Through years of experience, we have an intuitive understanding of the objects that surround us. When we tap some numbers into a calculator, a chip inside adds them together. When we plug in a power strip, it sucks electricity from the wall socket. Put a coin into a vending machine and it returns a treat.
In their dull predictability, these processes seem necessary, immutable even. But as German designer Steffen Hartwig points out, there’s a lot we take for granted in the way the objects that surround us work. In his project, The Secret Life of Things, Hartwig has programmed five different common household objects–each named after a mythological figure from ancient Greece and Rome–to behave in unexpected ways when used.
The Pythia calculator, for example, doesn’t calculate anything itself: instead, it’s connected to the internet, and simply sends all of your input numbers to an external server for processing. Pluto, a power strip, only provides power to its outlets if the German stock index is doing well. Pyramus and Thisbe are a pair of telephones that can only call each other, and only work when used directly side by side. Kairos is a vending machine that says “I prefer not to” when you insert a coin.
“As more of our everyday objects become complex technical devices, what actually happens inside them becomes invisible, because the technology is hidden,” Hartwig says. “We don’t really think too hard about how our telephones or our televisions work. We just accept that they do.” Hartwig thinks this is in interesting contrast to the way primitive man explained natural processes with myths and religion.
By naming his redesigned gadgets after Greco-Roman legends, he hopes to draw attention to the fact that modern man is, in many ways, even more passive in attempting to understand how the seemingly inexplicable things around us work. We’re too lazy to even anthropomorphize them; we just “magic” them away with the blanket term “tech.” That’s why each of Hartwig’s Secret Life gadgets is anthropomorphized after an ancient Greek and Roman myth.
The final object, the Lar, is the most Greek of them all. A modern-day lararium, or household shrine to the gods, the Lar simply displays the IP addresses from which your home is connected to the internet, reframing them as modern-day deities to be worshipped. This is Hertwig’s personal favorite. “I like the passiveness and simplicity of it,” he tells me. “It tells the story about the complex and ubiquitous interconnectedness of the world in a calm and unobtrusive way.”
Hartwig’s objects and their secret lives are admittedly not the kind of products most people would choose to place in their homes, but that’s not really the point. “Really, I just want to point out some details of new things that are usually never noticed,” says Hartwig. “I think we can gain a better understanding of our technology-driven world by talking about the behavior and social impact of things and not just their technical implementation.”