TG: In your book Shaping Things, you describe climate change as the result of technology pioneers like Edison and Ford. Yet you say the only solution is to press forward with technology and shift to a new type of society.
BS: Not many science-fiction writers write industrial design manifestoes, but I was commissioned by Peter Lunenfeld of Arts Centre College of Design in California, where I was visionary in residence. Why do you want a sci-fi writer in a design school? You want someone who’ll think outside the box. The book talks about a new tech phenomenon with six or seven terms attached: the Internet of Things, Ubiquitous Computation, Everyware, Ambient Findability, Spimes (my term).
My own theory, which has gone into Shaping Things, is the key element is the identity for objects. It’s putting tags on things that allow them to interact with digital networks. That is the key concept around which other things accrue. My goal in this is sustainability. I want us to invent a better way to put our toys away. We are emitting too much junk. Google is good at sorting garbage. We could do something similar if we tagged our garbage, basically, everything we make.
Ideally, we need to tag an object before it exists. We need to tag the blueprints and then the manufactured object. Then, when it’s junk, we need to read it, know where it goes, have it ripped apart and recycled.
TG: Where does the concept of Spimes come from?
BS: Spimes was one of those spontaneous neologisms I came up with at a conference, a contraction of “space” and “time.” The idea is you no longer look at an object as an artefact, but as a process. A modern bottle of wine in one sense does exactly the same as the clay jug and stopper that the ancient Greeks used. On the other hand, it is now mass produced industrial glass, with a machine-applied label containing a barcode and a host of other information, even an associated web page. These invite you to do more than just drink the wine. These innovations link this product into a wider relationship.
Yet the moment the bottle is empty, we make a subtle semantic reclassification and designate it “trash”. The logistics of manufacture and distribution will already have tracked the bottle from factory, to warehouse, to store. But the relationship is not a closed loop. The moment you buy the wine, it’s your responsibility. The onus is on you to recycle it, or it’ll spend eternity in landfill. We really should be thinking about the trajectory all this stuff follows. We are in trouble as a culture because we don’t have a strong idea of where we are in time, and what we might need to do to deserve a future.
Amazon.com, for instance, allows you to study lots of information about physical products (books) without needing to consider the physical artefact itself. Or bookcrossing.com, a site where you can track physical books from reader to reader. Wheresgeorge.com does the same with dollar bills. Spimes are both the physical object and the metadata related to that object. Then, as with Amazon’s reviews, we can start adding correspondence on the nature of objects, creating a forum to discuss all our stuff and what to do with it.
TG: So how do RFID (radio frequency identification) chips relate to this?
BS: To study spimes we need to be able to track them. RFID chips are the next evolutionary step from bar codes. They allow objects to have an identity that can be easily read. They were invented by the Pentagon’s shipping, tracking and logistics agency, and Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, inspired by some work at MIT. Unlike the barcode, which needs to be scanned up-close, you can just ping a whole warehouse, or delivery truck or cargo container, and an RFID scanner will simultaneously detect and log everything in there. You also see them in swipe cards. These tags make it extremely easy to assign identities to objects and connect them to databases.