Evocative Objects by Sherry Turkle

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 both 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 serious 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 privileging and moving experience as the authors reveal the nakedness of their evocative objects, exposing the inner thoughts and feelings to these touchstones of material objects including ballet slippers, a vacuum cleaner, a Melbourne tram, a rolling pin and slime mould. Turkle acts as curator to these essays brilliantly, 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 effervescing with 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 is 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, although there are glimpses of a generational difference as we see younger figures moving in the background and interacting with technology in a far more self-assured, fluid and natural way than the often older essayist. does

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 30 years, and spent some 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.” 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 a new meaning when they are seen through the eyes of anthropologists, sociologists and pyschologists.

All these dusty, nostalgic and magical objects together bring to life the philosophical passages that preface each of the essays and provide another lens through which the ordinary, simple and seemingly uninteresting emerge in new and vibrant colours.

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 (more than) a reminder of the life and the passing of the grandmother as well as being 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 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”. It is a comfortable setting for the many characters, events and objects that populate the collection and brings to life the personal stories that have been so generously shared in the public domain.

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.

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