6.3 Point-At Things
Systems of information shadows are created by promoting standard methods for associating a physical object and information about it. Experience designer Tom Coates coined the term point-at things7 while compiling ways to organize BBC's program directory.8 In that project, he realized that
"once you [uniquely identify] a programme episode then something really significant happens — you can give it a name, make it addressable, you can — for the first time point at it.
Better still, you can move from pointing at something to gluing handles onto it. And once you have such a handle, then you can pick up the programme and throw it around and stick labels on it and join it together with other programmes."
Tom Coates (2004)
His realization, which translates directly to organizing information shadows, is that when a unique identifier is attached to an object, it becomes possible to collect the metadata about that object into a single information shadow. That unique identifier is the leverage point with which to access and manipulate the whole information shadow in relation to similar shadows.
For example, when the online retailer Amazon branched out from selling books to selling other kinds of products, they needed a way to identify every item they sold. Extending the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) they were already using, they created the Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN), which uniquely identified each product they sold. This allowed all of these items to become, using Coates' term, point-at things. It became possible to precisely identify exactly which product was being linked, discussed, etc. That precision allowed for a wide degree of flexibility and power, which other services could use to build upon Amazon's inventory systems.
As of late 2009, programmableweb.com lists more than 300 services that use Amazon's ASIN system to create additional services.9 Pickii.com, for example, uses ASINs, Amazon's list of categories, and user ratings for individual products to create a top 10 best reviewed list for virtually every Amazon product category.
Ulla-maaria Engeström and Matt Biddulph, one of Coates' colleagues at the BBC, took this idea further. While useful, Amazon's ASIN was limited to products Amazon sold. What about the "many small producers especially in developing countries [who] do not have access to create unique identifiers" (Mutanen and Biddulph, 2006)? "Their products are not equally visible or recommendable online."
In response to this observation Engeström created Thinglink, "a service where anybody can register unique identifiers for objects that they want to identify as unique." The service generated a unique alphanumeric identifier (Figure 6-6), and served as the metadata clearinghouse to "aggregate online discussion around particular objects, track the history and transformation of objects, [and] socialize around particular objects." (Biddulph and Mutanen, 2006) In other words, Thinglinks were designed to create point-at things out of any object by using user-generated unique identifiers to connect single items to their information shadows.10
Figure 6-6 Unique item on Thinglink, showing Thinglink ID in the lower right-hand corner of the photo.
Figure 6-7 Nokia 3220 with the NFC shell, the first mass-market mobile phone with a built-in RFID reader. (Courtesy Nokia)
When data network access seems almost everywhere, the movement of information about objects within groups of people then intersects with their physical movements. Friends' recommendations, for example, can affect buying choices and preferences, while purchasing an object creates a data event that feeds up through the store's inventory, to the distributors, and all the way back to the manufacturer. along the way, humans and automated systems make decisions that affect what happens to the object, whether the object is bought, sold, gifted, destroyed, or perhaps refurbished, extending the object's social life.
As optical identifiers, such as 2D barcodes, became more popular,11 devices such as the RFID reader on the nokia 3220 (Figure 6-7) became inexpensive. This symmetry means that nearly everything can be uniquely identified on the cheap. Coates initially used point-at things to refer to digital objects, but it may soon be common to literally "point at things" to access their information shadows.
7 A similar term is spime, a Bruce Sterling (2005) neologism that merged space and time, because those are two key data points in an object's identity. As Sterling puts it, "every object worthy of human or machine consideration generates a small history. These histories are not dusty archives locked away on ink and paper. They are informational resources, manipulable in real time. [...] The key to the spime is identity. A spime must therefore be a thing with a name. No name, no spime."
8 See British Broadcasting Corporation (2000) for the information architecture standard the BBC produced as part of the process described in this section.
9 Using Amazon's eCommerce API.
10 As of the end of 2009, the service is still running at thinglink.com, but has shifted its focus from products created by small producers to high design objects.
11 There are more than 60 barcode and 2D barcode scanners in Apple's iPhone App Store.