Archived entries for Article

My auntie the clock and the lying-down policeman

In the Aug 30th issue of The New Yorker, Ian Frazier visits a gulag prison and discusses their history and place in the Russian psyche. In the midst of this story is a wonderful paragraph about the relationship people in Russia have with objects and technology that I’ll repeat here since the full article is not available online:

Beneath a surface layer of unbelief or Orthodox Christianity, Russia is an animist country. Ordinary physical objects are alive in Russia far more than they are in America, and, however Russia’s religious or political currents flow, this native animism remains strong. Tree, streets, utensils, groves, machines–each has its own spirit and its own personality, like the cabin belonging to the witch Baba Yaga that could get up on is chicken legs and run around. A Russian telephone isn’t just a phone, it’s a being; once, at my friend Alex Melamid’s mother’s apartment when I was having trouble dialling her phone, she showed me how, explaining, “He likes to be dialled slowly.” In Russia, alarm clocks don’t ring; they burst into rooster-crowing. Another friend Luda, had a clock in her apartment that announced the hours in an old-lady voice: “The time is one o’clock exactly!” Luda referred to the clock as moya tyotka–“my auntie.” When you pass a turnstile on the St. Petersburg or Moscow metro without paying, there’s not a siren sound, as in New York, but a frantic chirping, as if you’d just trod on some creature’s nest. In Russia the windshield wiper on your car isn’t called a mechanical name–it’s dvornik, a word whose more common meaning is “custodian.” What we call a speed bump in America the Russians call lezhachii politseiskii, which means “lying-down policeman.”

This type of anthropomorphizing of everyday objects can be found in any language, but it’s interesting to hear that it’s particularly strong in Russia. It reminds me  of Bruno Latour’s article Where are the Missing Masses? Sociology of a Door, where he talks about delegating human roles to technology. The article starts with a story about finding a note on a door that read “The groom is on strike, for God’s sake, keep the door closed,” in reference to an automatic door closer that was broken. As a designer, it’s an interesting exercise to explore how people might assign agency to something you’re creating, and decide if you want to encourage it through naming or metaphor. I like to imagine the language they would use, the matter-of-fact and even humorous way, they might explain to a friend what it does for them.

Lost to progress

I ran across an interesting tidbit about modern cartography while reading a New Yorker article profiling Paul Krugman today (emphasis mine):

Krugman began to realize that in the previous few decades economic knowledge that had not been translated into models had been effectively lost, because economists didn’t know what to do with it. His friend Craig Murphy, a political scientist at Wellesley, had a collection of antique maps of Africa, and he told Krugman that a similar thing had happened in cartography. Sixteenth-century maps of Africa were misleading in all kinds of ways, but they contained quite a bit of information about the continent’s interior—the River Niger, Timbuktu. Two centuries later, mapmaking had become much more accurate, but the interior of Africa had become a blank. As standards for what counted as a mappable fact rose, knowledge that didn’t meet those standards—secondhand travellers’ reports, guesses hazarded without compasses or sextants—was discarded and lost. Eventually, the higher standards paid off—by the nineteenth century the maps were filled in again—but for a while the sharpening of technique caused loss as well as gain.

It makes me wonder how this phenomena shows up in other disciplines like education, public policy, and healthcare. If the new standard for accuracy includes an idealogical or methodological bias it could forever exclude the re-inclusion of previously held beliefs. As our world becomes more standardized, quantifiable, and testable it will be important to look back to our archives to see what didn’t fit in so nicely and why.