Imaginative sociology and talking things

How far does your (sociological) imagination stretch? Let’s find out by considering the following question: Imagine that things could speak – what would they say?

This question was put to 42 persons between the ages of 18-50 years old in Tokyo (Japan), San Jose (USA) and Beijing (China) in a recent photo-dairy study conducted by Ericsson User-Experience Lab, which I took part of. The task was to take a photo of one or more things and state what the things was saying.

So, what kind of things were you thinking of? If you thought of a technological thing you did like most respondents in this study. Lamps, Computers, Laptops, Mobile Phones, TVs, Ovens, Fridges, Laundry machines – all frequent talkers in the study. In fact, the most frequent talkative things were consumer electronics and home appliances – things that carries out something and which people frequently use and interact with. The rest of the respondent’s chose various things like figurines, dolls, food, containers, furniture or clothes. From what the respondents told us it seemed like these things were perceived as more passive compared to technological devices which were perceived as more “pushy“ (Whiteheads’ notion), actively calling out for their owners’ attention.

Furthermore, if you imagined that your selected thing said something reprimanding about yourself, your habits, or the way you treat it, then you are in good company. The majority of the respondents did just that. But many things expressed encouraging and reassuring words as well. The answers to the task had strong similarities. In general the things were either criticizing their owners’ personality or habits, or they said something encouraging and reassuring. It seems that the respondents’ used things both in motivating and regulating ways in various aspects of their lives.

Most narratives in the study are about leisure. For hard working citizens, the back regions of a home is naturally dedicated to the art of relaxing. One respondent told us about their couch left by the landlord. It was too small for the saloon so they bought another and moved the old one to the balcony. The old couch says: “I know I’m unworthy, but in a sunny afternoon after a long winter you can enjoy your life with me.

However, not all things speak nicely. Another respondent’s TV says “Sorry, I’m finished showing TV programs, but I’m sure you watched enough, right?”.

Work is such an important aspect in peoples’ lives, so naturally many things speak of work. Most narratives in the study convey feelings of self-pity and comfort in relation to too much work. One respondent submitted a figure saying: “Relax! Relax!” because it’s calm and smiling face made her feel as if it is talking to me when working hard.

And on the other side of the coin are things speaking in benign voice. One respondent had a teddy bear which she imagined to be much more demanding. She imagined that with its hands on its waist, it seemed to be saying: “study hard, don’t be lazy!”

The more personal and intimate aspects of the respondents life are conveyed through the narratives about body and health. Several respondents imagine talking food and refrigerators, talking about best before dates, available food of the season, shopping lists and reminders, for example, “It will be grateful if a fridge reminds me what are left in the fridge and when the best-before dates are, because I forget what I bought when I am busy”.

But there are also things that induce guilt when they say that the respondents shouldn’t eat too much, or healthy stuff, like fruit that shouts ‘eat us, not that candy bar!!’, or vitamins saying: ‘Don’t eat too much. I’m tasty, gummi-like vitamin supplements. You always eat too much.’

Things are also good at scolding their owner when something had been purchased but never used. One respondent bought had bought a fan a year ago, and it said: “Sell me or use me! Don’t leave me here to be dusty!”.

There are many stories from respondents imagining talking things. Illustrated in the narratives, personal things are used by the respondents in both motivating and scolding ways. However, the most fascinating is that no respondent had any trouble imagining that things could talk. (Did you?)

I like to think of my home as my castle and oasis – a secure place where I can let my guard down and behave in ways I don’t always do in public places. In line with Goffmans’ logic, I put my private and intimate stuff in back regions, and the fancier stuff in front, sending out the proper signals to others in relation to how I want to be perceived. However, domestic things are more than props, used to reinforce the presentation of the self. The things you surround yourself with will evoke thoughts, associations, and realization of normative expectations. They can act as active partners in motivating and regulating people’s actions and sense of self. When the stage curtain has dropped, and the audience has gone home, the things in my home are still there and their presence encouraging me to play my role in certain ways and scolding me when I don’t. My things have colonized my private realm. Luckily, it is only in my imagination.

Marcus Persson, PhD, received his doctoral degree in sociology from Lund University in 2007. He holds a post-doctoral position as in-house researcher at Ericsson ConsumerLab, doing research on young people’s use of and interaction with mobile communication technology. He is affiliated to Örebro University where he is involved in graduate student training.

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