monthly basis. The falling transistor prices that make powerhouse laptops affordable are making simple sensors and chips so cheap that you buy them by weight. These, in turn, enable powerful locative applications and the successors to UPC. This opens up the possibility that every object ever made will have a unique addressable identity. Meanwhile, mobile computing is rapidly becoming ubiquitous.
How rapidly? “Fast enough to blow up Hewlett Packard and Nokia in a matter of months,” Sterling says. “Fast enough that the mobile space is a bloodbath. It’s a whirlpool of creative destruction.”
Sterling specifies six things that must exist for there to be spimes.
One: Small, cheap unique identification systems, along with the infrastructure to read it, something like RFID.
Two: A way of precisely locating the object on earth, such as GPS.
Three: Search functionality that gives a front end to the enormous amounts of data that the object is constantly collecting.
Four: Some kind of CAD tool or tools that allow objects to be easily created and manipulated.
Five: Robust fabrication/rapid prototyping to quickly create physical versions of the digital object.
Six: Material that is easy to work withand highly transformable that can be cheaply returned to the production process as raw material when the object it was briefly is no longer wanted.
We live in a material culture that exceeds in the mass production and distribution of objects. Logistic systems have globalised the effort. Factories have been smeared across the planet. Logistics people have had to become very good at tracking objects from component factory, to assembly, to warehouse, to retail point of sale.
Then, the strangest thing happens. Suddenly, the object disappears. Aside from brief blips of information if a user bothers to send in the registration card or file a warranty claim, the object is gone, only to reappear as part of a pile of undifferentiated stuff being dumped into a landfill. In this milieu, the discipline of design has thrived, though its focus has always been about the production of things, not the disposal. “We’ve never come to terms with the garbage,” Sterling says. “Capitalism never gets it about entropy.”
Let’s return to my apartment for a moment. It’s full of stuff, probably thousands of objects, and I’m barely even sure of what’s there. This is a stressful situation. I need to do something about it and clear all of that junk out. I can’t do this blindly; I need to spend time sorting through it all and making decisions about what to keep, what to toss, what to recycle, and what to give away. I sure hope whatever these objects are, they were worth it when I got them, because they have filled my space and are now robbing me of time.
Meanwhile, my laptop knows with great precision the exact location of every file and folder on its hard drive. It’s barbaric that my house doesn’t have a similar inventory of its contents. How can we have cradle to grave (or cradle to cradle) design if we don’t know where an object is for most of its life cycle? We can’t. It’s a bad joke.
The stuff in my room has only the most rudimentary identity. It is mute matter, imposing itself on me and my loved ones. Instead, imagine if it was as thoroughly knowable as a file on my disk drive. I wouldn’t need to sort through all that stuff because a catalogue would be generating entries automatically in real time. Decision-making could be streamlined by any number of apps (instead of Diskcleanup, Deskcleanup). Objects could alert me when it was time to get ridof them.
Spimes are what happens when the logic of networked data finishes colonising the physical environment. A society with spimes in it has transformed the means of production, design, distribution, maintenance, and disposal in a radical way.
As physical objects become close to trivially easy to create, we should expect their value to trend towards zero. Design in a spime-laden world is less about the care and feeding of physical objects and more about a relationship with time. Time is always in short supply, and a well-designed spime is something that will buy you more.
As long as we’re considering the question of time, let’s turn our attention to Sterling’s problem, an inferno-causing drought that almost certainly has its roots in the changing climate. Any system of production that increases the likelihood of climatological disaster is terribly designed from a time-conscious perspective.
Yet, the implication of physical objects demoted to the same status as printouts is an increase in disposability and faster turn around time to obsolescence. Given that every cycle of product iteration means new exploitation of the environment, this seems like a perilous situation. The insight of Shaping Things is that this can be a feature, not a bug.
“There’s a Dieter Rams style of timeless design for very time-limited objects,” says Sterling. “There are many design critics who are very keen on that and I was trying to refute it. Why don’t we go into a space where we get rid of things as quickly as possible? We can regard them as printouts and that’s OK. As long as they’re made of the same stuff, torn apart, and folded into the front of the production stream it doesn’t matter how fast those cycles run.”
The only way this works in the long run is if the stuff getting manufactured is as easy to dispose of as it is to make, and if we can stop spewing carbon into the air over the course of its lifecycle. The material responsible for the physical manifestation of spimes should be highly versatile when in use and yet easily mulched and converted back to raw material for the manufacture of new spimes. “We haven’t found a material like this yet, but we haven’t had much need for one either,” Sterling says.
“The missing part is the garbage at the end of the trail. Nobody wants to go there because nobody’s figured out how to make it pay.”
As a species, we do not have a great track record here. Sterling describes the first quarries, where neolithic early humans shaped rocks into tools. The grounds are now archaeological digs, littered with unusable flakes of stone, some still sharp enough to slice your hand, 200,000 years later. We’ve been leaving behind hazardous waste since the start.