Revisiting Networked Objects & the Role of Designers

by Luke Wroblewski July 15, 2009

My recent set of articles on consumer platform capabilities and the trends they proliferate (like designing for sensors and hardware becoming software), made me revisit Bruce Sterling's definition of the object of the future (the spime) and the role designers play in helping people wrangle these networked objects.

Spimes: Networked Objects of the Future

We can trace several different types of objects through human history: artifacts (transitioned us to agriculture), machines (automated our work), products (the result of mechanical processes), gizmos (today’s objects de jour defined by their complicated nature and an over-abundance of features), and spimes (networked and self-descriptive).

Gizmos have transformed us from consumers (of products) to end-users (highly advanced consumers). We no longer merely consume objects, and as a result, user experience has become a crucial part of the development cycle. But no amount of interface simplification can keep gizmos from being “pressed up hard against the limits of usability.” Their very nature is tied to complexity. When a gizmo is made too simple it returns to being a product and personally enriching interactions that are enabled by the gizmo’s many features may be lost. As a result, there are good reasons, both financial and social, for keeping gizmos delicately “poised between chaos and simplicity” (think cell phone/camera/PDA/music player devices and the breadth and depth of interactions they enable).

All objects are defined by the culture that nourished their development: products -the mechanical age, gizmos -the digital age. Spimes (our objects of the future) are no different as they represent the composite picture of our current networked information age. Spimes are objects that have “swallowed” our past by combining social networks, RFID tags, GPS systems, self Google-ing, peer-to-peer networking, auction sites, chat applications, digital storage, and more. Spimes can reveal most anything about themselves. They are precisely located in space and time, have a history and identity, and make their nature transparent to us. Spimes are “user groups first, and objects second”. But most importantly, spimes allow us to make good on sustainability through a traceable lifecycle. Because spimes have identities and complete histories, they create accountability: we know where they end up and we know the impact they have on our world.

The Role of Designers

A world soaked in the information generated and gathered by spimes forces end-users (those of us making their way through the feature-rich vat of today’s objects) to become wranglers (those who chart paths through changing fields of object data and relationships). Complex objects bring with them personal costs: cognitive load (the personal brainpower required to think about things, talk about things, pay attention to things, be entertained by things, etc.) and opportunity cost (to make room for an additional object in your life, you have to sacrifice something you are already doing).

“There isn’t enough time in the world for people to sacrifice infinite amounts of opportunity and cognition. This means that in a spime world, designers must design, not just for objects or for people, but for the technosocial interactions that unite people and objects: designing for opportunity costs and cognitive load.”

Every person can’t wrangle all the world’s technosocial issues all the time.

“It follows that much of this activity should be done for [us] by other people. A class of aware, well-informed, trained and educated people who can navigate their way through this field of complexity, negotiating the snaky process of technosocial change and guiding them toward the sustainable. People who will make it their professional business, no, even their calling, their practice, their very mode of being –to create a human-object relationship that is as advanced as [we] can manage while still being acceptable to [us]. Who would that be then? Designers. Who else is there?”