Of Objects and People
Amongst the vast void of space, the Andromeda galaxy looked at the Milky Way. “Nothing going on there,” it scoffed. But somewhere, hidden behind the screen of cosmic dust and energy, there exist some groups of atoms that possess the ability to breathe — humans, animals, plants and microbes, unseen and unperturbed on a small planet in space.
Everything in nature, from gigantic stars to tiny dust particles is made up of the same building blocks — atoms. Some of these atoms work together, and possess the ability to sustain life. Some just stick together and create lifeless matter.
If these two are made up of the same fundamental blocks, how then, do we really differentiate between the living and the non-living?
One might say that living things age. But so do objects! Inventor Charles S Becker defined ageing as the changes that occur in an individual due to the passage of time. Over the years, objects change physically just like us humans. They experience ageing as well.
One might say that living things respond to external stimuli. But don’t objects too? They react to the breeze on a windy day, the rays of sunlight on a hot summer morning, they withstand scorching heat, battering rains and stormy gales. They are prone to damage too. Behind each bruise, crack, dent, loose screw, dangling wire and every broken light, there is a story. A worn out switch in your house tells that it has been used more than others. The scratch on your plate reminds you of the one time you used it as a cutting board.
Now one might get irritated and say that this isn’t even a debate! Living things just, live! They are born and they eventually die! They live a life! Surely non-living objects don’t.
Let’s try to imagine the journey a typical object might have undertaken in their “life”.
Stu was a watch born in a faraway factory, intricately pieced together by precise machines or hands. He was then shipped over large distances, suffocating in his box, fighting for a peek into the outside world and feeling dizzy as the shipment was transferred from point to point. As he reached the final stop, Stu was placed carefully in a showcase, basking in the fluorescent store lights. Month after month, customer after customer, he was admired a lot, but never picked. Finally a willing buyer came across and got him.
For years, Stu had the time of his life. He got to visit so many places around the world as his wearer’s companion, meeting other watches, and doing his duty of always showing the correct time. He also saw many weathers and experienced many scratches, each with a tale of its own. Eventually, the owner found another beautiful watch, and Stu was relegated to a drawer to live out his final days. As the final few ticks of his hands neared, he reflected on his journey. It was not always great, but it was definitely fulfilling. With a final click, the battery died out, and so did Stu.
If we think about it, each object lives a full life. Some are short lived, some last centuries. But they all are born from nature, living their lives, until they inevitably disintegrate back into nature. It’s a life as any other living life, with all its ups and downs, memories and experiences.
What does this make objects? Are they just an inanimate, impassive, sized-up or sized-down version of humans? Are they lifeless life?
One might start feeling lost, before finally declaring, “Living things have consciousness! We are aware and we can act with choice.” Yes, we do have consciousness. We do make choices. Even a plant can decide to sacrifice a few leaves so as to use its resources better. And this is the one thing that truly might differentiate the living and the non-living objects. We can act on our own volition. Objects only receive.
This differentiator has been instrumental in how we perceive objects and their place in the natural hierarchy of things. In an objective way, an object only has physical attributes. They can’t feel or think. This line of thought dismisses objects as just a construct designed to serve us. A way to bolster our inflated image of self. A means to establish our social status. “Oppresees” to their human oppressors.
Our association with objects dates back to the very inception of mankind. As Benjamin Franklin aptly put it, “Man is a tool-making animal.” While we might bear some resemblance to our ancestors, it was our tool-making abilities that set us apart from them. Man invented tools to make life easier. It helped us create the means to cut, chisel and grind, the weapons to hunt and protect, and even trinkets to cherish and decorate. But as technology progressed along with our population and needs, so did our objects. We made so many of them that we let their value go unrecognised.
The shift in our psychology of use and possession of objects has been dramatic. In the past, people had fewer objects. Some handed down over generations, some handcrafted with skill and finesse, but all valued dearly. Handmade goods, however pricey, were uncommon and largely revered, with their flaws embraced as “one-of-a-kind”.
The Industrial Revolution stripped away the very quality that made objects novel. With the advent of machines, we absorbed cheap, readily available, identical, mass-produced items, giving way to a wave of surplus. Ironically, the word “manufacture” was derived from “manus” meaning “hand” and “factus” meaning “to make”. But with the dawn of automation, “manufacturing” has mostly been associated with mechanised mass production.
The way we treat our objects tells us how much we value them. Smacking our phones and remotes in a fit of rage has become second nature to us. We discard old objects the moment a new one catches our eye. We use and throw single use objects without giving a thought to how miserable their short lives would be.
Today, when you hear the phrase “Objectification”, you quickly associate it with wrongdoing, unjust behaviour and unfair prejudice. You associate it with disrespect. Maybe because the way we treat our objects is just so contemptuous, we cannot imagine treating a living being that way.
But while objectification has developed a negative connotation, its counterpart, personification, is still seen as a positive attribute. If you look closely, there is a subconscious hierarchy that we believe in. We put ourselves above objects. Living above the non-living. It’s no surprise then, that objects are treated with such disregard. We use them, throw them, replace them, forget them without a second thought.
But what if we could redefine our relationship with objects? What if we could feel for them?
Previously, when you read through the story of Stu, you might have felt an instant pang of sympathy for the watch. A sense of compassion and fondness. You could imagine how the watch might’ve felt, while in reality, the lifeless watch didn’t feel anything at all! It’s because we aren’t really alienated towards the idea of showing empathy towards objects.
Anthropomorphism has been used for many years as a means to connect with inanimate objects. Simply put, it is the attribution of human characteristics or behaviours to non-human entities. We develop this attitude early in childhood and it persists till adulthood. Although people look down upon it as they grow up, dismissing it as childish, the subconscious mind never stops anthropomorphising.
Let’s take the case of Opportunity, NASA’ s Mars Rover Mission that landed on the Martian surface in January 2004. Opportunity set out to probe (and later confirmed) if some elements of life may have once existed on the Red Planet. It was one of the most capable rovers ever sent to Mars. The mission was to originally last three months but Opportunity, exceeding everyone’s expectations, ended up staying on the job for a whopping 15 years.
It collected bits and bytes of information while scouring uneven terrains, climbing high mountains and battling windy storms. “Oppy”, as scientists fondly addressed “her”, rolled over Mars for 28 miles, transmitted 217,594 images in her 5498 day journey.
Oppy “breathed” her last, in the June of 2018; in a suffocating dust storm. She bid adieu with the last image, of a dark world, masked in dust, and a final coded message that was paraphrased as: “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.”
“This is a hard day,” Opportunity’s project manager, John Callas, told reporters. “Even though it’s a machine and we’re saying goodbye, it’s still very hard and very poignant.”
“Opportunity was kind of like a family member and this last message was sad, but I knew it had a great life”, Carleton Bailie, a photographer who covered the mission for Boeing told SpaceFlight.
What made Opportunity different from everyday objects? In the crudest sense, it was just a mound of metal sheets bolted together, fixed with wires and lights — a robotic geologist. But her 350 million miles journey, 15 years of service and her last words said otherwise. She lived a full life. She amassed adoration from the scientific and non — scientific community alike. She had a story that people related to and empathized with.
Stories give objects a soul. It makes us associate sentiments and emotions with them. They become an integral part of our identity, and when they are gone, we mourn the loss like we lost a piece of us. We talk of it as fondly as we’d reminisce about a deceased loved one.
Anthropomorphism gives us a way of seeing things from the perspective of an object. A lens through which we can see the similarities we share. It helps us understand that the idea of being is not limited to bodies and minds.
We have been personifying objects since our childhood. The toys we played with didn’t really have feelings, thoughts or the ability to speak out. But we used our imagination to bring them to life. As we grew older, objects became signifiers of a distant memory — an heirloom, a gift or a souvenir. They became an archive of stories and emotions. Idiosyncratic, memory retrieval devices. An authentic, tactile gateway to nostalgia in this increasingly digital world.
If personifying an object can make us care for it and respect it more, adding to its perceived value, then it can be used as a potent tool for changing the way we see all objects. It can help us see that all things, living or non-living, handmade or mechanised, old or new, deserve equal care, love and respect.
The over-abundant availability of objects around us has given rise to a “throw-away culture”. We are taking objects more and more for granted. Instead of treasuring a few essential things, we are hoarding more and throwing away many more after a single use. This has led to what we now know is an unsustainable way of living with nature.
We are the victims of our own crimes. Single-use cutlery was born out of the need for convenient and portable dining. But that convenience came at a cost. Billions of forks, spoons that facilitate us in eating, end up corrupting water bodies. Such objects take ages to break down and complete their life cycle, causing enough harm to the environment in the process.
Learning to care for objects can be a very smart approach to tackling the environment crisis. With judicious use and re-use of objects, we can decelerate the environmental decay. For example, single-use cutlery has a shorter life span than its metal counterparts. If we start carrying our own cutlery, we not only get a treasured set of meal companions, but also reduce the load on our immediate environment in the process. Similarly, if we extend this approach to other things we use daily, we can have a much better connection with not just our objects, but also the environment.
As designers, we put a lot of thought into how we want a product to look and feel, and how we want users to perceive it. We hope it provides the appropriate logical, emotional, visceral and spiritual experience we intend to create. We want our product to speak to the user.
Interacting with objects goes beyond their form and function. It activates an implicit tacit connection. Such connections are just as meaningful as human relationships, as we saw with Oppy.
They lead us to cherish our objects, care for them and value them even more than their functionality or price. We would be unlikely to exchange an object with an emotional connection with something else of an equal or even greater value. Like the transistor radio that your mother cherishes or the watch that your grandfather so dearly passed on to your father, who will one day give it to you.
We have taken for granted the very tools and objects that have helped us reach the level of progress we enjoy today. In our insatiable desire to hoard, possess and dominate, we forgot to value and respect everything around us, living or not. But in our closely interconnected world, it is important to realize the obscure effects of how we treat everything around us. It is important to understand how our lack of care for banal everyday objects has led to the biggest impending repercussion the world has faced yet.
As humans, we are oblivious to the atoms that move in and make up everything we touch. We put ourselves on a pedestal because we think and feel. Because we can act. But the same attributes that make us different from objects can also help us empathize with them. The onus of respecting every thing falls on us. Empathy is a fundamental principle. It can be applied to humans and objects alike.
Some objects have short lifespans, but others live long enough to become silent, comforting companions who can add value to our lives beyond their function. Let’s try seeing things for what they are, treating everything with respect, living or not.
Let’s start by humanizing more objects.