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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

Sherry Turkle's latest book, Evocative Objects, takes the concept of "things we think with" both as its theme and its subtitle. Building upon ideas explored in her previous landmark books The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, published in 1984, and Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, from 1995, and also developing the ideas underpinning Seymour Papert's Mindstorms, Turkle curates a series of essays that explore how everyday and extraordinary objects can act both as intellectual and emotional catalysts. The essays are provided by talented and creative thinkers, many of whom are associated with MIT where Turkle is Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. The essays are linked with sometimes ironic and sometimes profound quotations from other authors, amongst whom the French postmodernists are prominent.

Reading the essays is a moving experience as the authors reveal the nakedness of their evocative objects, exposing the inner thoughts and feelings to these touchstones of material objects that include ballet slippers, a vacuum cleaner, a Melbourne tram, a rolling pin, and slime mold. Turkle acts as a brilliant curator to these essays, allowing brutal honesty and exposure to the pieces, which often read like private journals. Reading the essays brings both the subject matter and the authors' thoughts to life, evoking the smell, the mustiness of time, nostalgia, joy, regret, guilt, and inspiration.

The essays exude invention and creativity often tinged with sadness or emptiness but always highlighting the humanity of the writers. These talented people become very ordinary through their evocative objects and this ordinariness becomes extraordinary as layers of meaning are unpeeled to expose the exceptionality and the singularity of the simple, the loved, and the mundane. The objects are also often ordinary but become precious and sacred as they expose the intelligence, soul, and vocation of their stewards.

In her book, Turkle describes and illustrates the way in which technologies are more than just tools, often manifesting themselves as evocative objects: things we think with. She invites the essayist to discuss personal objects that often come to exist with lives of their own. Turkle poignantly illustrates how the aesthetics, design, and technology behind evocative objects are directly related to understanding human emotions, thoughts, and experiences, and the manner in which we reflect upon them. Through this, objects themselves often take upon a fetishistic or totemic quality. The humanity of the essayists' interaction with their objects also reveals the ghost in the machine, the spirit that moves us to see objects as more than just the sum total of the parts of which they are comprised.

Turkle has had a long-lasting fascination with objects and relics and the way in which we interact with them. She has a background in technology stretching back over thirty years, and spent time in Paris studying French philosophy and psychoanalytic thought. By bringing together these two contrasting areas, Turkle views technology in a uniquely philosophical way.

That most quintessential piece of technology, the computer, she sees as being an evocative object and a "companion to emotion, and a provocation to thought" (13). She not only perceptively analyses the computer as a tool for the advancement of society and individual growth, she also sees it as a object which profoundly affects us, and changes not just what we do and how we feel, but more essentially who we are. With previous publications that cover a wide range of themes including sociology and technology, she has also investigated the way in which the computer can be a means of creating and expressing identity, a way of creating new virtual worlds and a way of learning, creating and communicating. Evocative Objects is a natural extension of this thinking, taking a similar approach to shed light on more mundane things. Everyday, simple objects take on new meanings when they are seen through the eyes of anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists.

Turkle's daughter brings her own evocative object into the book: a patchwork quilt made by her recently deceased paternal grandmother. We learn through Turkle's narrative a lot more about the quilt and the people who have touched (and been touched by) it. Turkle's evocative object is pregnant with meaning for all concerned. It conveys many thoughts and feelings and is a relic of a very personal life history. As an historic and representational item, it is a reminder of the life and the passing of the grandmother as well as an object of grieving and remembrance. Most importantly to us, it is an artefact, a gift from and for loved ones.

Gifts and relics are important to givers, recipients, investigators, archaeologists, and theorists alike. The essays demonstrate how these objects come to life, imbued with meaning from the past, the present, and the future and how they can tell a story -- not just a shared story within a family or between friends, but a story for wider sharing, one that can be passed down through the ages until it turns into tradition, folklore, myth, or legend. The stories that are shared through Turkle's magnificent anthology have already been committed to history through their publication in Evocative Objects. Although the stories are told through words and pictures, you can almost see, hear, feel, and smell the precious things as they are so beautifully animated as objects to think with. Turkle has compiled and edited a truly remarkable collection of writings.

Albin Wallace:
Dr. Albin Wallace is Director of Educational Development and Technologies for the United Learning Trust. He is a Fellow of the British Computer Society and the Institute of IT Training and has completed doctoral studies in education at the University of Sheffield. Albin has spoken at a number of international conferences on education and ICT.  <Albin.Wallace@church-schools.com>

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