Thursday, August 12, 2004
Designing for Gizmos and Spimes
Writer Bruce Sterling gave the keynote speech at SIGGRAPH this past week and Luke Wroblewski has written an interesting summary of it.
In the speech, he expands on some ideas about objects he presented in a book called Tomorrow Now that I read about a year ago. To summarize, Sterling categorizes devices into machines, products, gizmos, and (now) something called spimes. Machines are 19th century, and products are the 20th century children of machines. Gizmos are mainly what we're designing now. Quoting:
"For a gizmo, the function is the decoration. A gizmo...has more functions than the user will ever be able to master, deploy, or exploit. It's designed to have baroque or even ridiculous amounts of functionality...A gizmo...doesn't want you to accomplish any task in particular. It wants a relationship; it wants to be an intimate experience...It wants you engaged, it wants you pushing those buttons, it wants you faithful to the brand name and dependent on the service."
Even more outrageous (for designers anyway), Sterling goes on to claim
"End users don't want to solve problems. A solved problem is actively dangerous for them. Any end user with a permanent solution has lost a job...This also explains why end users don't settle for cheap, simple, fully usable software. After all, if software is simple and useable, then anyone can use it. End users...can't afford to be just anybody, because this is a swift ticket to poverty."
This of course goes against almost everything that has been written in the field of design in the last, oh, twenty years as we've used design as a method for solving user problems. But Sterling, erm, might also be right. Sure, some people want simple ways of tackling problems, but they also might not. In looking at users' tasks and goals while working, it's easy to forget they might not want you to solve their problems for them: they instead want the tools to solve it themselves. They might not want something made simpler; they just want to do something better. There's a difference.
At SIGGRAPH, Sterling upped the ante and introduced a new object into the mix, objects of the future he's calling spimes. Quoting Wroblewski paraphrasing Sterling,
"Spimes are objects that have "swallowed" our past by combining social networks, RFID tags, GPS systems, self Google-ing, peer-to-peer networking, and more. Spimes can reveal most anything about themselves. They are precisely located in space and time, have a history and identity, and make their nature transparent to us. Spimes are "user groups first, and objects second." But most importantly, spimes allow us to make good on sustainability through a traceable lifecycle. Because spimes have identities and complete histories, they create accountability: we know where they end up and we know the impact they have on our world."
The impact of spimes on the world and the world of design is pretty mind-boggling. Imagine designing an object that has such total transparency that you can follow through its lifecycle as users buy it, use it, and even discard it. Then imagine the privacy issues that will have be navigated. We're seeing only the smallest taste of this with RFID tags right now. Now imagine designing this same object with all of its innards exposed for adaptation and hacking and you begin to see the world we're heading into.
There's a class at CMU called The History of Objects. Maybe one should be taught called The Future of Objects.
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