Who Uses That?

As the year wraps up I’m going over unpublished drafts of posts.  Came across this one from September that hints at (or at least resonates with) the posts on “infermation.

In our bathroom stands a toothbrush stand and in that toothbrush stand stands a gum stimulator.  It is/was mine, but I rarely use it.  It’s basically abandoned property — to the point that I sometimes look at it and wonder whose it is.

I was looking at it today and had a “take the role of the other” moment.  I wondered what other members of my household made of the gum stimulator.  I felt pretty sure that they (OK, I’m talking about one person in particular, so “she”) took it to be mine;  she knows it as “Dan’s gum stimulator.”  There is no way she can detect the change in the object’s status — the fact that it’s become an abandoned artifact, that I look at it and don’t know whose it is (but at some level I remember because I haven’t yet thought it was hers)  — because if it is used, or rather when it was used, it was used in private.  Her access to the object is the same as it ever was: “not mine, only one other person routinely uses this bathroom, must be his.”).

This started me thinking about the general category of things that are in plain sight, but about which one has no direct, experience based knowledge of who uses them or what they are used for because they are used by whoever it is that uses them out of our purview.

Those keyboxes at various locations in office buildings.  The number tags on utility poles.  Spray painted numbers on streets.  

This brings up a series of related socio-epistemological categories.  Equipment that’s used out of sight and generally kept out of sight, is closely related to the above.  Perhaps we need a distinction between the mysterious (stuff that you just don’t know who uses it how for what) about which one could become curious, but usually does not, and stuff that you presume is used by particular others for perhaps known purposes (though, in fact, like my gum stimulator it might be used for nothing by no one).  Then there are the things that I know are yours but I have no idea what you do with them (tools, perhaps) and am just comfortably ignorant.  Another category might be things that are superficially shared but that embody some of the secret side of the other.  And so on.

The point, I think, is related to Simmel’s observation that one can never know the other entirely.  That’s one of his a prioris of the human social condition.  This extends to objects which we know (or suspect) to be objectifications of subjectivity (made by, used by, related to) without fully grasping the subjectivity they embody.


Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at MinervaProject.com. I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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