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Book Review: Shaping Things

Book | Author | Review

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – March 9, 2006

This review takes a personal look at Bruce Sterling's book Shaping Things.

 

Book

Cover of Shaping Things     

Bruce Sterling
Shaping Things
MIT Press, 2005
ISBN: 0262693267 (Paperback)
ISBN: 026219533X (Hardcover)

Design: General

 

Author

Photo of Bruce Sterling Michael Bruce Sterling (born April 14, 1954) is an American science fiction author, best known for his novels and his seminal work on the Mirrorshades anthology, which defined the cyberpunk genre. In 2003 he was appointed Professor at the European Graduate School where he is teaching Summer Intensive Courses on media and design.

In 2005, he became "visionary in residence" at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. (From Wikipedia)

 

Review

Introduction

When I searched the Internet for Bruce Sterling, the author of Shaping Things, I found only a science fiction author of this name. After further fruitless searching it became finally clear to me: This book was indeed written by a science fiction author. How this came to happen and why Bruce Sterling has a strong affinity to the design profession you will read in the book. Sterling regards himself as a design critic, not as a designer – even though he designed one object, a lamp. As a critic, Sterling stays in close contact to the design community and participates in discussions about the purpose and goals of design.

At closer inspection, I find the connection between designers and science fiction authors not as absurd as it might look at first sight: Designers design our present world and often open the door into the future by exploring new and alternative ways of life. Science fiction authors, on the other hand, design the future by writing books about it – a future that may be remote, fictitious, and even completely far from any physical possibility. But at times they project the present reality onto the future and devise civilizations that may serve as models for future human societies. Exactly this is what Bruce Sterling does in his book Shaping Things: He deals with a future that is not far ahead of our time and is based upon our past and present. Sterling would probably say that it "composts" the present and past. We might even add that this future has already started in 2004. In this year, SPIMES appeared for the first time, says Sterling. (I will come to what SPIMES are further down.)

Purpose of the Book, Target Audience

Dealing with the future always encompasses a lot of speculation because nobody can predict it precisely. But Sterling's book is not meant as a product of mere imagination, it has a purpose: He urgently calls for pulling the strings and pushing the development of our civilization into the right direction in order to preserve the future of mankind. What is the motivation behind Sterling's book and his call? He knows that past and, even more so, current – that is, mostly industrial – production methods are not sustainable and will "wreck the climate, poison the population, and foment resource wars. They have no future." Sterling wants mankind to "enjoy some futurity. That's what this book is about."

Each book review tells the objective and target audience of the book to be reviewed. Sterling makes this both easy and hard for me by stating that "it's a book about everything," or more precisely, about "created objects and the environment." According to him, "the ideal readers for this book are those ambitious young souls (of any age) who want to constructively intervene in the process of technosocial transformation," that is, in the process of advancing our technologies and – in response – our society. The objective of the book is appropriate for me because I am curious. But Sterling made me doubtful with his statement about the audience. Can I rightfully count myself among those ambitious young souls? As I had to review the book, I put my doubts aside and went on...

Some Background

In his book, Sterling presents us his view of the history of technocultures, which helps him develop his vision of the future. These eras are characterized by certain object types, which dominate them. In Table 1, I attempt to summarize Sterling's view. The table lists the dominating objects and their characteristics, when they came into existence (or will come into existence), how long the technocultures lasted or will last, and the role, which people play in relation to the objects.

Object
Description of Objects that Shape/Dominate the Technoculture
People's Role
Technoculture Started/Will Start
Duration
Artifact Artificial objects, made by hand, used by hand, powered by muscle Hunters and farmers Beginning of mankind ...-1500
Machine Complex, precisely proportioned artifacts with many integral moving parts that have tapped some non-human, non animal-power source Customers In the 1500s 1500-1945
Product Widely distributed, commercially available objects, anonymously and uniformly manufactured in massive quantities, using a planned division of labor, .... Consumers Around World War One/Two * 1945-1989
Gizmo Highly unstable, user-alterable, baroquely multifeatured objects, commonly programmable, with a brief lifespan End-users 1989 1989-2030
Spime Manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive and rich that they can be regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system Wranglers About 2004 2030-2070
Biot Entities that are both object and person – "shape their own shape" Biot Around 2070 2070-...

*) Here, I found contradicting dates in the book.

Technocultures follow each other; these changes happen gradually. At some point in time, human society has moved beyond a "line of no return," where it would be difficult and cause many troubles to step back (there is also a "line of empire" where the victory is complete). Think, for example, of the many "back to nature" movements in the past, which never succeeded. Older technocultures, or better, their objects, are not supplanted; they are adapted to the new culture and may change their character. Sterling demonstrates this adaptation with a bottle of red wine, which, as a metaphor for the book, decorates its cover: In antiquity, the bottle and its contents were artifacts. Today, the bottle is "machine-labeled, mass-produced of industrial glass, with a bar code and legalistic health warnings." In short, the bottle of red wine has been "GIZMO-ized." But we should keep in mind that it's not a GIZMO – insofar, this example can be misleading. Because the bottle has the address of an associated Website printed on its label, it even "leans forward onto the future world of the SPIME." These objects also have an extensive history starting with their production, continuing with their distribution and consumption, and, finally, ending with their disposal. This history is mostly hidden to the consumers; nevertheless, it tells whether goods were produced in a sustainable fashion or not.

To sum up, according to Sterling, we live in the era of GIZMOS (I would like to add that this is probably the reason, why contemporary software has so many usability problems...) and are just entering the era of SPIMES, which make up the main part and target object of the book. Only at the very end of the book, Sterling lets his readers catch a short glimpse of the technoculture of BIOTS, entities where finally the distinction between persons and objects begins to blur.

The Role of Metahistory And a World of SPIMES

According to Sterling, every culture has a metahistory, which is about "what's gone by, what comes next, and what all this is supposed to mean to sensible people." The term "metahistory" refers to a general understanding of how history evolves, not to history itself. An understanding of metahistory is the foundation for learning from the past and projecting successfully into the future. Only with such a foundation we can thoughtfully intervene into the course of history – which Sterling considers necessary because "the status quo will kill us."

Here, SPIMES come into the picture. Sterling characterizes them as "information melded with sustainability." I see! – or better, pardon? In chapter 10 of the book, readers "meet the SPIMES" before they finally meet the BIOTS in the penultimate chapter 17. Between these two chapters, my picture of what SPIMES are became more and more blurred instead of becoming clearer. After all, I learned that SPIMES are more or less pure "information objects" that can "materialize" when needed, have an identity and a history (via "arphids," a short-term for RFID chips, and internal storage) and can be combined into a huge information network, which Sterling terms an "Internet of things."

Considered this definition and characterization, how can sustainability be achieved in a world of SPIMES? As far as I understand the book, Sterling's logic is as follows: The sequence of technocultures that Sterling describes, while starting from fairly sustainable production methods, leads to methods that are not sustainable – they are even threatening to kill us. GIZMOS and much more so, SPIMES, mark a turning point in history by making the information part of objects more and more prominent. Particularly, SPIMES are more or less "virtual" objects that are only produced (or instantiated) "on demand." Both virtualization and production on demand will dramatically reduce the need for energy and resources and thus fulfill the promise of sustainability. Do I believe in this vision? In short: no.

I agree with Sterling that we need to understand history to free ourselves from the mistakes of past technocultures and to avoid them in the future. The old production methods are not sustainable and threaten to ruin our future. In his book, Sterling sets out to propose how mankind can do its "homework" and realize a sustainable future in a world of SPIMES and beyond it. But I must admit my imagination does not suffice to understand what SPIMES really are. And particularly, I do not see that they have the potential to save the world because I cannot believe in the myth of an "information-based" future. Maybe, I am too much "infected" by John Thackara who demonstrates in his book In the Bubble that the information age did not bring the promised "light economy." I cannot share Sterling's optimistic, sometimes even enthusiastic, view and believe in the claims that he makes for his vision of the future, which is based to a large degree on the progress of information technology. I will return to this point in my conclusions.

A Few Remarks on the Book's Design

For the SAP Design Guild, I have read and reviewed quite a number of books that were written or published by designers. However, inside the covers in particular, most of the books did not communicate the fact that there were designers at work: no images, long pages of dry text and nothing that would have pleased my eyes or even further senses. Shaping Things is a notable exception in this respect. The book was designed by Lorraine Wild who comments on her efforts at the end of the book. Even though, from my dull and humble usability point of view, I do not agree with everything that Wild designed, I would agree that she is definitely on the right track. Perhaps I should present two examples, where I cannot quite follow the designer...

For example, it is a good idea to indicate connections through lines. But do they need to intersect (see figure 1a)? I redrew the example so that lines do not intersect (figure 1b) to illustrate my point; please do not take my "improvement" too seriously...

Intersecting lines      Lines that do not intersect

Figure 1a
: Lines that intersect
 
Figure 1b
: Lines that do not intersect

In addition, some backgrounds are too dark, probably, because the same color was used for there foreground and background elements (Sherlock Holmes would comment: "Elementary, my dear Watson!"). Some colored words are printed so faintly that they are really hard to read. The word SPIME is an example of this but here I presume it was done intentionally to indicate that SPIMES belong to the future. Anyway, I do not want to leave the impression of being "smart-aleck." So I leave the decision as to whether Wild succeeded in her efforts to the readers of the book.

Conclusion

Sterling's book Shaping Things is unusual is several aspects: It is a book on design written by a "designer of the future," that is, a science fiction author. It is also a book on design that looks like having been designed. It also stands out because the author uses an eclectic language. As a non-native speaker, I might have learned tons of new words from this book – if only I would have found them in a dictionary. Even my English trainer had never heard of "futurity," for example. So I used my imagination when reading the book, hoping that it did not go too far astray...

Given the current state of the world with its pending economic and cultural conflicts (one might often feel to be thrown back to the middle ages and beyond...), I have problems with following Sterling in his optimistic outlook on the potential of information technology. I would rather join John Thackara and insist that information technology has until now just spawned the opposite: more waste of resources and energy, less sustainability. Sterling's further outlook on the Biots is even harder to agree with for me. I feel reminded of ideas of Hans Moravec and Raymond Kurzweil who propose that robots will take over in a few decades and that there will be no room for mankind left. My assessment is based on statements about Biots, such as "You are no longer human. ... you have a wide variety of interesting, challenging problems. It's just that none of those are human ones." Or: "The human condition isn't abolished overnight, it isn't obliterated. It is composted." Even though Sterling tries to counter the fears of some of his readers here, this is a technology-centered view of society (and a direction inspired by artificial intelligence called transhumanism), not a human-centered one. In my opinion, at the end of his book Sterling becomes a science fiction author again and gives his fancy full scope into a direction that I personally reject.

You may or may not agree with Sterling on his perspective of the future, but his book deserves our attention as a source of inspiration when thinking about the future. Even though it may offer controversial concepts for mastering the future, it is a serious attempt in pushing the technological and cultural development into a direction so that coming generations will find a world, which is worth living in. In it's final consequence, though, I can neither follow Sterling's techno-centered optimism nor his transhumanistic perspective. Leaving personal preferences aside, I recommend the book to anyone who has an interest in thinking about and "commanding" the future, may he or she count him or herself among the "ambitious young souls (of any age)" or not.

References

  • John Thackara (2005). In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World The MIT Press. ISBN: 0262201577
  • Moravec, Hans (1988). Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Harvard University Press. ISBN: 0674576187 (paperback)
  • Homepage Hans Moravec: www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/~hpm
  • Raymond Kurzweil (2000). The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. Penguin. ISBN: 0140282025 (paperback)

 

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