Every now and then you read a book that causes you to think "Man, that was great! I should do a project just like it!" Then you sit back and realize the project's creators had a brilliant idea, invested the time and effort to realize it, and that your attempt would be at best an homage and at worst a poorly executed rip-off of someone else's concept.
Those were precisely my thoughts when I finished Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things. Curators Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker acquired 100 mundane objects from Salvation Army stores or yard sales and enlisted 100 professional writers to create short-short stories related to the objects. They then listed the objects on eBay in seven-day auctions with the story as the description. Their goal was to see how much the stories, clearly labeled as fiction, increased the perceived value of the objects.
The results were astonishing. Some of the writers, such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, are famous, but most are not well-known outside of their genres. Even so, the stories increased the perceived value of the objects more than 2,700%. Specifically, the $128.74 investment returned $3,612.51 for a total profit of $3,483.77. One item, a Russian figure originally purchased for $3, sold for an amazing $193.50.
I'm a William Gibson fan, so it's probably no surprise that I enjoyed his story about an ashtray bearing the image of a Hawk missile battery. His distinction of tie tacks given for yet unrealized systems and the ashtrays handed out after production rings true of the defense industry I experienced, 25 years after his story's notional roots in 1969. Tie tacks have been replaced by pins and ashtrays by challenge coins, but the song remains the same. The other stories range from psuedo folk tales to mysteries to tales of relationships in various stages of ascent or decay. I found all of them to be worthwhile and, even if one wasn't particularly enthralling, it was over soon enough and I could move on to the next one.
Glenn and Walker analyze their project's results in an appendix, laying out their methodology, breaking down the stories and objects by type, and reflecting on whether they supported their original hypothesis, that "[s]tories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object's subjective value can actually be measured objectively." I'm not sure such a measurement is possible, but for a second set of objects and stories the relative increase in value was even greater.
We humans are a storytelling species. I'm very glad I encountered Glenn and Walker's Significant Objects project, both for the stories and the meta-narrative that surrounds them.
Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, most recently Improspectives; his list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media. He has also created over a dozen online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.