Blogjects and Tweetjects

Before there were blogjects, there were blobjects. In the closing speech at SIGGRAPH 2004, Bruce Sterling started by talking about blobjects, or blob-shaped consumer items.

Blobjects are the period objects of our time. They are the physical products that the digital revolution brought to the consumer shelf.

Sterling goes on (via ‘gizmos’, the current state of the art) to introduce spime.

At the moment, you are end-using Gizmos. My thesis here, my prophesy to you, is that, pretty soon, you will be wrangling Spimes.

This subject is covered more completely in his Shaping Things book, which is reviewed here by Cory Doctorow. Cory handily sums up Spime thus:

A Spime is a location-aware, environment-aware, self-logging, self-documenting, uniquely identified object that flings off data about itself and its environment in great quantities

Meanwhile, to fill the gap between blobjects and spime, we have blogjects. Julian Bleecker’s ‘Manifesto for Networked Objects — Cohabiting with Pigeons, Arphids and Aibos in the Internet of Things‘ introduces Blogjects, describing them as an “early ancestor” to spime. While spime is still speculative, Bleecker says

I can make Blogjects now because the semantics are immediately legible — objects, that blog. Tonight, I can go into my laboratory and begin to experiment with what a world might be like in which I co-occupy space with objects that blog.

Bleecker says there are three key characteristics of a blogject:

  • Blogjects track and trace where they are and where they’ve been;
  • Blogjects have self-contained (embedded) histories of their encounters and experiences
  • Blogjects always have some form of agency — they can foment action and participate; they have an assertive voice within the social web.

The last point is important, and while he’s not expecting them to pass the Turing test, they need to interact. Good bloggers don’t ignore their comments; thats where most of the fun happens. In the same way, blogjects participate and converse both between themselves and with us.

The significance of the Internet of Things is not at all about instrumented machine-to-machine communication, or sensors that spew reams of data credit card transactions, or quantities of water flows, or records of how many vehicles passed a particular checkpoint along a highway. Those sensor-based things are lifeless, asocial recording instruments when placed alongside of the Blogject. … The social and political import of the Internet of Things is that things can now participate in the conversations that were previously off-limits to Things. … Things, once plugged into the Internet, will become agents that circulate food for thought, that “speak on” matters from an altogether different point of view, that lend a Thing-y perspective on micro and macro social, cultural, political and personal

If a blogject is an object that blogs, a tweetject is clearly an object that tweets (an intransitive verb: the act of using Twitter).

There are already lots of examples of objects using Twitter to interact with people, usually to report about the state of things in a convenient form. Botanicalls is an interesting project, aimed at “enhancing person-plant communication” using tools that can be used by people as well as plants. As a result, Pothos is a plant that knows when it needs watering (learn how to make your own).

Gareth Jones wrote about getting his laptop to tweet when Bluetooth devices come in and out of range. For a while that script was updating as gareth_laptop on Twitter. As long as some relevant mobile phones and laptops have Bluetooth enabled, there are some useful and interesting elements of personal presence detection here. Who is nearby? With some additional second-order agents running to work out what these devices are and what they mean (is Gareth at home? If he’s at work, who is nearby?).

Andy Stanford-Clark has an impressively complex home automation setup in his house on the Isle of Wight. It’s been online for a few years already, but has more recently been exposed via Twitter as andy_house. (Although Kelly raises bots as one of her Twitter pet peeves, she makes an exception for Andy’s house.) Andy also Twitter-enabled the Red Jet ferries which go to and from the Isle of Wight, where he lives.

There are many more tweetjects out there too.

There have been lots of weather bots on Twitter for a long time. Here’s one for Brighton and here are links to many more. Radio 1 is tweeting the playlist and summary information about listeners’ text messages. Mario Menti set up a lot more BBC bots too. Tom Morris hooked the various London tube lines up to Twitter. The Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank tweets what it’s pointing at (and it’s not alone). Tower Bridge lets us know when it’s opening and closing (and for what). The Heavens Above user updates Londoners with the times and directions of Iridium flares and International Space Station flybys over their city.

There are many more, and lots more will no doubt be added this year. Currently, most Twitter bots are one-directional. Things will get really interesting when more of them converse as well as simply report.

Further reading:

15 replies on “Blogjects and Tweetjects”

  1. The major lie told about spims and treetjects and such is that they are “self-logging” or “decentralized distributed” etc.

    In fact, they are conceived and executed — and controlled — by a few coders. These coders don’t have legitimacy; the general public, through associations or through elected representatives, don’t participate in decisions made about these “self-logging” items.

    This isn’t only a problem of individual privacy and individual rights; it’s a problem of the many hiding behind the supposed “opensourcing” and “crowdsourcing” of their conceived projects and trying to feign democratic legitimacy.

    The few coders decide what information they want to gather, what uses it is to be put, who gets to be in the network, whom they filter out, etc. etc.

    To claim that OpenSpime is about “individuals and corporations understanding their environments” is a very partial description of an aggressive, intrusive, and heedless technically run by elites networking with other like-minded elites which has no social or democratic or practical legitimacy.

    You can’t prettify this neo-totalitarianism — it is what it is.

  2. I’m trying to recall when it somehow became mandatory that spimes transmitted; that they would inherently “fling off data”. I don’t recall that as part of the original definition.

    Being time and location aware and logging that information doesn’t necessarily mean broadcasting that information non-stop to the world, anymore than having embedded blueprints means broadcasting *that* information to the world, a very big hurdle I’ve not yet seen anyone discuss at length (like corporations are going to agree to having that level of IP embedded only to be hacked and sold or “shared”, let alone available via the Net).

    Worse yet, I just googled “spime” and got something completely different altogether: “A spime is an object which exists in at least one virtual world and may exist in the real world”. Wrong. That sounds more like a kirkyan, actually.

    The Net is full of definitions it seems. Even wikipedia (before they recently yanked it) was drifting from the original idea, which was really more about recycling than anything else (and I’ve gone into that before – ).

    How many definitions are there? How many interpretations?

    The same is true of blogjects. Prior to Bleecker coining the term, I’d already designed such a device; a socially-networked radiation detection sensor. Except one of the SKU’s included a “receive-0nly” version for those who didn’t want their locations readily available. It could log, but it did so internally. Yes, that meant their sensor didn’t contribute to the protective network, but that’s a choice they’re given. Rightly so. More and more it sounds as if such choices are being taken away.

    I appreciate this entry and being made aware of some of the other devices tweeting, but perhaps it would be a good time to start discussing some of the issues which are seemingly being bypassed and/or overlooked. Because while I very much like the idea of a kirkyan oil spill containment buoy system, I can do without googlable shoes.

  3. Do you think before long the whole microblogging/twittering thing will be taken over completely by automated stuff. Lots of things people already set as their status could be worked out automatically.

    Just seems like it might be a whole ecosystem of status information flying about that one day we’d not have a direct input to. I think that could be a good thing.

  4. @prokofy: I don’t think you’d find many people who will agree that it’s coders who are (or will be) running the universe. Not even coders. That said, of course you’re right to be nervous about this stuff. In that SIGGRAPH speech, Sterling outlines some of the menaces. “Spiming is an ideal technology for concentration camps, authoritarian regimes, and prisons.”and he goes on to list various privacy and security threats. It seems to me that the benefits will outweigh the inevitable problems, in the same way that the the web (and virtual worlds) shouldn’t be shut down over a few dangers and annoyances, as serious as those might be. Vowing to ignore or slow down these advances is probably less useful than becoming engaged and helping ensure the outcomes are more positive rather than more sinister.

    @csven You make an interesting point about spime not necessarily constantly transmitting. Sterling’s introduction to spime talks mainly about it being searchable. I think this comes down to something which can interpret a complex world and share it with us in way that we can personally and meaningfully consume. As a really simple example, andy_house tells him/us things like “gym temperature is perfect”, rather than a constant stream of temperature readings. (He talks about this banding approach in a comment on Nick’s blog.) That’s an added layer of value, rather than transmitting a nearly meaningless stream of changing temperatures. It needs to care about those, but we don’t. This could be augmented still further by the other things the house ‘knows’. It wouldn’t be hard for it to nudge Andy with “The gym is the right temperature, your diary says you’re free until 9pm and all you’re doing is watching the TV on your own tonight. Why don’t you get in the gym and do that there?”. I agree (strongly) that objects shouldn’t be streaming data to us just because that’s how they captured it. It’s probably more important that these smaller elements are sharing with each other, and either queried by humans or otherwise interacting with them in an unobtrusive and lifestyle friendly way.

    @orchid8: sorry. Mine too.

    @Darren: I think you’re exactly right about ecosystems of data that we don’t need to access or input, but exactly wrong that microblogging systems like Twitter will ever be taken over by non-human communications. The objects do need to talk among themselves but they’ll probably be doing that on channels where we humans don’t normally hang out. After all, the reason early tweetjects are sharing with us on Twitter is because that’s where we are. People use Twitter as a convenient alternative to sending updates to themselves and interested friends via a text message, or an RSS feed (or, more accurately, perhaps they use it because it offers either, or both). As with blogging, it’s somewhere that makes sense for objects to communicate with humans, but only because the humans are there too. Twitter is designed for human use, though handily, objects (and especially the human-facing abstractions of those objects) can share that space with us. Other, less human-friendly channels are much more highly optimised for object-object chatter though.

  5. You’re right, the interaction is what makes all of this interesting – items that stream nearly unprocessed data (even with simple banding) out to people are so obvious as to not even really need a new name. (I accept that something becoming radically more available can be something of a paradigm shift too).

    Items that can be interacted with are a different matter. My tendency would be to keep most of the intelligent agents external to the object though – it just needs to feed information and receive orders, the real intelligence can be located anywhere in the world, operating on that data, and sending commands. In this world, humans would almost never interact with the sensing objects directly – there’s no need, they’d interact with the intelligent agents that are doing all the “spime wrangling” for us.

    Of course, this isn’t really OO. It’s interesting to see Object Oriented programming change to simply Object programming.

    All these concerns about the natural political end of publicising information are very interesting. I would recommend that every real life object that delivers its stream of information to the real world does so in an encrypted manner, possibly with different levels of detail encrypted with different keys. You certainly want objects that receive commands to do so with authentication and encryption, so it makes sense that they should deliver data that way too. That way, there would still be a “pairing”, like with bluetooth,of your agent with your objects, and it would be the agents job to make the data you’re interested in public in a nonencrypted form or simply to use it to wrangle you a better life.

  6. As I hope people are aware, the core idea behind spimes pre-dates Sterling’s coining of the term. By way of one example, the scientists and engineers at Telxon’s Aironet division were pursuing spime-like technology when I first met them back in ’94 (Telxon was in the bar code/RFID business, and Symbol’s patents forced them into wireless scanners; their primary activity centered around warehouse inventory tracking… the warehouse as one big spime). One of those individuals is currently the CTO of a company attempting to create a smart tracking system for container ships, because that’s the context in which he (and they) view the technology. Contained. Limited. Invasive within strict boundaries. But also relevant to the business activity.

    Again, Sterling’s original context was recycling; part of the Viridian Design movement he founded and was championing at the time. It wasn’t so much that these devices were transmitting because that didn’t really matter; it was that at the end of their lifecycles their history was accessible (for learning purposes) and their blueprints were available (for efficient disassembly purposes).

    There are certainly other uses for the technology, and as you said Sterling points them out. However, the enthusiasm over devices talking with one another or communicating with some central server seems a mostly tech-centered one. It’s a far different context and one which seems prevalent among those whose understanding of human history and behavior is probably considered insufficient by those who don’t share their enthusiasm.

    If average people are outraged when their rental vehicle reports back how often they’ve violated a speed limit – breaking the law! – imagine how uncomfortable they’ll be when they can’t be sure which objects in their possession are busy exchanging data with centralized servers run by unknown persons in parts unknown being mined for data in the same way the device itself can be probed (which is what I’m guessing the OpenSpime folks are *really* excited about).

    Just look at how people embed code into Second Life objects. Chat relayers. Rigged poker tables. Spam agents. Trackers. Who exactly is wrangling your spimes and should you realistically expect to always have final control over them?

    Ask yourself this: how do you turn an invasive SL object “Off”? You don’t. You delete/destroy it. And if you’re aware, you don’t acquire it in the first place. Businesses knows this, and we can expect them to embed things without our knowledge, just as Sony deployed rootkits.

    At some point we’ll need a broader discussion regarding this technology. But to even have a meaningful conversation we need to remain neutral, both cognizant of the benefits but also deeply suspicious of potential abuse. Because their *will* be abuse.

    Right now I don’t see much neutrality when I read about this technology. It’s mostly gee-whiz writing. It’s of the “trust us, we’ll just encrypt the data” variety. I find that alarming.

  7. I was thinking about this over lunch of Friday, and we had something of a debate about it… I think the examples of the Red Jet ferries, London Bridge etc are interesting but I’d argue that they aren’t quite tweetjects in the same sense of Andy’s house, since I think those are possibly driven by bots scraping web feeds rather than sensor-driven. I also thought that Nick’s idea of the Ethernetted Arduino as a tweetject came closer to the Everyware vision of things. Interesting stuff though.

  8. The fantastic thing about Twitter is just how easy it is to plug stuff into it. I wrote a Twitter bot called Low Flying Rocks, which informs its followers of passing asteroids (within 0.2AU).

    It took a couple of hours of messing around with Ruby, and was done.

    As you say, the next step is for things to respond. I’m waiting for ‘d towerbridge up’.

  9. Andy: I’d acknowledge the difference between an object which is oblivious to Twitter (or a blog, or whatever social channel it has been connected to) and an object which has interaction-with-peoople in its design. Tower Bridge vs the plant pot: they’re both on Twitter, but the plant is going to be easier to make really interactive. (Maybe send a message to open a watering valve if you’re not around to do it yourself).

    Tom: ‘d towerbridge up’ is a great example of Andy’s point. It would indeed be brilliant. (And it would of course have to say “I’m opening for @tomtaylor” rather than the MV Dixie Queen) but since it’s been retrofitted, and presumably without the City Of London being involved, it’s funny precisely because it’s unlikely. Nothing wrong with informational one-way stuff (good job on the asteroids!) but I’m looking forward to seeing, and making, interactive stuff too.

  10. @andypiper just for the record, the RedJets *are* twittering from sensor-based data – all the boats in the Solent have a GPS tracking system called AIS, and that’s how the folks who run the show keep track of them all.
    I’m picking up their feed, which is obligingly made available as an XML file every 60 seconds.

    This is their mashup of the same data source

    I get the file, pick out the ferries I’m interested in, do a bit of geofencing and direction vector analysis to work out where they are and what they’re doing, and twitter accordingly.

    Cool, huh? :)

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