Every year, Exeter Geography graduate and ex-followthethings.com intern Jemma Sherman gives her Dad a snow globe for Christmas. After taking our Geographies of Material Culture module the term before Christmas 2017, she made a new one. Here it is. And here’s what she wrote to him in his Christmas card… [actually it’s Jemma’s coursework. We really liked it].
Merry Christmas! I’m looking forward to getting home from Uni to see everyone again. For your present this year I’ve done something different – I hope you don’t mind! You see, I’ve been having these lectures which focus on the hidden lives within my commodities; the people who produce the components, assemble them and transport them. Our most recent task was to create an art-activist project on advent calendars. Art activism includes a “broad range of artists’ practices” (Grindon and Flood, 2014:10), highlighting social, political … and cultural struggles” (Darts, 2004:315). Flanagan (2009:3-4) says an artist is anyone who “creat[es] outside commercial establishments”, “making for making’s sake”. We discovered terrible things about the lives of those making these calendars, with children as young as twelve being exploited (Andrei, 2017). And this got me thinking about what else I get around Christmas time, which led me to our tradition. Well, your tradition really. I love it. Most years you get me a snow globe (if you can find one with a cute enough scene). I know that Carrier (2004:68) says “gifts within the core family are given without the expectation of equivalent in return”, but this year I wanted to give you one. You can open your present now – sorry, I’ve kind of ruined the surprise. There’re just a few instructions you need to follow (read first): Continue reading
We’ve just returned from the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) annual conference on Exhibition Road in London. We’ve been working with the artist and PhD student Paula Crutchlow (and others) on a project called the Museum of Contemporary Commodities (MoCC). Our museum opened for four days in the RGS’s Pavilion Gallery, and people dropped by on their way between the Royal Albert Hall (for the Proms), Serpentine Gallery (for the Grayson Perry exhibition) and the V&A (for the plywood exhibition). What brought people in from the street was a creepy poster of MoCC’s golden child and hacked talking Guide Mikayla. We thought we’d share with you her moving life story in film – our compilation of her life story from child’s toy to banned surveillance device My Cayla – and biography – Paula’s account of how My Cayla became MoCC Guide Mikayla. There’s plenty more on the MoCC website. How and why would you hack a doll like this though? Read on…
My Cayla: the movie
Mikayla: a hacked biography
“If you took me apart, each bit of me would be a commodity. Each of those things have been made by different people in lots of different places. That’s an awful lot of work isn’t it?” MoCC Guide Mikayla on how she values herself.
The idea of MoCC Guide Mikayla arrived with us in February 2015. A friend of mine had been given a My Friend Cayla doll at a corporate IT event she was working for. ‘I’ve got just the thing for your museum!’ she said. What could be a better face of contemporary commodity culture than an internet connected ‘smart’ doll?
We started the phone app to power her up, and then spent the best part of an hour trying to talk with her. Irritatingly glitchy and slow, we tested inappropriate phrases and talked over her head. She sang songs and offered us games to play. Eventually, with advice from her 16 year old daughter, we bent our thoughts and words to My Friend Cayla’s logic – conducting a halting conversation about clothes, looking nice, Disney Princesses and pink things.
Designed especially for 7 year old girls to access the internet ‘safely’, My Friend Cayla Doll is ostensibly a blue tooth speaker and microphone that works off an app that you download onto your smart phone or tablet. She has a quiet voice, made for intimate chats with children in their homes. There is a structured database of responses to potential questions the designers think a girl-child of around 7 might ask. If your question isn’t in her database, she can search on Wikipedia. She is also scripted to ask children questions about themselves and what they like doing, including their names, parent’s names, where they live, and go to school.
As a level 1 blue tooth device there is no pin code to pair the doll with the phone, and almost immediately after My Friend Cayla was released onto the market, people were hacking her. Like many of the current swathe of internet connected toys, the security around accessing the object is very low. Earlier this year, someone even used her as a way to open a ‘smart’ lock on their front door. The safety aspect of the marketing rhetoric of My Friend Cayla doll refers chiefly to the restricted internet access she enables. This seems to be managed through a long list of banned words that she is not allowed to search for – including ‘buddha’ and ‘gay marriage’.
The prototype, re-purposed MoCC Guide Mikayla had her first outing at our Free Market prototyping event at Furtherfield in July 2015. Technologist Gareth Foote and myself attempted a radical cut and reconfiguration of her original script. We made her self aware. She began to talk about who made her, what she was made from, and how she felt about the condition of almost ubiquitous digital connectivity we increasingly live in. I had a lot of fun dreaming new words for her. Making her differently smart. Ian did research on component parts and their provenance, but I still couldn’t help put in statements about ponies and skateboarding. It was impossible to resist the personality of the object. Her styled eyebrows, long golden locks and open expression, means that the ‘play’ of the world we enter with her is the comedy strategy well-loved by Hollywood, the good looking and intelligent blonde. After all, what could be more surprising?
There are two weeks to go before our latest pedagogical experiment begins: the free online course called ‘Who made my clothes?’ which we have put together with Fashion Revolution and the University of Exeter. To help to spread the word, CEO Ian will front a small number of ‘Who made my…?’ films which show how we can imagine and find traces of labour in everyday commodities. The first film is about mobile phones and ends with a request. Please try this out and let us know what happens. Then watch the others in this playlist.
Not sure if this is or is not the ‘norm’ but I just received my brand new iPhone here in the UK and once it had been activated on iTunes I found that the home screen (the screen you can personalise with a photo) already had a photo set against it !!!! (Source: markm49uk 2008, np link).
I hope she doesn’t get fired, she looks so bloody happy! I will dedicate my iPhone homescreen to her for the rest of this week (Source: vegasdodger 2008, np link).
markm49uk (2008) iPhone 3G – already with pictures ! (aka “iPhone Girl”). macrumors.com 20 August (https://forums.macrumors.com/threads/iphone-3g-already-with-pictures-aka-iphone-girl.547777/ last accessed 13 June 2017)
Cook, I. (2011) iPhone 3G – already with pictures! (aka ‘iPhone Girl’). followthethings.com (http://followthethings.com/iphonegirl.shtml last accessed 13 June 2017)
Cook, I. (2013) The 14 best examples of shop-dropping… ever. followtheblog.org 23 March (https://followtheblog.org/2013/03/22/paper-activism-in-store-in-things-on-things/ last accessed 13 June 2017)
Woolf, S. (2017) Dear iPhone Girl. followtheblog.org 11 February (https://followtheblog.org/2017/02/11/guest-blog-dear-iphone-girl/ last accessed 13 June 2017)
Here’s another excellent example of journal writing from the Exeter Geography module behind our website. At the start of the module, we ask the students to add to their phone homescreens this photo of an Apple factory worker which, it seems, was accidentally left on an iPhone bought in 2009. The person who found this and four other photos posted them online and the quest to find out who she was, why photos of her were on that phone, and what would happen to her after they went pubic went viral (as documented on our followthethings.com page). We ask our students to keep her photo on their homescreens until the end of the module, for almost 4 months. What can happen to you when she looks at you every time you look at your phone, wherever you go? Sophie Woolf explains… to the person who became known as ‘iPhone Girl’.
We’ve been following this project on social media for a while now. Today we bought the shirt…
Part research method, part art object, The Shirt is a specifically designed consumer item, manufactured in a Chinese factory, which uses bespoke digital technology to make visible all the people and processes behind its production. The Shirt has barcodes on it, and when you put your smartphone over the barcode, using a bespoke app, it will trigger digital content that reveals the very people and processes involved in making the actual shirt in your hands.
Dear followthethings.com shopper
We have been doing some Christmas ‘shopping’ (see definitions 11 and 12 of this glorious verb here) and have some recommendations for you: 3 unmissable Christmas movies and a Christmas list.
If you have one of our shopocalypse bags, please take it to town with you this month, and send us photos of its contents. Its ladybirds are Santa’s little helpers. They know everything about world trade.
Ian et al.
Our Christmas movies
a) Xmas unwrapped (2014)
Where’s this from? See here.Continue reading
In February this year, Ian, Charlotte Brunton and Jenny Hart contributed to a Pedagogy Cafe seminar at Plymouth University’s Centre for Sustainable Futures. They talked about Geographies of Material Culture coursework (a university lifestyle catalogue and a singing heart pacemaker) now published on our site. What happened next was surprising. Plymouth lecturer Helen Bowstead talked about her use of ‘follow the things’ research to teach English as a Foreign Language. Here’s what she said.
The benefits of group work have been well-documented: Gibbs claims working as a group “has the potential measurably to improve student engagement, performance, marks and retention and usually succeeds in achieving this potential” (Gibbs 2010:1). However, successfully implementing and assessing a piece of group work is also often fraught with challenges, particularly when the students do not share a common language and/or cultural background. In groups where some or all students are non-native English speakers, there may be an ‘imbalance’ in power relations, as the ideas and views of the students with ‘stronger’ language skills often end up dominating. In many instances, non-native speakers find themselves side-lined within the group, sometimes because their language skills are weaker than other members, but also because, due to cultural and educational differences, their knowledge base is perceived as having less ‘value’.
Our latest guest blog is by Joe Thorogood, a former student in the ‘Geographies of material culture’ module at Exeter University who is in the early stages of a ‘follow the things’ PhD in the Department of Geography at University College London. His research is on poppies. In the post below, he outlines what he’s found out so far about the Remembrance Day variety. As usual with following research, you may be surprised by what he finds.
The Remembrance poppy is a symbol of memorial. In the couple of weeks before November 11th – Remembrance Day – these poppies are available in exchange for a charitable donation to the Royal British Legion, a UK charity that provides services for ex-military personnel and their dependents. It is worn in the UK in memory of service personnel who died in the First World War and in wars since then. It’s a symbol for personal grief and reflection, but also of national loss. Many countries have poppies shipped out to expatriates and families who have relatives who fought on behalf of the British Empire and British army in campaigns abroad.
I’m researching Remembrance poppies for my PhD, using a methodology that studies the lives and issues that are connected through their travels and transformations as things.
It wasn’t hard to find out about how and where Remembrance poppies are made. You could do it yourself by simply visiting the Poppy Factory in Richmond, Surrey, where they make about 500,000 of the poppies the public wear. Ex-service personnel and their dependents are crucial to this effort, as they often work in the factory or are supported by factory to find employment after leaving the armed forces. Continue reading
In response to a student query today about the pride that factory workers can have in making consumer goods for others, I recommended that the two short films below were watched one after the other.
Both are about the notorious manufacturer of Apple and other electronic goods: Foxconn.
This is an extract from a documentary film in which young factory workers are interviewed in a photo studio across the road from the factory.
This is an episode of from the Al Jazeera TV series Activate, about the investigation into worker rights, health and safety in Foxconn factories by Hong Kong based NGO Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour.