Objects as printouts

Objects as printouts

Where I look at the relationship between objects and the instructions to make them, introduce the idea of the “printout” and how in a world where new manufacturing technologies will force us to re-evaluate where the true value lies: The one off object or the instructions to make it?

Yesterday I spent some time listening from my extensive collection of music and talks. [0] I like music. I listen to it a lot but today instead of music I chose to listen to Bruce Stirling’s excellent talk at Reboot in Copenhagen last year. [1] [2] I suspect Bruce Stirling makes compelling listening due to the quality of his ideas, no doubt, due to his writing background. He thinks carefully before he speaks. A rare commodity indeed.

One particular idea that caught my imagination is the idea of objects should be thought of as “printouts”. It’s a compelling idea because it a) makes you think about physical objects and their properties and b) how you relate to the stuff you have now or might get in the future. There are a number of reasons you might want to think about the objects you collect around you. If you live in the first world you suffer the dilemma of too much stuff. [3] An unfortunate consequence of the Industrial and consumer revolution.

We can accumulate objects cheaply even if there is no apparent need. Stirling went on to explain the properties of objects, how to think of them in terms of “space and time” and ways to classify objects. All of this with the end goal in mind of reducing the amount of stuff we own. But this is where I’m going to diverge from Stirling. I want to think about how we deal with new objects. Stuff we are going to accumulate in the future that hasn’t been created yet.

We intuitively understand what objects are. Objects take up space. Objects exist in time. Objects also can have social meaning. Objects have to be cared for, repaired and if they are no longer working or are unwanted, thrown out. Discarded. We have a profound relationship with the objects we use. Now I would like you to think beyond the use of objects to their improvement. It’s not hard. I’m not asking you to consider design of objects just improvement.

Consider a cooking recipe for your favourite cake for instance. If the recipe is in your favourite cook book it’s possible to annotate the recipe to your own taste. A substitution of your special supply of ground whole wheat and baking powder for self-raising flour in that Chocolate cake for instance. Real dark Chocolate instead of the compound stuff. This of course means a few additional lines in the recipe to make sure you don’t burn the chocolate over a raw flame, heating water then placing the bowl of broken pieces instead. The recipe is really just a set of instructions to build an object, not just any object by the way but a edible cake modified to your taste. You can do this with cook books.

What would a world look like if you could do this with other everyday objects that you might have in the future?

What exactly is a printout? The term “printout” is computer slang for “instructions” or a print out of the instructions programmers write to control computers. Programmers write these instructions using human understandable languages, which when translated into machine understandable instructions, instruct a computer to do things. A printout is really a set of tasks to do something. So the best way to think of a printout is a design to do things. A recipe is a print out. You follow the instructions to build your cake. Of course it’s not the stock standard cake in your favourite cookbook but a modified version suited to your taste. This is another way to think about objects. Objects as instructions. If Objects are printouts, the printouts can be modified and improved over time. The value has now shifted from the object to the instructions to build the object.

Why are we talking about computers, computer slang and printouts? What do they have to do with real world objects? In the not too distant future we will have the capacity to use printouts to modify and create new stuff. Objects created from raw materials. We already have a hint of this. The quality of the objects at the moment would be considered toy-like but that’s not necessarily bad if you are a kid. [4] What kid wouldn’t love to create one hundred copies of their favourite Tyrinad to build their own Warhammer army? [5]

But for us grown-ups, new forms of fabrication are still not up to the job. While the current crops of Gothic high-tech corporations spit out shiny seamless experiences, we will gobble them up no matter how many slaves die in the process. This will change though. The new revolution in manufacturing will be just as profound as the Industrial revolution. Another tweak in the creation of objects – the ability of personal customisation. “Me” objects. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. It hasn’t happened yet. Until NewFab technologies are adopted our ability to customise and improve our everyday objects are limited. Possible, but limited.

Continual improvement
But as I’ve shown, I can improve the quality of my everyday objects like me my favourite Chocolate cake. What makes this possible is the idea of the printout and continual improvement. The printout is the instructions needed to build the object. The real value is in the ability to make continual improvements that let us increase the quality and usefulness of our objects. [6] This can only be possible if we have access to the printout.

It’s no good making improvements if we can’t share them. If there is any lesson to learn about the Internet, it’s a place that lets you share your printouts. Sharing begets use. Usage begets improvement. Programmers who share their code notice that not only does the usage of their software objects increase when they share but there is a benefit in the quality of their printout (code) improves as well. [7] So if we think of objects as printouts, if we share them the likelihood of improvement is higher than by not sharing.

Thinking about stuff as printouts instead of objects is useful for creators. Printouts are the instructions to make things. The object is result of following the instructions. I think too often the value is seen in the object but not the printout. We value hand made objects because they are made and designed by people. They have social significance. There is a story behind them. They can be things of beauty and may also have practical use. There is nothing wrong valuing objects in this way. But in doing so we have forgotten the importance of the process, the instructions to build objects, the printout.

I suspect as the revolution in fabrication approaches and the resolution of the fabrication tools increases we will wonder if the real value of our stuff is not in the object but the printout.

[0] All 1339 items, 15Gb or 13 days, 9 hours and thirteen minutes worth. All are legally mine.

[1] Dave Winer, Scripting.com, “Bruce Sterling at Reboot” [Accessed Tuesday June 15th, 2010] www.scripting.com/stories/2009/10/21/brucesterlingatreboo…

[2] You can also watch the talk. It goes for about 43 minutes and is a 155Mb download in mp4 format. “Bruce Sterling – reboot 11 closing talk”, 43 min, mp4. [Accessed Tuesday June 15th, 2010] video.reboot.dk/video/486788/bruce-sterling-reboot-11

[3] Paul Graham, paulgraham.com, “Stuff: I have too much stuff. Most people in America do. In fact, the poorer people are, the more stuff they seem to have… It wasn’t always this way. Stuff used to be rare and valuable.” [Accessed Tuesday June 15th, 2010] paulgraham.com/stuff.html

[4] bootload, flickr, “2009MAY052009: At Trampoline 1 held in Melbourne, Saturday 28th of March, 2009, Pete Yandell (@notahat) talked about open source fabbers, 3d fabrication, 3D printers and materials to rapidly prototype stuff. An exciting idea because with the right type of materials and blueprints you can reproduce complex products that could not easly by reproduced. Three dimensional objects can be recreated from digital designs by a photocopy like process where layers of material are deposited until the entire object is created. Pete also specifically mentioned making copies of kids toys.”, [Accessed Tuesday June 15th, 2010] www.flickr.com/photos/bootload/3503485267

[5] Tyrinads, wikipedia.org, “Tyrinads are a fictional race of warrior creatures from the Warhammer 40K board game.” [Accessed Tuesday June 15th, 2010] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyranids

[6] As I was writing this article I stumbled on a quick example of this kind of improvement. The master of Gothic high-tech corporations has released a new product that doesn’t handle one particular edge case viewing an object. The author decided to modify the recipe to view the object and released a copy for other people to benefit from. An improvement of the object experience using the printout: @tlrobinson, Tom Robinson, “Worst part of lack of hover events etc on iPad: I can’t read the XKCD tooltips. Solution: gist.github.com/438642" [Accessed Tuesday June 15th, 2010] twitter.com/tlrobinson/status/16196920383

[7] Pete Warden, petewarden.typepad.com, “There’s still going to be some tumbleweed blowing through the long tail of open-source projects, but Github is a massive step forward. I’m eagerly anticipating lots more people pointing out my mistakes, the world of open-source will be a lot more productive with that sort of collaboration.” [Accessed Tuesday June 15th, 2010] petewarden.typepad.com/searchbrowser/2010/06/an-end-to-th…


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