The Thing About Things

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.

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.  (image via Shutterstock)
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. (image via Shutterstock)

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.

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. TC mark

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