When Blobjects Rule the Earth

by Bruce Sterling

SIGGRAPH, Los Angeles, August 2004

 

The last speech at an awards ceremony can't be too short.

I'm Bruce Sterling, I'm a science fiction writer. I write novels. This
is the first time I've ever been to SIGGRAPH. I always wanted to go.

My closet is full of old SIGGRAPH demo tapes. They're on VHS. I like to
haul them out and play them for people at house parties. These are
romantic icons of a lost world, these antique SIGGRAPH demo reels.

I love them for their precious, irreproducible qualities. These tapes
are slices in space and time that cannot be recaptured. It is literally
impossible to do computer graphics that badly any more. No more cheesy
teapots, no more amazingly bad digital hair and fur treatments, no no,
it's all about the "Stanford Bunny" now, Triceratops, Chinese
dragons.... when once upon a time a chess pawn was a big volumetric deal!

You might think, now that Hollywood slums around your gig, and even
novelists show up, and Pixar drags Disney around by its big financial
nose, that there were no new worlds to conquer for SIGGRAPH. But there's
one world that you direly need to conquer anyway. Even if hobbits win
Oscars by the bushel full.

Having conquered the world made of bits, you need to reform the world
made of atoms. Not the simulated image on the screen, but corporeal,
physical reality. Not meshes and splines, but big hefty skull-crackingly
solid things that you can pick up and throw. That's the world that needs
conquering. Because that world can't manage on its own. It is not
sustainable, it has no future, and it needs one.

It is going to get one from you.

Now let me briefly tell you how I think this process will play out.

Listen to this: ProE, FormZ, Catia, Rhino, Solidworks. Wifi, bluetooth,
WiMax. Radio frequency ID chips. Global and local positioning systems.
Digital inventory systems. Cradle-to-cradle production methods. Design
for disassembly. Social software, customer relations management. Open
source manufacturing.

These jigsaw pieces are snapping together. They create a picture, the
picture of a new and different kind of physicality. It's a new
relationship between humans and objects.

If you can bear with me a while today, and kind of oil and loosen the
joints of your incredulity, I'm gonna suspend some disbelief for you here.

You see, the future is already here, it's just not well distributed yet.

The future does feature some brand-new stuff that was technically
impossible before, but, more importantly, the future has a different
take on matters that are already here. There's a change of emphasis. The
future is like another culture, another country. We have to come to
terms with the future's language.

So what's a Blobject? And why might they rule the Earth?

Since I write about design quite a lot, sometimes people think I made up
that word, "blobject". If you Google it, my name pops right up, but I
didn't coin the term. A famous industrial designer named Karim Rashid
made it up, and he wrote about it in a book aptly called "I Want to
Change the World." A good book, very educational, you should buy it and
read it. I did. Karim's not kidding.

A Blobject is commonly defined as "an object with a curvilinear, flowing
design, such as the Apple iMac computer and the Volkswagen Beetle." But
computers and cars are just end products, they're not the process. The
truth about a blobject is that is a physical object that has suffered a
remake through computer graphics. It was designed on a screen with a
graphics program. A blobject is what a standard 20th century industrial
product, a consumer item, looks like after your crowd has beaten it into
shape with a mouse.

Blobjects are blob-shaped objects, because of NURBS and meshes and
splines and injection molding and CAD-CAM. They're highly curvilinear
consumer items designed on workstations, and then they're generally
blasted into being in a burst of injection-molded goo.

Blobjects are the period objects of our time. They are the physical
products that the digital revolution brought to the consumer shelf.

Blobjects were impossible until the early 1990s. Then they got cheap.
Nowadays they're commodities. Our contemporary world is absolutely
littered with these things, these blobjects. Blobjects are so entirely
common now that they are passe' and showing their age. I'm wearing three
blobjects right now, and I've got two more stuffed in my pockets. Not
that you need to notice. You can offshore a blobject in distant Taiwan
for a seven percent return on investment. Blobjects have become the
cheap and easy way to make stuff. Blobjects are as common as dirt.

But they haven't started ruling the Earth yet. Because they're still too
primitive. They're not sustainable, so they're merely optimizing the
previous system. They are a varnish on barbarism.

So now you know what a blobject is, if you didn't already. Now I'm going
to lean way back at the podium, and really wave my big visionary
futurist hands here, and invoke the full grandeur of my vision:
Blobjects, Ruling the Earth. Not just littering it: ruling it. This is
an imperial paradigm, a grandiose myth, a historical thesis, a
weltanschauung and a grand schemata.

So this will require me to get kind of cosmic on you here. But this is
California. The Governor here is a cyborg. You remember that movie where
Schwarzenegger was a cyborg robot, with big shotguns, and he beat up a
blobject? That big, formless, digital, silvery, supervillain guy?
Somebody in your enterprise made a lot of money from faking up that big
silvery guy and putting him on a movie screen. That was some
SIGGRAPH-style industry dude hard at work there, making that silvery
blobject guy in TERMINATOR 3. And now that actor, Arnold, he is signing
the state budget of California.

The things I'm about to tell you, they may sound mindblowing, but
they're a lot more plausible than California politics.

In my grand vision, there's a history of the relationship of objects and
human beings. It goes like this. Up to the present day, during previous
history, we humans have had. and made, four different classes of
possible objects. These classes of objects are called, in order of their
historical appearance, Artifacts, Machines, Products, and Gizmos.

The lines between Artifacts, Machines, Products and Gizmos aren't
mechanical. They're historical. The differences between them are found
in the material cultures they make possible. The kind of society they
produce, and the kind of human being that is necessary to make them and
use them.

Artifacts are made and used by hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers.

Machines are made and used by customers. in an industrial society.

Products are made and used by consumers, in a military-industrial complex.

While Gizmos are made and used by end-users, in whatever today is == a
"New World Disorder," a "Terrorism-Entertainment Complex," our own brief
interregnum.

Blobjects tend to be a subset of the class of Gizmos. Not all blobjects
are Gizmos, but most gizmos have insane amounts of functionality in
them, and they are designed on computers.

If you're the kind of guy or gal who attends SIGGRAPH, then you are best
described as an end-user of Gizmos. You're not here just to shop, to buy
stuff in styrofoam blocks. You come here to participate in your
industry. Your parents were consumers, back in the 1960s. But you are
here to add value and advance the state of the art, so you are some kind
of participant. Not a consumer. An end-user. An end-user is the
historically evolved version of a consumer.

A Gizmo is not manufacturable by any centrally planned society. A Gizmo
is something like a Product, but instead of behaving predictably and
sensibly for a mass market of obedient consumers, a Gizmo is an
open-ended tech development project.

In a Gizmo, development has been deputized to end-users.

End-Users, who are people like practically everybody in this audience,
do a great deal of unpaid pro bono work in developing Gizmos. The true
signs of a Gizmo are that it has a short lifespan and more functionality
crammed into it than you will ever use or understand. A Gizmo is like a
Product that has swallowed a big chunk of the previous society, and
contains that within the help center and the instruction manual.

A Gizmo, unlike a Machine or a Product, is not efficient. A Gizmo has
bizarre, baroque, and even crazy amounts of functionality. This Treo
that I'm carrying here, this is a classic Gizmo: It's a cellphone, a web
browser, an SMS platform, an MMS platform, a really bad camera, and an
abysmal typewriter, plus a notepad, a sketchpad, a calendar, a diary, a
clock, a music player, and an education system with its own onboard
tutorial that nobody ever reads. Plus I can plug extra, even more
complicated stuff into it, if I take a notion. It's not a Machine or a
Product, because it's not a stand-alone device. It is a platform, a
playground for other developers. It's a dessert topping, and it's a
floor wax.

Now, I could redesign this Gizmo to make it into a simple Product.

But then this Gizmo would become a commodity. There would be little
profit in that; in an end-user society like ours, Products come in
bubblepak or shrinkwrap in big heaps, like pencils. There is no money in
them.

So there are good reasons why a Gizmo is almost impossible to use.

It's because a Gizmo is delicately poised between commodity and chaos.

It is trying to cram as much impossible complexity as it can, into an
almost usable state. It is leaning forward into the future.

This is what our society does for a living now. This is what you do here
at SIGGRAPH. You use Gizmos to eat complexity, and you try to sell it at
a premium. A Gizmo Society of End Users is always pressed up hard
against the limits of the usable. That's why rendering time always takes
almost too long, no matter how much RAM or ROM you've got.

This is not an oversight, this is an inherent part of our contemporary
civilization. A Gizmo is the classic form of our society's material
culture at this point in time.

That's how it is, and we need to accept that. This is the apotheosis,
the crystallization, of what we are up to right now. But that is not the
end of the story. Because the next stage is coming on fast.

The next stage is an object that does not exist yet. It needs a noun, so
that we can think about it. We can call it a "Spime," which is a
neologism for an imaginary object that is still speculative. A Spime
also has a kind of person who makes it and uses it, and that kind of
person is somebody called a "Wrangler." At the moment, you are end-using
Gizmos. My thesis here, my prophesy to you, is that, pretty soon, you
will be wrangling Spimes.

The most important thing to know about Spimes is that they are precisely
located in space and time. They have histories. They are recorded,
tracked, inventoried, and always associated with a story.

Spimes have identities, they are protagonists of a documented process.

They are searchable, like Google. You can think of Spimes as being
auto-Googling objects.

So what would it be like to encounter a spime in your future real life?
How if you know if you stumbled over one in the street? Scott Klinker, a
teacher at the Cranbrook design school, envisions it as something like this:

Scenario: You buy a Spime with a credit card. Your account info is
embedded in the transaction, including a special email address set up
for your Spimes. After the purchase, a link is sent to you with customer
support, relevant product data, history of ownership, geographies,
manufacturing origins, ingredients, recipes for customization, and
bluebook value. The spime is able to update its data in your database
(via radio-frequency ID), to inform you of required service calls, with
appropriate links to service centers. This removes guesswork and
streamlines recycling.

Today, most consumers know little or nothing about their possessions.
They might know the brand, because brand awareness has been forced on
them for years, at great expense, by massive product advertising. A
Spime, by contrast, is an object that can link to and swiftly reveal
most everything about itself. It might as well do this, since Google is
perfectly capable of telling you everything anyway.

Managing that becomes a competitive advantage for spime makers. A true
Spime is going to get ahead of the curve by bringing you inside the tent
of the designers and developers and engineers, and the sales and
marketing people. A true Spime creates spime wranglers.

Wranglers are the class of people willing to hassle with Spimes.

And it is a hassle. An enormous hassle. But its a fruitful hassle.

It is the work of progress. Handled correctly, it can undo the harm of
the past and enhance what is to come.

The people who make Spimes want you to do as much of the work for them
as possible. They can data-mine your uses of the spime, and use that to
improve their Spime and gain market share. This would have been called
"customer relations management," in an earlier era, but in a Spime
world, it's more intimate. It's collaborative, and better understood as
something like open-source manufacturing. It's all about excellence.
Passion. Integrity. Cross-disciplinary action. And volunteerism.

When you shop for Amazon, you're already adding value to everything you
look at on an Amazon screen. You don't get paid for it, but your
shopping is unpaid work for them. Imagine this blown to huge proportions
and attached to all your physical possessions. Whenever you use a spime,
you're rubbing up against everybody else who has that same kind of
spime. A spime is a users group first, and a physical object second.

I know that this sounds insanely complex, because it is. The reason this
is necessary is a simple one. The reason is the passage of time. Entropy
requires no maintenance. Artifacts, Machines, Products, Gizmos, they all
die. The material objects that we human beings use and make, they wear
out, get consumed, and get thrown away. Unfortunately, this process is
reaching limits and is doing us serious harm. We're getting permeated by
trash.

We are filling the atmosphere, and the seas, and the surface of the
planet, and our own bodies, with our industrial emissions and our dead
junk. In a world with 6.3 billion people, trending toward 10 billion,
there is no "Away" left in which we can throw our dead objects. Our
material culture is not sustainable. Its resources are not renewable. We
cannot turn our entire planet's crust into obsolete objects. We need to
locate valuable objects that are dead, and fold them back into the
product stream. In order to do this, we need to know where they are, and
what happened to them. We need to document the life cycles of objects.
We need to know where to take them when they are defunct.

In practice, this is going to mean tagging and historicizing everything.
Once we tag many things, we will find that there is no good place to
stop tagging.

In the future, an object's life begins on a graphics screen. It is born
digital. Its design specs accompany it throughout its life. It is
inseparable from that original digital blueprint, which rules the
material world. This object is going to tell you -- if you ask --
everything that an expert would tell you about it. Because it WANTS you
to become an expert. If you become an expert in wrangling that object,
then, just like the gurus of SIGGRAPH, you will contribute to the
advancement of the industry. The object will evolve faster, the industry
will evolve faster. It's like a SIGGRAPH that never ends.

So -- as long as you could keep your eyes open -- you would be able to
swiftly understand: where it was, when you got it, how much it cost, who
made it, what it was made of, where those resources came from, what a
better model looked like, what a cheaper model looked like, who to thank
for making it, who to complain to about its inadequacies, what previous
kinds of Spime used to look like, why this Spime is better than earlier
ones, what people think the Spime of Tomorrow might look like, what you
could do to help that happen, the history of the Spime's ownership, what
it had been used for, where and when it was used, what other people who
own this kind of Spime think about it, how other people more or less
like you have altered or fancied-up or modified their Spime, what most
people use Spimes for, the entire range of unorthodox uses of Spimes by
the world's most extreme Spime geek fandom, and how much your Spime is
worth on an auction site. And especially -- absolutely critically
-- where to get rid of it safely.

That is the reality that already underlies all manufactured objects. An
event like SIGGRAPH will tell you those things already, only in slow
motion. A Spime is today's entire industrial process, made explicit.
That is the whole shebang, explicitly tied to the object itself. A Spime
is an object that ate and internalized the previous industrial order.

Some of this information might be contained inside the Spime, and some
of it might be conjured up on the Web by, say, a barcode or an RFID chip
-- but in practice, you wouldn't notice the difference.

The upshot is that the object's nature has become transparent. It is an
opened object.

In a world with this kind of object, you care little about the object
per se; that physical object is just a material billboard for tomorrow's
vast, digital, interactive, postindustrial support system. This is where
people like you, your evolved successors, rule the earth. This is a
world where the Web has ceased to be a varnish on barbarism, and where
the world is now varnish all the way down.

By making the whole business transparent, a host of social ills and
dazzling possibilities are exposed to the public gaze. Everyone 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, any more than I can pick up this Treo and just make a simple phone
call. This device wants to haul me into the operating system; I'm
supposed to tell all my friends about it. We're all supposed to become
its darlings and its cultists, we're all supposed to help out. Sometimes
we do that willingly, sometimes we just fight for breath. We're not
customers. We're not consumers. And with spimes, we're not even
end-users. We spend our time wrangling with the real problems and
opportunities of material culture. We're wranglers.

We're wrangling spimes for a living. More than that, it's a reason to
be. It's like networking. Networking is another word for not-working.
But boy, we sure have to do a lot of it.

This is not a vision of utopia. This is a historical thesis. Like all
previous history it is fraught with titanic struggle. We are facing a
future world infested with digital programmability. A world where our
structures and possessions include, as a matter of course, locaters,
timers, identities, histories, origins, and destinations: sensing,
logic, actuation, and displays. Loops within loops. Cycles within cycles.

Are there dark sides to this vision? Oh yes indeed. Genuine menaces. You
can see them right now in a website like stoprfid.org, a site I
recommend highly. Spiming is an ideal technology for concentration
camps, authoritarian regimes, and prisons.

We'll have to wrangle with:
* spime spam, pushiness, abuse of customers, intrusion
* spying and eavesdropping capabilities
* brooms that bellow ads, mops that demand money
* subtle software faults that make even a simple shovel unusable
* unstable software
* security flaws, hacking, theft, fraud, malware, vandalism and pranking
* identity theft
* Industrial hazards: spime kitchens that fry the unwary, spime cars
that follow outdated software maps and drive right off broken bridges
* technological lock-in, wicked monopolists, corrupt regimes in on the
take *Intellectual property hassles
* Organized spime crime
* unpredictable and emergent forms of networked behavior from clouds of
objects *bad interface design
* underclasses of illegals not allowed to use spimes
* legal, ethical and social responsibilities for semi-autonomous objects
* objects that used to be inert, and are now expensive, fussy, fragile
unpredictable, too fluid, hopelessly complex, and subversive of
established values
* And just plain ugliness: tacky, goofy, tasteless, cheesy, lethal,
vulgar, dirty, worthless, obscene, impractical, and dangerous spimes.

And that list is by no means complete. That is a lot of work. That is
more than enough work for ten billion people. Spimes are coming anyway,
because every one of those menaces is also some kind of opportunity.
Spimes will change everything, because everything needs to change.
Things need to change quickly and radically, because the industrial
system we have today cannot persist. It cannot find enough energy and
raw materials. Instead of moving forward, our civilization is
surrounding the oil wells with fixed bayonets and settling into a
smog-shrouded Dark Age.

The shape of things today is condemning our world to steadily increasing
poverty, degradation, and turmoil. Four planets couldn't supply the
material and energy to let the world live the so-called advanced world
lives now.

We're pretty advanced, but we're nowhere near advanced enough.

This may sound a bit alarmist and theoretical, so let me phrase it to
you in a way that holds your own feet to the fire. Steve Jobs is a
pioneer of personal computing and the head of Pixar. Apple is the
biggest vendor here. It's hard to get any more SIGGRAPH than Steve Jobs.
Steve Jobs has neuroendocrinal pancreatic cancer. That's because, like
everybody else in the world, like you and like me, Steve Jobs is
carrying a load of carcinogens in his flesh. Silicon Valley, as an
industrial clean-up site, is rather well known for its mutagens.

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 chains 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's painful. But we need to understand that our bloodstreams are our
dumping grounds. So are our lungs and our livers. If we could visualize
that, if we knew and could prove what had gone wrong inside of
ourselves, if we could put a digital medical imaging screen on our
bellies, our lungs and our livers, and make those invisible problems
visible, then everything would become different. If that knowledge was
attached to every object in our possession, the objects that were
killing us would vanish quickly.

That wouldn't be easy to do. But in the year 2004 it is no longer
unimaginable. It could be done.

It's possible to live in a cleaner way. We live in debris and detritus
because of our ignorance. That ignorance is no longer technically
necessary. Those who know, know. Instead, our problem is becoming
obscurantism, which is a deliberate hiding of the facts by vested
interests who know they are injuring us. Such acts of evil must be
combated. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Wanting to know, wanting to do it, that's half the struggle right there.
Our capacities are tremendous. Eventually, it is within our technical
ability to create factories that clean the air as they work, cars that
give off drinkable water, industry that creates parks instead of dumps,
or even monitoring systems that allow nature to thrive in our cities,
neighborhoods, lawns and homes. An industry that is not just
"sustainable," but enhances the world. The natural world should be
better for our efforts and our ingenuity. It's not too much to ask.

You and I will never live to see a future world with those advanced
characteristics. The people who will be living in it will pretty much
take it for granted, anyway. But that is a worthy vision for today's
technologists: because that is wise governance for a digitally conquered
world. That is is not tyranny. That is legitimacy.

Without vision, the people perish. So we need our shimmering, prizes,
goals to motivate ourselves, but the life is never in the prize. The
living part, the fun part, is all in the wrangling. Those dark cliffs
looming ahead -- that is the height of your achievement.

We need to leap into another way of life. The technical impetus is here.
We are changing, but to what end? The question we must face is: what do
we want? We should want to abandon that which has no future. We should
blow right through mere sustainability. We should desire a world of
enhancement. That is what should come next. We should want to expand the
options of those who will follow us. We don't need more dead clutter to
entomb in landfills. We need more options.

It needs to happen. It must happen. It is going to happen.

That's all I have to tell you today. Let's go see the state of the art!

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