The Perfume of Sight

“Imagine a world so filled with intelligent objects that memory can be filled with the perfume of sight”
Edwin Schlossberg

Back at the end of the 1980s when Bob Cotton and I were first working on what became “Understanding Hypermedia” my working title was the “The Perfume of Sight” – its title taken from Edwin Schlossberg’s quote that sat on the back-cover of Chris Jones‘s “Essays in Design”.
Today, through a complex chain of links I found myself listening to Bruce Sterling‘s talk at SXSW 2006, where among many things he imagined a world filled with intelligent objects, objects he calls spimes – the internet of things, which, naturally reminded me of the Schlossberg quote.
But, that was a gentle interlude, where he speculated about a future world where you could find your shoes by googling them and every object would have an accessible history.
Much of his talk was a mixture of rage and despair as he surveyed the New World Disorder and what is happening to his own native America. I won’t go in to the details of his diagnosis, it is better to listen to his words and the sound of his voice as he says them. The hope he clings on to is the resilience of people. This is not a naive, sentimental hope. Living in Belgrade for some of the year he is brought face to face with the horrors that people can inflict on one another. But he can also see that other face, the face of resilience, decency and getting on with life and each other.
Listen to the speech to get the passion and emotion, look at the video clip to see him breaking into tears as he reads Carl Sandburg‘s “The People Yes” and then, thanks to Sean Harton, read the transcript to get the cool rationality of his analysis.
A couple of tasters:
“We’re on a kind of slider bar, between the Unthinkable, and the Unimaginable, now. Between the grim meathook future, and the bright green future. And there are ways out of this situation: there are actual ways to move the slider from one side to the other. Except we haven’t invented the words for them yet. We’ve got smoke building in the crowded theater, but the exit sign is just a mysterious tangle of glowing red letters.”

“It’s not enough to sort of virtually, verbally theorize about these issues. If we’re going to get anywhere we’re going to have to become the change we want to see. Become the change we want to see. And if I have learned something from hanging out with the Eastern European dissident crowd: “Make no decision out of fear.” That is their motto. Make no decision out of fear. No, the decline does not hold indefinitely. Because the people tire of the fraud. They tire of the evil. The people tire of the sheer, stupid pettiness of their unnecessary miseries. The people tire of being promised jam and fed ashes. You know, globalization needs to be understood culturally. Because the Great American Novel is over. What’s required at this point in literature is a Great Regional Novel about the planet Earth. A regional novel. And if the inspiration for that is found, it’s going to be found in human resilience, and in the depth of world history. It’s going to be found in the resilience of people.”
By coincidence, I listened to a talk by Suketu Mehta about life in Mumbai. Like Bruce Sterling, he has a very realistic view of people, indeed he starts his talk with an account from someone, who, as part of a Hindu mob, set fire and killed a Muslim street seller, during some sectarian riots in Mumbai. But, also like Bruce Sterling, his hopes lie in the people. He describes how when Mumbai was flooded, it was the people who organised themselves to help each other. He ends his talk with a powerful metaphor. He describes how on the packed trains of Mumbai, if you find yourself arriving as the train is drawing out, hands will grab you, pulling you on to the already over-crowed train, drawing on the human sympathy of knowing you could lose your job if you were late and, at that moment, blind as to whether you were Hindu, Muslim, Christian or with no religious affiliation at all.
Now what, you may be thinking, has all this this got to do with intelligent objects. Well, somewhere in the middle of his talk, he describes the way that now land records have been digitised and put up on the net, fewer peasants are cheated out of their holdings by unscrupulous bureaucrats. If you scour the net you can find many examples of how technologies, such as mobile phones can be more valuable to the very poor than they are to the more privileged among us.
In his talk Bruce Sterling quotes William Gibson’s aphorism, “the street finds it’s own uses for things”, a quote I use often myself. And why is this important? My very strong sense is that if we are to move the slider from “the grim meathook future” to “the bright green future”, it will the resilience of the people, the improvisations of the everyday, that will move us there and that the uses that the street finds for things will play a crucial role in that process.