September 29, 2007

Bruce Sterling @ Circolo dei Lettori

Event link (Location)

See also: Review on the Experientia blog

Last night I went to my first "geek gathering" since arriving in Italy. It was an interview with the author Bruce Sterling to mark the launch of the Italian translation of his latest book (Shaping Things or La Forma del Futuro in Italian) but before I get onto the interveiew, a quick note about the venue and the audience.

It was held by the Circolo dei Lettori (Circle of Readers) in the Graneri della Roccia Palace, not quite as grand as some of the other palaces in the city, and it doesn't stand out particularly on the street. However, that's more due to there being so many grand old apartment blocks in Turin, rather than it being an unimpressive building. The interior was more impressive, with a wide staircase taking us up to the first floor, through an ante-room and into the venue for the Presentazione. That room was suitably palatial, with a huge ornate chandelier, and marble bas-relief statues adorning the walls. The projector screen in the corner looked positively out of place against such decorations and the rows of sculptured, delicately-legged chairs laid out for the audience.

The audience itself was unlike those I've encountered at similar events in the UK; it had a much more varied composition - a wider spread of ages, and a lot more women. Maybe that reflects Turin's design slant, compared with Cambridge's comp. sci. leanings.

Luckily for me, Bruce doesn't speak Italian; so I was able to understand everything that he talked about and also the introductory short film that was shown at the start of proceedings. However, that does mean that the rest of this is skewed towards what Bruce said, as everything else was conducted in Italian - most of which I didn't understand.

I was amused by the only question or comment made by an audience-member, who pointed out that the chair in the film wasn't very beautiful. Bruce said it was based on a design by one of his friends, who wants to explore and expose the abilities of these new computer-controlled digital routers (that'll be the type that shape wood, rather than ones that connect bits of the Internet together), and agreed that it did result in something fairly ugly. It shows that the new hi-tech tools have a way to go before they match the craft of the Italian chairs we were all sat upon.

The Arrival of Spimes?

The film (which you should probably go and watch, rather than just suffer the following summary) gave a glimpse into the world thirty years from now, as imagined by Bruce. A couple, shopping from the comfort of their own home can find and interact with the individual craftsman-designer who makes a chair they like. They can see how the design is mapped out on computer before being sent to a computer-controlled fabrication plant; track it all the way to their doorstep; then, because it's a "spime enabled" chair, they can integrate it into their house's object-information-management system and start using and enjoying their new acquisition. Unfortunately, it gets damaged in a thunderstorm, but because of the spime it's easy for them to contact the designer who offers them a free replacement in exchange for the old damaged chair and the metadata about how it broke (all of which is contained in the spime, which is fortunately undamaged).

Before the interview, most of the knowledge I had of Bruce (and his work) was focused around spimes and how they'll make everything trackable and self-knowledgeable. By self-knowledgeable I mean that objects will know where they've come from; how they were made; how they've been used; and how they should be destroyed. Kind of a cross between some kind of smart label and a black-box recorder.

There's this assumption that the spimes will become more useful and valuable than the objects to which they're attached. In the film, one of the characters even goes as far as to say so: "They gave you a free chair because you gave them all our 'meta-data': our user records, a full video account of the lightning damage... Those data are worth more than the chair."

It's not at all clear to me why that would be the case.

I can see that in some cases it would be useful to know how your product had been used, and to get information about how the product failed, but only for a fraction of the products you sold. Surely the cost of providing a replacement would soon outweigh the value provided by the information?

It Isn't All About Spimes

A lot of the advances and changes pictured in the film are already with us, something Bruce himself pointed out during the talk. The Internet lets buyers and designer-creators find each other, interact and make and sell things. New fabrication technology helps designers manufacture items that beforehand would have required the economies of scale of the mass-market. And RFID tags or the combination of printed labels and humans being able to recognise "www.blah..." and type it into a computer provide the smart-labelling and information-providing side of spimes.

The breakthrough idea in Bruce's book isn't spimes, it's the understanding that the current linear manufacturing process of design-make-sell-use-discard needs to become a proper cycle where the discard step is replaced with some form of feedback of the physical object to the manufacturer. Spimes are just an enabler for that process, and the added information is a sweetener to make accepting the product at the end of its (initial) life more palatable.

I think it's a rather utopian and slightly unrealistic view of how things will turn out.

The main problem I have is that the world isn't so neat and never will be. What happens with with objects made from other component objects, like a car? Does that have a multitude of spimes, or just one? What about products that use discarded other products as their raw materials - like these Grolsch bottle goblets? Do they keep the original Grolsch spime or get a brand new one?

At the end of the day it doesn't matter. Bruce is a sci-fi writer, and this is just one imagining of one possible future world. It will be up to us to craft the actual reality as time progresses. I agree with him on the main theme that there needs to be a sustainable re-interpreting of products when they outlive their current use; and I hope there's some truth in his prediction of a shift from huge, faceless mass-manufacturing towards smaller, more human individual designers and craftsmen. I wouldn't go as far as the sole designer though - from experience I know that can be a pretty lonely work life at times - and I think working as a small team would be more enjoyable, and also let people focus on their strengths rather than having to be designer, manufacturer, marketer, salesman and businessman all at once.

Posted by Adrian at 04:27 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 26, 2007

links for 2007-09-26

Posted by delicious at 09:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 21, 2007

Run To the Hills

Photo of the Alps from Aosta An added bonus of having people come to visit is that it gives us that added push to get out of Turin and explore some of the surrounding area. On Saturday we did just that, and headed off into the Alps.

We've been into the Alps to the west of Turin before, when we first arrived by car and also when we took some visitors to Sestriere; so this time we struck out to the north - past Ivrea and up towards Monte Bianco (or Mont Blanc, if you're on the French side).

Our destination was Aosta, about an hour and a half's drive from Turin and an easy run on the autostrada. It's a picturesque little town, very much a town rather than just a ski resort (in contrast to Sestriere, where there wasn't that much to do when we visited as it was the middle of the summer).

Aosta is sometimes called the Rome of the Alps, as there are old Roman ruins and ancient walls and arches everywhere. We spent a lovely afternoon wandering around in the 33 degree sun browsing the shops and soaking up the atmosphere in little cafes.

My favourite bit of Aosta is its relationship with the surrounding mountains. The streets are fairly narrow and the buildings a few storeys high, so at every corner you get a fabulous glimpse of a different fragment of snow-capped Alp, framed by these old apartment blocks.


Posted by Adrian at 08:56 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 20, 2007

links for 2007-09-20

  • I find it rather ironic that social networking sites, of all things, call part of their protocol for interacting (and presumably proliferating) OFF.
  • Learning a foreign language gets the Web2.0 treatment. I've been trying the Italian course, and it seems pretty good so far - you get to hear and see the phrases, with nice touches like being able to repeat part of a phrase by clicking on it. Good for a
  • Stephen Fry has a blog! Who's going to tell him that the entries aren't supposed to be quite so long? If he carries on like that he'll give the rest of us a bad name...
Posted by delicious at 09:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 14, 2007

Dusko Goykovich Quintet @ Piazza Valdo Fusi

Posted by Adrian at 08:25 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 13, 2007

links for 2007-09-13

Posted by delicious at 09:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 12, 2007

links for 2007-09-12

Posted by delicious at 09:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 10, 2007

links for 2007-09-10

Posted by delicious at 09:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 07, 2007

links for 2007-09-07

Posted by delicious at 09:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 06, 2007

links for 2007-09-06

Posted by delicious at 09:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack