I have never regretted my twenty-eight-year decision to devote this column to the vast world of popular culture. If I had decided to devote it to, say, Things That Make Sense, I would have no doubt run out of ideas and material a long time ago.
As it is, I am never am a loss for new stuff to write about, which brings us to this week’s topic: the new, and probably soon-to-become-old Fidget Spinner craze that is sweeping/spinning the country/world. Thanks to my wife’s niece, Delilah Tallman (who on the verge of celebrating her 12th birthday), I am the proud owner of a glossy black fidget with an emoji center spinner. And just today I got word from Amazon that my new Batman spinner will be arriving in the next day or so. How cool is that? Although I have watched some of those inevitable YouTube videos about all the cool–and sometimes dangerous–tricks you can perform with these devices, I am perfectly content, however, just to sit around twirling my fidget between my thumb and forefinger. And I spend a lot of time just looking at it in its non-spinning state and feeling pleasantly trendy.
Needless to say, a fidget spinner (or the related fidget button box) is more than just a toy, because it reflects some significant–and frivolous–cultural trends that go beyond its intended purpose. It is, as some would say, an “evocative object.” As my favorite essayist, Chuck Klosterman, writes in his just-published new book, X: A HIGHLY SPECIFIC, DEFIANTLY INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF THE EARLY 21st CENTURY, we might “argue that the only reason any interesting story is ‘interesting’ is because it’s not actually about whatever it superficially appears to suggest, and that the only significant purpose of text is to provide a superstructure for subtext (which always matters more).” Yes, fidgets are fun but they are also useful in stimulating discussions about our lives today. Which is a worthwhile activity in itself.
According to an article written by Clive Thompson for WIRED magazine, fidgeting is so hot right now because “it’s an adaptation to deskbound lifestyles. Society increasingly demands mental work while enforcing unhealthy, sedentary physical habits.” Fidgeting is thus “a way to cope.” And, Thompson believes fidgeting can actual make us smarter, which is an idea echoed in one of my Top 10 books, Steven Johnson’s EVERYTHING BAD IS GOOD FOR YOU: HOW TODAY’S POPULAR CULTURE IS ACTUALLY MAKING US SMARTER (2006–which seems like such a long time ago). Pointing out that fidgeting is an old habit, as witnessed by those of us who twirl and tap pencils and crack our knuckles, Thompson observes that “maybe the boomlet in fidget items reveals a collective hunger for the pleasures of mechanical motion and tactility. Knitters and crocheters have always appreciated how their activity stills the mind; coders love clicky keyboards. Fidget Cube fans have discovered what these subcultures have always known.” Further, and perhaps more significantly, we might be witnessing signs of what gaming experts Katherine Isbister and Michael Karlesky call an “evolving culture [because] it feels like people are developing a language of fidgeting.” Maybe I should learn that language for future KP columns!
Needless to say, for every voice that sees these fidget devices in a positive light, there are ten others who see anything new as yet another sign that we are approaching the last days of civilization as we know it. As Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke writes with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek (but no doubt capturing the rantings of those with a less-developed sense of humor), “. . . .every child [at school] has a fidget spinner and the entire building hums like a giant white noise machine. Some schools across the country . . . .have banned the gadgets, presumably out of fear that if all the children were to simultaneously spin their spinners in the same direction it would form a vortex that could wipe out half the city.” And, furthermore, “the Chinese military could overrun the West Coast and our children would be too distracted with their fidget spinners to notice anything, and we adults would be too distracted by our annoyance with fidget spinners to care. . . .So I think it’s time, in the interest of America’s future, that we eradicate the spinner menace.” Sounds like something Sen. Joseph McCarthy might have said in 1952, doesn’t it?
Seems like every new device develops a “creation myth” to go along with it, and fidgets have their own Book of Genesis to accompany their spinning (I hesitate to say “spinning their origins story”). Bloomberg writer Joshua Brustein recounts how fidgets have evolved from their original intended purpose as therapy devices for children affected by autism and ADHD to toys for the masses. The central, and somewhat tragic figure here is Catherine Hettinger, who let her patents for the device expire and now it not enjoying the financial fruits of her labor. Although she is unfortunately not profiting from these spinning devices, she is hoping that her newfound notoriety will help her carve out a new career for herself. We certainly wish her well. Stay tuned for “Fidget: The Musical” or the inevitable miniseries or reality show.
And, as can be expected, there are new research reports beginning to crop up that show that using fidgets doesn’t make us any smarter or more able to cope with ADHD. Wynne Davis, writing for NPR, tells us that “in many places where fidget spinners are sold, they’re touted as miracle toys that help people focus as well as aid people dealing with post-traumatic stress and other disorders, but one expert says those claims aren’t backed up by science.” Of course, “one expert” doesn’t make an airtight case for anything. The jury is still out on this one, but expect lots more research–genuine and bogus–that tries to convince us one way or the other. Wonder if fidget spinners are having any effect on climate change? The one hopeful indicator, however, is the number of classroom teachers who are finding innovative ways of incorporating fidget spinners into their lesson plans. Maybe this will mean more fidgeting and less testing. We can only hope.
Now that I’ve looked at fidget spinners from several angles, it’s time to bring this column to a close as a prepare for another thumb-and-forefinger balancing session with my spinner. And, just think, by the time you are reading this I will be performing this balancing act with my new Batman spinner.
See you next week unless I spin out of control.