The Future of the Object Expanded

by Luke Wroblewski December 18, 2004

Science fiction author Bruce Sterling recently embellished on his theory of things to come at a lecture at Ludwig-Maximilians Universitnchen in Muncich, Germany. A video of the talk is available on the Iconic Turn Web site, but here is a summary for those without an hour and fifteen minutes to spare.

Bruce briefly discussed his upcoming role as a California-based design professor and pointed out that he has “stolen all his ideas from industrial design”. His connection to industrial design was born from “studying objects with a designer’s intensity” in order to better understand the future of technical infrastructure. From these endeavors, a theory of the types of objects we will see in the future was born. According to Bruce, the object of the future (known as a spime) will be born from the convergence of:

  • Interactive chips that label objects with unique identities
  • Local and global positioning systems that can locate objects in both space and time
  • Powerful search engines
  • 3D virtual models of objects
  • Rapid prototyping and computer fabrication of objects
  • Cradle to cradle manufacturing and recycling of objects

The most important of these trends is the application of identity to almost everything we make. Identities allow objects to be tracked throughout their lives creating billions of histories (complete with trajectories, precise details, relationships, etc.) for billions of objects. It will be these histories that ultimately become more important than the objects themselves. Bruce pointed out that bar codes on objects account for over five billion scans per day. Since their inception (in 1975) bar codes have amounted to a quiet revolution by enabling accurate inventories, market analysis, reducing human error, and automating the recording of objects. But being made of paper, bar codes are too slow and too limited (they only spell out a company and product name) to keep pace with today’s digital economy. The next generation of codes is electronic.

An electronic identity code is the foundation for an “internet of things”. It can communicate identity not only at a product level, but at an object level as well. Not only can it store identity it can announce it. Our electronic code du jour is RFID (radio frequency ID). An RFID tag consists of a tiny radio and computer that sells for around fifty cents. In five years, however, the price may well be five cents. Local positioning systems on the ground can track the coordinates of RFID tags and store a history of where they are and what they are doing. Global positioning systems allow that information to be read anywhere. As Bruce put it “the sky is no longer the limit, it is the metric.”

Search engines will allow us to data mine the internet of things and refine our results by local proximity. As a result, we won’t have to remember where we put things anymore. Virtual design systems will enable us to work with electronic models of objects that better serve our needs as designers, engineers, and wranglers (the evolved form of end-users). Virtual object models can be manipulated, refined, exported, shared, and more. Perhaps, most importantly, digital representations of objects allow us to decide if we actually want one. The “hard copy” of an object will not be created until demand exists as its production basically amounts to rote industrial output. A hard copy will be created through computer fabrication and ultimately fed back into the industrial process when it’s no longer useful to us. Thereby creating a sustainable “death” for objects. The object’s data, however, will remain. It has historical relevance. After all, spimes are “a set of relationships first, and objects second.”