Objectography

By: Matthew Battles
September 19, 2011

With a deceptively simple question — how many things are in a typical room? — Tim Maly sowed the seeds of a remarkable conversation on Google+ about consumerism, ontology, and the Internet of Things. The question risks a quick trip into dorm-room philosophy: what’s an object? what about the objects within the objects? WHAT ABOUT THE ATOMS, MAN? But thanks to Tim’s careful stewardship, the conversation has mostly avoided that pitfall. For it isn’t solely an ontological problem, but increasingly an engineering one as well: as the things in our world increasingly sport tags and codes, we beckon them to tell us of their adventures — and ask them to hold us to account. With the prospect of an Internet of Things growing ever-more tantalizing, the question of where to put the codes — what about the atoms? — compels not only freshmen but technologists, policymakers, and angel investors as well.

Perhaps the most elegant and probing commentary in the thread comes via a link shared by Simon Bostock to a talk by game designer and theorist Ian Bogost, who approaches the question of objects and their lives through the work of street photographer Garry Winogrand:

While Winogrand was famously quite explicit about his method, saying he took photographs “to see what the world looks in photographs,” Bogost avers that few of us ever really accept that proposition. “It’s too hard for most viewers to take Winogrand’s project seriously,” Bogost says, “because they’re too busy looking for social commentary in his photographs to see them for what they are: pictures that help their viewers see things in pictures.” The great lesson of Winogrand’s images, according to Bogost, is that they can help us learn to live in a world of objects that have their existence apart from us. Cars, buildings, the ragged grass — all objects have their cycles of endurance and change, which stand apart from the qualities of allegory, backdrop, or historical color impute to them.

We demand a great deal from our objects: that they be functional, that they be meaningful. And yet they also stand apart from us; like creatures at the edge of a clearing, they peer off elsewhere in feral disregard. Perhaps in the transition to an Internet of Things, to a world in which objectivity is a matter of address and answerability, a measure of humility is called for — a commitment to letting things have lives of their own?

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