In laying out his vision of the future in Shaping Things, Bruce Sterling employs two concepts that require a little decoding: metahistory and synchronic society.

Every civilization has a metahistory, a kind of internal cultural logic. One great flaw is that metahistories tend of see themselves as permanent; a contingent metahistory that allowed for the possibility of its own end– and was more thoughtful about how to avoid that end– would work better.

Our own current metahistory is damaging in its short-sigtedness and have yielded “slow crises cheerfully generated by people rationally pursuing their short-term interests.” (41) As Sterling puts it,

The 20th century’s industrial infrastructure has run out of time. It can’t go on; it’s antiquated, dangerous and not sustainable. it’s based on a finite amount of ice in our ice caps, of air in our atmosphere, of free room for highways and transmission lines, of room in the dumps, and of combustible filth underground. This is a gathering crisis gloomily manifesting itself int he realm of bad weather and resource warfare. It is the legacy we received from world’shaping industrial titans such as Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller– basically, the three 20th century guys who guys us into the Greenhouse Effect. (131)

Its no use starting from the top by ideologically re-educating the consumer to become some bizarre kind of rigid, hairshirt Green…. The only sane way out of a technosociety is through it, in to a newer one that knows everything the older one knew…. That means revolutionizing the interplay of human and object. It means bringing more attention and analysis to bear on objects than they have undergone. It also means engaging with the human body and our affordances. (131-132)

The fact that we can insulate ourselves from the histories and consequences of our decisions, and that markets can assist us in that process (by reducing our relationships to things to price, and treating everything from the social consequences of abusive labor practices to the environmental costs of disposal of packaging as an “externality” that neither you nor the manufacturer has to think about), means that we can live in a state of blissful, deadly innocence.

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Ironically, in the artifact era, when most humans grew their own food and made their own things– or were related to those who did– we knew a lot more about where stuff came from, and the consequences of making things poorly (of using unsustainable farming practices or building a shoddy furnace); but there were also few enough of us so that anything we did was likely to have very little impact on the world.

Our ability to change the world, intentionally or unintentionally, has far outstripped our ability to make sense of those changes. (Will history regard the internal combustion engine, and not nuclear weapons, as the greatest technological terror of the 20th century?)

To deal with this, “[w]e need a designed metahistory,” (42) and Sterling thinks it will

combine the computational power of an INFORMATION SOCIETY with the stark interventionist need for a SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY. The one is happening anyway; the other has to happen. (42)

It would be a synchronic society. Such a society

  • Has a temporalist perspective: it seeks to generate more time and greater opportunity, both at the micro-scale, and the level of civilizations. (To this society, burning fossil fuels is the height of folly.)
  • Sees sustainability as a process, not a fixed state;
  • Seeks the knowledge to deal with the inevitable unknowns;
  • Uses rapid prototyping-like methods to generate potentially vast inventories of solutions to copy and failures to avoid;
  • Treats objects as expressions of and generators of information, interesting not just for their obvious physical properties.

If we design that metahistory to exploit the power of spimes, which are “information melded with sustainability,” (43) we can create a dynamic by which we can preserve and learn from our history, thus giving us the chance to evolve our way out of the current mess. Spimes are especially important because they exist at:

the intersection of two vectors of technosocial development. They have the capacity to change the human relationship of time and material processes, by making those processors blatant and generalization. Every spime is a little metahistorical generator.

History is this technoculture’s primary source of wealth. As it transits through time, due to the principles of its organization, it will increase in knowledge, capability, wealth, and power.

But wait, there’s more….

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