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Letting Objects Tell Their Stories

fractaluniverse.jpgJulian Bleecker's paper A Manifesto for Networked Objects — Cohabiting with Pigeons, Arphids and Aibos in the Internet of Things (PDF) -- also known as Why Things Matter -- should be required reading for every WorldChanging participant, contributor or reader.

The essay looks at the rise of what Bleecker calls "blogjects" (objects that blog), precursors to Bruce Sterling's more complex "spime" concept. Simply put, these are networked objects that document on an ongoing basis their locations, their histories, and their purposes -- in essence, telling us their stories. On the surface, Bleecker focuses on the evolution of this technology, but in reality, he's really talking about a catalyst for bringing about the Bright Green future. These are some of his examples:

[Blogjects tell us] about their conditions of manufacture, including labor contexts, costs and profit margins; materials used and consumed in the manufacturing process; patent trackbacks; and, perhaps most significantly, rules, protocols and techniques for retiring and recycling [them].
...With Kundi, connected Things (they were, in this case, webcams capturing images of the real world) could have their content tagged as "hot" and draw in attention from anyone on the Internet. ...there is one usage scenario I've heard Mike mention more than once — a Kundi Cam placed in a refugee camp where rape and murder are routine. Now imagine that the Blogject version of the Kundi Cam has a visible indicator showing how many tens of thousands of people around the world are watching at any given moment. Behaviors change, threatening space edges towards safe space because Things are enrolled in the social web thicket.
...What about the other cohabitants that will now have the ability to get on the network within this pervasively networked future? Critter cams that disseminate a realtime video stream from a Kapok tree in the Amazonian rain forest or an RSS feed and podcast from a school of migrating whales showing all kinds of meaningful environmental data would definitely make it into my news aggregator.
...It's not at all interesting to have my car “blog” routine things such as the routes I’ve driven, its time-average fuel consumption, or the street address of a restaurant I’ve just passed that has a menu that would appeal to my palette based on previous restaurant experiences. It is much more consequential, and much more assertive of a first-class participant in the network of social discourse for flocks of vehicles to provide macro-scale insights into how much fuel is consumed hourly on Interstate 405 in the Los Angeles basin, or how many tons of pollutants are exhausted into the atmosphere every hour.

And there's more, much more. I don't know if Bleecker reads WorldChanging, but he's clearly interalized the same philosophies that many of us here have about the important role distributed, networked sources of information can play in improving our relationship with our planet. My own focus has been on the devices that people could carry with them to document the changes taking place on the planet, an active form of participation in making a better future, but Bleecker here talks about giving the planet itself a participant in the conversation. This maps to the discussions we've had here on the role of sensors (including a post yesterday), but this is a far more energetic vision.

With this in mind, I can see a slightly different role for people in this collaborative project of documenting the planet. We can still contribute what we see and sense with handheld devices and the like, but we can play an equally important role in aggregating and filtering the material coming from the myriad blogjects out there. Machines are good at doing the same thing without the need for rest; humans are good at detecting patterns and making intuitive connections. The blogject future that Julian Bleecker describes would let both excel at what they do best, ultimately creating not simply an "augmented reality," but an "augmented world."

(Via BoingBoing)

Comments (9)

I'm amazed to see such awesome article. Brilliant one!

Excellent ideas, flows well with our discussions for next weeks' A Networked Theory of a Better World roundtable in LA. Thanks for sharing Bleeker!

I'd love to see more resources here that map the hotspots in dynamic ways. I loved GapMinder and am looking for more geographic and educational tools in that realm that illustrate blogjects over time.

I see y'all have improved the readability of your blockquotes by changing them from italic to italic and tiny.

Accessibility is worldchanging too!

(Cool article, though.)

Chad Monfreda:

Thanks for the link, Jamais. Anyone simultaneously intrigued and perplexed by this essay should look into Bruno Latour's work. The Politics of Nature, might be a difficult place to start, but will be rewarding if taken with an open mind. He also has an introductory book on actor-network theory called Reassambling the Social, although I can't vouch for it not having read it.

Dried Flower:

Nice article to read, but there's a fair degree of blogsturbation. Weren't our kitchen appliances supposed to be über-connected by now for example? Weren't we already fantasising a few years ago about the contents of our fridges reporting their state of consumption, and the local supermarket monitoring a feed (pun intended) from the fridge. Is there anything new here apart from labels and shoe-horning the idea of a blog into the equation?

Wilted Flower:

Early adopter customer to sales-bot: "Is that blobject a blogject?"


There's a design imperative for a world in which connecting kitchen appliances to super markets is the fantasy vision of the future. I guess what I was trying to do is say that there are other things that can happen in a connected world, and networked refrigerators and sofas is not an imperative. The naming is meant to help. I'm not a fantastic wordsmith, but I wanted to link the notion of blogging (where a fair bit of attention has focused on the way blogs can effect political and social change) and networked objects (which have had some bit of play around the ITU's Internet of Things report, plus the general whimsy that art-technologists, R&D types and others have had playing with different networking scenarios.) I wanted an idea or notion that was legible and then something definitely not meant to suggest that the future I would love to have is not _only_ the future in which networked objects are about getting the latest pop song automatically downloaded to your phone.

Bruce Sterling, who wrote the wonderful design treatment called Shaping Things has been an inspiration in this regard. I am working on this vector of thought largely as a way to be in conversation with his ideas and his material, which I admire a great deal. He's obviously been thinking long and hard on the topic. My material is a riff on his — all trackback goes his way and to many others who have been inspiring, including Latour (Politics of Nature, Making Things Public, We Have Never Been Modern, Pandora's Hope, etc., etc.) and Haraway (Companion Species Manifesto, A Manifesto for Cyborgs).

Julian, thank you for commenting.

I've been in the futurist/consulting game long enough to recognize that when the marketeers try to reveal the Wave of the Future, they're almost always 100% wrong.

Your depiction of what tomorrow holds feels much more plausible than refridgerators ordering more milk and everyone watching sports on their cell phones.


Parenthetically, I spent several years in the advertising racket during the dot-com. The first agency I worked at was well established and incredibly forward thinking in terms of figuring out how networked digital publics could become a lucrative opportunity for brand marketing and advertising. We created sites. They aren't interesting in hindsight except for a historical perspective, but it was a powerful brew back in the day. The senior partner behind all of this loved to do a power presentation and talk about pages (remember those?) being delivered messages when you passed by a Starbucks with a sale, or when your refrigerator was low on milk. They were somewhat moronic statements by an otherwise very clever and savvy man, but I have to give him credit for anticipating, in his own salesman's sort of way, the network pervading physical space.

Ever since, and probably even before, I feel an allergic reaction set in when I hear about smart friges and think about all the attention cell phone carriers get when they stream television to your phones.

How do we create a framework in which other networked objects are legible to consumers? What gets beyond feeling satisfied with the refrigerator that blogs?


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