Rob Walker started off the day at PSFK’s NYC Conference on Friday, April 9 with his presentation on Significant Objects, a project he launched with author Joshua Glenn aimed at exploring the fluid relationship between objects and value. In the project, Walker and Glenn take thrift store paraphernalia and bestow them with new meaning – fabricated narratives about their histories and significance – then resell the items online, often for several times their original price. With more than a hundred knickknacks already sold (each accompanied by a unique fictional tale conjured by such notable storytellers as William Gibson, John Wray, and Curtis Sittenfield), Walker and Glenn recently evolved Significant Objects to direct all the money earned from the sales of these newly valuable items to help support charitable causes.
Some key insights and themes from Walker’s talk:
“Ignore the marketplace – the story is the value.” In Significant Objects, stories – no matter how completely fabricated or absurd – imbued otherwise ‘worthless’ objects with real value (conceptual and monetary). In a way, Walker’s experiment is a parable for what brands do every day; they create narratives around products to give them meaning – which we both buy into and take part in defining (as Walker points out in his book Buying In). Significant Objects is a playful exploration of this malleable connection between objects and their inherent and manufactured value.
Significance is contextual. As expected, endowing a doodad with a rich history imagined by a famous author ups an object’s perceived worth. But beyond that – Rob Walker pointed out how many buyers were bidding on the ‘significant objects’ simply because they were fascinated by the experiment. The items acquired a sort of meta-significance for being part of the project, something buyers were willing to pay money for. Significant Objects demonstrates that what we deem ‘valuable’ is a murky (and often unpredictable) composite of story, quality, and a blend of real and imposed significance.
Can this notion of inventable value shift the way we think about the things we consume and throw away? How can we invent meanings and tell stories that shift how we look at things we’ve deemed useless or discardable? If we knew more about the histories of forgotten objects, technologies, structures, cities, cultures – would we do more to save them?