The Age of Spimes

The language of life-cycle inventories has its own life cycle

Spimes have identities; they are protagonists of a documented process. They are searchable, like Google. You can think of spimes as being auto-Googling objects.
—Bruce Sterling

A few years ago, the writer Bruce Sterling envisioned a future generation of products that were, he said, "precisely located in space and time. They have histories. They are recorded, tracked, inventoried, and always associated with a story." He dubbed this new kind of thing a spime, a blend of space and time. In the Los Angeles Times a couple of years later, the writer and critic Susan Salter Reynolds wrote, "In an age of spimes—products with Web sites and bar codes—we can and will make the right decisions about what to purchase and produce."

This "age of spimes" isn't quite here yet, but we're ­getting closer, thanks to an increasingly ­sophisticated discipline called life cycle assessment (or LCA), which attempts to ­quantify the total environmental impact of all the inputs and processes used to take a product from raw ­materials to its final form. LCA (which can also stand for life cycle ­analysis) is an important idea, for sure, but for our purposes it's also a fount of new words and phrases.

Life cycle practitioners usually start by coming up with a life cycle inventory, which tots up the materials used, the energy consumed, and the emissions produced during a product's life, or with a technoeconomic ­analysis, which considers a product's technology in terms of its ­economic costs and ­benefits. They might then work on impact assessment and life cycle improvement, which look at the actual or potential environmental consequences of producing the product and at ways to reduce them. Some practitioners use life cycle energy analysis (LCEA) to examine not only the direct energy used in the production, distribution, and use of a product but also the indirect energy used to create and maintain the services, components, and systems that are used to manufacture and distribute the product.

The fundamental unit of LCA is the whole-life cost, which refers to the environmental cost accumulated during a product's entire life cycle. This is also called the cradle-to-grave cost. In this age of avid and expanding recycling programs, a more recent idea is cradle-to-­cradle, which adds in as well the recycling of the product into something new.

LCA practitioners seem inordinately fond of ­breaking down a product's life cycle into smaller and smaller ­segments, usually in an effort to apportion life cycle costs appropriately. In the cradle-to-gate segment, the "gate" is the factory (or farm or mill or whatever) gate (or door or loading dock or whatever), so cradle-to-gate refers to everything that happens with a product until it's ready to ship.

If the product gets shipped to another link in the production chain, then that portion of the product's life cycle is called gate-to-gate or gate-to-site (for example, a construction site). If the product is edible, then the portion of its life cycle from the time it leaves the producer to the time the consumer is ready to eat it is called gate-to-plate. If the producer is a farmer, then that portion of the life cycle is known as farm-to-fork. If the producer is a fisherman or seafood processor, you can describe that stage as boat-to-throat.

As you might imagine, fossil­-fuels consumption is a huge part of LCA. The cradle-to-grave equivalent here is called well-to-wheel, where the "well" is the place where the unprocessed fossil fuel is extracted from the ground and the "wheel" is the vehicle burning the processed fuel. The segments in between are well-to-station, the costs of processing the raw fuel and its delivery to the gas station (or similar distributor); station-to-tank, the costs of storing and pumping the fuel; and tank-to-wheel, the costs and impacts of burning the fuel while driving.

LCA practitioners are the first to benefit from the coming age of spimes, but we're not far off from the day when we can all make smart and informed decisions on products. As Sterling said in the speech where he coined the word spime: "At the moment, you are end-using gizmos. My thesis here, my prophecy to you, is that, pretty soon, you will be wrangling spimes."