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14 Jan

Thomas Kinkade Never Painted iPads

Here are some things that Jasper and Emilia love: crayons, art paper, paints, marshmallows, bubble wrap, trains, books, the iPhone, the iPad, video cameras, regular cameras, Toady, me, Kyle, the cats, skateboards, anything Disney, Scotch tape, cardboard boxes, stickers, the piano, and cookies. Only cookies with chocolate, though. They know their baked goods.

Why they love these things, I don’t know. I’ve never really thought to ask that question, except in regards to Toady, who is so unusual (and whose continued existence Kyle interrogates daily: ‘can we get rid of him, PLEASE?) that his very presence demands that variations on that question – why are you here? what need or want are you fulfilling? – be asked of him, constantly. (Notice that I fall so naturally into calling Toady a ‘him.’ This is disturbing.) The presence of, and my children’s preference for, all those other things goes unquestioned, I suppose because those preferences don’t read as unusual. Who doesn’t love the iPhone? Crayons? Cookies? I mean, really? So, no, I never asked.

Then I sat down with Genevieve Bell, who is a cultural anthropologist and Director of Interaction and Experience Research (awesomest title ever, by the way) at Intel, at the Consumer Electronics Show, and she said that she and her research team ask themselves that question all the time. Why, they ask, do people love the stuff that they already have?

Oooh, I thought. Love and technology! This was thrilling. I might have knocked over a lamp. (Not might. Did.)

She called it ‘the love landscape.’ “It’s a matter of asking, why this?” she said, picking up my iPhone (which was, I am only somewhat ashamed to admit, wrapped in a Cookie Monster skin at the time.) “… why do you love this?” And then it becomes a matter of asking that of everything. Why do people love what they love? What’s the love landscape that is the sum of the things – the technologies – that people cherish? She used the example of the Princess Phone (which, for those of you who are less than a hundred years old, is exactly what it sounds like, and was extremely popular a few decades ago), which, she said, was the very antithesis of ‘sexy’ or ‘edgy’ or even extraordinary (it was just a phone, marketed to women. It was small, and the dial-pad – ! – lit up.) So why did people love it so much? If you can answer that question – establish an understanding of why and how people love the things that they already love (why, for example, someone like me sleeps with her iPhone under her pillow when she has only a very limited ability to check email or play Angry Birds in her sleep)  – and you can get a better sense of what new things people might grow to love. Or not. Did anything ever really replace the Princess Phone? Was it the iPhone? What about the stuff that can never be replaced/supplanted (like, for example, old, scribbled-upon books and real sketchpads and pencil crayons and vinyl records and the like)? What is it about that stuff?

(About love for the iPhone, Genevieve offered this explanation – I’m paraphrasing  – ‘it holds the promise of you never having to be alone or without diversion.’ The iPhone IS MY TOADY.)

That’s what’s so interesting about the question – apart from its usefulness for a scholar and developer of technology whose job is to search for what might be next – it demands that we interrogate our stuff and our relationship to our stuff, and that we do so by paying attention to our very real affective feelings for that stuff. It acknowledges that stuff matters. It acknowledges that stuff shapes us. It acknowledges that, sometimes, when we grab on to something and whisper, I love this, we really, really mean it. And so do our children. And that matters for how we understand their stuff and their relationship to it. We don’t have to believe that that stuff loves them back, a la Toy Story. We just have to recognize that there can actually be -with some things, not all things –  relationships there.

Surveying the ‘love landscape’ of our lives – and our childrens’ lives – might, in other words, be a useful means of gaining a better understanding of our own environments and how these environments both reflect and shape our (and our childrens’) emotional lives. Which would, I think, put us in a much better position to shape and reshape our environments to more positively serve our emotional lives.

It also (and, yes, this is kind of obvious) facilitates a different way of talking about consumption, with our children and with each other: since I returned from CES, my conversations with Emilia about why she wants the things that she wants have taken on a more interesting character. When she said the other day that she wanted – WANTED, HAD TO HAVE, LOVED – a particular thing (a Dora castle) that she saw in an ad, we discussed why she thought she would love it, really love it, and how that compared to what she knew that she loved, and where that thing might fit among the things that she already loves; that is, whether the space that it might occupy in her ‘love landscape’ was already filled or not (it was – by, as it happened, a cardboard box adorned with princess stickers). The same interrogative principle can be applied to any technology or object (why do my children love the iPad, really? Is it the tablet form – with its graphic, touch-intuitive interface – that they ‘love’, or is it the games, the virtual storybooks, or all of the above? In which case, might we consider other tablets – like the Intel-powered one that I described in this post – or a Kindle or other reader, instead of, say, a Nintendo DS type thingy, when we consider acquiring shiny new electronic toys?)

But mostly, I think, it applies to how we understand our surroundings, generally. Are we surrounded by things that we love? It’s a trope of the discourse around getting organized and keeping a nice home (edit! edit! edit!) that we only keep the stuff we love, but when/if we follow that rule, are we really being mindful about what it is that we love, and why? So are we really surrounded by stuff that we love? Most of us are surrounded by things that we like – we wouldn’t have acquired and kept them if we didn’t like them (and ask any child in any playroom whether she ‘likes’ the stuff there. Of course she does. That doesn’t mean that she loves that stuff in the sense of having an engaged, affective attachment to it) (maybe some day I’ll do a whole post on this issue in the context of the argument laid out in Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology and bore you all crazy-senseless, just for kicks) – but is it stuff that we love? And – this is important – what it is about that stuff that we love? Why do we love it?

Because, shouldn’t we love the things that surround us? Like, really love those things? Shouldn’t the landscape of our lives be a love landscape, whatever that looks like? Whether that means rooms filled with beloved books or Kindles or sketchpads or musical instruments (real or XBox-mediated virtual) or plates filled with cookies (none with raisins) or craft detritus or televisions or iPads or notepads (the old-school Moleskine kind) or kid-friendly laptops (Emilia has this one – Intel Inside! – and adores it) or LEGO (real or 3D Interactive) or shoes or loveys or all of the above and more… if it’s what we love, and in loving it we’re engaged with it, and we’re really reflective and mindful about the fact that that’s why we have it, that’s why it’s there, then, really, we’ll have our love landscapes, and we’ll inhabit them with joy.

And we’ll probably also get rid of some of really useless crap in the process. So there’s that.

What objects/things/technologies do your children love? Do you love? Like, really? Do you ever really ask yourself why you love the stuff that you do? Do you have interesting answers? Share them – share the stuff, and your answers to the question of why do I/my children love this? in the comments.

*Disclosure: I was a guest of Intel Canada at CES. I like Intel Canada, and not just because they introduce me to cultural anthropologists who make me think about love and technology and don’t kick me out of the room when I start knocking over lamps. You can sometimes find me over at their Facebook page, chatting people up.