Objects of desire and the Internet of things

I have always been fascinated with objects. Not everyday objects, like a milk carton, but those objects we attach value to, like a jade vase or an heirloom. There’s a scene in Pulp Fiction where as a child, Butch Coolidge (played by Bruce Willis) is handed a wristwatch by his father’s best friend (played by Christopher Walken), who got it from the boy’s wounded and dying father in Vietnam. The wristwatch held such significance for him that Butch risked his own life to recover the watch, which his girlfriend Fabienne had forgotten to pack before they went on the run:

This watch is a symbol. It’s a symbol of how [my] father, and his father before him, and his father before him, distinguished themselves in war…. And using that perspective, going back for it isn’t stupid. It may be dangerous, but it’s not stupid. Because there are certain things in this world that are worth going back for.

As a child, I grew up with a multitude of objects my grandparents and parents had acquired over the years in their travels. They attached such importance to these things but I never heard stories of why they were so important. Fast forward to my marriage, when I found myself surrounded by objects again: little sculptures, ceramic pots, candle holders, vases, plates of all sizes and colors, mugs, little curios, and about a million other things, such that everywhere I looked, there were many things to rest my eyes on … Which to a certain extent confused me. It’s not that our apartment was messy — it wasn’t — it’s that there was an abundance of objects. Objects inside objects on top of objects behind objects.

I’m not entirely a minimalist, but uncluttered spaces give me greater comfort and peace. My ex-wife designed prêt-a-porter jewelry for two famous French luxury brands, so she was into materials and colors and things and stuff. Objects are second nature to her, while they are a curiosity for me.

Objects in antiquity

In Paris, there is this great museum called Musée du Quai Branly, which houses thousands of objects made in antiquity, from all continents. There are masques, totem poles, jewelry, musical instruments, voodoo symbols, feather caps, burial trinkets, monetary symbols, statues, and dozens of other types of significant curios and trinkets made by our ancestors all over the world — such as the red feather money coil on the cover of this post.

These objects held tremendous meaning for these cultures, tribes, and villagers. They were used as dowries, to settle debts, to shepherd deceased souls, to cast spells, to symbolize status, to warn and to enchant.

Just how did these societies empower these objects with such deep meaning? How did the meaning of objects change over time? How is it that long before globalization and mass media, different cultures around the world created and infused objects with similar qualities?

These objects were sometimes anthropomorphized (personified), and social relations were reified (made real) through meaningful objects.

Materialism and consumerism

Having spent my adolescence and early adulthood in Miami, and having frequented nightclubs in South Beach, it struck me just how materialistic our South Floridian society really is. It’s about the car you drive, where you live, the watch you own, the phone you have, and whether you get a table and a bottle or two at the trendy nightclub where the music drowns out any hope of conversation. Why even bother to talk? Who you are is commodified by the objects you wear and buy. These objects are the grease which facilitate your social relations, replacing any need to expend the intellectual effort of conducting a cultural conversation. Courtship is partially facilitated and accelerated by objects.

And what do they say of the professional world? “Dress for success”: wear the clothes of the position you aspire to, not of the position you are in (just how exactly how this applies to factory workers in overalls, I don’t know).

Personal branding

We play this game online as well. We “brand” ourselves through the things we post and blog about: our travels, the food we eat, the places we checkin to, our professional thoughts and experiences, our Klout scores, our LinkedIn profiles and testimonials, our blogs, the number of Facebook friends we have, the number of Twitter followers, our photostream of sunrises and sunsets, friends and family and children, exotic locations … All these become commodified as the grease which facilitates new relationships with strangers, who in turn get the social proof they need from us from the history of our posts and interactions online. The new Facebook Graph search further proves this point.

Online expression is an exceedingly self-serving activity, but no different than what we already do offline. In fact, posting a picture of an object we own, like a car or a purse, takes this to a whole new meta level, where we attempt to make our physical objects work for us in virtual space. After a breakup with my girlfriend of three years — who stayed in Paris when I moved to Miami — a friend of mine convinced me to try out Match.com. Although I was predisposed against this idea, as any self-respecting blogger would be, I gave it a shot anyway. After a few months of relative lack of success, I checked out how the guys my age were presenting themselves in the service. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see them posting pictures of their B-things: Benzes, Beemers, and boats. The ostentation reminded me too much of the South Beach clubs I frequented in my youth. Besides being a shallow way to meet someone, relationships based on things were rife with potential problems, in my view.

One’s well-being isn’t tied to the things one owns, but to the quality of one’s relationships with others.

The Internet of things

But I recognize that objects mediate our relationships, it’s practically in our genetic code, judging from the objects on display at the Musée du Quai Branly. And my imagination runs wild with the Internet of Things, when all kinds of objects are connected online. What will this future look like? How will these connected objects mediate our relationships?