In the spirit of Hans’ tongue-in-cheek advice, I will frame this discussion within the constellation of three renowned professors. The first is Clifford Nass of Stanford University whom I met at a conference where we both spoke. The second is the late Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon University whom I never met but whose former students I encounter in the course of my work at Microsoft.

The third is Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with whom I had the privilege to study during my graduate student days. Woven with ideas from these three figures, the resulting semantic braid presents a shift prompted by the introduction of augmenting technologies within product design, a shift that I call the poetic turn of everyday objects.

Defining technology

In a banquet room of a Seattle boat club, the presidents of several North American colleges of art and design convened for their association’s annual gathering. As one of three speakers invited to address the assembly, I found myself in esteemed company. The first speaker was Harvard Law School professor John Palfrey who talked about the concept of the digital native.

As the second speaker, I discussed emotional design and Postrel’s so-called aesthetic imperative. The final speaker was Clifford Nass whose talk had the bold title of The Most Important Trends in the Psychology of Technology. One of these trends was a cycle that Nass called the shift from Defining Technology to Defining Technology.

Nass asserts that this cycle is a process that begins with three steps. First, culture drives towards the perennial goal of providing a distinguishing characteristic of humanness – in other words, we constantly seek a trait that makes us uniquely human, a characteristic that does not exist in anything else. Second, a technology appears that matches that characteristic.

Then, third, culture applies other human characteristics to the said technology. For example, before the Industrial Revolution, humans were homo faber, the being that makes. The unique trait that made us human was that we crafted objects.

Then, the industrial revolution bestowed us with manufacturing technologies, assembly lines, machines that made things; so, we started applying human characteristics to the technology, such as machines having “arms”. This process culminated with the 19th-century human-versus-machine legend of the American folk hero John Henry.

Henry was a freed slave who worked as a steel driver for one of the burgeoning railroad companies, and was considered the strongest man working the rails.

The railroad crew encountered a mountain through which they had to dig a tunnel, a dangerous and deadly task. A salesman came along with a steam-powered drill claiming it could out-drill any man. Henry was pitted against the steam drill.

In the ensuing competition, Henry beat the machine and, in true dramatic fashion, amidst the crowd of workers cheering his victory, Henry died of exhaustion.

After this point, Nass asserts a fourth phase in which we see a shift in the application of defining traits: that the culture begins to apply the technology’s characteristics to humans! This phenomenon manifests itself even today as we draw unsurprising metaphoric comparisons of the body as a machine, of food as fuel, of the heart as an engine. Nass’ cycle comes full circle as human culture must then find a new distinguishing characteristic.

In the Information Revolution, this cycle appeared again. The defining characteristic of humans is that we are thinkers. Then, the Information Age bestowed us with the computer, a sort of thinking machine.

The Information Age version of the John Henry story is when international chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov paired off against Deep Blue, the chess-playing super computer. In the first match-up he won, but in a subsequent meeting Kasparov lost.

What does that mean for us today? Nass asserts that the new defining human trait is that we possess emotions. While he raised the arguments that animals seem to have emotions – as well as computers and robots – humans can be special by making technology an active definer through technologies that make our emotions their priority.

The fourth stage

Directed by Professor Randy Pausch, the Stage 3 Research Group at Carnegie Mellon University strived “to bring virtual reality to the third stage…”. Virtual reality does not play into our discussion of the poetic turn. Instead, the framework after which the research group is named is more salient. This group suggested that a new medium passes through three stages: 

1) The first stage is a simple demonstration of the medium, showcasing its capabilities and limitations.

2) The second stage of most media is the replication of an existing medium.

3) During the third stage of a medium, techniques unique to that medium are developed and exploited.

An example on the group’s website is the medium of film making: at first, people were amazed by simple footage such as watching waves crashing on the beach; in the second stage, the first movies – or attempts at narrative – were recordings of stage plays.

“Today, the flashback and crosscut are well-acknowledged idioms of the medium of film, but more than forty years passed between the introduction of film and the widespread usage of these methods.”

To conclude my exposition, I raise a principle of contemporary social thought impressed upon me through the many hours of navigating structuralist texts assigned in Sherry Turkle’s MIT seminar on Science, Technology, and Society: that it is the differences among phenomena that are the same.

Therefore, referencing the structure in Nass’ defining technology and applying it to the three stages, I propose a fourth stage, one in which the older medium starts borrowing the techniques and idioms from the new one.

The poetic turn

My work at Microsoft centres around a product called Microsoft Surface. Surface represents a category of human–computer interaction that does not require a mouse or keyboard. Instead, it enables multi-touch, multi-user computing scenarios that allow for direct manipulation and object recognition. More importantly for this discussion, Surface looks like a table.

Within the world of product design, a new category of everyday objects is emerging, objects with technological augmentations: chairs that massage your back, shoes that tell you how far you have run, and tables that, well, do all sorts of things beyond providing a horizontal surface onto which to rest objects.

Unlike gadgets such as mobile telephones in which the object ceases to be something else when the technological augmentation no longer functions, augmented objects are uncanny in the Freudian sense in that they evoke the familiar and the alien simultaneously.

It is in this uncanniness, this poetic ambiguity that holds a new promise of understanding. In other words, this phenomenon can be characterised as the fourth stage of software experience.

It has often been the goal of computer applications to model phenomena in the physical world. Now, everyday objects are borrowing the idioms of computing technology to bring about a poetic turn.

Illinois Wesleyan University English professor Michael Theune states, “Poems do not flow. They turn.” In literature, the idea of the poetic turn can be characterised by a dramatic shift in the rhetorical progress of a poem.

This shift refers not to the form of the poem, rather, to its structure. In his Los Angeles Times essay Off the Shelf: Finding the pieces that turn writing into poetry, poet Matthew Zapruder writes:

“Poetry at its most basic level is about the movement of the mind. This is why it is translatable, even from a language such as Chinese, which has very little in common with English. What can be translated is the leap from one thought to another: what I call the associative movement particular to poetry. That leap, that movement, is what makes poetry poetry.”

And it is that leap – that associative movement – that everyday objects have begun to possess. But what is it good for?

In their essay entitled Exploratory Design, Augmented Furniture, Lira Nikolovska and Edith Ackermann describe the poetics of everyday objects, “while each person experiences and appropriates cultural artefacts in very personal ways – depending on interests, experience, and background – it is also the case that objects and places set their own constraints regarding the ways in which we engage with them.

In other words, (… some artefacts) are clearly better suited to foster meaningful and delightful encounters.” They continue: “the poetics of everyday objects speak to an artefact’s abilities to evoke incongruous yet amusing associations while at the same time, uncovering otherwise veiled ‘truths’ or ‘dangerous’ ideas, and opening up new mental venues, or possibilities, often possibilities within ... reverberating deeply felt human experience.” 

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