Bruce Sterling: In July, Mexico’s attorney general became a smart object. Rafael Macedo de la Concha had an RFID chip implanted in his arm that can track and authenticate him, a bold bid to fight government corruption. Of course, it’s his brain that makes him smart. It’s the chip that makes him an object: cataloged, searchable, and locatable in space and time.

The same kind of upgrade is happening to brainless devices, tools, toys, and doodads all around us, creating a world that is Googleable. Ordinary items are being embedded with rudimentary communications and tied to databases. The information associated with these items is becoming ever richer, more up-to-date, and more reflective of conditions on the ground. Moreover, it’s increasingly available to anyone with a Net connection. Unlike the smart objects imagined by futurists for decades, things to come will be refreshingly dumb, but they’ll make their users smarter.



The harbingers are in place, ready to solidify into a proper paradigm. A manufactured item may start with a digital blueprint, its specifications and tolerances available online even before it exists. Automated production and shipping records provide a detailed history of the materials and procedures that went into making it. Once it’s off the production line, a global positioning system can track it in space and time. Social software lets people critique it, offer advice, and suggest improvements. Ad-hoc networks like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi keep the item and the people who use it in constant communication. And if it was designed for disassembly and recycling, the object can be tracked well beyond the end of its useful life.



The future product that embodies these developments will be so radically different from today’s that it will need an entirely new name. So let’s give it one. Because it’s tracked precisely in space and time, let’s call it a spime.



A spime isn’t a superfangled, function-heavy gizmo like a Treo 600. A Treo heroically serves as cell phone, camera, calendar, browser, emailer, music player, and word processor. A spime doesn’t have to be that complicated. It could be a book.



In fact, books are already well on their way to becoming spimes, thanks mostly to Amazon.com. A book listed on that site is much more than the words between its covers. It looks, feels, and behaves like an ordinary book, yet in short order, you can find out its cost, publisher, and printer; whether other editions have been published and what they look like; what other books the author has written; what readers think of the book and what other books those readers have bought; what other publications quote the book; and so on. And, beyond Amazon.com, you can learn about the composition of the paper, how long it will last before yellowing, and what kinds of products it can become when the book is recycled. Some of this information might be contained in the pages, and some might be conjured on the Web via, say, an RFID tag – but in practice, it won’t make much difference. The upshot is that the object’s nature is transparent: an open book.



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