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Sherry Turkle on Things

Regular madisonian readers (and a few others) know that I’m fascinated by legal “things.”  I’m hardly alone.  Sherry Turkle at MIT is the editor of a forthcoming book called “Falling for Science: Objects in Mind” (order it here), and in an excerpt from her contribution published online in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education Review she writes:

From my very first days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976, I found passion for objects everywhere. I had students and colleagues who spoke about how they were drawn into science by the mesmerizing power of a crystal radio, by the physics of sand castles, by playing with marbles, by childhood explorations of air-conditioning units.

They also spoke of new objects. I came to MIT in the early days of the computer culture. My students were beginning to talk about how they identified with their computers, how they experienced these machines as extensions of themselves. For some, computers were “objects to think with” for thinking about larger questions, questions about determinism and free will, mind and mechanism.

Trained as a humanist and social scientist, I began to ask, What is the role of objects in the creative life of the scientist? What makes certain objects good to think with? What part do objects take in the development of a young scientific mind?

Thinking about scientists and their objects raises the question of how to best exploit the power of things to improve science education. Neither physical nor digital objects can be taken out of the equation; nor should either be fetishized. Over the past decades, we have seen an ongoing temptation to turn to computers to try to solve our educational crisis. It is natural, in a time of crisis, to avidly pursue the next new thing, but we need to not lose sight of the things that have already worked. Awash as we are in new teaching materials (from smart boards to simulated science laboratories), object-play is not something to which today’s teachers are particularly attuned, although as early as third grade, young people interested in science can identify the objects that preoccupy them. Theirs are the minds we want to cultivate, but these students are often isolated, strangely alone with their thoughts.

One reason we don’t pay enough attention to things and thinking is that we are distracted by our digital dreams; another is that traditionally, scientists have been reticent to talk about their object passions or, one might say, about passions of any kind. There was a canonical story about the objectivity and dispassion of scientific work, and scientists stuck to it. In 1856 the essayist Walter Bagehot described the young scientist as an aficionado of the object world, yet Bagehot was ready to declare that scientists’ involvement with “minerals, vegetables, and animals” spoke to an absence within their constitutions of an “intense and vivid nature.” Scientists, he wrote, “are by nature dull and rigid and calm. An aloofness, an abstractedness cleave to their greatness.” In their autobiographical writings, scientists reinforced the idea that theirs was a discipline that faced nature with cool composure; lives in science were recounted in ways that separated reason and passion and usually left objects out altogether. But there has always been another story in which scientists’ attachments to objects are red-hot. In recent years, this story is starting to be told. . . .

At present, there is some evidence that we discourage object passions. Parents and teachers are implicitly putting down both science and scientists when they use phrases such as “boys and their toys,” a devaluing commonplace. It discourages both young men and women from expressing their object enthusiasms until they can shape them into polite forms. One of the things that discourages adults from valuing children’s object passions is fear that children will become trapped in objects, that they will come to prefer the company of objects to the company of other children. Indeed, when the world of people is too frightening, children may retreat into the safety of what can be predicted and controlled. This clear vocation should not give objects a bad name. We should ally ourselves with what objects offer: They can make children feel safe, valuable, and part of something larger than themselves. . . .

Digital media can be used to invite painstaking exploration, but here, velocity tempts because it is so easily achieved. More recent digital media rarely seem to “want” to be used slowly. Their great and unique virtue is that they are able to present an endless stream of what-ifs — thought experiments that try out possible branching structures of an argument or substitutions in an experimental procedure. At its heart, digital culture is about precision and an infinity of possibility. It is about creating a “second nature” under our control.

Object passions bring us to the same enthusiasm for what-is that computation inspires for the what-ifs. We now live the tension between these two impulses; we need to cultivate a balance between them. When we fall for science through objects, they ground us. We focus on what kind of sand is best for building castles, on the stubborn complexity of soap bubbles, on the details of light bent by a prism. I believe these moments open us, heart and mind, to fall for the what-is of our planet. In doing so, we may come home to wonder at it, not only as a frontier of science, but as where we live.

The whole thing is behind the Chronicle’s paywall.  So, get the book.

1 thought on “Sherry Turkle on Things”

  1. Interesting to compare this to Vaidhyanathan’s essay on Richard Sennett’s recognition of the importance of the “materiality of technologies”–also in the chron.

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