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Rising Spimes

So, I'm having one of my periodic outbreaks of carpal tunnel syndrome, while writing a novel. The results are predictable; numbness and tingling in my index finger tips, general irritability, and fewer keystrokes available for blogging. (Don't bother suggesting alternative keyboard layouts, alternative desks or working positions, or similar hacks; I am already fully informed.) To deal with it, I am taking a couple of days off writing fiction, using mountain lions dictation feature for blogging, and experimenting with spimes.


(That word appears to terminally confuse OS X's dictation. Splines, spines ...)

The term "spime" was invented by SF author, futurist, and general object of emulation Bruce Sterling—he first wrote about it in depth in his book Shaping Things, published by MIT Press. A spime is an object which exists both in the real, physical world, and on the internet. We see primitive spimes today: if you have bought a computer or mobile phone over the Internet from a supplier, and registered it with the supplier, and the supplier tracks your device through its life-cycle and perhaps removes it for recycling when it is dead, then you're carrying a spime. My laser printer in the office next door is a spime; ordered via the net, I can query its status online, get replacement parts, recycle consumables, even dispose of it. We are most aware of spimes as physical artefacts; they sit at the centre of an abstract cloud of Internet-mediated data describing them, enhancing their functionality, and ultimately defining their utility to us.

But spimes are still in their infancy. Most of our artefacts have a life on the Internet only until they are sold. That is why I am currently intrigued by the new Moleskine/Evernote notebooks. Here we see spime-hood working in the opposite direction. Moleskine make high-quality old-fashioned paper and ink notebooks. Evernote provide a cloud based web clipping and notetaking service. One of Evernote's selling points is that they can carry out handwriting recognition on handwriting in photographs uploaded to the cloud. The new Moleskine notebooks represent a collision between the old and the new; you write in them, then photograph the pages using the Evernote app on your phone, and upload the images. Evernote performs de-skewing and colour correction, then handwriting recognition, making your text available and searchable. This is not the first hand-writing to cloud solution, of course. However, other systems that require proprietary paper and electronic pens (such as Livescribe) are less flexible; The Moleskine/Evernote system substitutes a generic smartphone for a specialised piece of electronics in the shape of a digital pen. And it further blurs the boundary between the physical, material artefact of the notebook, and the immaterial mutable data in the cloud.

I know a couple of novelists who, on occasion, switched to writing their books longhand, in an attempt to slow themselves down. It didn't actually work; it turns out that prior to the invention of the typewriter, all books were written long hand. (Who knew?) The real headache comes when you take a longhand first draft, and have to copy typing it into a second draft using a word processor. The beauty of word processing is that the text becomes mutable and fungible; once it is in the computer, you can tweak it to your heart's content—but the process of getting it into the computer in the first place is painful. The idea of a magic paper writing book, wherein you write your first draft using a pen and paper, and it magically appears in a word processor afterwards, is a marvel to behold. Almost as much of a marvel as the speech recognition software I am using to draft this blog entry. (And wouldn't you like to see all the fascinating typos that I'm having to correct as I go along!)

The sad fact is, I have nearly a third of a century's familiarity with the qwerty keyboard layout, and attempting to write using any other input mechanism requires a slow, painful learning process. The cadence of spoken verbal speech is quite different from that of written prose, and the process of dictating to a computer seems bizarre and unnatural at first. If I was to attempt to use speech recognition software (like this) to write fiction, you would probably assume that I had had a stroke, or undergone some other strange neurological complication. Switching to a pen might well impose a different kind of distortion on my prose style; a slight parsimony with words, because my handwriting is slow, cramped, and painful. Neither input method would free me from the need to edit and polish my words, either; for the results are imperfect.

I'm editing this blog entry by hand as I dictate it. Let me read you a couple of sentences from the previous paragraph again, using Apple's dictation feature in mountain lion:

If I was to attempt to use speech recognition software (like this) to write fiction, you would probably assume that I have had a stroke, or undergone some of the strange neurological complication. Switching to append might well impose a different kind of distortional my prostyle; slight parsimony with words, because my handwriting is slow, cramped, and painful.

So much for speech recognition; think I'll go and eat worms.

As for alternate keyboard layouts, see "a third of the century of qwerty" above. I probably have less than another third of a century of writing ahead of me; learning a new layout lacks appeal.

Back to spimes.

One day the Internet will contain a model of everything around us. Indeed, most of the things around us will start their existence on the Internet as a piece of data, which will be instantiated in physical form. But not all of them; my cat is a spime, but she was instantiated via another cat! Her online presence exists solely in my vets' computer. And if I find myself writing longhand, as a way to address keyboard related injuries, does that mean that my future books will be spimes, which originated in the physical world and imploded into the Internet?

I have a feeling that there is a very significant difference between spimes that originate in physical material form and take to the net, and spimes that originate on the net and are instantiated in physical hardware, for example via a 3-D printer. But I can't quite put my finger on it ...

Final observation: I have been using this blog entry to some extent as a means of learning to use apples dictate feature on Mac OS X. However the amount of typing I have had to do to correct transcription errors is dismayingly large. I might have done better simply teaching myself to type without using my forefingers!

[ Discuss ]

1 Comment


Hmm, combining this and the other nearby post about the diminishing utility of stuff... One thing, another angle on stuff, is that (for a few decades now) economists have been saying that we (=the western economies) are transitioning from buying and selling stuff to buying and selling services.

So, if you're making a nice living from this writing lark, don't need to spend all your money on gizmos and gadgets and don't want any gadget-and-gizmo tips for your carpals... Would your budget stretch to buying a service in stead? OT1H, that'll probably come a lot more dear than a gizmo -- or several gadgets -- in the long run, but OTOH this is in the interests of generating further income. You'd have to do the maths... Here goes:

So if computer dictation sucks, how about you pay a secretarial service to transcribe for you, with you dictating into some handy USB-MP3-WETF-thingy, sending off a sound file, and getting a text file back?

One could imagine that you'd only need this for the initial transcription, if the editing afterwards puts less of a strain on your wrists.

(But what do I know, maybe there aren't any secretarial services anymore. (Oh wait, yes for sure there are, in India if nowhere else!))



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on October 1, 2012 2:45 PM.

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