From Hari-Kuyō to Airpods

Feb 09, 2020

I’m generally interested in the relationship we have with our companion objects. Companion objects are things, that we interact with on a daily or regular basis and w/o which our lifes simply wouldn’t be the same. Chairs, mobile phones, pens, cups, underwear, medicaments to name a few.

My interest got triggered by a set of practices, of which one is a religious practice called Hari-Kuyō. This practice or festival is of shinto-buddhistic origin and simply said, it’s a ceremony to put one’s broken needles to rest. In the shinto-buddhistic tradition, things can have spirit and will be reborn into the next carmic cycle. If you don’t treat the deceased thing right, it might haunt you. Another inspiring practice is the one of Kintsugi, in which a broken pot is fixed with a mix of resin and gold dust in a process that goes on for several weeks.

It got me interest in how different epistemologies enabling different ways of caring about companion objects. Plainly spoken, how you think or believe the world to be influences the way you treat the material. And it is this practices of care and respect that interst me specifically.

Let us put that aside for the moment. In my project I work with a hypothesis: While capitalism took from us the necessity to care about things, design took from us the possibility to care about things. To expand on the first part: The relationship to our companion objects have dramatically changed within the last 100 years. The things we have with us became replaceable. Furniture, cloth, kitchen tools or electronics became things to be consumed quickly and then desposed.

The other change that companion objects went through is that they became incredibly complex and now have a very high negative impact on the ecology. For example consumer electronics like mobile phones, laptops or cordless headphones. Being made of rare earth material, extracted and processed there, where it is easier to exploit the working class, leaving behind ecological desasters. These things are sleek, but also unappropriatable. We can fix them less and less and in the case of the Airpods, they transitioned into the perfect consumer good, bought for a meaningless fad. The repair aspect is one aspect, another is care and maintenance.

You can keep a knife sharp and leather boots impregnated. You can hardly do something similar for a mobile phone, besides a case. This has to do with materiality of technology of course, but also with how we design things. When Apple thinks about a unified user experience and realises them through their products, the rest of the world becomes an externality. This is called ontological design. They way we think about or practice design, in return designs what is or becomes, including ourselves.

And that is why I want to investigate practices of care and respectful relationships to our companion objects.

In my project I will apply said base to a case study about Airpods. These little objects brought a subtle but interesting technological pardigm shift to light. Technological design is very much interested in abolishing the cable to accomplish cloud like hardware. But to create this effect, the technology within needs to be smaller and smaller and everything becomes battery driven. Airpods are virtually unrepairable. They battery dies after a good two years. Besides the material impact, the premise of it’s rise is very interesting because it’s a product that didn’t solve a problem but became a status fetish quickly. Many companies are following Apples lead and are taking part in this transformation. Last but not least, there are interesting social implications, since the usage of headphones changes. There were unspoken protocols in place, for example taking out one headphone plug when you arrive at the cashier to signal attentation to the payment process. People with Airpods leave them in most of the time, because they don’t have the capacity to handle the little objects efficient enough.

The design of technological objects keeps us from getting into a relationship with them.

In a caring relationship, time is an important factor. Why care if you already now that this particular thing will be obsolete soon and in need of replacement. A caring relationship also needs time to develop. You need to get to know each other. Get used to each other and each others mode of being.

Caring means, to be emotional invested in each other. Be it by mutual feelings or ideological reasoning. Caring needs the possibilities to care, to have a base for a practice of care. There needs to be a honesty about vulnerabilities, about scars and traumas and a safe space for this exchange to happen.

These technological products that surround us have nothing of this. They are envisioned and encapsulated experiences, designed for consumption and disposal.

I hope I can test my hypothesis, form out a critique on contemporary technological practices and work in the direction of caring and respectful relationships to our companion objects within the frame of my project.