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Rants and Raves with Bruce Sterling

October 25, 2004

As an added bonus of meeting with Ty, I got to listen to Bruce Sterling, a futurist and author. He had a lot to say about “what technology really is”. He talks about “models” (a description of an object in a collection of numeric values) becoming more “real” than the object itself. Then he talks about “3d printing”, and how they could continue the trend of models becoming more relevant than the objects they represent. “Once I had a model, then I pressed a button, now I have a thing.” He says that we still treat the material in a dismissive fashion.

He has an interesting mode of inflection is his speaking voice, I can’t tell if he’s under the influence of something.
“Let me REEEEEAD you something about AAAAAAmazon….”
(about an “amazon” device that captures ISBN numbers and downloads all the codes, and then allows you to compare the prices on Amazon)

He goes on and on about Amazon… He talks about how capitalists and manufacturers are all about exploiting our collective ignorance.
He also talks about arphids (RFID), he seems to think that Walmart wants their shoppers to find the item quickly, grab it, and then head out. I think this violates the concept of “serendipitous purchasing”, related to “splurge buying” that companies such as Wal Mart spend bundles of money researching and improving. It’s the old Milk and Eggs phenomenon. Logic would dictate that you put these objects close to eachother to facilitate efficiency (since most people purchase these items in tandem). However, by placing these items as far apart as possible, you force your shoppers to search the store for them, potentially seeing other items to buy.

He then makes the strangest claim of all… That we need to stop using old technolgy. He calls EBay “junk traders”, and says they are inhibiting the process through which old technology is “composted”. I’m not entirely sure what he means by this, as a regular EBay user, I’d like to think that I’m saving these items from the scrap heap, and maybe giving some old items new use and saving space in the landfills. I didn’t ask him to clarify this point, but I did ask him another question, related to a Neal Stephenson article on slashdot.

Question: How do you think three dimensional printing is going to impact the “do it yourself”, “popular culture”, or “Beowulf’ crowd?

He explained how he thought the three dimensional fabricators, or “fabs” would get their first big start in the military, and then trickle down into law enforcement and civilian use. There’s obvious connotations of weaponry involved there, which I think is very possible, but not very interesting. People will always have guns and weapons, why should it matter that they can build their own now? Before you say “they won’t be able to trace the guns by serial numbers anymore”, just stop… you got me there, and that will be a problem. I’m just more interested in what other kinds of things people will make. What immediately springs to mind is tchotchke. Nothing more than cheap showy crap. I think we are going to be absolutely inundated with it. It’s going to be like spam in the real world. I hope by then, we’ve come up with a real way of composting objects, because the alternative is not a pretty picture. However, some possible good that might come out of it is the possibility for “open source engineering”. This of course could be really cool or really dangerous, but I think that it’ll have a place… first with tchotke, and then with more complex items… culminating in what… a toaster oven? a bicycle? a car? It’ll be interesting to see if these objects follow the same path that most open source projects follow.

From → Capstone

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