Friday, March 10, 2006

Internet of things: quotes of the day

On how to get research done, write academic books, coin neologisms and still not come up with a convincing or effective story:

Bruce Sterling: [Shaping Things] is my academic book..this is my attempt to go in and contribute something of value to the design discourse.

BusinessWeek: How did you end up as a "Visionary in Residence" at Art Center?

Bruce Sterling: Well, it had a lot to do with science fiction. I'd been trying to write a novel about ubiquitous computation, a science fiction novel, and it's set, you know, in the mid-21st century, and I'm trying to get it down on paper what it's like to work in an actually functional internet of things, and it's really a kind of serious ideational challenge, I mean it's just hard to make it convincing..I was asked to give a Toyota lecture at Art Center, because I knew people in the faculty..and delivered this sort of impassioned rant, saying, look, you know, I think this is gonna break big, and this is why, and I want you designers to kinda like think about this and help me out. What advice can you give me in kinda doing the background for my science fiction novel? And they just sorta stared for a second and said, well, we can't do anything about that but maybe you should join the faculty.

BusinessWeek: Well, did they help you? Did that design insight help clarify what an internet of things would be?

Bruce Sterling: Yeah, I now know a whole lot more about the nuts and bolts of ubiquitous computation. I'm not really that much closer to doing an effective novel about it, but you know...

BusinessWeek: Well, you don't have that novel but you do have Shaping Things. In that new book you talk about these ages of technoculture, I'm sure all of our listeners are familiar with the Stone Age, and the Iron Age, but you introduce a whole new set of ages: of artifacts, the technoculture of machines, technoculture of products, of gizmos.

Bruce Sterling: Well, I'm not sure that sort of formulation is going to catch on, but it seemed to help me some. Of course science fiction writers like to think dramatically in sorta huge spans of history and future...

On choosing your words carefully:
Bruce Sterling: My main problem with the term ubiquitous computation [is that] ubiquitous suggests that it comes from sorta one central broadcasting tower and covers the world like paint. But, in point of fact, systems of this kind are always patchy..It's not a kinda clean year-zero making-over, what happens is that a new and emerging technoculture composts the old one, it just kinda puts a weight on top and kinda crushes down the old habits and old frames of mind until they kinda gradually lose their colour and just turn into a mulch.

BusinessWeek: [You write that spimes are] "regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system"...

Bruce Sterling: Well, you know that's just a brilliant kinda mimicry of academic-speak on my part. Only a science fiction writer who was also a design professor could have coined a beautiful term like that. It's almost impossible to recite aloud over a podcast, but on a page it just looks like fantastically impressive. It's like you read it and it's like This is just flooding my mind with insight! I have to put this book down! My brain is full!


[Selective transcription of BusinessWeek Online's "Voices of Innovation" podcast: Interview with Bruce Sterling (mp3) (13.12.05)]


Anonymous Rob said...

Thanks Anne. It's a relief to finally find someone else who listens to Sterling and comes away empty handed. I was starting to wonder if I was alone. Nice post.

Anonymous anne said...

Thanks Rob. You know, I actually suspect Sterling is amazed that people are gobbling up Shaping Things. I mean the guy is trying to write a *novel* and ends up writing that instead! (He laughs a lot in that interview. It's funny.)

And please don't get me wrong, I actually enjoyed reading the book, and not least because it does have a sort of fantastical quality to it. But far more interesting to me is how it gets picked up by others and used *socially* to manipulate all sorts of relations.

I also think about what I call the "Cult of Sterling" (hell, who *doesn't* think the Viridian stuff is on to something?! and it's true, when I stood in his home library checking out his books during an open SXSW party I was giddy with excitement. Well, giddy for maybe ten minutes and then suitably non-plussed as a sorta hero returned to regular human status.)

Anonymous Rob said...

Ok, maybe 'empty handed' was an exageration - I just listened to his 'Spimes' talk at SXSW.

He does a pretty solid job of curating a bunch of ideas into a nice exhibition. We all need someone to curate ideas for us.

Will go and try the interview you linked.


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