Many of the things we buy come fresh out of the box, new and glistening. But get something second-hand, and that object has lived out at least one life with somebody else before you even see it. What would it be like to get a glimpse of that other life? The World’s Ari Daniel Shapiro reports. (Photo: Tales of Things) Download MP3
Listen to the story with each ‘thing’ (photos: Tales of Things)
Read the Transcript
This text below is a phonetic transcript of a radio story broadcast by PRI’s THE WORLD. It has been created on deadline by a contractor for PRI. The transcript is included here to facilitate internet searches for audio content. Please report any transcribing errors to email@example.com. This transcript may not be in its final form, and it may be updated. Please be aware that the authoritative record of material distributed by PRI’s THE WORLD is the program audio.
MARCO WERMAN: Considering how much we love to shop, we generally know little about exactly what it is we buy. That’s even more true of things we purchase second-hand. But think about it. Everything you buy at, say, the Salvation Army or Goodwill has at least one previous owner and some history to go along with it. Ari Daniel Shapiro tells us about one store manager in Britain who turned the history of used items into a selling point.
ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: Oxfam is an organization committed to fighting poverty and injustice in the world. They raise money for their cause at charity shops all over the UK. In fact, there’s a big Oxfam shop in Manchester, England. It’s run by Emma Cooney.
EMMA COONEY: Everything we sell is second-hand. I mean, everybody knows that people have worn the clothes before or used the items. Usually I guess people can use their imaginations or they might choose not to think about it at all. But I think it’s quite nice to know that things have had a life before and that you’re carrying them on. It all has memories.
SHAPIRO: Back in May, those memories, they came to life. Cooney was approached by Chris Speed, a digital artist at the Edinburgh College of Art.
CHRIS SPEED: They were great actually, and they, they let us keep a research assistant in the store for a week or two to ask people who came in and dropped objects off to simply tell a story into a microphone about what the object is, and where it’s come from, what it meant to them.
SHAPIRO: Stories like these.
FEMALE SPEAKER: I’ve donated this pink stripy jumper because I had it last year and I wore it to a barbecue. I met a boy at the barbecue and he was my boyfriend for a few months but we’re not together anymore so I thought I’d donate it.
MALE SPEAKER: I got given this piggy bank by one of my good friends, Tommy. It saved the money I spend on drink. We used to call him a pig at school, not ‘cause of his weight or anything, just ‘cause he has a snout.
FEMALE SPEAKER: I became friendly with the lady who owned the shop and she very kindly gave me the most delicious cup of hot chocolate. And I always associate hot chocolate with this handbag.
SHAPIRO: Each story was paired with its object in the Oxfam store using a couple different tags. One was a 2D bar code that shoppers could scan with their phones, and listen to the story in a rather intimate way. The other was a tiny radio frequency tag that, when tapped with a special remote control, would send the story over the loudspeakers in the store. Digital artist Chris Speed.
SPEED: It was a very public story as though suddenly someone touched an object and a whole store was woken up by this tale about where these objects had come from. What was amazing was that people wanted the damn objects. You could see them holding almost something as though it was in someone’s living room, and it changed the entire atmosphere of the shop. Everyone was fascinated, and they really didn’t want to let go of the stories, which meant they bought them. So as fast as we could get stories in, they were going out of the store like hotcakes.
SHAPIRO: Shoppers weren’t just browsing objects. They were browsing memories. Emma Cooney of Oxfam Manchester was delighted.
COONEY: This was just a kind of concrete way of showing that everything that we sell has a story. There was a really nice buzz in the shop and there were [INDISCERNIBLE] outside and we brought people into the shop that might otherwise not have come in, and we made a little bit more money than we normally would.
SHAPIRO: What took place at Oxfam was a real-world application of something called the Internet of Things, where the countless objects we interact with all the time, things like toasters, clothing, stickers, books…
SPEED: Watches, things on mantelpieces, anything.
SHAPIRO: …are used to create an online catalog where each of these objects gets a unique tag, whether a 2D bar code or one of those tiny radio frequency tags.
SPEED: If we tag things with an individual code, then maybe you can find out where it was bought from, and where it ended up, and perhaps where it passed in between. The old adage that a rolling stone gathers no moss, well, we’re kind of hoping it does. Every time the object gets passed from one party to a next, it gains a bit.
SHAPIRO: Manufacturers are interested in this kind of thing to track their products. But Speed appreciates the possibilities of making visible the unseen connections between objects and people, tracking these relationships through time and space. It goes back to the project at Oxfam.
SPEED: Charity shops are all about slowing down the throw-away culture. But perhaps if we can foster more value, add more value, in artifacts, then actually it might slow it down even more.
SHAPIRO: Chris Speed’s using the Internet where information zips around to get us to slow down, if only for a moment, to eye that handbag or teddy bear right there in front of us. For The World, I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro, Edinburgh.
Copyright ©2009 PRI’s THE WORLD. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to PRI’s THE WORLD. This transcript may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission. For further information, please email The World’s Permissions Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.