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Research: Fidget Spinners

News Story

Mellison Arguson ’19 and Professor Catherine Zimmer are investigating one of the most unlikely crazes of the past few years—the fidget spinner. What they are discovering is that for all its innovation, the digital world does have its limits.

At first glance, the fidget spinner is an unremarkable toy. Yet, perhaps it is that unremarkable nature—its lack of digital connectedness and purely “analog” function—that has enabled the plastic three-lobed spinning device to take off as a major fad in 2017.

“Our research project is based on the idea of materiality,” says Mellison Arguson ’19, a communication studies major and digital media minor. “Materiality is defined as matter—as something tangible and tactile. But because of our digitized world, the definition has become skewed because we now have these immaterial spaces, like cyberspace.”

How does the fidget spinner fit into this idea of ever-changing materiality? Given that it’s a purely analog object whose primary function is to simply spin around, Arguson argues that it’s not only an outlier relative to digital trends, but may represent something greater about basic human biology.

“What is materiality now in the digital age? We live in a digitized world, but we’re drawn to this analog object, the fidget spinner, and it seems really out of place. Why do we have this fascination with something so…not digital?”

Wanting to investigate the craze further, Arguson teamed up with Associate Professor and Film and Screen Studies Department Chair Catherine Zimmer, PhD, to take part in Pace’s summer Undergraduate Student-Faculty Research program. Arguson had a prior relationship with both Professor Zimmer and the topic at hand, as the fidget spinner craze was discussed in one of Zimmer’s courses that Arguson was enrolled in, which focused on digital surveillance.   

“The fidget spinner was really taking offit became this perfect example of so many things we were talking about in class in terms of how digital culture developed, particularly in relationship to attention and distraction, and how there is now all this concern from every angle about how people are functioning with the amount of information we’re being asked to take in every day,” says Zimmer. “It became this great example of the culture responding to being overwhelmed by information.”

Whereas digital culture is primarily predicated on velocity of information and the constant “push” of notifications that could pertain to anything from shopping discounts to news alerts to romantic signaling, the fidget spinner, hand-held in a similar physical way as the iPhone, has emerged as an unlikely contrast.

“A smartphone is just a glass brick,” says Arguson. “Just this glass object with no buttons, which is a big thing—a lot of our digital technologies don’t have buttons anymore, it’s almost as if we’ve lost a sense of ourselves. Biologically we’re made to use our hands, but ever since our technologies have become touch-based, we employ our sense of touch in a different way. Our theory is that maybe the fidget spinner is a way to find our way back home, to maintain a sense of humanity and renew the way we used to work with our hands.”

Arguson notes that a major distinction of something like the fidget spinner is that, unlike a smartphone, it is fully reliant on the complexity of the human sense of touch in order to properly function.

“You can use any part of your body for your mobile phone to work; you could use your elbow! But something about the fidget spinner, it requires your hands—and maybe there’s something about human nature where we want to get back to physicality, that touch,” says Arguson.

The duo is currently in the research phase of the project. Arguson is currently researching everything from older analog toys to reading the works of philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Marshall McLuhan, and N. Katherine Hayles, major thinkers whose ideas are helping her narrow down the scope of the project. Zimmer is encouraging Arguson to move in whatever direction she finds most interesting, realizing that although there are many potential directions for this type of research, it will likely intersect with some of her own work about digital culture and materiality.

“There is this idea that digital culture is somehow opposed to material being in the world, that it's amorphous, sort of real, but less concrete…it's a paradox about digital culture, that we’re constantly touching things, engaging with these objects, and yet people often talk about a lack of meaningful connections,” says Zimmer.

Whatever Arguson and Zimmer postulate about fidget spinners and digital culture, one thing is for certain—distraction comes in many shapes and sizes, in both the material and immaterial worlds. Hopefully when conducting research, the duo doesn’t get too sidetracked by that alluring spinning device that our human hands can’t seem to get enough of.