From light bulbs to coffee cups: How the objects we create shape us

It ain’t no thing. Or is it? The objects around us can have a profound impact on how we think about and interact with the world. From the scientific to the sacred, human beings may invent the things, but those creations end up shaping humanity.

Scientists and scholars consider how humans and objects are shaped by each other

Author Ainissa Ramirez says it’s important to remember that inventions have consequences: not just in shaping the arc of human history, but in real people’s lives. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

When Ainissa Ramirez walked into a glass blowing class, it was meant to be for a bit of fun — a break from her daily work as a material scientist. Instead, the experience led to a eureka moment. 

As she plunged her tool into the dangerously hot glass, Ramirez said she suddenly realized that she was in a two-way relationship with the material: she was using her artistic instincts to give it shape, but the glass had the power to potentially harm her. 

"I came to the class in a bad mood and I left in a great mood — in fact, happy to be alive because I survived what could have been a very, very bad accident. And that made me think, 'I wonder how materials and humans have been shaping each other,'" Ramirez told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

Ramirez explores that idea in her book The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another

Flooding our cities with electric lights hasn't only limited our view of the night sky, it has also impeded our awe and sense of place in the universe. 'The lights have actually made us feel a little bit more self-important,' said writer and scientist Ainissa Ramirez. (Stefanie Harron)

Our relationship with the night sky helps illustrate the point. Ramirez observed that while our great-great-grandparents might have seen thousands of stars when they looked up, most of us only see a few dozen today because they are lost under the haze of our cities' electric lights. 

As our view of the night sky changed, so too did our relationship with the universe, Ramirez argued, both in practical ways such as navigation and also on a psychological level.

"We used to feel smaller because we thought we were part of something much bigger. We could look out and see the stars and the constellations and we felt like we were just a small part of a larger puzzle. But because we can't see those stars, because the glow of the light has blocked them out, we now just feel a little bit more important and don't feel connected," she said.

Ramirez is the author of The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another. (MIT Press)

The 'value' of things

The way we use and categorize objects can also reflect our values. This comes up in Erin Vearncombe's work as a professor of religious studies at the University of Toronto, especially as she considers the idea of what is "sacred."

According to Vearncombe, a sacred object is one that is "set apart" and outside of everyday life. She encourages her students to think about items that were once considered banal, but could be considered sacred today.

To some a Tim Hortons Roll Up The Rim cup is just a vessel, but to others it’s a sacred thing. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

"I think you could make an argument that a Tim Hortons Roll Up The Rim cup is a sacred object in different kinds of ways," she told Hynes.

"It's not part of everyday life in the same way that other coffee cups might be. There's a certain ritual to the interaction with this cup when you sit in your car or on a park bench and you slowly roll up that rim to see what might be underneath. And the whole kind of mythos of Tim Hortons, it's just imbued with this kind of innate Canadian-ness that connects people in a certain kind of social and cultural relationship," she said. 

The way we categorize items — whether as sacred or quotidian or according to other criteria — can reflect not only the ways they are used, but also other, deep-seated values. This is a central theme in Vearncombe's current class on Museums and Material Religion. In it, she poses questions about access and ownership brought to the forefront by controversies like the Benin Bronzes, currently on display at the British Museum but originally from present-day Nigeria.

"Where the objects came from and how they were acquired by the museum is sometimes a very long and complicated process of ownership and donation, but also often a very complicated dialogue about colonialism, about missionary activity, about political activity, about violence, about enslavement," said Vearncombe. 

The Benin Bronzes controversy was further highlighted by the blockbuster Afrofuturism film, Black Panther, which Vearncombe says was the original inspiration behind her course. The film spurred international demands for the return of cultural artifacts.

Built-in bias

The inherent racism associated with objects is not just a thing of the past and the domain of museums. You can find bias in new technologies, too. 

Ramirez explores built-in biases in her work as a material scientist. They offer another example of how "things" change the way we function in the world.

"I'm African-American and there are certain water faucets that I have to be mindful of opening my hand fully so that the light sensor will see the lighter side of my palm," she says of the sensor that is meant to open the faucet when it detects human skin.

"If I just put out my hand and don't think about it, the darker side of my skin is looking at the detector. The detector won't register that I'm there," she said.

Erin Vearncombe is a scholar of religious studies and cultural anthropology. She’s a former lecturer at Princeton University and teaches a University of Toronto course called Museums and Material Religion. (Ans Nawaz)

Ramirez says we need to ask different, more critical questions to avoid these kinds of innate biases and mitigate potential harm.

"All you need to do is ask the question: 'Is this a good idea?' Scientists aren't doing that," she said, adding that the motivation to create something needs to be more than "it's cool."

"Cool is not enough. Cool is what got us here. Cool got us to making technologies where we're stripping mountains for certain materials. So we should have asked, 'Is this a good idea?' Then maybe we would have created the same technology with a different material."

Given the complex, inextricable influence of stuff on human beings, both Ramirez and Vearncombe encourage people to take a more thoughtful approach to their relationship with things.

"We tend to think of ourselves as the ones who know, but that's only part of who we are. We're creatures that know, but we're also creatures that make and we're creatures that do. And these three actions — knowing, making, doing — they're all part of an enmeshed practice," said Vearncombe.

"We're never going to get away from our relationship with things, no matter what we do."

Written and produced by Kim Kaschor


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