7.22.2013

The Thing About Things

The martini glass is not just a symbol of cool: it literally trains you to be cool.
Keep it together, son
, it whispers as you get increasingly lit. 

The thing about things is that they are rarely just things. Things coerce, often in the most unforgiving ways. A rock, for instance, blocking your path. Or my bed. All the movements I make in my bedroom are, in some way, defined by the presence of this large, heavy, imposing thing. I walk around it, crawl over it, stub my toe on it. (Give me a Murphy bed, please!) Then of course there is the experience of sleeping, or what have you, on the bed. It cushions or fails to cushion in specific ways affording comfort, respite, the occasional ache (I like my beds firm). I may believe I'm the ruler of my roost but my bed, and all these other things, would have it otherwise.

From one perspective, we spend our days negotiating things. All day long couches, chairs, phones, remotes, TVs, computers, pens, forks, cups, toothbrushes nudge you, poke you, demand things of you. Hold me like this! Move around me! Slouch and you'll slip! The din of it all can be maddening.

Sure, you can try to see it the other way, try to pretend you are the master and these things serve at your discretion. And to a point that's true. But, from another angle, all this stuff rules you — you flip its switch, lie on its seat, hold its handle. You might not like it but that toothbrush isn't growing finer bristles: you are at its mercy, at least until you put yourself at the mercy of a different one. If you think about it too much, think about how much your every move is defined by things, it will freak your shit.

Usually, we only notice when the thing doesn't work right. Damn this phone!  Or when the thing provokes us in other ways. Man, these sheets feel niiiiice! Most of the time, things rule us quietly, having their way without drawing too much attention to themselves. John Locke calls this passive power. But such a seemingly benign qualification does little to quash the undeniable influence of things on my behavior.

This is not to say that being coerced by things is necessarily bad. The best things make us better. The martini glass, for instance: it's not just a symbol of cool, it breeds a particular kind of cool. Why, after all, would such a strong drink come in such an odd, easy to spill glass? As you drink, it becomes increasingly difficult not to spill. It's not very user friendly. This glass demands a certain behavior from you: it demands you hold it together as you get more and more lit. Indeed, the more lit you get, the more the glass demands you remain steady. You can't just sloppily grab a martini; it'll spill. With each sip, the glass whispers to you, Stay cool, my friend, stay cool. The glass literally trains you to be cool.

Many today maintain that the chair is a killer. I shit you not. Chairs, it is argued, kill people by tantalizing us with the all too enticing prospect of sitting. And sitting rather than moving kills people in all sorts of ways. We can say that the chair is not to blame, that sitting is not even to blame, but people's decision to sit for so long. But an elaborate culture, an economy of action and finance, revolves around the chair — the desk, the laptop and desktop computer, the cubicle, the conference room, the 10 hour work day, salaries. Google Glass might offer a way out of the culture of the chair. 

Google Glass may offer an alternative to chair bound culture.

One of the most common figures in UI design is intuitive. Every freakin' client wants his app or site to be intuitive. But what about software could possibly be intuitive? What does this even mean? All software is learned. Indeed, all technology is learned. An infant doesn't automatically suckle at his mother's breast, despite his most ardent, base desires. The baby, and the mother, must together learn the technology of breastfeeding.

All things demand you learn them. Some play well on existing behaviors, on pre-existing learned knowledge. This, I believe, is what people mean by an intuitive interface: things are where you've learned they should be and do what you've learned they should do. 

The power of things is inherently neither good nor bad. Sure, there are times we want to shed our so-called materiality and be done with things. But that's silly. To be alive is to interact with things. Which, to me, just means we need to be attentive to the things things demand of us. What behavior does a thing engender? What culture does a thing spawn?

This introduces a certain ethics of things. I'm not saying anything absurd such as things should be considered persons (who could even conceive of such an absurdity?). But I am saying that we should consider things not as much as disposable servants but as participants in this nutty life of ours.

6 comments:

roca de carioca said...

I like how you highlight how the "thinging" of things, or how things state themselves or sometimes (like the martini) make their own states.

I once knew a man who would speak to inanimate objects, often things he'd be working on or with. He'd protest the uncoiling hose or the unwilling bolt, "It's fighting me!"

To speak such is to accept it as some thing that not only has a position, but posits itself in a way or in a few ways. The thing's environment posits it too, as does one's own negotiation of things in an environment (chairs don't usually go on beds, nor blenders in refrigerators). This is not, like you say, that things should be considered persons or be considered to have agency, but that they do have nuances which must be negotiated if you're unfamiliar with them.

I remember the first time my car ran out of gas and I experienced the steering wheel pushing back (actually the road on the tires/wheels to the axles to the turning mechanism) without the assistance of power steering; /it/ turned me in an unexpected reversal of roles as I had to figure how to apply the right moves. This learning itself certainly was a thing, albeit subtle and passive, and the interaction was derivative from another thing I had otherwise understood myself to have "mastered."

dustygravel said...

"I'm not saying anything absurd such as things should be considered persons (who could even conceive of such an absurdity?)."

Philip K. Dick thats who!

Check out this Splendid essey by Philip K. Dick:
(The Android and The Human)
http://bigpicture.typepad.com/writing/2005/07/the_android_and.html

Daniel Coffeen said...

@roca: When things breakdown or in some way undermine our taking them for granted, we get pissed — at the things! Which is at once hilariously absurd and absolutely proper.

@dusty: It was an ironic aside. And, apropos of nothing, I'm reading my first PKD, Ubik, and loving it. A lot of WS Burroughs in there (and vice versa, I know).

dustygravel said...


I do have to say, this is a very comical peace, Mr. Coffeen. I read it at work and had to laught out loud a couple of times.

"I walk around it, crawl over it, stub my toe on it. (Give me a Murphy bed, please!)"

"Man, these sheets feel niiiiice!"

Pictureing the martien glass wispering to you... Hahah! (with joy of course)

I never really thought about how funny it is to talk about how things treat us, but it is.

You must be in a good mood lately to be writing this way.


αλήθεια said...

And what's more interesting is that it's not just objects that orient/re-orient our behavior, it's also people and their gazes; Attending a class with all the students standing in a circle is very different than attending a class in a classroom in which students are sitting in rows. In fact switching from rows to circles is a bit creepy at first. At least I always feel weird.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Dusty: It's worth noting that I've actually been writing a lot about tragedy and death because that is what I'm dealing with personally. BUT: I have to admit that I believe everything I write, more or less, to be funny. But you're right, too: things undoing human authority is, by definition, humor.

@ αλήθεια: Yes, yes: spaces and things orient and architect our experiences. Square rooms with podiums at the end coerce a certain experience of pedagogy, entertainment, experience.

And I'm totally with you: circles creep me out. I like looking towards the speaker or, when I'm the speaker, looking out over the faces. All that circular equality stifles me.