[iDC] Some things about things

Mark Shepard mshepard at andinc.org
Wed Sep 20 00:29:52 EDT 2006

Anne wrote:

> I also wonder about a current fetishising of 'things'.  Or how can  
> we 'return to the object' without privileging objectivity?

I think this is a key question. As Sterling noted at the talk he gave  
for the Lift conference[1] last March, the phrase "Internet of  
Things" is a useful one if you are looking for venture capital in  
southern California. And indeed, the discourse surrounding the  
convergence of ubiquitous/embedded/context-aware/geospatial/locative  
technologies finds its (fundable) applications predominately in the  
commodity object or "objective" control systems for the military- 
industrial-light-and-magic complex. So it's not surprising that given  
the circuit running from "academic-industry research partnerships to  
popular business and technology publications to popular blogs and  
back to academic-industry research partnerships" produces ideas that  
feed this fetish for the object and objectivity.

Trebor asks:

> So, why talk of "things" instead of objects?

Well, for one thing, calling them objects doesn't account for  
meanings such as "That's another thing entirely", "She knows how to  
handle things", or "We're just doing our thing." Things are "actions,  
events and affairs" as much as they are "artifacts." Networked  
_things_ are not at all the same as networked objects (but they may  
include them). When we reduce _things_ to objects, however, we limit  
our ability to consider how _things_ are embedded within everyday  
life, their meaning contingent upon their use (or mis-use), and the  
relations they enact or perform.

Take Heidegger's "jug", for example:

> "No representation of what is present, in the sense of what stands  
> forth and of what stands over against as an object, ever reaches to  
> the thing qua thing. The jug's thingness resides in its being a qua  
> vessel. We become aware of the vessel's holding nature when we fill  
> the jug... the pouring that fills it flows into the empty jug. The  
> empty space, this nothing of the jug, is what the jug is as the  
> holding vessel... But if the holding is done by the jug's void,  
> then the potter who forms sides and bottom on his wheel does not,  
> strictly speaking, make the jug... The vessel's thingness does not  
> lie at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void  
> that holds." [2]

Heidegger's understanding of the thing stands in contradistinction to  
the object. While I find the larger argument he's making in this  
essay problematic, I do find useful the idea that the "thingness" of  
the thing doesn't reside in its being a representable object, but  
rather in the way _things_ bring human practices together and make  
them intelligible.

Recently I screened Tati's "Play Time" for a group of graduate  
students. I am always fasinated by the way _things_ for Tati -  
modernist chairs, glass plane doors (or at least their handles) -  
carry with them an excess beyond their role as functional objects.  
With the chairs, for example, that excess is the sound they produce  
when sitting on them, how the body engages with the acoustic  
properties of the material, and the (hilarious) social implications  
of this... This excess often lies in the difference between how  
things are designed and how they are used, or how they perform in  
ways not anticipated by their designers.

Dunne and Raby's "post-optimal" electronic objects would appear to  
take this excess as an opportunity for a reflexive, critical design  
practice, one that doesn't so much reject the optimizations and  
efficiencies of Taylorism as it considers them moot: already  
achieved, and therefore not much of a design challenge. If anything,  
contrary to Trebor's suggestion, I'd say critical design can play a  
key role in shaping a future of things that are not invested in  
"intentionally restricting the way the user can behave, or enforce  
certain modes of behavior."

Ulises wrote:

> I fear that our technophilia is obscuring the politics of these  
> virtual-actual assemblages, obstructing the need to critically  
> assess how agency is distributed amongst things connected through  
> the internet.

The question of agency here is crucial. But I think it's useful to  
distinguish between humans and things in actor networks. This might  
help abate some of the hysteria surrounding the current discussion .  
That we can see networked things as systems doesn't necessarily mean  
that these systems can think, act, or exercise power in any  
subjective way.

Still, subjective human agency is but one form of "being in action or  
exerting power", and its important to consider how representative  
democracies, for example, can be influenced by _things_ that are  
capable of asserting themselves within networked societies.

Take Bruno Latour's Parliament of Things, for example:

> Let one of the representatives talk, for instance, about the ozone  
> hole, another represent the Monsanto chemical industry, a third the  
> workers of the same chemical industry, another the voters of New  
> Hampshire, a fifth the meteorology of the polar regions; let still  
> another speak in the name of the State; what does it matter, so  
> long as they are all talking about the same thing, about a quasi- 
> object they have all created, the object-discourse-nature-society  
> whose new properties astound us all and whose network extends from  
> my refrigerator to the Antarctic by way of chemistry, law, the  
> State, the economy and satellites. [3]

Or Julian Bleecker's description of Blogject agency:

> Agency as I am using it here does not just mean a local “artificial  
> intelligence” that makes a Blogject able to make autonomous, human- 
> like decision or fashion croaky human-speech from text. Blogjects  
> have no truck with the syntax of human  thought. Things could not  
> care any less about their Turing Test report card. Blogject  
> intellect is their ability to effect change. Their agency attains  
> through the consequence of their assertions, and through the  
> significant perspective they deliver to meaningful conversations.  
> Blogjects bring something heavy to the table. Or, they  are brought  
> to the table because they have semantic weight.  Agency is  
> literally imbued in Blogjects. Things that matter completely sully  
> the  previously starched white relationship between subject and  
> object, human and nonhuman. Things that matter inflect the course  
> of social debate and discussion, and  cannot help inflicting local  
> and global change. Witness the Spotted Owl. Witness  the Pacific  
> Northwest Salmon. Witness all the non-human, non-subject "things"   
> that became fully imbued with the status of first-class citizens.  
> Heck, most humans  don't have the capacity to effect the kind of  
> worldly change and receive the same order of protection, status and  
> economic resources as a fish.

These networked things are obviously far more than "just pieces of  
metal and silicon... " and at the same time far less than the hype  
and hysteria currently surrounding them might suggest.



[1]	http://video.google.com/videoplay? 
[2]	Heidegger, "The Thing," in Poetry, Language, Thought, A.  
Hofstadter, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1971)
[3]	Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern, trans. by C. Porter.  
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1993. p. 144
[4]	Bleecker, Julian. Why Things Matter. 2006. http:// 

mark shepard

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