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Evocative Objects: Things We Think With

Editor: Sherry Turkle
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007
Review Published: July 2009

 REVIEW 1: Chris Foster
 REVIEW 2: Gloria Gannaway
 REVIEW 3: Linda Levitt
 REVIEW 4: Albin Wallace

Evocative Objects: Things We Think With is a collections of writings compiled by MIT professor Sherry Turkle on the relations we have to objects. Rather than something inanimate, Turkle sees objects as "companions to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought ... we think with objects we love; we love the objects we think with" (5). In these writings, various eminent figures talk about the objects that they have found evocative. They invite us to see objects in new ways, as more that just "tools" or items for consumption, and in turn this provides important insights into our relationships with technological objects.

The writing is divided into a number of different sections, outlining alternative views of objects. Objects can be related to design and play; discipline and desire; history and exchange; mourning and memory; or mediation and new vision. Interwoven between the essays are extracts of social theory, highlighting the importance of objects in the theoretical works of writers such as Haraway, Freud, and Latour. This layering of theory with autobiographical works serves to neutralise some of the academic obscurity of the theoretical writing. The autobiographical works enlighten the theory and in some cases critique it through the juxtaposition of the theoretic and familiar.

The section on objects for design and play draws on ideas that objects, through play and bricolage, can be used to build understanding. In the chapter "Knots," Carol Stohecker's recounts her work in using knots as a teaching tool to allow children, through play, to creatively connect with their own lives. Stohecker recalls one girl, whose parents were going through a complicated divorce. The girl builds intricate and complex knot arrangements and in her explanation of the patterns, Stohecker can see her trying to reconcile the emotional turmoil of her relationship to her family. Several years later, Stohecker tracks down the girl again, but this time within the class she is more hesitant, older now, her self-image from schooling has become someone who is "not good at math" and she is more reluctant in her play to tackle the complex, mathematical knots.

The objects of desire and discipline section draws on the notion of the restraining power of objects and critical theories of the power of objects in society. This is most vividly illustrated within Gail Wrights' "Blue Cheer," the most provocative essay. Wright describes her relationship with the anti-depressant Ludiomil. To her the pills are "colourful, aesthetically inspiring, exhilarating the imagination through the sheer force of physical beauty (95). Following the failure of therapy, the pills become Wright's evocative object, symbolic of her illness yet somehow seductive and life-saving. Turkle connects this work to Foucaltian views of a disciplinary and distributed social control through objects. There is a fine line between objects that are considered immoral to some and the freedom and release that they can bring to others.

In the section objects of history and exchange, authors see significance of objects in a historic perspective. Nathan Greenslit watches the way his young daughter rationalises and overcomes her fear of a vacuum cleaner over time, and it leads him to consider how objects, once significant, disappear into the historic psyche as another "thing." Similarly, architecture professor Julian Bienart, working in South Africa, one day comes across a poor boy playing with a home-crafted model of a radio. From then on Bienart begins to see a world of local innovations which result in him re-evaluating the austere and formal design objects of his teaching. These writings point toward a historic understanding of objects where modes of interactions or relationships may not result from "design," but from longer and more subtle historic trajectories.

Objects of meaning and memory deals with how people can understand aspects of their own lives through connecting with objects. In "The Painting in the Attic," art critic Caroline Jones uses her professional skills to analyse one of her own paintings from her youth. She thinks about how it symbolises her family and their personalities; from the gestures and touches, to the exclusion of her disabled sister and parents. The analysis surprises her in the detailed narratives and evocations that it reveals. This in turn reinforces her understanding of herself as an art critic: "What a painter puts into a picture is a tiny fragment of what is gleaned by later viewers" (236).

Whilst the book does not focus on technology per se, the study of evocative objects casts a long shadow on our understanding of technology, as Turkle (1984) has outlined previously: "I look at the computer in a different light, not in terms of its nature as an 'analytical engine,' but in terms of its 'second nature' as an evocative object, an object that fascinates, disturbs equanimity, and precipitates thought" (19). When it comes to the evocative object, most of the authors actually steer clear of technology or computers, surprising given that many of the writers come from within fields of technology. Perhaps this illustrates a still present scepticism in the power of computers to open up such a range of emotions and memories (particularly given the false dawn of virtual reality and the paranoia related to ubiquitous computing). This is most vividly illustrated by architect Susan Yee, in "The Archive." She describes the allure of interacting with Le Corbusier's architectural archive in Paris, seeing the finger marks on plans and astonished at the sheer physical size. Yee opines that digitisation of such items results in a loss of some of the objects semiotic allure, and in her opinion, the "spirit" of the object. "Will we be able to feel the human connection through digital archives? Will we care?" (35).

However, we might put such scepticism down to the selection of writers, which are drawn mostly from an academic or teaching background and who, as Yee puts it, "straddle(s) both physical and digital worlds" (35). Whilst this selection of writers brings a certain poetic form and consistency to the writing, it also detaches this work somewhat from the urgency of the present. Whether it be an American flag pin on a politician, a mobile phone in the developing world, or a certain beard at an airport, the evocative object can hold an immediate power and significance, and this is underplayed. It would also have been interesting to hear from younger writers and digital natives who are creating their own evocative objects in digital spaces. Sometimes in this work it feels like we are reliving the reminiscences of mid-career academics, dusting off their memories of a youth no-more, and whilst this does not invalidate their insights, it reduces the immediacy of the writing.

In sum, with its loose narrative and layered, playful writing, it is a pleasure to read this book which offers glimpses into a wide palette of ways to looking at and working with technology. The writing provides an emotional core to the study of objects that Turkle and her associates have been writing about for so long, and should provide a fresh impetus for wider study of the emotion and power of evocative objects.

Sherry Turkle, The second self: Computers and the human spirit. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Chris Foster:
Chris Foster is a freelance web developer and PhD candidate in ICT for Development at the University of Manchester, UK. His research interests is in using learning models to understand the use of technologies in social interactions and spaces.  <cgfoster@gmail.com>

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