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September 15, 2006

Trebor Scholz


The "electricity" of future participation

A few months ago, when we started to work on the Architecture and Situated Technologies symposium it took me a while to get into the language (ubiquitous findable objects- UFO, geo-locative systems, context-aware/ ambient/ ubiquitous/ invisible/ continuous/ pervasive computing, locative media) and the unfamiliar context of architecture. I was more into all things networked and did not immediately see the connection. But soon I realized that The Internet of Things offers a captivating angle on the "electricity" of future participation in online sociality; may that be through the hardwired or the wireless Internet.

Over the past months on the iDC list we started to talk about networked objects and "The Internet of Things." Things? Things are not a species of their own making. So, why talk of "things" instead of objects? There must be more than semiotic cuteness at play; the term Internet of *Things* can't just be about anthropomorphizing artifacts, machines, products, and gizmos.

Anne Galloway responds:

The sandbox of the future. Not long ago only few people saw much of a future in reading and writing and video production. It was a consumer's world in which we were all "end-users" (I have to shut up and settle for what comes out of the assembly line. Sterling in Shaping Things, p78) But that has changed with what some call the relationship revolution. There is a participatory turn under way. Bang!!! and you have 100 million MySpace members, 600 billion web pages online, and half of American youth contributing content online. (Well, it was not quite so sudden.) Now, the projection expands to participation/content production beyond the screen engaging humans with networked objects. [continue]

I don't want to side-track an excellent post Trebor, but I would like to reflect a bit if I may on the role that Bruce Sterling, science-fiction author, is having in the current practice of pervasive computing research and design. I bring this up not as a commentary on, or critique of, Bruce Sterling the person, but because I believe that traditional questions about authorship are still relevant. I also consider his conference presentations (including their circulation online), and particularly his book Shaping Things, to be rather active non-human actors in the current development of thinking on these matters.

[See also: http://www.purselipsquarejaw.org/2006/03/its-all-about-playing-in-bogs.php]

So, here's my favourite Sterling quote about how Shaping Things came to be:

"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."

[transcribed from:

and more here: http://www.purselipsquarejaw.org/2006/03/internet-of-things-quotes-of-day.php]

I love that he couldn't come up with a _convincing_ story. That someone else was willing to suggest that pervasive computing was not only a cultural myth (at least in part) , but not a very good one at that!

But seriously, the man understands that _words do things_. He's a writer and a charismatic performer after all. And even if he wouldn't use these terms or references, I think he definitely gets Wittgenstein's language games, Austin and Searle and Derrida on speech acts, and even (or especially) Callon and Latour's processes of translation.

So he's been attempting to mobilise his words, his ideas, at conferences--and others are trying to mobilise them as well for their own purposes (including coining their own neologisms). And Sterling's ideas are largely science fiction/social theory/design ideas, although I totally agree with your assessment that Sterling's perspectives lack "deep socio-political analysis" and give too much (strangely apolitical) agency to designers and design. Not surprising, I think, since he is not a social researcher and he was supported by a design department while he wrote the book.

So what is it then, I wonder, that Sterling _succeeds_ in mobilising? Is it the narrative and performative aspects of technology? Is it a tension between fact and fiction? Is it a _critical_ perspective? To be honest, I'm not sure. But I do know that it focusses on things and environments more than on people. In other words, I believe that it fundamentally lacks discussion on traditional social and cultural topics like race, class, gender, power (inequality) and, as you also suggest, history. and it makes it very difficult to understand or appreciate my role as a human, as a woman, as a scholar, etc. in this brave new world of his.

Some of the risks I see us attribute to new technologies often rely on a _lack of reflexivity_ in our own positions. Unlike Sterling, I don't believe our goal should be to "revolutioniz[e] the interplay of human and object" but rather first to acknowledge how we've never been as separate from objects as his position requires, and that small revolutions happen everyday.

And now back to our regular programming...


Anne Galloway
Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology
7th Floor, Loeb Building
Carleton University
1125 Colonel By Drive
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1S 5B6


Posted by jo at September 15, 2006 06:57 PM