Shaping things

Book written by Bruce Sterling, this post contains notes and diagrams related to the concepts covered by the book.


  • Spimes, refers to a type of object that can be tracked through space and time throughout the lifetime of the object. Spimes are essentially objects that are intimately connected to information technology and thus can be tracked, replicated, and understood in ways that were previously impossible.
  • Artifact refers to any human-made object from a particular era that is characterized by its technological and design principles (tools and machines).
  • A gizmo refers to the class of objects that emerge between the stages of products and spimes in the evolution of objects. Gizmos are characterized by their reliance on a network to function; they are the sort of complex, often digital or electronic devices that are prevalent in contemporary life—smartphones, laptops, and other gadgets that are sophisticated and have some degree of programmability.
  • Products: widely distributed, commercially available objects, anonymously and uniformly manufactured in massive quantities, using a planned division of labor, rapid, non-artisanal, assembly-line techniques, operating over continental economies of scale, and supported by highly reliable transportation, finance and information systems.
  • Wrangler essentially the technologically savvy people who understand how to interact with the networks and systems that spimes belong to. S/he manages, controls, or “wrangles” spimes. As spimes are envisioned to be smart, connected objects that can be tracked through space and time and come with rich sets of data about their production, use, and disposal, Wranglers are the individuals who are adept at handling this information and using it to manage the lifecycle of spimes.

Old wine in new Bottles (chapter 3)

Every one of these transitions—Artifact to MACHINE to PRODUCT to GIZMO—involves an expansion of information. It enables a deeper, more intimate, more multiplex interaction between humans and objects.

  • In a MACHINE technoculture, I am a Customer.
  • In a PRODUCT techno-culture, I’m a Consumer. Goods are available at commodity prices in a literally unknowable profusion.
  • This is gizmo wine. It is offering me more functionality than I will ever be able to explore. This wine bottle aims to educate me—it is luring me to become more knowledgeable about the people and processes that made the bottle and its contents. It wants me to recruit me to become an unpaid promotional agent, a wine critic, an opinion maker.
  • Like all gizmos, its lifespan is brief—it doesn’t take long to drink a bottle of wine.

To participate in the gizmos world, I need to think about things, talk about things, pay attention to things,
be entertained by things… I pay a price for that in personal brainpower. That price is my own cognitive load. In a gizmo world.

About Spimes:

  • In a world of SPIME, the growing problems of attention load and opportunity costs have been finessed.
  • When the entire industrial process is made explicit, when the metrics count for more than the object they measure, then gizmo become SPIMES.

The personal is historical (chapter #4)

  • Design is not science.

Metahistory (chapter #5)

  • Every culture has a metahistory.
  • Metahistory is about what’s gone by, what comes next, and what all that is supposed to mean to sensible people.
  • To understand metahistory is vital, but not sufficient.
  • The premier argument for metahistorical intervention is that the status quo will kill us.
  • A society that can’t sustain itself may have strong ideas about its metahistory, but objectively speaking it has no future.
  • History is never a deterministic certainty—understood effectively, history is a basic resource. We would think of time and futurity very differently if we came to understand that the passage of time could make one rich. It can.
  • Because history is information—information about the people and objects transiting time. The word “information” should suggest not some frozen ideology or timeless gospel, but economic activity. That would be history as business, history as governance, history as symbolic analysis—history etched into the very texture of the techno-social.

A Synchronic society (chapter #6)

  • A SYNCHRONIC SOCIETY synchronizes multiple histories. In a SYNCHRONIC SOCIETY, every object worthy of human or machine consideration generates a small history. These histories are not dusty archives locked away on ink and paper. They are informational resources, manipulable in real time.
  • These histories are not dusty archives locked away on ink and paper. They are informational resources, manipulable in real time.
  • These informational microhistories are subject to well-nigh endless exploitation.
  • Exploiting this potential successfully is a major opportunity and challenge for tomorrow’s design.
  • Historians won’t do it. Designers will.
  • When the unknown unknown comes lurching to town, you have to learn about that comprehensively and at great speed.
  • Temporalistic thinking is a moral worldview.
  • A society with declining life expectancy is clearly retrogressive.
  • A society with a high infant mortality rate is maladjusted.

The rubbish makers (chapter #7)

Hardware has no value judgments. Hardware has no faith and convictions. Hardware is not a moral actor. Hardware is our method for engaging with the grain of the material.

  • Humans have techno-society.
  • Humans have always failed to deal with our trash as we made it
Obsolescence is innovation in reverse

The stark necessity of glamor (chapter #8)

We owe to Raymond Loewy the particularly useful acronym MAYA, or, Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.

Being designery is how one manipulates MAYA in public.

That’s why glamor is a stark necessity because failure happens in public.

Meet the Spime (chapter #10)

The key to the SPIME is identity. A SPIME is, by definition, the protagonist of a documented process. It is an
historical entity with an accessible, precise trajectory through space and time.

A SPIME must therefore be a thing with a name. No name, no SPIME.

  • In an age of Artifacts, I’m living off the land with most of my objects made by myself or my immediate kin. I know a lot about what I have, but I’m basically poor and ignorant.
  • In an age of PRODUCTS, I can engage in markets. But I’m just a gray flannel man in the crowd; I have to shut up and settle for what comes out of the assembly line.
  • In an age of gizmos, I’m an unpaid developer. I’m eyeballs, I’m keypunches, I’m Web site hits.
  • In an age of SPIMES, the object is no longer an object, but an instantiation. My consumption patterns are worth so much that they underwrite my acts of consumption.

Arphids (chapter #11)

Arphid” refers to a hypothetical or future form of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification). The term is a portmanteau of “RFID” and “arph,” which suggests an advanced form of RFID technology.

So imagine: here you are, in tomorrow’s emergent world of SPIMES, with your arphid tags, your arphid-reading wand, and some capable network nodes full of arphid-management software. Let’s consider what can happen when you have the enabling means of a “mobile ad-hoc network.”

An Internet of Things (Chapter #12)

The primary advantage of an INTERNET OF THINGS is that I no longer inventory my possessions inside my own head. They’re inventoried through an automagical inventory voodoo, work done far beneath my notice by a host of machines. I no longer bother to remember where I put things. Or where I found them. Or how much they cost. And so forth. I just ask. Then I am told with instant real-time accuracy.

I have an INTERNET OF THINGS with a search engine. So I no longer hunt anxiously for my missing shoes in
the morning. I just Google them.

The model is the message (Chapter #13)

In a SPIME world, the model is the entity, and everyone knows it.

In a world of SPIMES, the central importance is not just the physical object itself but the design model behind it. This concept is a play on Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase “the medium is the message,” which suggests that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.

Where and when will you hit the SPIME limit to the measuring, labelling, and timing of made things, and this
mapping of their environment? One might imagine (like Jorge Luis Borges in his prescient parable Tlön, qbar,
Orbis Tertius), that the territory can’t support the map. Sooner or later, reality will be historicized to the point of collapse.

The “model” encompasses the entire lifecycle of an object: its design, manufacture, use, and disposal. In a spime world, an object’s physical form is just one aspect of its existence. Equally important is the digital information that accompanies it: its origin, its materials, its production processes, its environmental impacts, its ownership history, etc.

Fabbing (chapter #14)

  • Why would “IDENTITY” ever become more important than a real, no-kidding physical object?
  • How is such a thing even possible? The answer is found in a new means of focusing society’s attention and enabling joint effort.

Fabbing refers to the process of creating objects using digital fabrication technologies, such as 3D printing or computer numerical control (CNC) machining. These technologies allow for the production of physical items directly from digital design files, making the process of manufacturing more direct and personalized.

Fabbing represents a significant shift from traditional mass production methods. Instead of creating large runs of identical products, digital fabrication allows for small-scale or even individual production runs tailored to specific needs or designs. This capability is integral to Sterling’s vision of the future, where SPIMES are prevalent, and fabbing enables the production of these SPIMES.

SPIME economics (chapter #15)

Public perceptions of technological development

The designer question (chapter #16)

  • Sustainability: How can objects be designed to be sustainable throughout their life cycles? This includes considering the materials used, the energy consumed in their production, the efficiency of their use, and the end-of-life disposal or recycling.
  • Data and Information: What kind of data should objects carry to be useful throughout their life cycles? Designers must consider what information is essential for tracking, repairing, upgrading, and eventually recycling a SPIME.
  • Interactivity and Adaptability: How can objects be designed to interact with their users and environments in meaningful ways? How can they adapt to changing conditions or be repurposed to extend their usefulness?
  • Production: How can the production process be improved to benefit from new technologies like fabbing? What does this mean for traditional manufacturing and for the future skills designers and workers need to have?
  • Ethics and Responsibility: What are the ethical implications of creating objects that have such an extensive digital component? How can designers ensure privacy, security, and equity in the use of SPIMES?
  • Aesthetics: How will the aesthetic value of objects change when they are part of a system of SPIMES? What will beauty mean in the context of highly functional, data-rich objects?

Tomorrow’s tomorrow (chapter #17)

The step after the SPIME Wrangler—tomorrow’s tomorrow—is neither an object nor a person. It’s a Biot,
which we can define as an entity which is both object and person.

A Biot would be the logical intermeshing, the blurring of the boundary between Wrangler and SPIME.

How far away? Let’s hazard a guess.

If the Consumer/PRODUCT epoch lasted from World War II to 1989, and the End-User/gizmo epoch from
1989 till 2030 or so (another forty years), and if the Wrangler/SPIME epoch managed about the same time
span, then the advent of the Biot would arrive around the year 2070. I would guess that 2070 is a reasonable
date for a situation in which human biochemistry is well enough understood to become a medical-industrial

In a Biot world, the leading industries are not Artifacts, MACHINES, PRODUCTS, gizmos or SPIMES,
but technologies for shaping human beings. The people who do this are both the shaper and the thing shaped, the user and the tool in one.

For a Biot, manufacturing and metabolism are the same field of study.

Ublopia or Otivion (chapter #18)


“Ubiquitous Utopia” refers to an idealized future state where technology is seamlessly integrated into every aspect of life. In this envisioned world, everything is connected and intelligent, and society benefits from the extensive use of SPIMES and the vast, interconnected system of data and services they create.


It represents a hypothetical, future scenario — a kind of dystopia that contrasts with the idea of “Ublopia.” While “Ublopia” is an optimistic vision of a future where ubiquitous computing has been integrated harmoniously into society, “Otivion” suggests a less ideal outcome.

Otivion is a scenario where the proliferation of technology does not result in a sustainable, user-friendly utopia. Instead, it leads to a situation where there is an overwhelming abundance of obsolete, non-functioning, or discarded technological products — what might be considered as technological detritus. This could result in environmental degradation, social disorder, and a range of new problems caused by the mismanagement of SPIMES and the systems that support them.

Trying to gain perspective with visual support of a Wardley Map

This is my first draft of my understanding of the different concepts covered by the book. I want to keep this for once I improve my understanding to a better view.

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