Thoughts on the psychic culture of social objects

Question: Are social tools a new class of social objects? And this, from a cultural perspective, and not strictly a designer’s perspective. Culture has its objects. Society uses its objects. Objects have their form, their meaning, their uses, their stability. But there is a new world of social objects: tools, functional, symbolic, meaningful, communicative and communicable. But most of all, experiential.

It is an artifact of western thinking, and of western languages, that concepts come to exist as things. Things having an idea of the thing, and attributes and properties of the thing. Conceptual stability, in other words, in spite of there being always for every one of us a unique experience of the thing.

This linguistic byproduct, known as predication, assigns to the thing properties that are better understood as meanings and phenomena. Belonging not to the thing, in other words, but to its use, interpretation, and to contexts in which it belongs. The meanings of the thing are worked out in how we talk about the thing. It speaks not for itself, but is spoken of.

For most of human history this world of objects has helped to sustain identities, differences, traditions, pastimes, and so much more. All of which were social and cultural factors that persisted with use and reproduction of objects whose inherited meanings were relatively reliable.

The self stood alongside these objects.

There is a new class of objects: social tools. These are objects inside out. Objects having state, functions, operations, communication, actions, symbolic meanings and more. And most importantly, having the self inside them. Objects in which the self is implicated, as agent and agency, intention and interpretation, action and response. Social objects that are no longer stable but which are different for each person-participant.

A world of social that is negotiated, dynamic, absorptive, self-correcting: objects that are social systems, objects whose “object-ivity” exists only as a snapshot. Objects that are in time as much as they are in space, for they are not in space but produce distance effects of a different kind.

Designers have much to learn about designing this world. For it is a world in which the person, agent of the object, is the object’s center, the source of its meaning, and the attributes of its form. A world of social objects whose meanings are a product of discourse, but a world wherein that discourse is handled by the objects themselves.

The self lives within the objects.

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