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Shaping Things

by Bruce Sterling; Lorraine Wild, Designer
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005
144 pp. illus. 62 b/w. Trade, $45.00; paper, $17.95
ISBN: 0-262-19533-X; ISBN: 0-262-69326-7.

Reviewed by Dene Grigar
Texas Woman’s University


When Bruce Sterling’s edited collection, Mirrorshades, came out in the mid- 1980s, science fiction aficionados and computer geeks found a genre, however short-lived cyberpunk was, that spoke our language and gave us a peek into a future that we were, however unconsciously, helping to form. Here was a writer whose vision of technology influenced a great many of us about information politics, from the power of information to the ethics of hacking it. While at first glance Shaping Things seems a far cry from the "Storm Troupe" in Heavy Weather, the "Mechanists" from Schismatrix Plus, or the "medical-industrial complex" of Holy Fire, his impetus to examine the future is not. Shaping Things is speculative nonfiction––as speculative as any fiction work Sterling has created––about fixing tomorrow by intervening today through, well, shaping the things we create and interact with.

Those who attended his 2004 keynote address at SIGGRAPH would recognize the subject matter, themes, and terminology of this book since they were introduced in that talk. For the rest of us, his discussion of "spimes" (not to mention "biots," "fabbing," "arphids," "oblopia," "otivion") may seem odd since it is his "flat out neologism" (8) for "manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system" (11). But some of the ideas found in the book actually date back to his 1996 novel, Holy Fire, particularly the idea about the danger posed by the things we unmindfully create and use.

Shaping Things offers arguments, both ethical and logical, about production, particularly production as it is affected by industrial design. Speaking of the former, the book posits, on the one hand, the method for getting beyond, what series editor Peter Lunenfeld calls in his "Endtroduction," the "vision deficit" that has plagued "our made world" (146) and has, according to Sterling, the potential of rendering it "unthinkable" (7). In an urgent voice, represented by black print, the capitalization of all his words, and the centering of his text, Sterling tells us that:







It brings little comfort to know that we are only part way through the process of finding a better way of living, particularly when the facts he gives us about the current state of our world are so loathsome.

The logical argument, spoken here in green print (conveying a strong political message), tells us what will happen if we don’t heed his warning. When talking about "detritus, fertilizers, and pesticides," for example, he tells us: "
A human body can be understood as a sponge of warm saltwater within a shell of skin; so everything we emit ends up partially within ourselves" (134). Not a happy thought––but Sterling does not simply point out problems humans have created with their creations; he also offers a solution, a design solution. At the end of the book we learn that

"[I]n order to avoid that fate, we need to work. We need to tear into the world of artifice in the way that our ancestors tore into the natural world. We need to rip root and branch into the previous industrial base and re-invent it, re-build it. While we have the good fortune to be living, we should invent and apply ways of life that expand the options of our descendants rather than causing irreparable damage to their heritage." (142)

The end result is a book we are compelled to read and carry around with us to read again and again, a bible for "visualiz[ing] and design[ing]," as Lunenfeld says, a "better future" (146).

The part about carrying Shaping Things around deserves an explanation since the book’s design, as part of The MIT Press’s "Mediaworks Pamphlets" series, intends a purposeful strategy by author, editor, and artist, Lorraine Wild. Inspired by books published in the 16th century that were "small enough yet important enough to carry in one’s pocket" (Wild 149), the book does, indeed, differ in size from most academic books and slide into places most others do not. But its dimensions are not what stand out; rather, it is the design and formatting that’s hard to miss. As mentioned above, the author makes use of the print medium to make his case for better industrial design: Font color, size and type vary; text is highlighted, underlined, and bracketed; ideas are connected across pages by green string-like hyperlinks. In sum, concepts are instantiated with tools the print medium makes possible.

While some critics may not appreciate this aspect of the book, this reader does and comes to wonder if what this series offers (and why it fits so well with Sterling’s work, as well as Hayles’ and others who have published in it) is that it is an approach to invention that is quite classic in nature––that is, it instantiates abstract ideas in concrete form, just as something like a parable does. In Mark Turner’s The Literary Mind, he argues that parables are a kind of "narrative imagining––the understanding of a complex of objects, events, and actors as organized by our knowledge of story" (5). Yes, he is talking about stories, particularly the doubling of stories (as they arose out of oral cultures) to both literal and secondary readings as a way of making a salient point. But we can just as easily see that design and formatting can function similarly. What I mean is that if we see a parallel between the literal story of a parable and the design of Sterling’s book (or the series, in general), then perhaps we would see that Sterling’s tricky discussion about "technosocial transformation" (Sterling 5) is as concretized by the book’s design as the secondary reading is by the literal reading of a parable, for all parable means etymologically is putting things side by side for comparison (Turner 5). In essence, the book’s design is the visual equivalent of conceptual imagining––which seems appropriate for this present day technoculture, one so inculcated by the processes of instantiating words through inscription, print, or computing that we think visually.

The irony of the book is, of course, that it is still a book, an object that Sterling would call a "product," with all of the baggage that comes with it (10) instead of a "sustainable, enhanceable, uniquely identifiable" spime that is "made of substances that can and will be folded back into the production stream of [the] future (11). However, there is little way around this problem of predicting the future with today’s technology and cultural mindset, but certainly Sterling tries and succeeds.

Turner, M. (1996). The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. NY: Oxford University Press.




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