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Teddy Bear says: Study hard, don’t be lazy!

Imagine that things could speak. What would they say? – This was one of 26 questions put to 42 persons between the ages of 18-50 years old in Tokyo (Japan), San Jose (USA) and Beijing (China) that took part in a photo-dairy/self-ethnography study we conducted during 2010 and 2011.

The question has two answers: What thing? and what should it say? (and btw, nobody had yet seen or used Siri at the time of the study).

The majority of the respondents in the study chose consumer electronics and home appliances, things that carries out something and which people frequently use and interact with. The rest chose various things like figurines, dolls, food, containers, furniture or clothes. These may be functional objects too, but their response to interaction may be less obvious than those of a computer, a fridge or a lamp. From what the respondents told us it seemed like these things were perceived as more passive compared to technological devices which were perceived as more pushy, actively calling for their owners’ attention.

Interestingly, the answers to the task had strong similarities. In general the things were either criticising their owners’ personality or habits, or they said something encouraging and reassuring. The majority imagined their things’ to say something a bit accusing.

The question in the task was entirely open and people were free to imagine their things to say anything to anyone, but the respondents imagined that things talked to them, about them. Why was that? Things must surely have other things to say? When interviewed the respondents were asked how they thought and why they imagined their things to be saying what they said. Their answers suggested that this was perhaps all about the self, or rather about four aspects of the self; the working self, the leisure self, the bodily self and the consumer self. Here are some examples:

The working self: Work was an important aspect of many respondents’ lives and many things reflected feelings of self-pity and comfort in relation to too much work. For example, one respondent submitted a figure saying: “Relax! Relax!” because it’s calm and smiling face made her feel as if it is talking to me when working hard. Another respondent had a teddy bear which she imagined to be much more demanding. She imagined that with its hands on its waist, it seemed to be saying: “study hard, don’t be lazy!”

The leisure self: This category holds the most narratives, mostly about things in areas of the home which people associate with relaxing. One respondent told us about their couch left by the landlord. It was too small for the saloon so they bought another and moved the old one to the balcony. The couch says: “I know I’m unworthy, but in a sunny afternoon after a long winter you can enjoy your life with me.” Another respondent’s TV says “Sorry, I’m finished showing TV programs, but I’m sure you watched enough, right?”.

The consumer self: Consumption is more that identity and status. Today, consumption is one of several core activities in individual everyday life. And things can both assist and scold the consumer self. When things talk bad about their owner regarding consumption, it was almost always something that had been purchased but never used. One respondent bought had bought a fan a year ago, and it said: “Sell me or use me! Don’t leave me here to be dusty!”

The bodily self: Closely related to the leisure self is the narratives of the bodily self and, in turn, the notion of the bodily self is closely related to food. Many respondents imagine talking food and talking refrigerators, talking about best before dates, available food of the season, shopping lists and reminders etc. There are also things that induce guilt when they say that the respondents shouldn’t eat too much, or healthy stuff, like fruit that shouts “eat us, not that candy bar!!”

We often talk about products and artefacts as something that people use to communicate identity and that establishes social status. It is more complex that than that. Tomorrows talking products can even become personality-mirrors, active partners in motivating and regulating people’s self.


*** UPDATE February 2015: A longer research paper from this study has been published in The Journal of International Social Research, Volume: 8 Issue: 36, February 2015.


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