Monthly Archives: June 2011

Painting-by-number and “The Practice of Everyday Life”

"Can You Imagine" by Trey Speegle (

My memory may deceive me on this, but it was probably sometime during kindergarten or first grade that the lesson “PAINT-BY-NUMBER = BAD” was impressed on me by either a teacher or a peer (though probably via that kid’s parent). Paint-by-number art kits were “bad” in the sense that – like a coloring book – they were babyish, formulaic, and predictable. And maybe one step worse than a coloring book, that we should look down upon the kits because they dared tell us progressively educated kids which colors we should be using and where.

In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) French scholar Michel de Certeau writes,“[I]nvention is not unlimited and, like improvisations on the piano or guitar, it presupposes the knowledge and application of codes” (p. 21). Within a fixed and dominant set of rules, consumers resist constraints in sometimes-masked ways. de Certeau writes of “making do” – that sometimes the ways of using are more interesting than what is counted as what is used (p. 35). For example, a child may complete a paint-by-number kit to create the completed project as shown on the box cover, but would that product tell you anything about the process of how the child got there?

The paint-by-number art kit may serve as a cultural text with which a child can “make do.” In Falling for Science (ed. Sherry Turkle), cell biologist Donald Ingber writes of his 1960s childhood fascination with the Venus Paradise Pencil by Number Coloring Set. The kit provided a fixed set of options, but certainly not an explicit menu of them. A child could consider options such as how much pressure to release when applying the pencil to the page, which order to fill in the numbers with the pencils (e.g., all the 1s, then 2s, then 3s…, or maybe all the 5s, then 1s, then 4s…), or to alternately filling in spaces individually by a different pattern all together or no pattern at all.

This way of “reading” a paint-by-number kit supports Stuart Hall’s “encoding/decoding” model and the space for audience’s oppositional reading of a text. A child may purposefully or accidentally swap the designated “2” color for the “4” color, consistently each time or maybe only a couple random times. I believe this falls within de Certeau’s definition of reading and other forms of “consumption” as poaching:

[A] rationalized, expansionist, centralized, spectacular and clamorous production is confronted by an entirely different kind of production, called “consumption” and characterized by its ruses, its fragmentation (the result of circumstances), its poaching, its clandestine nature, its tireless but quiet activity, in short by its quasi-invisibility, since it shows itself not in its own products (where would it place them?) but in an art of using those imposed on it (p. 31).

Where would a child “place” the production process within an apparently-perfectly completed paint-by-number piece? de Certeau embraces the hidden production of cultural meaning-making and doing. The passivity of the child completing the paint-by-number set is challenged. de Certeau links poaching with Descartes’ theories of coded texts (as cited by de Certeau):

And if someone, in order to decode a cipher written with ordinary letters, thinks of reading a B everywhere he finds an A, and reading a C where he finds a B, and thus to substitute for each letter the one that follows it in alphabetic order and if, reading in this way, he finds words that have a meaning, he will not doubt that he has discovered the true meaning or this cipher in this way, even though it could very well be that the person who wrote it meant something quite different, giving a different meaning to each letter… (p. 171).

From "The Scrambled States of America" by Laurie Keller

From "The Scrambled States of America" by Laurie Keller

You could read a B for an A, or paint the red for color 1 in the yellow for color 2 slot – but it all depends on what one defines as their own personal pleasure or satisfaction in their use. I think to some extent early literacy is successful because of making parts of the code personal, codes that are prepackaged for consumption: letters, numbers, or even memorizing the letter pairs of abbreviated names of the US states. For the 6th birthday of one of the children I regularly babysit, I gave as a gift a copy of The Scrambled States of America by Laurie Keller, a book that turns the states into characters with personalities. Maybe I bought it because it reminds me of the way when I was younger I would give the letters of the alphabet different personalities. (I tried to capture this in a cringe-worthy ode in a 9th grade poetry class of mine, per “An Alphabetical Tragedy” below.)

Getting back to Ingber, the kit helped him feel successful: successful in that it was adult-like to end up with painting with the formal features of an adult’s painting, and successful in that it was soothing for a child with colorblindness to read the numbers instead of the colors. When I think about something like the iPad and the analog/digital parallels, young children’s feeling of success must be linked in some way to feeling accomplished like an adult. As well, there are bridges that certain children with varying degrees of special needs, singly and multiply disabled, might possibly be able to cross with alternate pathways to feeling successful. The kits also enabled Ingber to experience the kind of problem solving “aha-moments” that would later help him understand the movement and shape transformation of cancer cells:

I gained much more from the coloring set. After coloring in multiple scattered spaces, I was always elated when I penciled in that key space that caused all the other colored tiles to merge into a single coherent image. The moment always came suddenly, a surprise I learned to anticipate with great expectation. It was in this way that I came to understand the power of the gestalt, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that the overall arrangement of the parts can be as important as the properties of these components (Ingber, pp. 255-256).

Scholar Ian Bogost expands upon previous definitions of “procedural literacy” (Sheil, 1980) and describes it as “the ability to reconfigure basic concepts and rules to understand and solve problems, not just on the computer, but in general” (Bogost, 2005, p. 32). Procedural literacy skills support an understanding of the relationships between various kinds of expertise. “While written and spoken language do require conceptual effort,” writes Bogost, “it’s fallacious to think that visual media like toys and video games do not demand conceptual effort. Engendering true procedural literacy means creating multiple opportunities for learners – children and adults – to understand and experiment with reconfigurations of basic building blocks of all kinds” (p. 36).

This emphasis on plurality in terms of kinds of learners applies not just to young and old, but also to those who access media in ways other than visually. “True” procedural literacy, for example, should also recognize blind and visually impaired children and the building blocks of communication with which they may experiment as “consumers.”

Related links

Pendipity app for iPad – like ChatRoulette, but for drawing
Paint-by-number as high art from artist Trey Speegle
Smithsonian Paint-by-Number Retrospective

The aforementioned poem

“An Alphabetical Tragedy”
Meryl Alper (1998)
In a land of jumble and jargon
I try to make sense of the buildup in my head
The words won’t fit in their places
They repel away from order like north and south
But the letters are just doing their jobs
Making confusion out permanent insanity
The puzzle pieces won’t fit, no matter how I bend and squeeze them
So I command the letters to fit my needs
Desperately speak through each individual letter
Live like support
I am me and they are me
We live in parallel universes
Their land a maze of complex fantasy
And mine is cardboard boxes and vacant crowded streets
If I stare at them hard enough they start to clear
And send a story through my fingers
One day they took over my mind
And wanted their own attention
I was crying out for help
Actually, C was
A and B used to be her best friends
But now she felt just like a third leg to them
D was content in where it was
The day was perfect
Not ready for change
E and F we blessed with order
It was so easy and carefree
They were accustomed to their relationship
But G was a boyfriend who got in the way
And H was his overprotective girlfriend who wouldn’t go away
I was living a disillusioned life
It was all so sad but true
J and K were just leading I on
To think that life was safe and sound
L was an amateur
The little Lolita
Wanted the life of M
And stepped on it’s heels
Wanted to know how it would feel
Trying to take over M’s bond with N
That secure bond like a smooth syncopated melody
That carried over to O
O and P were secret liaison lovers
But their once deep adventure was now common clockwork reality
P was content in the life it now led
Possibility and passion
But there was always the possibility of joining her old crew
Followed the beat of the city
And thrived on the jazz of the new black night
T was once a part of that old-school group
But it had moved on to bigger and better things
Joining the elite finale
U and V always got mistaken for each other
U was flattered, for V was what it dreamed of
But V was ashamed
What’s really in a name, or shape of a letter?
 How could U compare to the glory of V?
So vicious and victorious
W was what she always wanted
The wonder and woman
 But W felt out of place
Just like X did in a bland, John Doe world
As if the glory of her day had passed over the unappreciative years
She yearned
Y was unaware of all the suffering
Let them eat cake she would sob
Because I don’t like plain yellow vanilla cake
I need zest
I need my king Z
And all is right with the world
There once was discord
When the illegitimate 26th letter was born
But Y took care of that mistake
And was queen over the alphabetical tragic kingdom


Bogost, I. (2005). Procedural literacy: Problem solving with programming, systems, & play. Telemedium: The Journal of Media Literacy, 52(1 & 2), 32-36.

de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sheil, B. A. (1980). Teaching procedural literacy. Proceedings of the ACM 1980 annual conference (p. 125–126). New York: ACM Press. doi:

Transitional objects and other companions of childhood

Seeing as: (1) everything written by Sherry Turkle regarding children and technological objects has a mention of D.W. Winnicott’s theory of “transitional objects,” and (2) that I thought it would be great to have a specific area in which to dive deeper in my Social and Emotional Development of Children doctoral seminar in the Psychology department this fall, I added Winnicott’s Playing and Reality (1971) to my summer reading list.

In the book, Winnicott describes the transitional object as the infant’s first ‘not-me’ possession – often a stuffed animal or soft blanket grasped while the child sucks on his or her finger(s).  Winnicott places emphasis not necessarily on the object used, but on the child’s use of the object.  This object represents experiences external to both the child and the mother (and, at least according to Freud’s theories on object play and bodily excitement, the child’s initial attachment to the mother’s breast).  Winnicott writes, “It is not the object, of course, that is transitional.  The object represents the infant’s transition from a state of being merged with the mother to a state of being the relation to the mother as something outside and separate” (p. 14).  Turkle employs Winnicott to explain the role of objects – technological in some way – that mediate the child’s negotiation of “self” and “other,” as well as the traces of memories that those objects leave in our lives as adults.

In terms of transitional objects’ significance for cognitive development as well, many children’s early attempts at verbal communication, across cultures, manifest as babbling a name for this object.  (For a really interesting recent cross-cultural take on the “companions of childhood” from German researchers see here.)

Object as ‘comforter’ vs. object as ‘soother’

This object may become vital to the young child during transitions or stressful/anxious moments (e.g. traveling, first day of preschool).  The transitional object is an unresolved paradox in a child’s life: it STANDS IN for something, but it also IS NOT that thing.  Winnicott draws a distinction between using an object as a ‘soother’ (against anxiety) and as a ‘comforter’ (against depression).  While the former defines a transitional object, the latter can be the basis of pathologies or addiction, posits Winnicott.

Kai-lan comforts Tolee over his Pandy taking a spin in the washing machine. Courtesy of Nick Jr.

A resilient relationship with the transitional object can be a precursor to resilience in relating to people.  While there’s the old adage of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” maybe there’s something to be said for “what doesn’t destroy your teddy bear makes your future relationships stronger”?  Without the practice of having loved an object to shreds, do people discard relationships with other people instead?  Some special qualities in the relationship between child and object that Winnicott identifies includes (p. 5):

– The infant’s power and agency over the object

– That the object is available to be loved, cuddled, and even mutilated

– The relationships hinges on the object never changing unless the infant is the one changing it (e.g. see an episode of Nick Jr.’s Ni Hao, Kai-lan I worked on, “Pandy’s Puddle,” in which the oft-anxious Tolee experiences separation anxiety when his stuffed panda – appropriately named Pandy – has to go into the washing machine after getting accidentally dropped in a muddy puddle.)

– The item has to make it through this instinctual loving, hating, and aggression process (and rinse/dry cycles, too)

– The object has a rich reality of its own (e.g., warmth, texture, movement)

Fisher Price "iCan" rattle/iphone case. What kind of "transition" does this object support or suppress?

Do these criteria hold true for digital and analog objects in the same ways?  What emotional affordances does a rattle have compared to an iPhone embedded in a rattle?

String, stress, and transitional object

Coincidentally, Winnicott also has a lot to say about string.  He details one example of a non-normal use of a transitional object – in this case, string – from a psychiatric client of his.  In Winnicott’s “drawing squiggles” game in clinical sessions with young clients who lack verbal mastery to express themselves, the boy identifies all lines as a “lasso,” “whip” or “string in a knot.”  At home, the boy strings together chairs and tables in the house and precariously ties them to the fireplace.  In one extreme, he also winds string around his younger sister’s neck. Winnicott explains the boy’s perversion of the use of string with his mother’s postpartum depression and subsequent absence from the home during treatment.  Winnicott postulates on the meaning of string for the boy:

String can be looked upon as an extension of all other techniques of communication.  String joins, just as it also helps in the wrapping up of objects and in the holding of unintegrated material.  In this respect, string has a symbolic meaning for everyone; an exaggeration of the use of string can easily belong to the beginning of a sense of insecurity or the idea of a lack of communication (p. 19).

Interesting to think of string as feeding pathology in one case, and as a form of therapy in another case (in my earlier post regarding the girl working through her parents’ divorce in a class on knot tying.)

Nostalgia and transitional objects

To a baby, the transitional object comes neither purely from within or purely from without.  It is a means for experiencing, of the child putting out “a sample of dream potential” (p. 51).  Over years though, the transitional object out of necessity becomes relegated to limbo/liminal state.  The possession loses meaning as the child has many more experiences, expanding his or her cultural field.

... and lots-o'-levels on which this is interesting

I discussed object presence and absence, and a child’s navigation of paradoxes of positive and negative space in an earlier post.  Winnicott links this memory of the object absence to the concept of nostalgia, or the “precarious hold that a person may have on the inner representation of a lost object” (p. 23).

I think one of the most brilliant and interesting uses of nostalgia of late was last year’s Toy Story 3 viral YouTube campaign of a fake vintage 80s commercial (which are very popular as a genre on YouTube) for a stuffed bear called Lots-o-Huggin’ Bear.  The toy did not exist in the 80s, though the style of the commercial – for both US and Japanese audiences – mirrors the era, including the shoddy VHS-digital video transfer style.  It creates the pang of nostalgia for an item that resembles, though does not replicate, an item the Toy Story 3 audience may have had a child.  What takes this lesson in transitional objects to another level of convergence culture is that the stuffed animal version of the TS3 character of “Lotso” was widely available for sale as a product bound with the movie’s release.  I think it is particularly meta when popular texts about transitional objects (e.g. Woody from Toy Story or Winnie the Pooh – no relation to Winnicott) produce commercially available transitional objects that then feature the transitional objects within the text.

Transitional objects, new technology, and parent/child interactions

To what extent can Winnicott’s theories of transitional objects and transitional phenomena be projected onto new objects that the child encounters after infancy?  Winnicott would probably be horrified to see caregivers distracted by their own digital devices, their faces mirroring the content on their Blackberries instead of the look on their child’s face (though, certainly being absorbed in an analog magazine or a book in say, the 1960s, could shape communication in a way similar to digital devices).  In thinking about primary caregiver attachment in the digital age, reactions about artificial or cyborg “mother replacements” tend to edge towards hysteric and panic (See this gem of a Slate article, entitled “iMama: My son is mistaking a smartphone for his mother”).

While Lacan focused on the infant’s relationships to mirrors, Winnicott was more interested in the mother’s face as a mirror of the child, or of the child’s face as a mirror of the mother.  How might the home video of the child or a YouTube video of another baby be a sort of mirror as well (something I discussed in my talk at DML this past March)?  This issue of visually “mirroring” and cognitive/social/emotional development is also fascinating in terms of better understanding the role of objects and technology in the lives of blind and visually impaired children, which Winnicott mentions (p. 111) and then never returns to.

One last note: how rooted in Western/imperial culture is Winnicott’s theory?  In cultures with different child rearing practices, ones that are more collective in their physical nurturing of infants, or in which there are no teddy bears or plastic pacifiers, does this same child-mother-illusion-transitional object relationship hold true?


Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and reality. London: Tavistock Publications.

The rhetorical soverignty of play

The checkerboard-patterned cover of Brian Sutton-Smith’s The Ambiguity of Play (1997), unambiguous in its neat separation of light from dark, belies a complex rhetorical analysis of play theory.  Before unpacking “play,” Sutton-Smith clarifies the very meaning of “ambiguity,” invoking William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1955).  Play could be ambiguous in terms of (Sutton-Smith, p. 2):

  1. reference (is that a pretend gun sound, or are you choking?)
  2. referent (is that an object or a toy?)
  3. intent (do you mean it, or is it pretend?)
  4. sense (is this serious, or is it nonsense?)
  5. transition (you said you were only playing);
  6. contradiction (a man playing at being a woman);
  7. meaning (is it play or playfighting?)

Within an array of play forms and experiences, object play has a place in each sphere Sutton-Smith outlines (mind or subjective play, solitary play, playful behaviors, informal social play, vicarious audience play, performance play, celebrations and festivals, contests/games/sports, risky or deep play).  The rich diversity of play possibility, posits Sutton-Smith, is a main factor in its persistence over time, much like the evolutionary biology of species survival.  This diversity is temporal (e.g. duration, frequency, spontaneity) as well as spatial (e.g. domestic, public, international).

I went into the book without much prior context, and so was not expecting a rhetorical analysis of play.  Sutton-Smith proposes seven general discourses of play: themes of 1) progress, 2) fate, 3) power, 4) identity, 5) the imaginary, 6) the self, and 7) frivolity.  These rhetorical frames vary by historical traditions, function, form, players, disciplines, and groups of scholars.  One of Sutton-Smith’s most pointed criticisms is of a “progress rhetoric of play,” primarily within the discipline of developmental psychology and education, which sometimes-for-better/sometimes-for-worse places children on a deterministic forward march of ages-and-stages progress caused by play (as opposed to considering play as running a parallel path in increasing complexity, or as a dialectic).  Sutton-Smith contends, “Play development is not assured just because children are on the playground” (Sutton-Smith, p. 43).

His section on the play rhetoric of identity explores cultural hegemony and the loss of play rituals and objects.  Sutton-Smith’s engagement with issues of communal and individual identity heightened my awareness that much of my own focus, at least with this blog, has been on technological objects and their relation to children’s individual identity development.  If overgeneralized, that lens could ostensibly be construed as culturally hegemonic, detached from indigenous cultures and collective identities.

digital Chicano Ayayote rattle, courtesy of Cristóbal Martínez

I recall an incredibly earnest and compelling demonstration at USC Annenberg during the spring by Cristóbal Martínez, a member of the SMALLab research group and an incoming Ph.D. student with Jim Gee in Rhetoric, Composition, and Linguistics at Arizona State University (see his worked example “Tecno-folklórica: A Digital Media Approach to Indigenous Pedagogy and Sovereignty”).  Martínez’ artistic work centers on the design and application of digital materials supporting indigenous cultural and rhetorical sovereignty.  For example, one of his pieces is a digital Chicano Ayayote rattle for facilitating a Mediated XicanIndio Resolana.  As Martínez describes, “At this place, oratory is expressed through the gestural manipulation of digital media coupled to cultural protocols for verbal communication. Within this environment, participants use tangible objects to interact with each other and with dynamic visual, textual, physical, and sonic media through full-body ceremonial gestures.”  A child’s identity development or embodiment/virtuality with hybrid analog/digital objects such as this merits further exploration.  I look forward to reading more about Martínez’ work with culturally situated digital technology in K-12 education, bridging the needs and honoring the roots of children and elders in formal and informal learning settings.


Empson, W. (1955). Seven types of ambiguity. New York: Meridian Books.

Sutton-Smith, B. (1997). The ambiguity of play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

A Sherry Turkle Whitman’s Sampler

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a total fan girl for Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT.  Lately, I’ve been saying that I’m more of an “early” Turkle fan, since I adore The Second Self (1984) and haven’t yet gotten around to Alone Together (2011) (though I did see her appearance on The Colbert Report.  Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be one of those scholars promoting my book while playing it smart and cool on The Daily Show.)

Having had a major paradigm shift related to reading her Falling for Science: Objects in Mind (2008) over this past winter break, I decided this summer to read another of her edited volumes from the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2007a), as well as some of assorted essays of hers related to children and technology (Turkle, 2006, 2007b, 2010).

For Evocative Objects, Turkle asked contributors (scholars in the humanities, sciences, art, and engineering) to select a meaningful object from their life (e.g., a vacuum cleaner, comic books, a 1964 Ford Falcon) which connected their daily life with their intellectual pursuits.  Turkle asked all to ruminate on the questions that these objects in particular make askable about their past, present, and futures.

Turkle then paired each essay with an anchoring excerpt from a canonical text, the likes of Derrida, Lévi-Strauss, and Eco.  She catalogs these personal essays along six themes: objects of (1) design and play, (2) discipline and desire, (3) history & exchange, (4) transition and passage, (5) mourning and memory, (6) mediation and new vision.

A great deal of Turkle’s past work has been an investigation into the relationships people, from children to the elderly, form with digital creatures such as Furbies, Tamagotchis, and My Real Babies (Turkle, 2007b).  She finds that while these objects are designed to be nurtured, they also promote a fantasy of reciprocation that is never fulfilled.  One of my favorite parts of The Second Self is Turkle’s description of how in the 1980s, all first generation Speak and Spell toys had a bug, which led to the toy uncontrollably speaking and spelling in an off-kilter way.  After observing children experience this bug (I owned the toy as a child can attest to being both disturbed and intrigued by my own toy “coming to life”), she concluded that in their relationship with this evocative object, children had a small metaphysical crisis about life and death.  People – adults and children alike – connect with technological systems in ways that scientists and engineers cannot plan for.  We use the microworld to work through human feelings and issues that may have nothing to do with the computer “guts” per say.

Turkle concludes her introduction to Evocative Objects with the following quote from Walt Whitman:

A child went forth everyday/and the first object he look’d upon, that object he became.

Turkle draws a parallel between the boy in the poem and the authors of the essays in Evocative Objects, who “show us what they looked upon and what became the things that mattered” (Turkle, 2007a, p. 10).  This blog’s theme of “children’s bonding with technology” in terms of identity and embodiment is evident.  Yet, I’d like to complicate the parallel Turkle makes, and problematize the quote as missing the element of children’s agency.  Maybe not the first or second object she look’d upon, for they did not suit her needs, but the third object she actively chose to become.  Or, the first object she look’d upon, that object she already was (a major theme of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which I hope to actually finish this summer.  Or a more pop culture example, consider the items that make Harry Potter so salient – the sorting hat, the wand, horcruxes – items with a certain cyborg quality of blurred boundaries between body and object).  Or a child might go forth everyday, and look upon the same object each time, comforted and empowered by routine, a fluidity between the child becoming that object/the object becoming that child.

The items featured in Evocative Objects are a mix of organic and synthetic.  Two of the essays I found most compelling were the one on knots, by Carol Strohecker, Director of the Center of Design Innovation at UNC, and the one on stars, by Mitch Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab.

Both essays highlight how children negotiate the relationships between the presence and absence of objects.  Resnick obsesses less over the stars themselves, and more over the blackness surrounding them.  Strohecker tells the story of a young girl in the “Knot Lab” she teaches, working through her parents’ divorce via an art project consisting of a “True Lovers’ Knot,” a knot whose completed state involves suspended motion between two oppositional anchors.  This sort of object play manipulates physical space and mental space; positive space and negative space; cognitive knots and the holes that redefine “rope” as “knots.”  The paradoxical forces in math and physics can be tremendously counterintuitive to children.  For example, think back to our younger selves’ amused experimentation with pulling down, up, down for the window blinds to go up, down, up.  iPads may be praised as being “intuitive” interfaces for young children, but what are the benefits of developing an intuitive curiosity for that which is inherently counterintuitive?

Ultimately, Turkle contends that objects are evocative when they “bring philosophy down to earth” (Turkle, 2007, p. 308).  As a researcher, I am grounded in a belief in the symbolic, haptic, and emotional potential for children’s technologic play, with both analog and digital objects.  Loris Malaguzzi, guiding force behind the Reggio Emilia early childhood education movement, viewed technological play and computer literacy as another form of “the hundred languages of children,” referring to it as “the meeting of two ‘intelligences’ that need to get to know each other.” He saw potential in “the existence of a plurality of symbolic signs of communication to which one can respond using appropriate codes”; “the pleasurable sensation of touching the keyboard in order to enter into a working relationship with the machine”; and “the growth of an awareness that is gratified by active participation and the achievement of results” (Malaguzzi, 1996).

the mobius strip bagel. equally good to think with as it is to eat. courtesy of

Going back to the knots as “things to think with,” when I wrap my hands with the theories and literature of my early doctoral degree experience, I often get tangled, untie myself, and start over.  Critical cultural theorist Donna Haraway (1994, p. 65) has written of her own interdisciplinary style as a game of Cat’s Cradle: “My intention is that readers will pick up the patterns, remember what others have learned how to do, invent promising knots, and suggest other figures that will make us swerve from the established disorder of finished, deadly worlds.”  I aspire to this type of dialogue, of passing the string back and forth with a real readership.  I am contented though by knowing that there is no end to reach in my education (nor in the piles of reading).  Like the continuous loop one weaves their hands through in Cat’s Cradle, I am on a mobius strip of lifelong learning.


Haraway, D. J. (1994). A game of cat’s cradle: Science studies, feminist theory, cultural studies. Configurations, 2(1), 59-71.

Malaguzzi, L. (1996). A heresy of light and color. In Municipality of Reggio Emilia Infant-Toddler Centers and Preschools (Ed.), The hundred languages of children: Narrative of the possible. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Assessorato Scuole Infanzia Asili Nido.

Turkle, S. (2006). Tethering. In C. A. Jones (Ed.), Sensorium: Embodied experience, technology, and contemporary art (pp. 220-226). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (Ed.) (2007a). Evocative objects: Things we think with. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (2007b). Authenticity in the age of digital companions. Interaction Studies, 8(3), 501-517.

Turkle, S. (2010). Object lessons. In M. M. Suárez-Orozco and C. Sattin-Bajaj (Eds.) Educating the whole child for the whole world. New York: New York University Press.

The many “meaning of things”

Seeing as the month of May took me many places quite far away from home, it was oddly acontextual to be reading University of Chicago sociologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton’s (C and R-H henceforth for brevity’s sake) The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self (1981) during my travels.  The book chronicles C and R-H’s 1977 study of 82 families in Chicago and Evanston, IL (home of my alma mater, Northwestern).  Spanning home interviews with 315 people – primarily African-American and White; lower-, middle-, and upper-class; spanning four-generations of families – C and R-H asked people about the household objects they most cherished, and explored their physical and psychological contexts.  The book presents a landmark departure at the time from research on material objects that was focused on “materialism” and marketing, and instead combines a sociology of consumption with one of transaction as well.

While living out of a duffel bag for most of last month, I was far away from the place (Los Angeles) where I currently store most of my physical possessions.  I felt a tinge of guilt calling Los Angeles “home” in conversation with my mom while sitting on my parents’ bed during a stop at my childhood home in NY.  My “home” during the month of May could just as naturally have meant the “homeland” of the Jewish people in Israel, seeing as I was there to visit my youngest sister, who was herself temporarily calling a dorm at Tel Aviv University “home.”  The Meaning of Things had me thinking as well about the pieces of home that myself and other fellow travelers carried in the spaces between homes, liminal zones including a 9-hour layover in the Madrid airport and a Memorial Day weekend spent in Boston for the annual International Communication Association (ICA) conference.

During one leg of my trip – a nearly half-day transoceanic NYC-Tel Aviv flight – I observed one family with small children maintaining a semi-home-like space among and between two airplane rows.  Engaging with one of the main threads of this summer blog – children’s identity negotiation in relation to and with technologies – I was particularly struck by this family.  One unlike my own, the kind in which all three children embody the improbably precise blending of their biological parents’ physical genetic material; these two sisters and a brother, all bright blond haired and suntanned skin, curious blue eyes, and ruddy wide cheeked smiles.

At one point during the flight, having exhausted my library of musical iPod/iPhone options and taking a break from The Meaning of Things, I couldn’t help but study the older sister and brother, probably 7- and 5-years-old respectively.  With the encouragement of their father sitting between them, they each used a digital camera, one given to each child, to take pictures of their baby sister, who was learning over the seat in front while perched on their mothers’ shoulder.  The boy, adept at the digital camera and naturalized to his power over it as well as its inherent power, took one photo and immediately turned it around to view the screen.  He wanted to see the photo representation of the sister sitting in front of him.  He was quite happy to see that he had taken a photo of the baby mid-laugh, and turned the camera around once again, this time to show the baby the photo of herself.  Being a baby, she giggled and smiled, playfully grabbing at the camera.  It seemed to me that the boy took the baby’s playful glee for affirmation of his photo of her causing her happy feelings.  The baby may have just been happy because she was mirroring her siblings’ smiles, or enjoying the attention being paid to her, and was probably not able to see or understand the small rendering of herself on the tiny camera screen.  It is a bit of a conjecture, but it seems the identity captured in the photo had more of an emotional impact of the photographer than the subject.  Reflection on the act caused the boy pride and pleasure.

The camera in the case of this family on the plane served as a domestic symbol in a non-domestic space.  I focus on this brief moment because I am interested in how families with young children create, take apart, and recreate an idea of “home” in places outside of the home using technology, tools, objects, etc.  As well, I am interested how “unequal childhoods” (Lareau, 2003) and inequalities of cultural capital impact young children’s “naturalization” (Bourdieu, 1984; Seiter, 2007) to digital objects inside and outside the “home” (which itself can be a happy or unhappy place for a child to be).  C and R-H’s study focused on how objects within the home make and use those who make and use those objects within the home.  Their goal, they write, was to “explore how the most complex patterns of emotion and thought can become embodied in and symbolized by concrete things, that is, how things themselves are part of the interpretive sign process that constitutes meaning” (p. 98). While C and R-H did not interview children under 8, their chapters on object relations and the development of the self, the transactions between persons and things, and signs of family life are highly relevant to the focus of my research.

Social psychologist George Herbert Mead theorized that any object – inanimate or animate, human or animal, or just physical gestures simulating an object – towards which a person reacts, acts, or responds can be a “role model” (1934, p. 154), as antithetical as it may be to our understanding of that term.  Having attitudes towards an object/other makes one conscious of the self as a metacognitive referent.  For the young boy to take a photo of his baby sister, the production of the object made the boy more conscious of himself: his ability to master the camera, his ability to make others feel good, and his ability to feel good by making others feel good. Through this manipulation, the young boy built his autonomous self – working through questions of “Who am I?” and “What can I do?”

Personal traits emerge and socialization often occurs through young children’s object play.  Erikson (1950) described this process as the child’s decentralizing of the self: moving from one’s own actions to one’s position in a web of relationships.  Many children use rituals in the pursuit of controlling randomness in their daily object play.  C and R-H write that young’s children gross motor actions such as throwing, moving, and breaking objects,

Provide the clearest evidence that there is an agent capable of having an effect.  The more improbably the action, the more it goes against the laws of random chance, the more it defies entropy, the clearer the message that there is a self here that does make a difference.  When a girl hopping on one foot throws a ball against a wall, claps her hands twice, and then catches the ball on the rebound, she demonstrates through this strange ritual how much she is in control of randomness (C and R-H, 1981, p. 117).

The young boy taking the photo used the camera to control and capture a random momentary baby giggle.  The camera serves as a tool for the boy’s self-development, as he learns that taking a joyful photo leads to a joyful reaction among his family members, that the sharing of joyful photos is valued.  That sharing may have occurred historically after the film was developed, compared to the immediate transactions many now come to expect from photography, be it on their digital cameras or phones.  It is not just the person or the thing that gives an object meaning, but also the process, ceremony, or culture of transaction.

C and R-H found that people’s relationships with objects have a lot to do with their relationships with people.  Borrowing from Dewey, C and R-H describe cultivating a “cosmic self” or “that portion of the self whose ultimate goal is the larger harmony of things” (p. 192).  I was particularly taken with a response from the youngest member of the entire sample, an 8-year-old boy, on what all his bedroom objects meant to him:

They make me feel like I’m part of the world.  Because when I look at them, I keep my eyes on them and I think what they mean.  Like I have a bank from the First National, and when I look at it I think what it means.  It means money for our cities and for our country, it means tax for the government.  My stuffed bunny reminds me of wild life, all the rabbits and dogs and cats.  That toy animal over there (points to plastic lion) reminds me of circuses and the way they train animals so they don’t get hurt.  That’s what I mean, all my special things make me feel like I’m part of the world (C and R-H, 1981, p. 193).

The boy’s bedroom is a site of microcosmos, an interconnected energy beyond his Chicago walls.  This relates strongly to C’s later work on flow (1990), of focusing one’s psychic energy into objects and activities in a way that allows the object to return that energy to the person in the form of enjoyment.  Going back to that other boy on the plane, what might C and R-H say about him?  They write,

The drawings and photos of one’s children that so many adults cherish are signs of the self’s extension into the future; they prefigure the development of one’s descendents who will carry on the psychic order one has created to generations to come […] When used in this way, household objects serve a symbolic purpose; the materialism involved in the transaction is instrumental (C and R-H, 1981, p. 242).

The boy on the plane was not the photo subject though – he was the actor onto the object.  Adults may cherish the photos they take of their children – or they may cherish even more the photos their children take, or the photos their children take of their other children.

One shortcoming of C and R-H’s study is that, limited a bit within their sociological frame, much of their discussion does not account for political economy and the infrastructures of power that disenfranchise certain populations from making choices in their daily transactions with objects.  Sometimes being able to selectively take piece of your assuredly static home with you is a luxury.  Sometimes, home is inherently transitory, and the constant movement of a small amount equaling the sum total of one’s possessions, particular for small children in unstable economic circumstances, is a certain kind of torture.

I appreciate The Meaning of Things as another way to understand the nature of relationships between young children and digital and non-digital technological objects in traditional and non-traditional “domestic” spaces; locations like the row of an airplane or a seat on the subway turned domestic in the presence of family members.


Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste.  (R. Nice, Tran.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Rochberg-Halton, E. (1981). The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Erikson, E (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society from the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Seiter, E. (2007). Practicing at home: Computers, pianos, and cultural capital. In T. McPherson (Ed.), Digital youth, innovation, and the unexpected, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning (pp. 27-52). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.