On Lifecycles And Spimes

Sun 03 August 2008 by Jim Purbrick

It was immensely satisfying to see Bruce Sterling commenting on Carbon Goggles in his Beyond The Beyond blog for wired last week, not only because I’m a big admirer of his work, but because his 4 year old Spime neologism came up in the original discussions about Carbon Goggles at EuroFOO 2 years ago.

Sterling’s original description of Spimes make them sound extremely sophisticated and active objects: recording and publishing information about their construction and ownership, usage, possible modifications and alerting owners about the need for maintainence and so on. Our current reality is one of more passive objects which are annotated via the web: despite being able to run web servers, the possibilities for modifying Linksys SLUGs are independently published on the web; the lifecycles of passive books are tracked and determined using services like bookcrossing and bookmooch. Everything is web enabled right now: a subject I gave a talk on at BarCamp Brighton last year.

The current model relies on human identification and administration to grease the wheels of dumb objects. We see a Linksys SLUG and google to find out information about it. We enter the information added to a bookcrossed book to find out about it’s sequence of owners and route around the world. Augmented reality takes a step towards automating the process: objects are still passive, but RFID readers replace humans in the identification of objects, automated processes pull information on the object from external databases and augmented reality overlays display the information over the object in a way that gives us x-ray like abilities. We can see the details of the construction, components, chemistry and recycling options for objects. Able to make visible the invisible, to see the full picture beyond feature lists and prices.

Sterling talks about the “need to document the life cycles of objects” and this was the original plan for Carbon Goggles. Everything from an apple to a supercomputer has an Id in Second Life and so the goal was to compare the carbon footprints of everything over it’s entire lifecycle. The apple is cultivated using machine tools, transported, refrigerated and stored and has a carbon footprint just like an object that actively emits carbon like a motorcycle. In many cases the carbon costs of creating and destroying objects can dwarf the carbon they emit in their use. It can be more carbon efficient to buy a second hand car than to buy a new hybrid, despite the later’s frugal emissions while in use.

Unfortunately collecting data on entire life cycles is incredibly difficult. While people can measure the electricity usage of an appliance and add it to the AMEE wiki, it’s much harder to find out the emissions produced by the entire chain of companies that have built transported and assembled the myriad pieces that produced that object. When I last met Gavin in London he told me that the goal is for AMEE to provide this complete lifecycle picture of everything, but we’re a long way off. Environmental costs have been externalities outside company accounting for a long time. AMEE intends to add this missing accounting, but it’s tantamount to annexing every company’s accounting process and is likely to be just as complex as counting the pounds and pence.

In the future we will be able to automatically see everything there is to know about everything around us and be fully aware of the impacts of our consumption. Right now services like bookmooch, freecycle and bookcrossing allow us to add Spime like intelligence to objects if we’re prepared to do a lot of Spime wranging. Experiments like Carbon Goggles give us a glimpse of what the future in the real world might look like. We’re going to be a lot more aware, which is lucky, because we’re going to need to be.

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