Thomas Söderqvist reviews three recent collections by Sherry Turkle on the relationship between objects, technology and the self in the September 2010 issue of the British Journal for the History of Science doi:10.1017/S0007087410001226. These are:
- Evocative objects: Things we Think With. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2007.
- Falling for Science: Objects in Mind. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2008.
- The Inner History of Devices. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2008.
This is a great combination of reviewer and reviewed in reference to life stories, objects and archives. Söderqvist's Science as autobiography: the troubled life of Niels Jerne, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003 arises from the author's engagement with the immunologist Jerne's archive (as well as Jerne himself); and gives the sense of the 'materiality' of the archive as an autobiographical tool as well as a tool for constructing scientific theories. (Jerne won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1982 with Georges J.S. Kohler and Cesar Milstein: 'For theories concerning the specificity in development and control of the immune system and the discovery of the principle for production of monoclonal antibodies' .)
Professor in social studies of science and technology at MIT, Turkle's Evocative Objects gets scholars to reflect on objects in their current life or past, and how these interact with memory. From my point of view the most evocative object is an architect's account of the Melbourne train. Growing up in country Victoria, Australia, the Melbourne train thundered through daily, a symbol of the metropolitan and intellectual worlds beyond a childhood in country Australia, as well as link to memories of parents and place. As Geoffrey Blainey showed in the Tyranny of Distance (Sun Books: Melbourne, Victoria, 1966), technology both connects to a sense of wider cultural community as well as a underlines the specificity (including emotion) of disconnected or remote experiences or places.
Söderqvist praises Turkle for emphasising the importance of physical objects, linking this to the 'material turn' in the humanities and social sciences. Having among other things researched computer interaction and internet identities: 'She argues that we are far too distracted by our digital dreams and that we should instead pay more attention to developing our passionate relationship with material things, be they everyday, scientific or technological objects - not least for educational reasons' (507). One concern in science education is the lack of knowledge children (and adults) have about today's technological objects and how they work; and the possible effects this might have on public understanding of science as well as inspiring and training the next generation of researchers (see Tom Lean's earlier post on Meccano).
However, Söderqvist criticizes Turkle's collections as being unreflective about the nature of memory as personal and cultural narratives that may often be retrospective, leading him to question to authors' connections with real material objects in the first place. What is the link between memories of early material curiosity (e.g. wanting to see inside things) and later scientific careers?
This review of Turkle by Söderqvist makes me wonder about the complexity of our endeavour to interview scientists in the presence of instruments (or evocative places, and to add another layer of complexity, archives). What kind of a relationship between the story, the object, the document and their digital representation and interpretation would best communicate a historical experience in science?