Bruce Sterling on the Internet of Things (ETech 2006)


The evening keynote (last night) was by Bruce Sterling on the Internet of Things. This was one of those talks that is impossible to blog. Even a word-for-word transcript wouldn't do it justice because Bruce's delivery is as much a part of the content as what he says. I'm sure it will be on IT Conversations soon and I encourage you to listen to it there.

Bruce's message was about language and the power of naming. He said, that when it comes to remote technology, you don't want to freeze your language too early. It limits the ability of people to find the intrinsic value. Artificial intelligence is an example. Computers are not intelligence. They boxes of circuitry. They just sit there "ordinating" as the French say.

Bruce gave a great example about whether you'd want to have Google or Alan Turing in a Box (a reference to the famous Turing test). It brings into stark contrast the difference between AI and what we've built without AI. He makes the claim that a tech world that talked about computers as ordinators or sorters or card shufflers probably would have invented Google in the 1980's. The new stuff, people interacting with technology, is what's important. On demand social application are unimagined by Computer Science.

The idea behind the Internet of Things is laid out in Bruce's book Shaping Things. He envisions the Internet of Things doing its work in six interesting ways:

  1. interactive chips
  2. local and precise geolocative systems that sort out where you and things are
  3. powerful search engines
  4. sustainability through auto recycling
  5. 3D virtual models of physical objects
  6. rapid prototyping of object

Bruce calls these Internet things "spimes" because they're tractable in space and time. Manufactured objects that are material instantiations of an immaterial system. They are virtual object first and actual object second. The primary advantage is that you no longer inventory your possessions inside your own head. That work is done far below your notice by a host of machines. You just ask where things are and where you bought them and what you paid, and so on. You no longer wonder where your shoes are, you just google them.

Why create a new word? Because it creates a cloud of associated commentary and data online. This is an example of what Tara McPherson calls a theory object. Theory objects accrete attention and generate trackable trails of attention. Any real theory object has trackbacks and pictures and a FAQ and so on.

Bruce isn't talking about some smart object with a processor inside, he's talking about everyday objects that have unique digital identity. When they work well, new words like spime are like good brooms that get rid of old words. This is different than hype. Hype is a system call on your attention. Hype is aimed at your wallet.

Bruce continues with a riff about hype in technology and politics. In technology, the opposite of hype isn't the truth (like it is in politics), it's argo--technojargon. Techjargon is a superspecialized geek cult language. It's deliberately hermetic. But, a small clique doesn't have enough people to successfully name things. It takes a whole lot of people to manage a popular language.

Bruce doesn't think that ubiquitous computation will be either ubiquitous or computation. It will be patchy and limited like cell phones. It's not a smooth supported product. As we move in that direction, you don't want to avoid the contentions of the literary struggles. The words are signifiers of the places where things aren't yet hammered out.

Let's take "Web 2.0" He quote's Tim's definition. Bruce says that this definition is not a clean, sanitary things, rather it's about people Tim thinks are important and the causes and values they hold as a class. He then quotes Alan Liu on the idea of Web 2.0 who is highly "skeptical." There's too much of the "high priesthood" of administrators who work behind the scenes to make it work.

Bruce goes on about this because it matters. Naming can make completely new concepts and make them everyday. That's the goal.

The presentation was very entertaining (which is saying something given that it was starting at 9pm). Of course, with Bruce Sterling, you'd expect nothing less. Like I said earlier, you're going to have to listen to it to get the fine nuance. I've ordered a copy of his book because I'm interested in the identity aspects of what he calls the Internet of Things.