We Rep [Ideas]

Hard Things Soft Qualities Pt. 3

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Google Candy: Information Society Information economy Experience economy Network Society Global Village Technopoles Technocracy The Digital City Semantic Place Semantic Web Relational Spaces Responsive Architecture Cybertecture Ubicomp Ambient Intelligence Metaverses MMORPGs Computational Perception                   The Singularity Automedia ‘Everyware’ Robotic-user-interface Utility Fog Spimes Blogjects Blobjects Physical Avatars Fablab Object-Hyperlinking Blooks          Things That Think Dynamic Physical Rendering Fabjects Arphids Semacode Device Art Biots Claytronics ‘Networth’ Ambient Devices            Molecular Manufacturing Mobile Commerce Foglets from-bit-to-it


The infusion of computation and communications into everyday life has synthesized global economy, nation states, organizations, cities, neighborhoods, architecture, down to lowly everyday objects into informatic and computational terms, in ‘soft’ terms.  In the writings of Jacobs, Castells, Latour, Gershenfeld, Mitchell, Kurzweil, and Hayles we see that this theme has evolved from science fiction techno fetish, to focused interdisciplinary academic study, to commercial pursuit. From dream, to meme, to theme.


Anew vocabulary is enabling us to discuss and negotiate these concepts that reveal a new territory between the world of bits and the world of atoms. The neologisms and statistically improbable phases in the tag cloud above offer a glimpse of how traditional concepts are being renovated as we move from architecture to responsive and relational space, or from objects to fabjects. Objects are a material language that enables us to externalize ideologies, values, beliefs and manage time and behavior. In this vein, they could be considered a way of preserving and codifying habit or ritual, a tangible system of knowledge management and well as a medium of personal and collective exploration. Similarly, language, as seen above, allows us to sketch and prototype abstract thoughts and ideas through words. Something is happening, and it is clearly being reflected linguistically, artistically, academically, and commercially. Objects are becoming as malleable as software, code and language itself.


Dr. J. Storrs Hall of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing expands this notion further in his talk ‘Nanotechnology: As Hardware Becomes Software’

‘Designing a microprocessor has more in common with programming than it does with designing a steam engine. Similar tools—specification languages, simulators, rule checkers, profilers—and a similar level of complexity dominate over the distinction between matter and bits as the output.’

“Someday soon, we could download hardware from the Net just like we download software today.” predicts James C. Ellenbogen of Mitre Corp., a Pentagon-funded research center. Bruce Sterling, a science fiction author and futurist, suggests that things are becoming more informational than material; for increasingly they begin as information and end as information. Physical object-hood, it seems, is a mere phase state in the evolutionary streams the informational concept lifecycle. The softness of data and information, its potential and applications are more valuable than hard objects, or so suggests the emerging consensus.


The ‘softening’ of ‘things’, which have newfound structural and representational variability, now have a kind of flexability and dynamism that matches in pace the ‘everyday’ genesis and processing of human conventions within social systems of meanings and means. Sometimes the means are not always available for new goals to be met. In a sense these ‘soft things’ signify exploration for the eventual standardization of ‘fluid means’ for ‘openly determinable results’ that may potentially re-symbolize our understanding of object-hood. This is not an arbitrary assertion intending to commit ontological anarchy, but a descriptive account of real world developments in how material culture and context is produced, engaged with, and understood.

How might our habits and rituals change, be amplified or obsolesced?
In what ways might this new species of things reflect our values, facilitate in new ways the realization of our goals, motivations, desires?


A fellow colleague once shared with me a life changing moment he had in his first year of university. He reveled in the idea that humans had built our environment – that it was all considered in its own way, shaped. Spoons, cups, shirts, sidewalks, buildings – all made by people. In times when we see our hardware increasingly behave like software, we will undoubtedly ask “What informs the morphology and genesis of things?” Who “programmed” this? What shaped this? Why is this like this? Will the forms that constitute our objects reflect the kind flexibility that evolving languages exhibit, or will they inherit traditional qualities of proprietary material goods? Can the ‘negotiation of things” begin to resemble a collective conversation?


O’Rielly’s Web 2.0 ‘meme map’ communicates some regularities of next generation software that may prove useful and relevant sampling of characteristics.  The Web 2.0 core competencies for the purposes of this paper are, Services not packaged software, Architecture of participation, Remixable data source and data transformations, software above the level of a single device, and harnessing collective intelligence. Concepts that relate to these qualities are hackability, right to remix, perpetual beta, and ‘software gets better the more people use it.’ The result is the strategic positioning of the ‘web-as-platform’ for emergence and innovation. As object functions and forms become more soft and sensory, we may see the control of their variations and functions become transformable as object use becomes a sketching and programming platform. Examples of such software are Google , Youtube, Amazon and Facebook. In the near future the examples of organizations that produce hard goods like P&G, IKEA and General Electric may begin to populate this list, Philips the creator of Shapeways already has.


The emergent nature of human negotiation of meaning differs greatly in control and interests from the practices of existing business processes surrounding the production of commercial products. Yet, working models exist and successes have been had in the unique business models of web2.0 software-as-service start-ups that fuse qualities of each of these contrasting practices. These models are becoming more and more relevant as objects adopt increasingly “soft” qualities [Hall, Ellenbogen, Sterling]. New models that can create value through in-context, user experience based design sketching of real world objects will become important in years to come. Especially as ‘millennials’ grow to expect their hardware to be as responsive and malleable as their childhood software. These users have no qualms about privacy, and wouldn’t be surprising if simple object use flipped into a form of use performance that pays for the object itself.


Written by rthomas

March 3, 2009 at 4:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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