A Modest Proposal:
Bike as spime

by Will Meister

Bruce Sterling gave a blistering address to SIGGRAPH this year.

This is good news. Like most technology pundits, Sterling had a couple of bad years after the dotcom crash. He went way out into deep left field and started ranting about weird stuff like autonomous systems down your toilet. That may be appropriate bevaviour for a sometime sf author, but it's no way to reach public consciousness.

Sterling is now on his way back to the floodlit centre of things. The burst of revivifying energy is coming from the global warming debate. Aha! I hear you shout, this Sterling sounds like my kind of guy! My bike is a zero emission vehicle!! Let's give a great big collective 63xc.com finger to the moron SUV fuel guzzlers!!!

Hold hard there, little fella. This isn't that kind of article. Sterling's pitch isn't a Limits-to-Growth type of deal. Instead, he's into the Big Fix, genius global hackery to sort out the damage done by our machines and still keep our living standards on the rise.

If you like reading about genius global hackery, then I can strongly recommend Sterling's website, which covers all manner of Amazing Future Shit. See sidebar. This article concentrates on a single idea from Sterling's SIGGRAPH speech: the concept of the spime.

According to Sterling, technology companies have learnt in the last few years to concentrate their efforts on the manufacture of gizmos. Gizmos are small, complex devices with bewildering combinations of functionality, much of it only half-realised. Examples: cellphone-and-browser; camera-and-speech-recorder; personal digital assistants of all stripes.

If a gizmo were ever truly finished, it would cease to be a gizmo and would instead become a commodity. They would make it in China and ship it over in bubblepacks and no-one would think about it.

Instead, the gizmo remains forever incomplete and so commands attention. The end-user becomes intimate with their gizmo, experiences ferocious partisan loyalty towards it, buys magazines and frequents websites which tell them how to get the best out of it. Above all, they remain in close touch with the manufacturer. Free product development, you see?

Sterling's big SIGGRAPH idea is to gizmo-ize the entire realm of product design, extending the gizmo working method throughout the built and manufactured environment. His name for a gizmo-ized product is a spime, a SPeculative IMaginary object. According to Sterling:

When you buy a spime, your account info is embedded in the transaction, including a special email address set up for your Spimes. After the purchase, a link is sent to you with customer support, relevant product data, history of ownership, geographies, manufacturing origins, ingredients, recipes for customization, and bluebook value. The spime is able to update its data in your database via radio-frequency ID...

The upshot of all this complexity is to establish and maintain an ongoing dialog between manufacturer, object and end-user. The spime can signal service calls or recommend recycling options. The manufacturer can suggest upgrades and bugfixes. The owner reports problems and suggests improvements. Ownership becomes something more complex than passive consumption, becomes instead an ongoing dialog promoting efficient design and re-usability.

Now, I suspect that many cyclists' ears will have shot up about two paragraphs back. After all, we riders experience daily one of the most complex and intimate relationships which exists between man and machine. Is there any consumer less passive than a cyclist? Of course there isn't. That's why the world's first spime should be a bicycle.

I want a cycle manufacturer to read this and implement a spimed bicycle. I want my spimed bike to have its own unique ID, nanoscale RF locators, and an individual website. I want the software on that website to interface with police services and 2hnd bike shops, so that my bike is traceable worldwide. And it should talk to component manufacturers, so that I know what length BB I'll need to get 42mm chainline on my new 165mm crank. I want to know if I can fit Such-and-Such's 37c knobblies. I want to know if my new mudguards will foul on the dropout adjust screws. If they do, I want my report to be forwarded automatically for the design crews to sort out. And I want a discount against the revised design which I made happen. And money off scheduled services to keep the bike on the road longer. And, when it finally dies, I want the manufacturer to tell me where to take the old frame for recycling so that I don't have to worry about sticking poisonous heavy metals into some landfill. In short, I want ongoing dialog to be part of the deal when I lay out my hard-earned.

The weird thing is that this wishlist is pretty well feasible using current technology. I ran an early version of this rant past the excellent Matthew Grimm at Kogswell, and he had this to say:

When I left the software industry, I was struck by how far the usefulness of computing had come. I had been so busy working away at statistical applications that I hadn't really paid attention to 3D graphics, CAD, illustrating and other tools that allowed me to design bicycles. I just stepped out of being a programmer of stat applications and into being a 'programmer' of real world objects. And what amazes me is how powerful/simple the tools have become.

C'mon, let's do it. Spime, anyone?


Will Meister edits 63xc.com and reads way too much.

Version 1 August 2004

Boing Boing has the full text of Sterling's SIGGRAPH address.
Sterling Central is at Viridian, a clearing house for ideas and information relating to future energy technologies and other neat stuff.
Matthew Grimm has more neat stuff about cycling at Kogswell.

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