Technologies and Attachment

Technologies and Attachment

I love my 2009 MacBook Pro. This is a very silly thing to say, and an even sillier thing to publicly acknowledge. But in this post I want to explore how and why users may become attached to specific technologies (but not in an obsessive My Strange Addictions kind of way).

In my graduate class on activity theory this semester, I’m teaching a book that I first encountered as a graduate student myself, Nardi’s wonderful 1996 collection Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction. One of the benefits of teaching, I’ve learned, is revisiting previous work with fresh eyes. In this case, Christiansen’s chapter helps shed new light on why I’ve become so attached to my MBP. She notes:

It is the relationship between artifact and user that creates a feeling inside the user, which in turn is projected to the artifact. The tool relationship becomes a kind of filter through which the user experiences the artifact. (p. 176)


To really unpack what Christiansen is saying here, we need to back up and explore her definition of the word tool, which is much richer than the typical understanding of “simple implement.” Christiansen’s use of the term tool designates “a computer artifact that has tamed someone so that she has come to care” (p. 175).[1]

This is very interesting, on several levels, especially since activity theory explicitly assumes an agentive asymmetry between people and things. In activity theory, human beings use artifacts in meaningful, intentional, and sociohistorically situated ways. Artifacts and people are not granted equal agency. So can an artifact tame a human being, or do human beings tame artifacts?

Christiansen is extending a metaphor here, one that originates in The Little Prince. The fox tells the little prince that “It is the time you have wasted on your rose that makes it so precious,” and Christiansen extends this line by noting that the prince’s effort and attention to the rose has “caused him to fall in love” with said rose (p. 175).

Intentional and sustained interactions with the rose, or with a computing technology, lead to feelings of attachment. But that’s still well short of the whole story. For example, my key ring is a technology, it’s with me constantly everyday, and I have almost no feelings of attachment to it; indeed, there’s another layer of interaction here…


Christiansen extends the little prince metaphor to illustrate the much bigger issue of mediation. It is not the tool in and of itself—not the roseness of the rose or Appleness of my MBP— but the ways in which the artifact acts as a significant mediator in meaningful human activity that leads to the definition of tool noted above. Mediation, of course, necessitates a relationship of some kind.

But more importantly, mediation assumes motives and goals—mediated actions are enacted within and directed toward meaningful activities. Some mediation is fleeting or even invisible, therefore,[2] but other forms are deeply enmeshed in lived experience. And the tools mediating lived experience often involve lots of cultivation and nursing (to use Christiansen’s terms).

Mediation and Activity

The main reason that I love my MBP is its central role in mediating a variety of tremendously important (to me, anyway) activities.

Christiansen takes “activity as the term for the process through which a person creates meaning in her practice, a process we can neither see or fully recall but a process that is ongoing as part of the participation in a community of practice” (p. 177). Activities are complex, longer-term formations made up of chains of actions (Kuutti, 1996).

An example might be the longer-term project of ideating, researching, writing, submitting, and publishing an article. In this lengthy process, there are hundreds or thousands of culturally and historically situated actions that lead to the eventual outcome—publication. In my workflow, the vast majority of those actions are mediated by my relationship with my MBP…

And here’s another way of looking at this relationship. Earlier today, Courtney Danforth tweeted:

People, please stop asking what I do for fun. Don’t make me say that I don’t do anything for fun. You’re implying that what I do isn’t fun.

For me, going to work is fun. I get to read and write things that interest me and teach about what I read and write. Holy shit is my job fun! I love going to work, I love learning new things, I love working with research participants, I love publishing stuff, and I love seeing the consistently amazing things my students produce. And a ton of this love is mediated by the 2009 MacBook Pro (through which this very post is being written).

This is another way of saying that pretty much everything I do professionally—all of the many goal-directed activities relevant to my everyday lived experience—is filtered through this tool.

And as Kaptelinin (1996) points out:

Tool mediation is a way of transmitting cultural knowledge. Tools and culturally developed ways of using tools shape the external activity of individuals and through the process of internalization influence the nature of mental processes (internal activity). (p. 53)

It’s no wonder users become attached to technologies and practices that help mediate the most important activities of their lived experience.

  1. I should note here that Christiansen’s definition is focused on computing devices because the chapter itself explores “Computers as Tools in Human Activity.”  ↩

  2. My key ring agains serves as an apt illustration. The key ring becomes visible and consequential in the case of a breakdown or disruption—when I lose my keys, for example.  ↩


Trauman said...

Excellent post, Brian. I wish I knew more about activity theory; that's important to note up front. (Any suggestions on where a fella might start reading about it?) Your post has me thinking quite a bit about my own relationship to my iPad 2. There are a few ideas at play here that I'm wondering if you'd care to tease out a bit more.

First, I guess I'm wondering about the extent to which you see your MBP as being good/effective/pleasing/etc at the tasks for which you use it? This question is motivate mostly by a similar question in the negative: If you didn't see your MPB as good-at-what-you-use-it-for, would you still develop an affection for it? More concretely, When I was using laptops made by Dell, I never gained an affection for them--mostly because I so regularly had troubles with the OS and hardware. The laptop itself, maybe more specifically the "chassis," always only seemed like it had been designed as an operating system delivery device. Maybe it was because of the poor build quality; I'm not exactly sure why always had this impression. On the other hand, my own MBP, which I, like you, have been using since 2009, only seems to get better. Your post has helped to elucidate why that is.

Second, you mention how a user's impressions of a tool change over time. What you get me thinking of, on the other hand, is how the object itself physically changes over that time. Call it what you want... decay, patina, character, scars... For me, the physical changes my MBP has undergone have had a significant influence on my experience of the machine. Some of the keys on the keyboard have grown slightly smooth in response to my typing. There's a small discoloration in the corner of the trackpad (not sure what that's from). The Speck case I've kept it in since I bought it has small chips and scratches, but more importantly, I'm continually adding stickers to it (it even has a band-aid-as-sticker I had to use in an emergency to cover a curseword I'd forgotten about). For me, this accumulation of marks connects with several different phenomena from my own memory.

Another example is my high school football helmet. I was a decent player: a small-ish offensive and defensive lineman with lots of energy and a serious mean streak (which I've since lost, thank goodness). Basically, I played rough; I had to in order to overcome my size. That intensity and violence was recorded in the gouges and paint smudges covering my helmet. They were from my opponents helmets and gear. (No, there was no blood on my helmet; I wish I were so nasty.) This hadn't really meant all that much to me until one day, during a particularly "motivating" half-time speech, our coach grabbed my helmet and said some like: "Now this is what it means to play hard! Look at this helmet. It's got battle scars! (and so on.)" It was then that I actually started to take a little pride in the damage that my equipment had accrued.

I guess where this response leads me is back to some of my own central questions about technology and sustainability. High tech waste is becoming a bigger concern for me all the time. I want to help find a solution or response to the "throw away" culture so central to the tech world. Also, I'm often frustrated/dissapointed/angered/shocked at the sorts of relationships people have with their adopted technologies.

Wow, this response got long very quickly. Sorry about that. I'll post it here as well as on my own blog. Please don't feel compelled to respond. I know comments like this can be a little overwhelming, and sometimes seem a bit demanding. To tell you the truth, I just wanted to work through some of these reflections and see if you had any additional insights.

Love the blog. Keep posting.



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