I met Bruce Sterling after I had sent him a private message via Twitter. He was hitting The Netherlands for a keynote speech at Impakt Festival in Utrecht. He replied within a few hours. A couple of days later, I was on a train with a camera and a bottle of good Barolo (for him).
In his career, Sterling has been a sci-fi writer – mostly known for his anthology Mirrorshades: A cyberpunk Anthology – but also a journalist for Wired US, a design and tech expert. But the main reason was that I wanted to talk with him about the Internet of Things. In fact, in 2005 – when was “Visionary-in-Residence” at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena – he wrote a book about designing the Internet of Things: Shaping Things.
It was still the dawn of the IoT, so Sterling coined a neologism, the word “Spime”, to describe objects with certain features. To make it simple, he used it to define objects designed to be trackable through time and space, collected in a database and eventually searched. A decade later, with the advent of what we call the Internet of Things, “spimes” don’t seem so far from our everyday lives as they used to be.
Google, Cisco and even independent journalists agree on the role of science fiction in inspiring innovation technology. So, what’s better than talking with a visionary about the near future of the IoT?
Roberto Pizzato: I would define you as novelist, professor and New Media theorist. Do you think this description suits you?
Bruce Sterling: I don’t spend that much time as a professor, but I hang out at design schools quite a lot. New Media theorist is getting outdated pretty fast. You know, “New Media” just gets older. Nowadays it’s probably ok, although that’s becoming a quite old-fashioned thing to do.
Roberto Pizzato: So what do you think, that “New Media” is no more a definition that we should use, that it is somehow outdated?
Bruce Sterling: Well yeah, it’s like “Art Nouveau”, what’s actually new about it? New Media is older than new. Nothing stays new forever. You use it because there’s nothing else to call them, I mean Digital Media, Social Media, Electronic Media, Meta-media, Hypermedia… There’s a list of name this long. But I always distrust things that are called new. I also think that ‘super’ and ‘hyper’ are quite bad. It’s just bad terminology, they end upgetting you in trouble.
Roberto Pizzato: How did the book Shaping Things come up to your mind?
Bruce Sterling: I was asked to go and getting residency at the Art Centre and College of Design in California for a year. So apart of my residency there, I was visionary in residence, that was my job title. Part of my job was to write a book for MIT Press. I am a novelist and I had never written an academic book for MIT Press nor I had never been visionary in residence at a Design School.
Peter Lunenefeld was my editor and you know, I was there for three semesters, and we worked at the text together and had quite some life. I wanted to write a book about ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things, because I just thought they were very intriguing topics that would gradually grow in importance. And it turned out that it was in fact the case.
Roberto Pizzato: How would you define the concepts of Internet of Things and “Spime” to someone who doesn’t have any previous knowledge about this topics, let’s say like my grandmother?
Bruce Sterling: “Spime” is design theory: so it’s me speculating about design. When I write about design, when I teach design, that’s usually what I’m doing. I’m writing about objects and servicesthat don’t yet exist and how to think about them with some rigor. In this case I was talking about the Internet of Thing sand it struck me that, although people often thought about the Internet and the “World of Things”, they rarely consider things from the point of view of the Internet. You know, industrial design is quite keen on things: they’re giving things form, quality, surface line, colours, volume, or whatever.
So I thought to what a thing would be like if it was native to the IoT, not if it was place in the Internet, but like if it was sort of born there, like an internet native. So I came up with this list of qualities that I thought this object might have. I just happened to name it “Spime”, because I’m keen on neologisms. And the world actually came up after having a discussion with a design friend in Colorado. I was talking about this object, how it should be tracked and traced, manufactured in certain ways, sort of fit into a stream of other objects and other services. Let’s just call it ‘Spime’. And they looked quite excited. It’s a coinage and it’s not very elegant, but, you know, at least you can do things with that […].
The idea that you can track things through space and time, I don’t think that really is that critical to what “Spime” is. The idea behind the Spime is that objects become sort of part of a very large database, and it doesn’t matter id it physically exists or not. Most spimes can appear and be gone, but than there’s a sort of record up which persists historically for a long time. OK, maybe you have a piece of bubble gum or can of soda, and you can track them through space and time for maybe six weeks, but nevertheless there’s some kind of unique identity that leaves some kind of trace in a kind of giant database of post-industrial objects.
Roberto Pizzato: You might have changed your mind since that time. Are some of those concepts outdated? Where’s the IoT going?
Bruce Sterling: It’s a speculative work. At that time there really was little that you would call Internet of Things. And ten years later it sort of has become a large industrial effort, a kind of contemporary buzzword, but it doesn’t have really have that much to do with the ideas that I had. Some people in the design world still refer to spimesand they would like to see some of these qualities put into real objects, but that’s by no means what it’s actually happening. And the world of the IoT now would have very little to do with the world of the Internet in another 10 years. Although my ideas about it are different than they were 10 years ago, they are not the same as they would be in ten years from now.
It’s just a collision of vision with reality, as if for example you were talking about the idea of televised broadcast and somebody brings you an actual television. It’s like proposing marriage and actually living inside a house with somebody. […] You can prepare somebody for, but you can’t really describe the reality of it. […]
I think is kind of typical of a lot of speculative work of this kind, the situation as it is is very different than it was when I described it. It’s no more stable, that’s the point I’m trying to make. You’re not gonna be able to nail it down in words and the fact that it is different from what I said, it’s interesting, but it’s not a permanent difference. The idea that we have about it are unstable because the Internet is unstable, objects and services are unstable. My argument that objects and services mean less than the history of objects and services I think is kind of being burned out in some ways.
In my book I made this rather passionate argument that the killer application for the Internet of Things is sustainability. That’s not what current champions really like about it, what they like about it is command and control. […]
So, you know, that’s the lived experience of somebody’s things, but it’s not permanent. I’ve written a new little book about it which is called Epic struggle of the Internet of Things. It is an epic struggle now, it’s not an obvious struggle. If you’re an industry of server you can see a lot of that, hundred of billion of dollars that are being investing in various kind of situations. But it’s not about these guys Larry and Sergey of Google (Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, ndr), you don’t get up in the morning and think “I gotta do what Bruce Sterling’s said in his spimebook”. It’s like saying that somebody in the 19th century got up and wanted to do what John Ruskin said it was a good idea. […]
Google decided to acquire Nest, which is a very good idea and try to move to energy services first. […] Now they have a consortia, that is called the Work with Nest consortia, who are people who agreed to collaborate using Google methods and so fort. So my prediction would be that Google will start –they already have. The fact is that has started with a thermostat, so that they can save people’s energy bills and it also has a fire alarm, so it is also moving into security services.
And Nest has acquired Revolv […] which allows the system to interact with many other platforms or protocols. Revolv is a sort of multi-protocol hub. So this is Google steadily moving into not home, but in the sector. First there’s data, […], then there’s energy, then there’s home security. And now theres’ this other stuff which Revolv allows them to do which is running appliances, control doors, windows, possibly moving into solar energy, this kind of things. […] They wanna move as much as they can on the Android platform. They’re were interested in robotics. They said to see mobile objects like the Google car, maybe a Google vacuum cleaner, this kind of mobile way to use Google services which already exist, voice recognition, image recognition. They will move to your home, they will take photograph of everything and they’re moving ’em into the Google Image servers.
Roberto Pizzato: A few months ago I met the designers behind the Google Talking Shoes. Talking about the intersection between innovation and design, what do you think about a project like that? Is that the future?
Bruce Sterling: Google employs a lot of people to do this kind of design products. I don’t think Google is likely to go into the shoes manufacturing business any time soon. People talk about Instrumenting shoes because you can get power from them, there’s a lot of power generating by walking around. And that’s the main problem with Android and other kinds of portable devices, just have to plug them in every night. And therefore people get bored and they stop doing it, therefore Google stops making money.
So that’s kind of a drag: in theory, Google would love to have you out marching around in boots with little springs in them, […] but these shoes are not going to suddenly appear in large number. What I would think it might happen, maybe in 5 or 10 years, there’ll be some kind of Google Alliance, maybe Google-Adidas. Google doesn’t like the manufacture stuff. They bought Motorola and they sold it off. They do make the glasses, which is interesting. But they’re too pricy, they haven’t been a great users success.
Roberto Pizzato: You’re considered a visionary, and an author who coined many neologisms. Can we define neologisms as products of some sort of ‘language design’?
Bruce Sterling: You know, it’s a funny thing: there’s no like such a thing as a ‘visionary medal’. You don’t have a visionary degree, so if you are considered a visionary you are one, there’s no difference. It’s like the reputation for vision is vision, there isn’t any objective vision of it. I’m not just considered a visionary, I really am.
It took me a while to figure that out, but yeah, I do see things that other people don’t see. Commonly the things that interested me the most have no names, in fact I know where to go look for things that have no names. I try to intervene in the discourse, but it’s actually more effective to spread words made up by other people that it is to make up new ones. I make up some new words, but most of my work involves publicising words that other people have made.
Roberto Pizzato: What’s your favourite wine?
Bruce Sterling: I like Pimanti’s Barbera, there are a lot of different kinds. Vietti is pretty good too. My absolute favourite wine? If I had no other wine to drink for the rest of my life, I’d probably be drinking Barolo. That’s actually better than Barbera, but it’s a bit fussy for everyday. it depends on what you’re gonna do with your wine: if you’re gonna entertain the Pope, Barolo is where it’s at, if you’re trying to sit down and have some pasta for lunch, you know, you want a ‘caraffa’ of decent Barbera.
Roberto Pizzato: I hope you’ll enjoy the wine I brought you.
Bruce Sterling: It’s kind to you to give wine to a guy who works in Italy. It’s fine, I’ll try to drink it so I don’t have to take it on the plane. I’m a big fan of that. We’ve just had the Salone del Gusto: Terra Madre, Carlino from Bra and his troops from the Slow Food movement are all over the places. I was there for three days, I was press at the Salone del Gusto. Tons of Americansthere now. It’s interesting to see that kind of Italian cultural imperialism.
Roberto Pizzato: Who is your favourite cyberpunk author? Who has inspired you?
Bruce Sterling: I think the premier guy of our crew is William Gibson, and he is probably the person most likely to be read in 50 years from now among my cyberpunk colleagues. Speaking as a critic I would consider him as an important figure. i wouldn’t say he’s my favourite, I think one of the most interesting people in our circle is woman from South Africa named Lauren Beukes, who doesn’t really write sci-fi a lot, but when she does write that’s very in a cyberpunk mode.
We didn’t really expect to see blossoming in Cape Town, it didn’t really seem likely that she would be that kind of new South African voice, that sort of clearly reflects our sensibility and that would come along so late, but Lauren is very much one of us.
Roberto Pizzato: And what’s your favourite cyberpunk music band, if there’s any?
Bruce Sterling: In terms of music, I’m from Austin, which is a big music town. I’m not really a music fan, sometime I have something of a music critic. I’m kind of interested in what it does than in why is good. So, you know, I like stuff like Skrillex. yeah, I like Skrillex and that’s not because I take Skrillex as a great musician, he’s just very much of the moment. I mean, he’s a better musician than people think and dubstep is a more interesting form of music that people think.
I’m interested in Sonny [Skrillex’s real name], because I can like follow him in social media, I mean, I listen to his music every once in a while, whenever he puts out a new thing I always listen to it. I can sense what he’s doing, I can understand how his work is progressing and these things are done, what it is that he does and there’s something very cheerful and simple about him: he’s not a tormented artist figure. He’s just kind of a nice kid from California. So to me he operates as a sort of a musical barometer. I can tune in what Skrillex is up to and understand it in pretty sure order.
And not only that, he has interesting colleagues: if Skrillex says that something is good is usually pretty good, or at least something that is gonna get my interest. Like Skrillex I really likes Grimes. Why? They are not from the same town, their music doesn’t sound that much alike. You know, Skrillex likes Grimes because Skrillex is intelligent, he’s got good instinct. It is thanks to my interest in him that I found out about her. She’s not so much a musician, she’s kind of a contemporary cultural figure tape.