We humans on the one hand, our things on the other – that used to be the normal view of our relationship to the world. How­ever, the boundary between subject and object is dissolving. What we own and what we interact with forms our identity. We find ourselves in the things with which we surround ourselves.

by Tobias Hürter

The coloured surface is second only to the line as the oldest technique in art. Metamorphoses in ancient myths were given visual expression on ceramic vessels, with figures of heroes on black or red surfaces. Anna Parini’s complex metaphors reflect this western tradition, which today only seems appropriate as a refracted type of ironic commentary. These days a hero is someone who can expose the superficial clarity of appearances and see through the multi-faceted play of ambiguity.

Imagine a racing driver in his brand-new car at the start of a race, surrounded by perfect technology. He lovingly strokes the multifunctional steering wheel, casts a final glance at the bewildering array of buttons and switches which he can operate without taking his hands off the steering wheel. He listens to the pulsing drone of the engine and waits for the kick. Can he win the race? Probably not. Next to him in the starting grid is his opponent, who directs his vision calmly and firmly towards the track. He does not notice his car. He forms a perfect unity with it. While one driver turns the steering wheel, presses his foot on the accelerator and feels the power of his engine in the pit of his stomach, the other simply accelerates, hurtling to the head of the field.

In this fictitious race, it is not only two drivers that are competing but two fundamentally opposed attitudes by a person towards his things. The first is fascinated by his car. The second merges with it. Why does the second driver have a better chance of winning the race?

Behind this lies a philosophical puzzle: what is the relationship between us and the things around us? Philosophers have thought about this for 2,500 years – and, in the process, they have shed some light on the puzzle. Their new and old answers are of great significance for manufacturers of technological products.

Like almost everything in Western philosophy, this story begins with Plato, who lived in Athens in the 4th century B.C. Plato did not have a high opinion of material things. He regarded them as a cheap copy of what was true, beautiful and good. He was convinced that in every human being there was an immaterial, immortal soul, imprisoned in a mortal body. The highest goal of human beings was to liberate themselves from this prison and to ascend to a perfect, eternal “empire of ideas”. This was Plato’s idea of paradise.

With his disdain for things, Plato set the tone for the following millennia. Philosophers of antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and both the Early and Late Modern eras were used to encountering the exterior world with fundamental mistrust. Thus, the separation between humans and things became a fixed component of our culture.

This attitude becomes particularly clear in the philosophy of René Descartes (1596 –1650). The founder of modern philosophy imagined people as thinking beings who looked out onto and listened to the world from their position inside the skull. The Irish bishop George Berkeley (1685 –1753) went even further, completely denying the existence of the ­material world. “To exist is to be perceived,” he declared. Thus, everything that exists is in the mind. Philosophers became increasingly caught up in their unworldliness.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that philosophers had the courage to rethink the relationship between people and things. The ­existentialists, including Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 –1980) in France and Karl Jaspers (1883 –1969) in Germany, criticised the idea that we gradually work our way into the world from the safe ground of our thought. To them, the point was not to observe the turmoil from a safe bird’s-eye perspective but to throw oneself into it courageously – searching for stability and for one’s own place in the world.

How exactly does one become at home in the world? A famous illustration was given by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889 –1976) in his main work, Being and Time. When a good carpenter is working with his hammer, he forgets the hammer. Perhaps he pays attention to the nails, but perhaps not. He loses himself completely in his activity, practically merging with his tools. It is only if something goes wrong, if the hammer’s shaft breaks, a nail buckles or the carpenter whacks himself on the thumb that he becomes aware of the situation and the tools. Then he may think about the wood of the shaft or estimate the weight of the hammer head. “The less the hammer-thing is simply gawked at, the more grippingly it is used, the more primal is the relationship to it,” wrote Heidegger. Philosophers may be used to reflecting on things. But those who brood over a relationship too much, kill it. It’s no wonder that so few philosophers are successful racing drivers.


One could perhaps, in a rather derogatory way, ascribe “sentimental value” to these things, but that would not do them justice. It is no exaggeration to say that these things determine the identity of the people to whom they belong. Plato and Descartes were still able to claim that the immaterial soul is what constitutes a person. But hardly anyone still believes in such an inner, essential core in human beings. People’s identity is not inside them; rather, it is defined by their relationships to the outside world, to other people, to their body – and to the things around them.


It’s paradoxical: the more clearly a person becomes aware of a thing, the more foreign the thing becomes to the person. But awareness does create distance, and distance is not a suitable foundation for a good relationship. A true Munich native does not continually reflect on his city any more than a fish reflects on water. He simply lives and thrives there. A good tennis player will not marvel at his racquet, but “merge” with it and use it like a part of his body. The racquet is not merely an accessory for the tennis player – it is what makes him a tennis player.

The Hungarian psychologist Mihály ­Csíkszentmihályi, who teaches at the ­Claremont Graduate University in California, tells in his essay “Why We Need Things” the story of a rich lawyer whom he once visited. This lawyer’s house was stuffed with select works of art and expensive furniture. Csíkszentmihályi asked him which object was his favourite. The lawyer led the psychologist past all these expensive treasures down to the cellar, where he opened a case containing an old trombone. It was the instrument he had played when he was a student and his life still felt fresh and spontaneous. Today, if the burden of his worries becomes too heavy, he goes down to the cellar, plays a few bars and connects with that part of himself which otherwise has to be silent. The objects in his valuable collection are insignia of his wealth and his successes. “But the most important symbol of his secret self was the trombone,” writes Csíkszentmihályi, “it alone has the power to bring him back into contact with himself.”

Everybody can probably confirm this from their own experience: there are objects which they are genuinely “attached to” and which people have to know in order to understand them. It may be a book that has opened someone’s eyes, the garden in which they can get lost, or a favourite piece of sporting equipment. For most people, their home is not only the place where they can be warm, dry and peaceful, but also the focal point of their existence and the mirror of their way of life and biography – the place where they “belong”. Anyone who loses their home feels literally uprooted.

One could perhaps, in a rather derogatory way, ascribe “sentimental value” to these things, but that would not do them justice. It is no exaggeration to say that these things determine the identity of the people to whom they belong. Plato and Descartes were still able to claim that the immaterial soul is what constitutes a person. But hardly anyone still believes in such an inner, essential core in human beings. People’s identity is not inside them; rather, it is defined by their relationships to the outside world, to other people, to their body – and to the things around them.

Some philosophers today go as far as to regard things that are particularly close to us literally as parts of us. Thus, the Australian philosopher David Chalmers and the American cognitive scientist Alva Noë represent the theory of the “extended mind”: some processes which we are used to localising within people’s heads are actually spreading beyond the boundaries of the body to the things around us in the world. For example, if someone reflects on himself and his experiences in a diary, the diary not only documents the person’s thoughts about himself but is also a part of these thoughts. If a forgetful person notes down all his appointments in his smartphone and asks it to remind him of them, he is turning the device into a part of his memory. If he uses Google Maps to guide him through a city, the program not only helps him to find the way – it is his sense of direction. The software routines in the smartphone take on tasks which used to be performed by the neural networks of his brain. They plan for him, decide for him, steer his intentions and preferences (for example, by recommending local restaurants). Completely free from neural implants or brain-computer interfaces, they enter into his thoughts, desires and perception.


Technical and aesthetic perfection is a noble goal. Anyone who establishes their products as a status symbol for buyers has already achieved a great deal. However, the greatest art is to conceive your products in such a way that buyers not only regard them as an indicator of their identity, but as part of their identity.


The fact that some things with which people surround themselves determine their identity can be seen even in the way we are accustomed to naming the major eras of history after the objects used by the people living in them. The Palaeolithic era gets its name from the simple stone tools which people produced in those days, while in the Neolithic age, these blades and wedges were already more sophisticated. The Bronze and Iron Ages are defined by progress in metalwork, the Industrial Revolution and the digital age by the steam engine and the computer. And each time, not only did the tools change, but the tools also changed the people. Communication and social relationships on the Internet are very different from those of a hunter’s clan in the Stone Age. Ownership can now mean buying an app or a digital piece of music – an abstract data sequence. Many people are now almost as at home in the digital world as in the analogue world. They work there, shop there, play and entertain themselves, and meet people whom they would otherwise never meet. A person’s Facebook avatar can be an essential part of their identity.

“We know who we are when we look at what we own,” said the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. In our age of material excess, there is a danger of losing one’s perspective – of losing oneself in the 10,000 objects which today’s European accumulates on average. But the way out is not to return to Plato and turn one’s back on all material things. The way out is to turn back towards those things in which one really finds oneself and to cultivate a relationship to them – like Csíkszentmihályi’s lawyer and his trombone. Everything else is decorative, perhaps nice to have, but ­dispensable.

It is every manufacturer’s dream for his products to obtain such a close relationship to the buyer that they become part of the buyer’s identity. Almost all particularly successful products are based on this idea. Apple’s iPhone, for example, not only made its way into many people’s pockets because it is a technological masterpiece but, above all, because it disappears – so to speak – in the hands of its users, like the hammer in the carpenter’s hand. It is an almost seamless extension of our thought, speech and perception. It seems to operate itself – like a sense organ for the digital world.

Technical and aesthetic perfection is a noble goal. Anyone who establishes their products as a status symbol for buyers has already achieved a great deal. However, the greatest art is to conceive your products in such a way that buyers not only regard them as an indicator of their identity, but as part of their identity. Thus, a perfect sports car is not only likely to arouse admiration. It is also designed to “merge” with the driver at certain moments – and here, too, as with the iPhone and its user, digital technologies now open up completely new possibilities for connecting a “nervous system” between the driver and his vehicle. Entirely in the spirit of the “extended mind” theory, the two literally become one. The driver not only experiences himself as the operator of a powerful engine, he feels the power of the engine as his own – just as a runner at the top of his form feels his legs. The driver doesn’t steer the car along the road, he flies around the curves with it. He not only drives a fast car, but becomes the winner.

 

Tobias Hürter studied philosophy and mathematics in Munich and Berkeley. He was editor of ZEIT magazine and is the co-founder of the philosophical magazine Hohe Luft.

Anna Parini is an illustrator who was born in Milan in 1984. She currently works and lives in Barcelona. Some of her clients include The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Google and Save the Children. Her work has been recognized and exhibited by the Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts, American Illustration and the Society for News Design.