A Wrinkle in Spime

When the digital model of our world gets out of sync with our actual world, strange things happen …

SAN FRANCISCO: I was at the International Symposium for Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR) in Basel, Switzerland last fall when I encountered a new word:


Author Bruce Sterling coined the term in 2004. The idea is deep, and I confess I’m still working on getting my head around it, but here is the gist, per this excerpt from Spime’s entry in Wikipedia:

Spime n. [spyme]  A neologism for a … theoretical object that can be tracked through space and time…

In case you find this definition unsatisfying, let me attempt to summarize (and no doubt editorialize). A spime, according to Sterling, is an object that, among other things, embodies both a real and a virtual instance that reference one another in both time and space. Sterling’s spimes have other properties as well, but I think the concept is already rearing its head in the world of location-based services. Just yesterday, a fellow entrepreneur was in town from New York City and I was alerted to what an important meme the spime had become.

My colleague, a coffee connoisseur, was making disparaging remarks about the local brew. Proud as I am of San Francisco’s coffee prowess, I decided I would have to get him in front of a superlative latte ex post haste. I opened Google Maps and quickly located the spime of a reputable purveyor of high end grinds. It looked like a bit of a trek, but it seemed some sacrifice was in order to set the record straight.

The brew, I promised from the beginning, would be more than worth the trip.

As the blocks wore on, however, I found myself piling on the hype in order to hold his interest. The streets of New York, you see, are flat, and my colleague was not appreciative of the extra effort required to traverse the local terrain. As we approached our destination, our highly anticipated lattés began to achieve the status of a Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, one of the better vintages even.

Sadly, there was literally a gap in the facade where this cafe by all rights should have been. It was as if the address, and the street (which was really an alley with one building in it), was purposely hidden, like some scene from the movie Brazil.

A Wrinkle in Spime

My colleague, past the pale at this point, pulled out his iPhone 4s, and summoned a cab.

On the far wall of the alley, dimly lit, I could make out a singular golden digit – the number 1. I ventured a few hundred feet in, and up the stairwell beneath the address. Inside was an empty restaurant, with an empty bar at the back. The proprietor slipped out from behind a row of highballs to supply some much needed clarification:

“The cafe will soon be here… ” he said. The cafe’s opening was announced today, as it happens, but the actual event was “running late”.

There was nothing to suggest imminent coffee anywhere, despite the map program’s assertion to the contrary. We had been duped.

No apology was forthcoming.

Incited to drag my friend halfway across town on the account of a bad spime, I was reminded of our increasing reliance on metadata of all kinds. I sensed this seemingly innocent deception would become a specter of bigger things…


Thanks to Christine Perey for educating the author on Spimes.