June 2009 Archives

A couple of weeks ago Liz and I had the pleasure of speaking at LIFT+Fing France, a great conference about technology, design, society and the future. The lineup was fantastic and both the in-band and out-of-band conversations were great. I would not have predicted ahead of time that I'd end up discussing crowdsourcing techno-anarchist eco revolutions, but there we were and it wasn't even that many glasses of pastis in. ;-)

My short talk focused on how Lawrence Lessig's concept of read-write culture applies to the computer-driven making of physical things, rather than just media, and how this has the potential to change our relationship to objects.

The end of Read-Only material culture, as I mark it, began in 1985, with the release of the Apple LaserWriter, which was the first mass market device that merged the flexibility of bits with the tangibility of atoms. It could provide the precision and control of Industrial Revolution tools, with the flexibility of pre-Industrial Revolution techniques. It did this by making the instructions, the code, the knowledge for every part of the finished product changeable, while the end result was completely consistent. Now, someone can buy the tool, have it produce great results without any modification OR look at the knowledge that's embedded in it AND change it to suit their needs. Until desktop publishing, typesetting was very expensive. Now, what was an expensive process reserved for special occasions is nearly disposable.

Information processing as a material changes everything it touches, often in unpredictable ways, including the tools used to make end products. Ubiquitous computing isn't just about offices and homes, but garages, workshops and assembly lines.

The full presentation (752K PDF) is available.

[Also, in the presentation I say that Lessig is at Stanford, but I've now learned that he's moved to Harvard.]

[Liz's talk is on slideshare: Designing for Urban Green Spaces. She also took very extensive notes on many of the presentations.]

I'm going to be speaking at LIFT France 09 later this week. The talk is an intro to presentations by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino of tinker.it and Michael Shiloh. I'll post the actual talk when it's done.

Here's the summary:

According to Lawrence Lessig, the 20th century is a brief period of Read-Only culture in a world that in the past has been Read-Write. He draws his examples from media, but the same ideas apply to other products. The definitions of "producer" and "consumer" change when information is cheaper to move than objects. Thus production becomes less centralized as knowledge is shared in an open and standardized way.

Modern digital tools for making things bring the flexibility of digital media to the creation of everyday physical objects. This change powerfully challenges 20th century manufacturing processes that depended on centralizing knowledge while transporting products cheaply. Today, atoms are getting more expensive to move, while bits are getting ever cheaper. Read-Write culture is returning to the processes of making things, bringing the end of Read-Only objects.

It's a short talk, so I'm not going to talk about the relationship between lightweight data-driven manufacturing and ubiquitous computing, but for me there's a direct correspondence. "Everyday object + information processing + networking = something new" (in simplified ubicomp math) is a superset of "tool + information processing + networking = a new tool." The products of those tools don't have to be digital objects, but the fact that the tools are digital profoundly changes the capabilities of those tools to create objects. When those (digital tool-made) objects then have embedded information processing and networking themselves--as now is increasingly happening--that changes the nature of the further object still.

Oh, and thanks to Liz for her thoughts and editing of my summary...she will also be at LIFT, sharing the stage with John Thackara and speaking about urban green spaces in a talk that has evolved from her ETech presentation earlier this year.




A device studio that lives at the intersections of ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, industrial design and materials science.

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