OVERVIEW

Bruce Sterling is larger than life at SIGGRAPH.
--photo by danah boyd

Keyed to the future

Bruce Sterling, one of the founders of the cyberpunk movement of the 80’s and the author of nine novels including the The Difference Engine that he co-wrote with William Gibson, gave the keynote at SIGGRAPH’04. He is one of those guys who had been everywhere and done everything. From writing for Wired magazine to founding a conservation movement. His speech was filled with his trademark sarcasm, jibes, raves and rants about technology and the need for environmental conservation.

Sterling observed that a new relationship is evolving between humans and objects. He classified objects based on who were its intended users. Objects started off as artifacts, used by hunter-gatherers. Then came the machines that were used by an industrializing society and “customers”. Then there were products used by the “consumer” and the military-industry complex. We now live in the world of gizmos. Gizmos are delicately poised between simplicity and chaos. With gizmos, there are only end-users. Gizmos are devices that attempt to be everything at the same time. They can go from being a dessert topping to a floor wax with a flip of a button. They are open ended tech projects. Products are commodities. Why settle on a 7% rate of returns on commodities when the whole human race can be co-opted as willing participants in an un-paid work program for gizmo producing corporates?

The future, Sterling said, is already here, it is just not well distributed. The “future” right now is like another country or culture. The future of objects are “spimes”. Spimes are precisely located in space and time. They are auto-googling physical objects that are stalls in a product system. They are user groups first and objects second. Humans will become “spime wranglers”. When you buy a spime, it sets up an email account to which everything from its present blue-book value to irresistible offers for the next version of the spime will be sent. There will be “spime spam”. Entropy, after all, needs no maintenance.

Is the “spime world” really that hopeless? Sterling pointed out the most important positive outcome of spimes to be “spime management”. Spimes can automatically inform its user about when/how/where it should be recycled… into another spime. Sterling stressed the need for managing the objects that we manufacture. We need to track it from the days of its digital birth to the day it is discarded for recycling. Our bloodstreams have become dumping grounds for chemicals that we create. He rankled the graphics community by referring to Job’s pancreatic cancer. We need to treat conservation as an immediate priority.

In the late ’90s, Sterling launched the Viridian Greens movement. It focuses on how industrial design could be used to respond to global climate change. "Our society runs on fossil fuel," he wrote in an early manifesto. "We have a substance-abuse problem with carbon dioxide.” We have the technology today to make cars that give off water as exhaust and build industries that improve the environment instead of turning it into a dumping ground. 

Some might feel that Sterling’s keynote was no more than a goofy, leftist rambling. However, without the balancing counterview provided by futurists and visionaries like him, we would have started drilling in Alaska thirty years ago.

 

 

 

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Last updated 8/10/04.

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Live coverage of SIGGRAPH made possible by the generous loan of of Cybershot digital cameras from SONY, and laptop computers from NCSA.