Geert Lovink on Thu, 27 May 1999 10:25:09 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Viridian Note 00068: Household Localizers

Date: Wed, 26 May 1999 22:33:59 -0500
From: Bruce Sterling <>
To: Viridian List <>
Subject: Viridian Note 00068: Household Localizers

Key concepts: housekeeping, ubiquitous computing, tangible 
cyberspace, digital localizers, anti-theft tags,  ACM 

Attention Conservation Notice: It's not a custom-written 
Viridian note, but a brief speech recently delivered to 
2,500 computer-human interface designers.

The Viridian Library:

Entries in the Viridian Power Banner Contest:
(note dino animation at bottom of page)
This contest expires May 31, 01999

Presentation at SIGCHI 99
Association for Computing Machinery
Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction
Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, USA
May 18, 01999

by Bruce Sterling

    For my mercifully brief presentation today, I'd like 
to talk in a rather unromantic, practical way about the 
interface between humanity and its stuff. My humble topic 
is that ancient curse, humanity's most basic task: 

    First, let's try to get the technological big picture, 
and then we'll get into some practical, everyday 

     I'll use myself and my own life as a cogent example 
here.  I think I'm rather typical of most SIGCHI attendees 
in that I now have two classes of possessions:  actual 
possessions, and virtual possessions.  Over the last 
twenty years, I've gotten my hot little hands on much more 
of both classes, but mostly, an explosive increase in the 
second class, virtual stuff.  I own  a hell of a lot of 
virtual stuff now.  A Guatemalan family of four could live 
an upwardly mobile life on the revenue I spend on data 
flows.  Especially if you count my cable TV, phone bills, 
Internet hookup, software, modems, PCs and the household 
security system.

    So, if there's a difference between my two classes of 
possessions, it isn't the money involved.  No, the truly 
remarkable thing about  my virtual stuff is its anomalous 
relationship to property law.  Is it my property, or isn't 
it my property?  Who knows?  I sure don't know.  I've got 
virtual stuff that is freeware, it's shareware, it's cut-
and-pasted from heaven knows where. It's personal, it's 
public,  I made some of it myself,  and every flavor of so 

   Even the stuff I bought direct from Steve Jobs and Bill 
Gates doesn't actually belong to me.  It came almost 
mummified in complicated shrinkwrap declarations, so even 
though I paid real money, carried the box home, and 
installed the contents myself, I don't actually own this 
stuff.  I kind of license it, or rent it, apparently. 

    The Software Publishers Association says that I'm to 
regard this purchased virtual property as something like a 
chair.  I'm supposed to believe that software is a 
physical, sacred property that will stay in one place and 
under one legal identity, forever.  Or until release 2.0, 
whichever comes first.  Even though, for instance, I used 
Netscape for years, when it was college freeware, and then 
a booming corporation, and then open-source code, and then 
a division of AOL, and then, probably, nothing at all but 
a memory, except that I'll still be using Netscape, 
because I'm really lazy.

    Here's my pitch in a nutshell:  I can't imagine 
virtual property becoming anything much like a chair.  
Butt I can easily imagine chairs becoming much, much more 
like virtual property.

   This idea is probably best filed under the grand 
conceptual heading of "tangible cyberspace," i.e., the 
process in which the products, programs, and innate nature 
of virtuality spill out of the computer screen and infect 
the physical world.

     People used to talk about "wiring the home."  This is 
old-fashioned rhetoric now. Turn the term inside out, and 
it becomes "sheltering your network." It all becomes clear 
if you postulate that the net always comes first.  My 
physical possessions are an aspect of the net.

     Today, right now, if you objectively compare my 
virtual possessions to my actual possessions, it rapidly 
becomes obvious that my actual possessions are violently 
out of control.  I have all kinds of searching and 
cataloging devices and services for my desktop machine, 
and for the Internet.  But I've been known to hunt for my 
socks or my car keys for almost an hour.

     My house is an awful mess, because my actual 
possessions are very stupid.  They don't know what they 
are, they don't know where they are, and they don't know 
where they belong.

     All this could change with a small, cheap, network 
peripheral which is, I believe, just barely over the 
technical horizon. The device I imagine is very similar to 
a common antitheft device, but much smarter.  We could 
call it a "tab," or a "localizer," or a "locator ID tag."

    I imagine this locator ID tag having about a hundred k 
of memory and costing about ten cents.   It probably runs 
on household temperature fluctuations.   Its primary 
activity is to emit a unique radio chirp every two seconds 
or so.  This chirp is triangulated by a network of 
receivers in my house and my lawn.  Basically, the chip 
says, "I'm what I am, and here's where I am," in other 
words, "I am Bruce Sterling's left cowboy boot, and here I 
am under the couch where the cat dragged me."  

     Fine, you think:  you're tagging everything you own, 
how anal and geeky of you.  No, that's not how this works.  
I'm way too lazy to work that hard.  Instead, I pay a 
professional interior designer to come in and tag 
everything for me.  I pay this guy (most likely she's a 
very smart woman actually), to catalog and tag everything 
I own, and put it where it sensibly belongs == and record 
that data, and embed it in my system for me.

    Now I know nothing, but  my house knows where all my 
stuff is.  My possessions know what they are, and where 
they belong.  Unskilled labor can enter my home, and 
restore everything to perfect order in maybe an hour.  

     And of course no one can steal any of it, because 
it's all security tagged, automatically.

    Everything I own is a police sting.  These tags are 
really small, you see?  The size of a fingernail paring, 
and tougher than a tenpenny nail.  Cops always say to put 
an ID on your bicycle, but everything I own has a very 
smart, active ID.  

      You might think that I find it kind of distasteful 
to have strangers going through all my stuff.  Sure, there 
are some things I worry about, like my bong, my vibrator, 
and my ball-gag, but most of this nervous anxiety about 
the safety of my possessions is just ingrained habit.   If 
I always know where it is, and I can never lose it,  and 
it answers whenever I call for it, then it just surrounds 
me in an undistinguished haze of cyberstuff. I don't worry 
about it any more than I worry about the exact location of 
the segments on my hard drive.

    I never have to remember where I put anything again.   
"Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind," as Ralph 
Waldo Emerson used to say, but in this case, I am 
triumphantly clearing the processing space in my own head 
of literally thousands of unconscious catalogs.  How many 
scissors do I have, how many staplers do I have?  I never 
really use more than one at a time.

    My materialist obsession becomes a de-materialist 
obsession.  There's just as much money around as there 
ever was, I accomplish everything I did before, but 
there's a lot less junk underfoot.  Less mass == more 

    It sounds like heaven, doesn't it?

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