On seams and tools

In William Gibson’s The Peripheral, one of the storylines takes place amidst a future world gripped in the maw of what the author terms a “half-assed singularity.” Swarms of nanobots, highly skilled 3D print fabricators, and mentally-controlled gun rigs exist alongside Airstream trailers, sawn-off shotguns, and outhouses. Technology doesn’t exist in a void – it is gritty, real, and present.

To riff upon a great thought from the latest (and excellent) Little Futures newsletter, the world of The Peripheral is a world of plentiful, visible seams. It laughs at the mission of the many companies today aiming to render these seams (and the interactions and conversations around them) invisible:

The dominant arc of technology and business in the last half century has bent towards connecting disparate information and activities, and smoothing them. Jagged negotiations become streamlined tradeoffs. Variable nuance becomes standardized flow. These connections start out seamful, and become seamless.


Brian Dell, Little Futures

That these seams lay in the crosshairs of so many business models and software development teams makes them all the more important to understand and unpack. Seams are where the interesting stuff naturally gathers – the end of one thing and the beginning of another.

Above is the counter in a shoe repair shop in my former neighborhood in Shanghai. Flimsy little Alipay and WeChat Pay QR code stickers which enable near-instantaneous payment are prominently displayed, but are easily be splattered with paint, covered by an ashtray, or obscured by rolls of thread or little take-out sized sauce containers holding all the paint colors of the rainbow. Beyond paint, rolls of tape, and spools of thread, these stickers share counter space with a very-much-analog piece of payment technology: a spike on to which the proprietor skewers customers’ retrieval slips when they arrive to pick up their shoes. 

The software-driven shrinking and smoothing of seams disconnects us from the astounding infrastructures that they enable, and which sustain daily life in our half-assed singularity world. These invisible infrastructures are under increasing strain, and the smaller the seams that reveal glimpses into them, the easier it is to overlook the unfathomably complex tapestry that those seams bind together. Think about the worlds that are connected by your smartphone’s camera, kitchen faucet, payment chip on your credit card, or handle on your toilet. It’s only when these seams break, when they switch suddenly from ready-to-hand to present-at-hand, that one is able to grasp both their fragility and the immensity what they are connecting:

[life is] all happening very near the apex of a pyramid of once-emergent technologies that might have at the bottom ‘growing cereal’, and above that you’d have cities, which you can’t have unless you can grow and store cereal, and above that you’d have sewers…without which your city dies above a certain population of cholera and dysentery. So we’re up at the apex – if any of those other layers below went out on us, we’d all die. We forget that, that we’re at the peak of something, but we’re supported by older technologies that we no longer even think of as ‘technologies.’


William Gibson, Technology, Science Fiction & the Apocalypse

Remember that thread, too, is a “technology” – albeit one that was invented between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Understanding the unique shape of a context’s very own pyramid of technologies – whether a shoe repair shop, a neighborhood, a transit system, or an organization – is what makes this seam-seeking a crucial and compelling infinite game to play. By looking past the surface-level needs around which a typical particular project or engagement is structured, the more interesting answers tend to bubble up after one has taken the time to dive into the frictions between a setting’s more recent, higher-up bricks (QR code stickers) and the more foundational bricks (payment slip barbs) as they grind against each other.

While inside, stickers and smartphone cameras eschew swapping pieces of colored paper for seamless, cashless payment, out front on the other side of a smudged glass facade covered in fading red characters, a shoe rack sits covered in netting. Freshly-treated shoes dry out on the rack, while the net limits the temptation for those with sticky fingers to walk away with a pair. “That’s also a type of advertising,” says the owner, “it represents my skill.”

While you could question the authenticity of the displayed Balenciagas and Stan Smiths, the lustrous shine on (p)leather and bright white gleam of fabric speak to the owner’s abilities in ways that hi-res photos on the store’s DaZhongDianPing/大众点评 (China’s take on Yelp) review page can’t.

Freshly cleaned, visible seams.

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