Things that tell you things, and what they tell you: Roundup post

Posted by Rob Walker on October 29, 2010
Posted Under: Things/Thinking,Update

The general subject of things that communicate about themselves, as well as the (in my view) related idea of “transparency” in the material marketplace, keeps coming up. I’ve written and linked about it several times in the last two or three months, but all that material is scattered around, so even though I’ll be repeating myself I want to try to gather it all in one post that I can add to as new developments or resources emerge.

As you’ll see, if you have the fortitude to wade through this, I have mixed feelings about the supposed “transparency” trend, and about the usefulness of what things are telling us, and are going to tell us. But my real point here isn’t to convince anybody of anything — I’m gathering material. So, if you know of other interesting examples I should be aware of, I welcome them and I thank you in advance.

First I’ll note something that might seem off point: I was interviewed not long ago by Paola Antonelli for the blog for her upcoming Talk To Me show at MoMA. Here’s the first question and answer:

PA – Do things actually talk to you, or do you rather kind of read them?

RW – I guess some combination — things call out for my attention sometimes. But you can’t necessarily trust what an object says about itself, can you? Many objects don’t really want you to know their material or labor back story, or the potential unpleasant consequences of their use. They just want you to know their features and their beauty, the usefulness and their appeal. So once some interesting thing has my attention, it’s more like trying to read it. The interesting objects are usually the ones open several readings.

So that’s what I’m interested in — yes, things are talking to us more, as it were. But are they telling us what we (should) want to know?

An example: In June I wrote this column, indirectly inspired by the Foxconn suicides, in which I wished it were easier to learn more about the production back story of gadgets and other objects. While I noted that some have claimed a “transparency triumph” is afoot, I also pointed out that there is still much that consumers don’t, and really can’t, know:

It’s not hard to find big-picture (and ideologically charged) assessments of global manufacturing, but when I asked the executive director of China Labor Watch if there was an easy way for a typical consumer to find out whether a specific device had, for instance, come from a Foxconn facility, he said no. I was reminded of the massive pet-food recall three years ago: while it involved dozens of brands, much of the food came from one low-profile Canadian manufacturer. (The problem was eventually linked to tainted wheat gluten, leading to the indictment of two Chinese companies and an American importer.) We’re accustomed to finding what we want with a simple click, but a lot remains murky until bad news pushes it into the open.

I also noted efforts to get such information to consumers:  “At ProjectLabel.org, you can type in the name of a company and receive numerical scores on matters like “worker treatment” and “waste management,” based on a combination of published reports and user votes. GoodGuide.com offers health, environment and “society” scores, based on its own database, for 65,000 products — even accessible with a bar-code-scanning iPhone app.” Finally, I mused about what other approaches might be taken to achieve a really useful form of product transparency.

In response to that column, I got a note from Matthew Hockenberry, a visiting scientist at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, who told me his team is working on something that sounds like what I imagined in the column: “Sourcemap (www.sourcemap.org) is an MIT project creating an open source and open data supply chain publishing platform that enables exactly the kind of transparency you talk about. Companies (and investigative consumers, academics and journalists) can use Sourcemap to share the supply chains behind products and show us all exactly where they come from.” I posted more about that here.

Here are some more sites, in addition to the above, and those mentioned in the column itself, a few other examples have come my way either in reactions to that column, or elsewhere.

  • Closet Tour: “CLOSETTOUR is a blog about wondering what to wear in an increasingly complicated world. It is about finding value, and values in fashion, by following our clothing’s narrative threads.” Via Jeff Jarvis.
  • Andrew Condon also points out company-specific transparency efforts at GreenSource Organic, and, of course, that good old standby,  Patagonia.
  • Core 77 follows up here. Consumerist, here. Daily Grommet follows up here. Also, here is a the Ecosystem Notebook’s “ingredients” page, an interesting example.
  • And furthermore: Via Allan C. here is a slideshow of tips for finding out how your stuff is made, from Jen van der Meer.

Even more recently, this post on Business of Fashion also gave several examples of efforts by specific companies:

Icebreaker, a New Zealand-based company that specialises in active clothing made from merino wool, has tagged its products with “Baacodes,” which when entered into the brand’s website, let consumers identify the high country sheep stations that produce the wool in their garments, watch videos of the sheep farmers, and follow the supply chain, from fibre sourcing to sewing.

Meanwhile, California-based outdoor clothing company Patagonia operates a website called “The Footprint Chronicles” which lets consumers track the journey of their products through the global supply chain and examine the identities, locations and manufacturing practices of Patagonia’s business partners, as well as calculate a garment’s carbon footprint.

Large clothing retailers are getting serious about supply chain transparency, as well. Earlier this year, as part of its high profile corporate sustainability initiative Plan A, Marks & Spencer said it would become the first major retailer to ensure full traceability of the key raw materials used in its clothing, including cotton, wool, polyester, nylon and leather.

Even the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, is investing in traceable products. For example, their supplier of organic cotton T-shirts, Greensource, tags their garments with product IDs. When entered into a search engine at Greensourceorganic.com, the codes show customers where and by whom the organic cotton in their T-shirts was grown, processed and finished.

I didn’t plan it as a sequel, but the September 3, 2010 Consumed was about “Object With Back Stories.” Broadly speaking, this has to do with stories that we impose on objects through owning and using them. Excerpts:

  • A project called Totem, financed by a grant from the Research Councils U.K., concentrates on the narratives of thing-owners. The basic concept is that users can write up (or record) the story of, say, a chess trophy or a silver bracelet and upload it to TalesofThings.com. Slap on a sticker with a newfangled bar code, and anybody with a properly equipped smartphone can scan the object and learn that the trophy was won in a 2007 tournament in Paris and that the bracelet was a gift purchased in Lisbon.
  • Itizen also uses a tell-and-tag approach. Dori Graff, whose background and her co-founders became interested in how brands were using new forms of bar codes and the like in various creative ways and also noticed that, in their personal lives, they were doing more sharing and swapping of clothes and other items. So why not match that up with the tracking technology? “Our big superlofty goal would be to influence a shift in how people view their possessions,” Graff says, because a thing’s story makes it more valuable and less disposable.
  • A third entrant in the object-story field, StickyBits, distributed 300,000 of its custom tags at a technology conference earlier this year, assuming that people would put them on particularly meaningful or interesting possessions. But its app can also be used to link content to an existing bar code. “People were scanning Coke cans and jars of peanut butter or A.1. steak sauce,” says Seth Goldstein, a StickyBits founder. Goldstein theorizes that the motive was the same “microboredom” that inclines users of mobile check-in apps to announce that they’ve arrived at Chili’s — except that users could broadcast not just where they were but also what objects were around them.

(I should also mention D-Build, which I wasn’t able to get into the column but mentioned in a previous post. While this Syracuse, New York, project is primarily concerned with green deconstruction, repurposing the materials from torn-down or refurbished materials into furniture and other objects, it also aims to include a dose of narrative: The creators want people to submit stories (memories, historical information, etc.) about the deconstructed building. The idea is to create a “network of information, along with a marketplace for users to exchange reclaimed materials, finished products made of these materials, as well as ideas and services.”)

That column also noted this ReadWriteWeb article on The Internet of Things — I recommend ReadWriteWeb on this subject, they do a very good job. Here’s what I said in the column:

“Internet of things” [refers to] more and more stuff produced with sensors and tags and emitting readable data. ReadWriteWeb pointed out that the number of objects (digital picture frames, GPS devices) added to the networks of AT&T and Verizon in the previous quarter was greater than the number of new human subscribers. Imagine, the site suggested, future bulletins on your Facebook feed like “Your toaster is using more electricity than it should be.” We appear to be inching toward a concept advanced in 2004 by the writer Bruce Sterling, who hypothesized objects he called “spimes” — embedded with technologies that carry, collect and communicate data — becoming “the protagonist of a documented process.”

It’s worth reading Sterling’s 2004 talk linked above — the link between objects that communicate about themselves and world ecology is very clear. Some of the thing-narrative strategies mentioned above move in that direction, others do not. The same can be said, I think, of many other examples I’ve seen of things communicating with us — this laundry machine that emails you when it’s done washing your clothes, for instance, is more about convenience than ecology. And as I pointed out in the column back in June, barcode-reading apps for smart phones are generally pitched as “empowering” consumers by way of comparing prices.

Finally, there’s food. In the past I mentioned Where Is My Milk From, which you can use to find the dairy where your, um, dairy products originated.  BoF also said that “In Japan … consumers routinely [use a smarthphone to] scan QR codes on fruit to instantly call up information on where and how a particular apple or pear was grown.” More recently, Springwise notes a partnership between HarvestMark and Kroger.

Kroger’s private label produce brands now feature sixteen-digit codes by HarvestMark, allowing consumers to find out where their food was grown, when it was packed, how it should be stored, etc.

I don’t now much about HarvestMark, but the idea seems to be there is a code on produce that leads you to the above-noted information (there’s an app version as well, I gather). This seems to apply to any produce brand that participates in HarvestMark’s program and thus carries its logo. I’ll have to look into this more [March 29, 2011 update: Marketplace story on HarvestMark], because of the link to a private label brand. My general view is that private label brands are a very powerful countertrend to transparency.

But more on that later.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

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