When Mack posted about his Kindle last week, one of the questions I asked him was whether it was a logject – that is, it recorded its own use with the possibility that the information gathered about his reading habits was transmitted back to Amazon. Amazon already gathers data concerning the purchases we make and if Kindles are networked logjects then they can marry that data up with what we actually do with those purchases (including our reading habits and what information we add to them, such as making notes). I’ve no idea if Kindle is a logject, and if it is what kind of logject it is, but I said I’d write a post explaining that neologism (a term that Martin Dodge and myself coined through a refinement and expansion of Bleeker’s notion of a blogject). I'm sorry if what follows is a bit academic, but it's culled from a paper we had published in Environment and Planning A earlier in the year (working paper here) but hopefully it might prove interesting because it concerns how our everyday objects are being remade to do different kinds of work in the world, including recording and communicating their use (and I'm sure they will increasingly turn up as plot devices in novels in the coming years).
The easiest way to introduce the notion of a logject is to consider the ways in which the embedding of software is changing the nature of everyday objects. Many objects now have software physically embedded into their material form. On the one hand software is used to enhance the functional capacity of what were previously ‘dumb’ objects enabling them to sense something of their environments and to perform different tasks, or the same tasks more efficiently, or to be plugged into new distributed networks that afford some value-added dimension such as data exchange on how they are used. On the other hand, software is used to underpin the design and deployment of new classes of objects, particularly mobile devices (such as PDAs, MP3 players, Satnav), that in some cases replace analogue equivalents (diaries and filofaxes, personal tape and CD stereos, paper maps and gazetteers) or undertake entirely new tasks. In some cases, software is not essential to an object’s use (such as digital clock in a cooker), but in others software has become vital to the performance of the object. The latter Martin and myself call codejects, of which there are three types differing with respect to their programmability, interactivity, capacity for remembering, their ability for anticipatory action in the future based on previous use, and their relational capacities. In summary these classes are:
Hard codejects that rely on firmware to function but are not programmable and therefore have low levels of interactivity (e.g. a USB memory stick).
Unitary codejects are programmable, exhibit some level of interactivity, although this is typically limited and highly scripted, and they do not record their work in the world. They can be subdivided into two groups:
(a) closed codejects that work independently of the world around them (e.g., alarm clock, CD player)
(b) sensory objects that sense and react to the world around them (e.g., a heating control unit using a digital thermostat).
Logjects are objects that have an ‘awareness’ of themselves and their relations with the world and which, by default, automatically record aspects of those relations in logs that are stored and re-used in the future. More specifically, a logject is (1) uniquely identifiable, (2) has awareness of its environment and is able to respond to changes in that environment that are meaningful within its functional context, (3) traces and tracks its own usage in time and/or space, (4) records that history, (5) can communicate that history across a network for analysis and use by other agents (objects and people), (6) can use the data it produces to make automated, automatic and autonomous decisions and actions in the world without human oversight, (7) is programmable and thus mutable to some degree (that is, it is possible to adjust settings, update parameters and to download new firmware). They can be subdivided into two groups based on their capacity to work independently of wider networks:
(a) permeable logjects - relatively self-contained units such as a MP3 player, a PDA, and a satnav (all of which have the potential to be connected to wider networks). Such devices trace and track their usage by default, recording this data as an embedded history; are programmable in terms of configurable settings and creating lists (e.g. play lists of songs, diary entries and route itineraries); perform operations in automated, automatic and autonomous ways; and engender socially meaningful acts such as entertaining, remember an important meeting and helping an individual to travel between locations.
(b) networked logjects - these logjects do not function without continuous access to other technologies and networks. Such logjects track, trace and record their usage locally but their full histories are also recorded externally to its immediate material form. Some networked logjects are relatively fixed in the environment (e.g. satellite/cable television control boxes, home security monitoring systems) and others are inherently mobile (e.g., mobile telephones, telematically monitored vehicles) that use a range of communication technologies such as GSM, Wifi, Bluetooth to maintain a network connection.
The other way objects are changing is that they are becoming uniquely identifiable through new tagging, so it becomes possible to know the logistics and purchase history of every item, but that's for another post.
I suspect that a Kindle is at the very least permeable logject, recording its own usage. The key question with respect to surveillance and privacy is whether it’s a network logject communicating back to Amazon details of our reading patterns and our notes? If anyone has the answer I’d be interested to know.