Things that tell you things, and what they tell you: Roundup post

The general subject of things that communicate about themselves, as well as the (in my view) related idea of “transparency” in the material marketplace, keeps coming up. I’ve written and linked about it several times in the last two or three months, but all that material is scattered around, so even though I’ll be repeating myself I want to try to gather it all in one post that I can add to as new developments or resources emerge.

As you’ll see, if you have the fortitude to wade through this, I have mixed feelings about the supposed “transparency” trend, and about the usefulness of what things are telling us, and are going to tell us. But my real point here isn’t to convince anybody of anything — I’m gathering material. So, if you know of other interesting examples I should be aware of, I welcome them and I thank you in advance.

First I’ll note something that might seem off point: I was interviewed not long ago by Paola Antonelli for the blog for her upcoming Talk To Me show at MoMA. Here’s the first question and answer:

PA – Do things actually talk to you, or do you rather kind of read them?

RW – I guess some combination — things call out for my attention sometimes. But you can’t necessarily trust what an object says about itself, can you? Many objects don’t really want you to know their material or labor back story, or the potential unpleasant consequences of their use. They just want you to know their features and their beauty, the usefulness and their appeal. So once some interesting thing has my attention, it’s more like trying to read it. The interesting objects are usually the ones open several readings.

So that’s what I’m interested in — yes, things are talking to us more, as it were. But are they telling us what we (should) want to know? Read more

In The New York Times Magazine: Things that tell stories

If our favorite objects could talk, what tales would they tell?

The relationship between the possessions we value and the narratives behind them is unmistakable. Current technologies of connection, and enterprises that take advantage of them, surface this idea in new ways — but they also suggest the many different kinds of stories, information and data that objects can, or will, tell us.

Read the column in the September 5, 2010, New York Times Magazine, or here.

Note: Earlier looks at a different sort of thing-story — the manufacturing “narrative” of an object — aret here and here,

Discuss, make fun of, or praise this column to the skies at the Consumed Facebook page.

Thing-narrative tools: Four examples

In the last couple of months, a number of services and projects have come to my attention (thx: Molly B., Jee W., Grant M., maybe someone else I’m forgetting) that play with the idea of thing-narrative.

The easiest way to explain is by example.

1. Itizen. So you have an object — a thing. You put a special Itizen tag on it: This is either a sticker or sew-on tag with a QR Code on it. You type up the story about your Thing on an Itizen page that correspondonds with that QR code tag. And then, I suppose, you can give the thing away, or sell it, and its new owner can then add his or her own story. This is all rather new, so not surprisingly I don’t see anything with more than two stories so far.

2. Tales of Things. So you have an object — a thing. You write up (or video) its story, and you put a special coded tag on it, and again anyone who accesses that code with an iPhone or whatever will be led to the page where the thing’s story (“describing its history or background”) is told. I’m not sure whether this or Itizen came first, but you can see the similarities. This outfit was involved in a side project, RememberMe, in which the stories of objects in an Oxfam shop were recorded, presumably making the objects more desirable for purchase.

3. D-Build. While this Syracuse, New York, project is primarily concerned with green deconstruction, repurposing the materials from torn-down or refurbished materials into furniture and other objects, it also aims to include a dose of narrative: The creators want people to submit stories (memories, historical information, etc.) about the deconstructed building. (I also mentioned this on Unconsumption.) The idea is to create a “network of information, along with a marketplace for users to exchange reclaimed materials, finished products made of these materials, as well as ideas and services.”

4. StickyBits. This one is an app, and here’s my understanding of how it works. Via this app, you can scan any existing barcode and “attach” whatever information you want, so that whoever scans that barcode in the future will see your added info — a picture, text, whatever. An example they give is adding a recipe to the bar code of a cereal box. But this sounds to me like it could be easily used for more activist or prankish aims, if I understand it right.

You can also get code stickers from StickyBits and attach them to physical objects that don’t have a bar code. The latter scenario again sounds like Tales of Things and Itizen.

Are there others? Have you used any of these (and if so have I described properly)? Are you tempted to?

With the exception of the D-Build example, what these remind me of in a way is how I save and “tag” stories and sites I encounter with Delicious and I guess to some extent with Tumblr. It seems a bit like extending that categorization and archiving impulse into the physical world. It’s possible then that my use of the word “narrative” here is a little off, but I believe that narrative is what all these services aim for.

[Addendum: These examples are all distinct from the manufacturing “narrative” of an object, which I wrote about here and here, and also from made-up “narratives” relating to a thing, such as the Significant Objects stories (or some advertising)].

Books, the idea: Words that read you back

Waaaaay back in March, Elliot Van Buskirk of posted about “Text 2.0.” A video from a Swedish technology company demonstrates what this means: Basically, eye-tracking technology monitors how you read, and the text itself reacts. Somehow it senses if you want to know how a word is defined, or pronounced, or translated, and it tells you. If it concludes that you’re just skimming, it “fades out irrelevant information” in order to “streamline your reading.”

I have zero interest in this as a reading person. I envision triangulation against databases that cross-matches my eye movements (and thus, by implication, my mind) against some “norm,” thereby sacrificing idiosyncracy and individuality to the fabled CloudCrowd yet again. I also have zero interest as a writing person. I happen to think textual communication with an engaged reader is a truly singular thing, and the idea of some tech firm’s supposed expertise monkeying around in the middle of that connection is depressing. Moreover, in both scenarios, I’m fundamentally skeptical that the real-life quality of the technology will be remotely proximate to the sales pitch. Stuff like this makes me think of a future in which some sort of Clippy equivalent informs me that I don’t actually like Milan Kundera after all.

That said, as someone compiling an occasional series on the idea of the book, I’m very interested in this concept. If something like this somehow compiled individual reader data, straight from the eyeball, it could be another layer on the stuff that Amazon is tracking and broadcasting with its “Kindle highlighting” information. People who believe they need a mass of personal-behavior data to tell them who they are might want to know which passages this tracking software has concluded they like (as opposed to which passages they thought they liked, by highlighting, or simply by, you know, thinking.) Those who like the results might then have an interest in “sharing” them — Text 2.0 could automatically tweet its conclusions (“Turns I out I don’t like Kundera”), per your settings.

As Van Buskirk notes, the appearance of something like Text 2.0 is highly plausible, as the iPad and other e-readers evolve to include cameras; his reporting indicates that many of the relevant patents and business deals already seem to be in motion. (Here’s another link to his writeup.) He also makes the case that eventually this sort of technology could “reinvigorate the written word,” basically giving ebooks a fresh way to compete in the attention economy. Maybe he’s right, and in any case he’s saying what you would probably expect a writer to say. But he also says something you probably wouldn‘t expect: At the moment, he’s not really into ebooks:

I should admit that I have yet to make the leap to an e-reader. Having grown up a bookworm in the ’70s and ’80s, I prefer the feel and even the smell of paper books — and the fact that I can just chuck one in my bag for whenever I have a spare moment, without worrying about batteries, theft or breakage.

Probably there are rationally convincing response to these points that any e-reader enthusiast could make — surely paper-book-smell technology is in the offing!

But that’s just the thing — the idea of the book isn’t strictly a rational thing. If it were, there wouldn’t be much interesting about it, now would there?

Books, the idea: Here’s comes the data; what to do with it?

As you may know, Amazon is now compiling and making available to the public information about the “most highlighted” books among Kindle users, and even the “most highlighted” passages. A Dan Brown book, the Bible, and a book I’ve never heard of called The Shack are the top three most-highlighted works as I type this. In general, the books on that list are religious/spiritual titles; self-help stuff; business-advice books; or some combination of those categories. This is not exactly a surprise, but it’s interesting to see.

It’s more interesting to parse the most highlighted passages, which you can do here. Below the jump, I’ve listed the top ten passages (as of the moment when I’m typing this), without naming the authors or books. I think it’s more fun to read them without that context. And also to wonder about the people who did the highlighting. Perhaps, inspired by David Shields, someone could build an essay, or even a whole book, out of these mostly platitudinous word clusters.

That’s a joke (sort of). But of course this is just the sort of techno-driven development in reading/books that has, in a sense, inspired this entire series. As many have noted:

  • books are containers of readable information or stories and so on
  • but also: books are display objects (on shelves, or simply being read in public)

Earlier I suggested that if  books are going to migrate into digital-only form in time, then perhaps people will need a flat-screen “shelf” that displays the digital spines of whatever we’re reading — or want people to think we’re reading.

I’m not completely serious about this stuff … but I’m not completely kidding. What could be done with the information that Amazon is gathering from Kindle users? Possibly your favorite highlighted passages could be a screensaver or something? Or run a as a kind of news ticker beneath the digital renderings of bookspines or the virtual shelving unit described above?

Anyway. Here are those top highlighted passages. See what you make of them: Read more

Books, the idea: Shelf expression

By Oscar Nuñez, click for more

Not available for Kindle,” is the headline on a MetaFilter item: “There may be more ways to shelve your books than there are books.” It links to four posts on a site called WebUrbanist, each of which rounds up multiple examples of unusual (innovative? weird?) bookshelves or bookshelf variations or comments on the form of the form of the bookshelf.

Some examples are things that have come up in this series before, like the “curated” bookshelf, and the work of Jim Rosenau — though here’s one more image of Rosenau’s impressive work anyway:

Bookshelf made of books; By Jim Rosenau; click for more.

I’ve had the passing thought in my ongoing excavation of the previously mentioned Bookshelf blog (actually the source of the top image on this post; it just seemed appropriate) that physical books are going to survive for a very long time, if for no other reason than to supply the demand for something to put on the rather astonishing number shelf solutions designers and artists seem to be dreaming up nonstop.

“Bibliochaise” on WebUrbanist, click for more.

DIY types, too:

Via WebUrbanist; click for more.

Via WebUrbanist, click for more

On the other hand, the second comment to that MeFi post counters: “Only point is, no real book lover would spend so much money on something that has so little to do with reading. Most of the cases linked are for people who buy their books by the colour of the covers.” [UPDATE: The picture below, not attributed on WebUrbanist, is by Flickr user chotda, and can be viewed (with annotations) here. (Thx Cybele).]

Via WebUrbanist

Ah, but on the third hand, with books and shelves on the brain I couldn’t help but be amused by this comment in a Mindhacks link roundup: “Why Humans Have Sex. A podcast for the The New York Academy of Sciences oddly fails to mention wanting to check out people’s bookshelves. Maybe that’s just me?”

Via Web Urbanist; click for more.

Via Web Urbanist; click for more.

In the (1910!) New York Times Magazine: Collecting, hoarding, buying

Click to get the whole 1910 article as a PDF from

“A Mania For Buying,” announced the headline in the May 1, 1910 issue of The New York Times Magazine. The article concerns the liquidation of the “effects” of one Mrs. Theodore Moss:  “A Remarkable Assortment of Things Gathered Apparently Through The Mere Love of Shopping.” While the piece hedges here and there in a not-particularly well-articulated attempt to distinguish between positive and negative aspects of material want, those words from the subhead give away  the unnamed writer’s real attitude with its moralizing “mere.”

I read this article courtesy of the web site, which makes available in PDF form “the most interesting articles” from the Times Magazine from 100 years ago, every week. I’m a great believer in reading this sort of thing: Actual contemporary views of the past, as opposed to the selectively filtered versions fed to us current pundits and gurus who twist history to fit whatever theory they happen to peddling about “today’s consumer.” (And obviously, given my day job, this particular source of special interest.) So here, what we have, is a 1910 assessment of collecting, hoarding, materialism. What does it tell us?

For two weeks, we learn, the spoils of Mrs. Moss’s “collecting mania” have been auctioned off, day after day, from her former home at 543 Madison Ave. Her name was Octavia A. Husted when she married Mr. Moss; she came from “old Revolutionary stock.” As Mr. Moss’s fortunes rose, the article allows, both he and his wife developed luxurious tastes. But back then, at least, Mrs. Moss’s “fondness for fine fabrics” and the like was no mania. Rather, it simply led her “collect” a variety of stuff — “not for hoarding, but merely because she liked looking and such things and liked to have them in her possession.” Thus she owned some real valuables; there is a long (and pretty unlikely) aside about jewels discovered by accident by someone who knocked over a pedestal that turned out to be stuffed with jewelry and gems.

But somewhere along the way – I guess after Mr. Moss died, although the piece isn’t really clear on that – something seems to have changed. By the time of her own death, Mrs. Moss had filled “at least” 10 of her four-story home’s 17 rooms with objects of all sorts. (Supposedly, in another hard-to-believe detail, she carried the keys to these rooms about …  and no one else could enter.) Conceding the presence of worthwhile items, the article swiftly shifts to a judgmental, and condescending tone: “there were innumerable items that have long since lost their value simply through the fact that time passes and fashions change.” Let that be a lesson to you, readers! Time passes, fashions change, it is a simple fact that much of what the market offers will lose value.

This vaguely self-helpy tut-tutting continues:

No value, y’all.

Note, if you will, the heavy marketplace bias in these judgments. We cannot say what Mrs. Moss’s things meant to her. We can only say what they “mean” to the market, which renders its verdict in the form of a sales price, period.

Along the way, we’re given rather blatant cues to draw a line around “shopping,” particularly of the enthusiastic sort, as a foolish and distinctly feminine pursuit: Those attending the auction of the Moss pile seem to be “excited women jostling one another,” as the writer puts it, driving home his (one assumes!) point of view by drawing a comparison to fish mindlessly swarming crusts flung into their line of sight.

You may read the full article to learn how the Mos fortune was acquired, and how great chunks of it were deployed, all in rather repetitive detail. But the piece’s guiding “idea,” as we say in the 21st Century magazine game, concerns the relation between people and things. Conveniently, on this score, Mrs. Moss’s effects include a “well-thumbed” book on the subject of collecting, which our correspondent seems at least to have skimmed. Evidently this volume was pro-“collecting.” Read more

In The New York Times Magazine: A thing that sells itself

Assessing the value of an art object that sells itself.

…. Even if [he] won the object, created by a young artist named Caleb Larsen, his ownership would be tentative: the technical innards of “A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter” carried a program that would relist the thing on eBay every week, forever.

Read the column in the May 9, 2010, New York Times Magazine, or here.

Discuss, make fun of, or praise this column to the skies at the Consumed Facebook page.

Significant Objects v3 concludes; $1,748.82 raised for Girls Write Now

A v3 Significant Object in its new home

This morning, Significant Objects (the side project I work on with co-founder Joshua Glenn), wrapped up its third volume. With our final v3 auction concluded, we converted $58.28 worth of thrift-shop bric-a-brac, paired with 50 stories by our amazing contributing writers, into a whopping $1,748.82 — which will now be donated to Girls Write Now.

GWN is a nonprofit that “provides guidance, support, and opportunities for New York City’s underserved or at-risk high school girls, enabling them to develop their creative, independent voices, explore careers in professional writing, and learn how to make healthy choices in school, career, and life.” While it’ s obviously too late to help GWN by buying a Significant Object, you can still support this fine organization by purchasing one of the limited-edition yet highly affordable Significant Objects v3 prints by Kate Bingaman-Burt, from 20X200.

One of Kate Bingaman-Burt S.O. v3 creations

Stay tuned to Significant Objects for news of that project’s future.

Books, the idea: Contemporary vending machine example

While I thought a book vending machine was a strange one-off from the past, Steve Portigal sets me straight with this pic he took at Heathrow just last November:

Pic by Steve Portigal, click for more.

This post is part of an occasional series.

Stress ball with (really, really) old-school aesthetic

These stress balls

$152; click for more.

… remind me of the Makapansgat Pebble (discussed here):

The Birth of Want. Click for more.

Digital representation, made physical

Real Soda, originally uploaded by Ashley A.

This, apparently, is a physical representation of a digital (video game) representation of a Coke can. The artist (Ashley A on Flickr) writes:

While playing Bad Dudes, I killed a ninja, who upon dying dropped a 5 x 9 pixel powerup; that powerup, despite its incredibly small size, was instantly recognizable as a Coca Cola can. It blew my freaking mind!!! I was in love.

This particular image is the first iteration in a series exploring this super-reduced icon of an Icon (with a capital “I”) in various media.

Via Not A Real Thing.

Pictures of stuff, cont’d: Garbarge

By Arman. Click for more.

Via EverydayTrash. This is household trash, in a glass box, photographed by a French artist named Arman. More info here and here.

Mildly related: Justin Gignac’s garbage in a box.

This post is part of a series.

Books, the idea, cont’d: As monumental architecture

Mr. Portigal (thanks!) points out this Metafilter post that I’d missed:

In the capital of Turkmenistan stands an enormous statue of a book. Every evening at 8PM, the statue swings open and a recently deceased dictator’s magnum opus, the Ruhnama, is broadcast throughout the square while a video from within the statue shows his image.

The post links to a documentary maybe by Finnish filmmakers and available on YouTube in 10 parts. I did not watch the whole thing. In this part, however, at about the 4:35 mark, there’s some twilight / nighttime footage of the book swinging open. I know precisely zero about the rather dodgy-sounding politics here, but an immense book that swings open, onto which video images are projected, is fascinating.

Click to see YouTube video; I’ve punched up this image a little.

This post is part of a series.

Pictures of stuff, cont’d: Flea Market-inspired Art Show

I have to mention this, and only partly because there is a real live Significant Object in the show:

Poketo & Kitsune Noir present: “Los Angeles, I’m Yours
April 24th until May 15th
Space 15Twenty Gallery, 1520 N. Cahuenga Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90028

From April 24th to May 15th, “Los Angeles I’m Yours” transforms Space 15Twenty Gallery into a living art market. Filled with an eclectic mix of found objects, these vintage pieces are given new life as over 30 artists reinterpret and reincarnate these objects into art.

“Los Angeles, I’m Yours” will create the same joy of the hunt and sensory overload experienced every month at Los Angeles’ famed Rose Bowl outdoor market. Found objects are given new life as an impressive roster of artists will reinterpret and exhibit pieces ranging from vintage glass ware, old vinyl records, antique lamps, and odd knick knacks. Imagine these vintage finds, drawn on, painted on, and manipulated by the artists into a new form.