Looking for Meaning in Objects

Excerpt from “Alive Enough?On Being, April 7, 2011:

Krista Tippett (host): I'm utterly intrigued just by the way you describe your passion, your interest and concern, that you study this objective side of our encounters with technologies, that I'm concerned with— the human meaning of the objects of our lives. And just as we start, I wanted to ask you a kind of question I ask everyone, which is, was there a spiritual background to your childhood?

Sherry Turkle (author of Alone Together): Well, I think in my case the question didn't come from a spiritual quest. It came from a deeply personal psychological quest. My father — my biological father disappeared from my life when I was around two. My mother, my grandparents, my mother's sister, my aunt, didn't want me to know anything about him. And so, of course, I only wanted to know things about him and would search…

Hollis Brown Thornton

Hollis Brown Thornton

There were these places. There was a closet that had old books and trinkets and there was a junk drawer. There were just these places where the memories were kept. I would scour them for traces of him and finally I found one. I found a photograph of him in which someone in anger had rubbed out his face, but I found all kinds of information from that photograph, you know, that he wore tweed pants, where he was standing, what his lace-up shoes looked like, and I just think that some place in that quest of a child, the notion of looking for objects to fill in human meaning became very close to my heart in a very personal way.

As I became a sociologist, [I discovered] there's a fancy word for studying this; it's called bricolage. It's the science of studying meanings and the interplay of objects, and I realized that that's kind of what I'd been doing all the time. A little bit like Molière's, Monsieur Jourdain who'd been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, I'd been a bricoleur all my life without knowing it.

To make our life livable, we have to have spaces where we are fully present to each other or to ourselves, where we're not competing with the roar of the Internet and, quite frankly, where the people around us are not competing with the latest news off the Facebook status update. They may not have anything new. They may just be there being in a way that needs attention. I mean, people like to put things on Facebook--and certainly Twitter--that are happy. I've interviewed people who say things to me as simple as, you know, I don't even like to put that my dog died...because it doesn't seem the place. It doesn't seem the place for a lot of people to share negative things.

Anyway, I guess I'm saying that sacred space [are] the places in your daily life where you want to keep them for yourself and the people who you need to give your full attention to. I have very simple rules — so far as I have rules — for how to know you're close to one or in one or should be having one: it's dinner, it's sharing meals with your family, it's that moment at school pickup when your kid looks up and is trying to meet your eye. You know, you're looking down at your smartphone and your child is trying to meet your eye.

I have enough data from children who're going through this experience to know that it's a terrible moment for them. It's on the playground. Very bad when your child's on the jungle gym and is desperately trying to have you look at them, for them to be taking hands off the jungle gym to try to get your attention — accident time. I mean, be in the park. Be in the park with them. Spend less time there, but make it a space. Make it a moment. These are important moments.

See also: “Brainpower,” To the Best of Our Knowledge, 4/10/11