Stories our tech objects tell us.

The following a response to Brian J. McNely’s post, “Technologies and Attachment,” at his personal research blog, 5000. The version below is about 20% longer than the one I left at Brian’s blog, but there’s still plenty left to be said. His post is smart, thoughtful, and helpful in getting me thinking about my relationship to technology objects. Here’s my response to his post:

I wish I knew more about activity theory; that’s important to note up front. (Any suggestions on where a fella might start reading about it?) Your post has me thinking quite a bit about my own relationship to my iPad 2. There are a few ideas at play here that I’m wondering if you’d care to tease out a bit more.

First, I guess I’m wondering about the extent to which you see your MBP as being good/effective/pleasing/etc at the tasks for which you use it? This question is motivate mostly by a similar question in the negative: If you didn’t see your MPB as good-at-what-you-use-it-for, would you still develop an affection for it? More concretely, When I was using laptops made by Dell, I never gained an affection for them–mostly because I so regularly had troubles with the OS and hardware. The laptop itself, maybe more specifically the “chassis,” always only seemed like it had been designed as an operating system delivery device. Maybe it was because of the poor build quality; I’m not exactly sure why always had this impression. On the other hand, my own MBP, which I, like you, have been using since 2009, only seems to get better. Your post has helped to elucidate why that is.

Second, you mention how a user’s impressions of a tool change over time. What you get me thinking of, on the other hand, is how the object itself physically changes over that time. Call it what you want… decay, patina, character, scars… For me, the physical changes my MBP has undergone have had a significant influence on my experience of the machine. Some of the keys on the keyboard have grown slightly smooth in response to my typing. There’s a small discoloration in the corner of the trackpad (not sure what that’s from). The Speck case I’ve kept it in since I bought it has small chips and scratches, but more importantly, I’m continually adding stickers to it (it even has a band-aid-as-sticker I had to use in an emergency to cover a curseword I’d forgotten about). For me, this accumulation of marks connects with several different phenomena from my own memory.

Another example is my high school football helmet. I was a decent player: a small-ish offensive and defensive lineman with lots of energy and a serious mean streak (which I’ve since lost, thank goodness). Basically, I played rough; I had to in order to overcome my size. That intensity and violence was recorded in the gouges and paint smudges covering my helmet. They were from my opponents helmets and gear. (No, there was no blood on my helmet; I wish I were so nasty.) This hadn’t really meant all that much to me until one day, during a particularly “motivating” half-time speech, our coach grabbed my helmet and said some like: “Now this is what it means to play hard! Look at this helmet. It’s got battle scars! (and so on.)” It was then that I actually started to take a little pride in the damage that my equipment had accrued.

I guess where this response leads me is back to some of my own central questions about technology and sustainability. High tech waste is becoming a bigger concern for me all the time. I want to help find a solution or response to the “throw away” culture so central to the tech world. Also, I’m often frustrated/disappointed/angered/shocked at the sorts of relationships people have with their adopted technologies.

Wow, this response got long very quickly. Sorry about that. I’ll post it here as well as on my own blog. Please don’t feel compelled to respond. I know comments like this can be a little overwhelming, and sometimes seem a bit demanding. To tell you the truth, I just wanted to work through some of these reflections and see if you had any additional insights.