The Romance of Objects

On My Mind / by Sherry Turkle /

What are the roles of objects in the development of young minds and in the creative lives of scientists?

Illustration by Joe Kloc.

Science is fueled by passion, a passion that is often attached to the world of objects much as the artist is attached to his paints, the poet to her words. From my first days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976, I saw this passion for objects everywhere. My students and colleagues told how they were drawn into science by the physics of sand castles, by playing with soap bubbles, by the mesmerizing power of a crystal radio.

Since this was the early days of computer culture, there was also talk of new objects. Some people identified with their computers, experiencing these machines as extensions of themselves. For them, computers were useful for thinking about larger questions, questions of determinism and free will, of mind and mechanism. For me, training as a humanist and social scientist moved me to investigate the role of objects in scientific creativity and the development of young minds.

Objects don’t nudge every child toward science, but for some, a rich object world is the best way to give science a chance. Given the opportunity, children will make intimate connections, connections they must construct on their own. But at a time when science education is in crisis, many of us discourage the object passions of children, perhaps out of fear that they will become “trapped,” learning to prefer the company of objects to the company of other children. Indeed, when the world of people is too frightening, children may retreat into the safety of what can be predicted and controlled. This should not give objects a bad name. They can make children feel safe, valuable, and part of something larger than themselves. They are points of entry to transformative experiences, experiences that often emerge as they are shared.

If we attend to young scientists’ romance with objects, we are encouraged to make children comfortable with the idea that falling in love with things is part of what we expect of them. We are encouraged to introduce the periodic table as poetry and LEGOs as a form of art.  — Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT.

Originally published January 9, 2009

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