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Thursday, December 16, 2004

Visionaries tell us the work of the world is increasingly turning from goods to services. Okay. But where is all our stuff going to come from? From what I've read, it will be a while before our personal meat machines are reassembling molecules to create anything we ask for, like Captain Pickard commanding, "Computer, make me a BLT sandwich."

Bruce Sterling told an audience at SIGGRAPH this year,

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.
Bruce wants Pickard's BLT to be 100% recyclable. No pollution. How? He tells the SIGGRAPHers:
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.

To get the full import of Sterling's speech at SIGGRAPH, I think you had to be there. After the intro, I got a lot more out of his lecture on Shaping Things to Come, an intriguing vision of design in a virtual world...

Interactive chips can identify anything. Once we give things unique names, we can track them throughout their lifetimes. Bruce calls these spimes. The "sp" is for speculative; the "im" is for imaginary. This is because a spime can be a digital model that never makes it into physical form. When and if it does, it has a history, a trajectory. The recorded history of objects will be more valuable than the objects themselves. Imagine bar codes on objects. 30 years they didn't exist and now they are everywhere. Barcodes enabled accurate inventory, better market analysis, better flow of goods, and fewer human errors. 5 billion were scanned today. However, paper barcodes are obsolete.

Traditional barcodes tell only two things: the maker and the sort of object it is. Braun_coffeemaker. It is vulnerable to fraud, abuse, and degredation. The electronic product code will be more vulnerable -- but it will be 1000s of times more efficient.

Barcodes identify only a class of things. There's no fine detail. Far better with electronics to identify individual objects. RFIDs (pronounced R-fids) are tiny, cheap combinations of computers and radios. This enables an "internet of objects." Some protest. RFIDs create dossiers. The object is inert, the system that tracks it is alive; the tracking system is more valuable.

Local & global positioning.
Locative technology. RFIDs have radar. You can hear them while they move. An RFID inventory can be automated.

Powerful Search Engines. Google local beta. In the internet of objects, a search engine will be able to tell you where anything is.

Virtual design. We can work with the electronic plans of the objects. Before those objects physically exist. Often a virtual model (interactive, weightless, manipulable) serves me better. Gravity, friction, raw material...I don't need any of that. I can change, copy, restore, and save digital models as many times as I want.I have an object processor. I can email this.

Computer fab. I'll use a 3D printer, a fabricator. My virtual model has become the crucial part of the object. The model is the command and control aspect of the object; it is the entity. Say it's 30 years from now. You call up a Spime. It's not created until you want it to me. After the purchase, manufacture, and delivery of your object, a link is made to a list of its ingredients, history of design, position history, recipes for customization, a public forum for discussion of your Spime, and the Blue Book value, should you care to sell it, and links to service centers.

Cradle-to-cradle recycling. At the end of its useful life, it is deactivated. It is smart garbage. It's data lives on for analysis, but the object is put back into the manufacturing stream. The Spime is a set of relationships first and always, and an object only now and then.

Imagine my shoe is a Spime. No product lasts forever. Once my shoe is a Spime, fully trackable from beginning to end; the shoe is a momentary entity, a pause in time. It evanesced. History is our one inexhaustible resource. Answering questions from the audience in Munich, Sterling says that the real question is, "What is an object?"

Information seeks to be free. RFIDs want to imprison you. However, we can't continue the way we have. We're polluting the biosphere because we are not tracking objects. The only stuff we know we're passing along to future generations are space crap and nuclear waste. We're going to have to build our way out of this, just as we built our way into it. The Spime revolution gives us more time to deal with things. If we had a way to harness time, we wouldn't have this fatal, short-term attitude.

I've been pondering my personal philosophy. Of all things, I'm coming to see the world in part through the philosophy of Bishop George Berkeley, the cleric-philosopher for whom Berkeley, California, was named. Not that I've read Berekely since Philosophy 101 eons ago. What remains of Berkeley's oeuvre is that the redwood I see in my back yard may not be there. If I look away, it's probably not there at all. I quickly look back and see what looks like the redwood; however, it's just an idea that God put in my head. God creates this virtual reality wherever I look. (Not Berkeley's exact words.)

On one level, the redwood is just a bunch of energy particles or waves or vibrations, depending on how I'm observing it. And what I think I'm seeing is really just my brain's interpretation of the photons that weren't absorbed by the tree or whatever that tall thing out in the yard is. But my brain is generalizing from a tiny fraction of the photons bouncing my way because my visual bandwidth is much too limited to receive the photons of a even a single needle on the tree. This tree business is all in my head. In the long run, everything is in our heads, isn't it? Reality is just an interpretation of something else; everything is intangible.

Do other people feel this way or am I just getting ready for a trip to a padded cell?
You can't believe your eyes. There's a classic psych experiment where the audience is instructed to watch a short film of a dozen people passing a basketball back and forth. Some wear black shirts, others white. How many times does white pass the ball to black? At the conclusion of the film, the instructor asks, "How many people saw the gorilla?" Rarely does a hand go up. The film is run once more. Knowing what to look for and no longer concentrating on the basketball players, everyone sees a fellow in a gorilla suit walk across the stage. He even stops to wave at the audience. We all make and watch our own internal movies.

Sterling's point that form is more important than substance rings another chord with me. I lived in Germany thirty years ago. On a return visit this month, I saw many characters who seemed to step right out of 1970. Disheveled older guys with bushy mustaches quaffing beer and women with prim business suits and dayglo lipstick. These people were younger than I, yet they had become clones of their parents. You can shake hands with someone who's a dead ringer for Bismarck. I reflected on the fact that over the course of seven years, every one of our cells dies and is replaced. Physically, I am not at all the same person I was in 1997. I don't feel like a different person. When and how did my personal memories get backed up and restored? Another Bishop Berkeley moment.

I'll return to this Berkelian philosophy meme but first I've got to get some real work out of the way. At least, it looks like real work.


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