Concrete Theory Strives to be a Spime November 26, 2009Posted by mgodoublems in Book Analysis.
Tags: Bruce Sterling, Concrete Theory, Design, Shaping Things, Spime
A month or so ago, I read a book called Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling. This book is very broad, and for the most part deals with easily-understood topics, though there is a definite point where it reaches into the imagination concerning the future of thought organization. Shaping Things divides society into technological epochs, and explains how they mesh and where society is going and must go for the next evolution to happen.
The principle of Shaping Things is that the world is evolving. Design is branching out significantly, and there are entire areas of study that no longer have a base in history. Modern production is in a state of eventual exhaustion – there is very little truly sustainable manufacturing occurring. Design must evolve in order to replace modern production methods with production methods of the future, utilizing truly sustainable design in order to produce truly sustainable products in truly sustainable ways.
Design has gone through four epochs of ‘technocultural’ development through history to this point, producing things which the author titles Artifacts, Machines, Products, Gizmos. I’ll break down each of these epochs, one at a time, to explain the relationships between each and how society currently uses them.
Artifacts are hand-made and human-powered, utilized as a predominant by ‘hunters and farmers’. The most basic tools – shovels, etc. – are Artifacts. Artifacts are integral to the survival of society. They are the penultimate fallback devices – when more advanced equipment can not be used, it is possible to fall back on available hand tools to get many jobs done. There is an upper and lower scale boundary to Artifacts, and they are the basis of many other developments. The conceptual Artifact has diffused to the entirety of society, and most people are raised to understand how to utilize Artifacts without significant formal training. Society has passed beyond the point where it would be feasible to return to the Artifact stage. Though the knowledge of how to use Artifact level tools is diffuse, it is not possible to sustain today’s society with Artifacts alone. We have passed, as it has been termed by the author, the ‘Line of No Return’.
Machines are integrations of engineered parts that utilize a power source such as fossil fuel energy or the energy of moving water. They do the same actions as Artifacts (for the most part), but on a separate scale. In almost all cases, they are a larger scale. Like the Artifact, humanity has progressed beyond the point where the Machine is a diffuse technology, and the vast majority of the members of society would be able to reproduce Machine technologies given the need and enough time. Those societies that had not progressed to Machine status on pace with the rest of the world were marginalized, in a process that the author termed the crossing of the ‘Line of Empire’. The Author defines the line between Artifact and Machine society as the advent of the Mongol empire in the 1500s, but I would point out that, prior to the dark ages, the Romans were well on their way to a Machine society. Evidence has been found that water wheels used to drain mines were in fact mass produced – a kit including an instruction manual with numbered parts, similar to toys that children get for Christmas. Though the Romans may have been in the budding stages of Machine society, the Mongols may very well have been the Tipping Point, where the technoculture became diffuse. The Catholic Dark Ages set society back technologically by over a millennia, and it took a significant amount of time to recover to Roman levels.
Products, the third tier of design evolution, are mass-produced objects. The majority of modern society is operated on the basis of Products. The key to Products that is not necessary in a Machine society is the infrastructure – power systems, transportation, etc. are all required in order to have a proper Product society. The Author attributes this to WWI, and I would tend to agree with this fact. Edison was truly the Tipping Point of the Product society. However, I would say that Product was first developed during the Industrial Revolution. I would say that we are strongly cemented in the Product society. A global catastrophe could set us back to the Machine society, but no futher. The understanding of Machine technology is far too diffuse for us to move back further. Only if the power grids were entirely wiped out would any de-evolution from Product to Machine happen, however.
The most recent epoch of the evolution of design, budding in our modern society more quickly than ever before due to how quickly technology is diffused, is the Gizmo technoculture. Gizmos are mass-produced, programmable, user-oriented and user-alterable technologies, such as the personal computer. The Gizmo is an interface, and generally is connected to other Gizmos. They are high-maintenance, and require a significant amount of knowledge and investment to utilize properly. If an object is taken from Machine or Product technoculture, it can be Gizmo-ized by developing it into an information network of some sort.
The future holds an entirely new direction. The author calls this evolution the ‘Spime’, a combination of the words ‘Space’ and ‘Time’. A Spime is a collection of all possible knowledge of something, which is infinitely utilizable. It is essentially the ‘cloud’, when you think of the term ‘cloud computing’, only more pervasive. RFID in the military is the author’s example of a very basic form of this. The amount of information that is collected into these Spimes will be staggering, because all of the possible properties will be accessible. They are essentially infinite databanks. I believe that Google Wave is a societal introduction to the Spime – it is a system that will collect large amounts of information and make collaboration absolute within groups.
Shaping Things is truly worth the read. I can’t do it justice in the thousand words that I have limited my book posts to. Read it, you will learn much.