An Amazon product listing (Figure 6-2) shows a lot of information, but there is much more information about the product than just the official specs. An enormous quantity of user-generated content exists on the Internet tied to nearly every product. Virtually everything made or grown has been reviewed, discussed, photographed, mocked, praised, prodded, measured, disassembled, and hacked. Until the Internet, little of this social life was available; now there is a flood.
Figure 6-2 Amazon listing for Tickle Me Elmo, showing manufacturer metadata.
The digitally accessible information about an object can be called its information shadow.4 Nearly all industrially created objects have rich information shadows, even if those shadows are invisible to their owners and users.
Wine bottles, for example, have very rich information shadows. Along with the traditional bottle-level data (such as when it was bottled, what grapes were used, who bottled it, etc.), wines have a huge social life generated by thousands of web sites, blogs, rating services, and books. Wine enthusiasts probably spend as much time discussing wine as they do drinking it, and they have created a lot of content that is available through easily findable identifiers, namely the vineyard and vintage.5
Everyday objects have been separated for a long time from their information shadows, as Peter Pan was from his actual shadow. The complexity of finding, organizing, and accessing this information divided the world of objects and the world of information shadows.
Even if accessible through a computer, information shadows were unavailable when they could provide the most value: in choosing between different products to buy, or in figuring out how to use a new tool. For example, barcodes are not human-readable. So for a long time, only those with barcode readers and access to specialized databases could use them,6 which basically only included retailers and their employees. Even then the kinds of data available to retailers were limited.
Standard Universal Product Code (UPC) barcodes identify classes of products, not individual things. Moreover, there is no universal database of barcodes. So a retailer's information about a given object is limited to data it has bought or generated on its own. Typically, like the early Borders Books system, retailers only keep enough information around to price items and order more.
A few industries have systematically generated and employed more extensive information shadows. In particular, the manufacturing and shipping industries have been tracking and identifying individual objects for years. In those industries every mile traveled by every piece of inventory directly affects revenue.
So manufacturing and shipping systems provide fine-grained information shadows to identify and locate objects. For example, Wal-Mart and the American military — two organizations that ship a huge variety of things to a dizzying number of locations — have enthusiastically adopted identification technology (Myerson, 2006) to increase efficiency.
For consumers, ubiquitous computing attaches the information shadow to the object, like Wendy does to Peter Pan's shadow. It does this using three key technologies:
- Inexpensive, machine-readable item-level identification technologies (see Sidebar: Item-level Identification Technologies) uniquely mark every object.
- wireless networking makes the information shadow of objects accessible to devices in more places.
- Networked information aggregation services create a standard way of accessing information shadows that are produced simultaneously in many places at once.
Combining these technologies makes the information shadow of an object no longer abstract and secondary — something to check when you are hoping for a FedEx package to arrive — but a key part of the user experience of interacting with manufactured goods.
4 The use of "shadow" to describe a relationship between physical objects and digital information goes back to Westin's (1967) description of "data shadows." My use is closest to the way Greenfield (2006) used it: "the significance of technologies like RFID and 2D barcoding is that they offer a low-impact way to 'import' physical objects into the datasphere, to endow them with an informational shadow."
5 Bruce Sterling described the kind of social relationship we can have with wine in Shaping Things, his 2005 book-length essay on ubiquitous computing and design:
Consider the wide variety of ways I am being invited to interact with this wine bottle. I don't just merely drink the contents. I could just drink it — but if I lift my eyes just a little — then I am invited to learn how to pronounce a foreign language, how to set up a social gathering with my friends, how wine is made, and how to expand my oenophilic knowledge of grape varieties.
This is no accident. There is nothing frivolous or extraneous about this sudden explosion of information intimacy between myself and a bottle of wine.
[...] This is gizmo wine. It is offering me more functionality than I will ever be able to explore. This wine aims to educate me — it is luring me to become more knowledgeable about the people and processes that made the bottle and its contents. It wants to recruit me to be an unpaid promotional agent, a wine critic, an opinion maker — it wants me to throw wine-tasting parties and to tell all my friends about my purchase.
6 This is no longer the case, as barcode reading cameraphone applications have proliferated in recent years, but that is a recent phenomenon relative to the 30-year history of barcodes in use.