My co-worker Jerry used a very interesting approach for Table Topics at today’s Toastmasters meeting. Instead of simply suggesting a topic, he brought out a bag full of objects, and told us to imagine that we were archeologists in the year 2525. We were to pull an object out of the bag, and tell the group what the object – believed to be from the twenty-first century – might have been, and what it was used for.
The first volunteer got a screwdriver, and speculated that it might have been used as a primitive back scratcher (since replaced by robots). I got a glossy piece of paper showing a glass of Coca-cola and a hamburger and fries, with writing in English on one side and in Spanish on the other. I suggested that it might be some kind of translation tool, and added – noticing the large print at the top and the fine print at the bottom – that perhaps it was used to test the calibration of ancient contraptions worn on the face and called spectacles.
This is the same basic idea behind Motel of the Mysteries, by David Macaulay. It’s a fairly amusing book, in which an amateur archeologist of the 41st century has uncovered an ancient “Usa” burial site. (Usa had been long ago buried in an avalanche of junk mail which killed everyone.) I was fascinated by the idea, though somewhat disappointed by Macaulay’s treatment of it. I couldn’t understand what was so funny about the archeologist mistaking the porcelain fixture in one small room as an altar where people prayed; my husband (whom I met a few years later) explained about “praying to the porcelain god”).
It is a good way to take another look at familiar objects. And you don’t even have to use your imagination – try showing a child a 5 1/4″ floppy disk and ask him what it might have been used for. In a computer game I got Al for his birthday, I had to help him identify an object that I know as an eggbeater. My older son thought an eggbeater was what I call a whisk, because that’s how I beat eggs.
Al did recogize a movie projector – though I’m not sure where he would have seen one. I bet he’s never seen a filmstrip projector, which was a standard part of classroom equipment when I was growing up. I imagine he’d recognize what a fountain pen was used for, though I doubt he’s ever seen one used. (My mother preferred a fountain pen, and I taught myself to use one, but decided I much preferred ballpoint.) I was recently surprised to discover that Wite-out is still around.
Probably in another generation children won’t know what to make of this object, unless they have seen it in a museum:
It’s conceivable that within a few generations these objects also will be unfamiliar to many people:
Centuries from now, what might an archeologist think upon discovering
- an eight track tape?
- a phone booth?
- carbon paper?
- a computer mouse?
- an incandescent light bulb?
- bottled water?
- pumps at a gas station?
- a mercury thermometer?