The Future of the Object

by August 9, 2004

Excellence, Passion, Integrity, Cross-Disciplinary Interaction, and Volunteerism are the defining characteristics (and mission statement) of the SIGGRAPH conference. SIGGRAPH is one of the best showcases of true art and science integration as science fiction author and Wired columnist, Bruce Sterling, made clear in his keynote this year in LA.

Sterling presented an object-centric formula for sustainability. He began by describing the different types of objects that trace 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. Today’s objects are thrown away. Spimes make “away” explicit: they reveal the impact our objects have on our bloodstreams, our children, and our planet. With that kind of knowledge we’ll have no choice but to act in the interests of sustainability and self-preservation.