Why are Rubber Ducks important to people? At first glance, they’re clearly not. Nobody obsesses unnecessarily about rubber ducks. However, if they weren’t important for some reason, we would have stopped making them. There’s something about rubber ducks that captivates people and society. Obviously, I started from their usage in programming. Other people find interest in the way they might float in oceanic currents. Still other make giant sculptures of them, write songs about them for child television shows, or do studies about how the chemicals used in rubber ducks were killing us. In order to learn about rubber ducks, we have to look into them in a broad sense. How are they looked at by other people? Why did they choose rubber ducks?
On the 1st of May, 2013, Rubber Ducks re-entered popular consciousness when a dutch sculptor name Florentijn Hofman made the world’s largest rubber duck, and put it in the bay of Hong Kong as an art exhibit (Whitehead, Hong Kong’s giant rubber duck). He had made several others before that, but they had not been so popular as the one in Hong Kong. In total, so far, Hofman has put up 22 rubber duck sculptures in various ports around the world, with the most recent being in Shanghai, China. The one in Hong Kong, however, remains the most well-known. Hofman says that he made it for adults, although rubber ducks are traditionally seen as childish. “I see it as an adult thing. It makes you feel young again.” Largely, he hopes the sculptures brighten people’s days by making them nostalgic.
I will touch briefly on the usage of rubber ducks in The Pragmatic Programmer, as I’ve spoken about it a number of times, but still believe it to be important. The book is about software engineering, and is more or less my gateway into the universe of rubber ducks. It features a story about a programmer who would carry a rubber duck with him while he worked. When he was coding, he would explain the code, line-by-line, to the duck as a means of problem solving. This has since evolved into a common practice among programmers, and in several other instances, with a variety of stand-ins used in placement of a rubber duck. However, the rubber ducks remain the most popular item for usage in this fashion. “Place a rubber duck on your monitor and describe your problems to it. There’s something magical about stating your problems aloud that makes the solution more clear.” The authors have not said why the programmer used a rubber duck.
The way rubber ducks used to be created involved a number of toxic chemicals. Most rubbers did, and in the heavily pollution-affect age that we live in, it’s difficult to not talk about the chemicals we face all day and every day. In Slow Death By Rubber Duck, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie talk about this, however, they do not specifically focus on rubber ducks as much, instead using rubber ducks as an example of dangerous chemicals being heavily present in society. They chose rubber ducks because rubber ducks are so present, and so connected to innocence and childhood. Arguing that “the image conjured up by the word ‘pollution’ is just as properly an innocent rubber duck as it is a giant smokestack.”
Rubber ducks have an effect of drawing people in, I’ve noticed. Perhaps it’s the novelty of rubber ducks, perhaps it’s the nostalgic effect rubber ducks are so famous for conjuring up. “I just wanted to learn what had really happened, where the toys had drifted away and why…I especially loved the part about the rubber duckies crossing the Arctic, going cheerfully where explorers had gone boldly and disastrously before.” This is a short bit from the opening of the book Moby Duck, by Donovan Hohn. Hohn got pulled in by rubber ducks, and found himself traveling the world learning about the story of 28,000 rubber ducks that got pulled from a cargo ship in the middle of the pacific ocean. This brings up a lot of questions about materiality and having too much stuff as well, as many of the ducks certainly ended up in the north pacific garbage patch, which is now twice the size of the state of Texas. The book ended up being about the huge amount of garbage in the pacific ocean. Hohn worked on rubber ducks because it’s where he started from.
The popularity of Rubber Ducks can be attributed from many things, among them, the famous song from Sesame Street. It is absolutely a hit song, reaching the top 40 in 1970, where it stayed for six weeks, peaking at number 16. This song comes up whenever ducks are mentioned. I heard students talking about the rubber duck song, simply because Sarah mentioned one of my blog posts about it before the CST workshop one day. There isn’t much to say about the song, unfortunately. It was written for children, so it doesn’t make any deep arguments or have any underlying political propaganda. It’s a song for children about a child’s toy. What, however, that’s all the significance it needs?
“Rubber Duckie”, in a fashion similar to Hofman’s sculptures, is popular because it’s silly, it’s meant to brighten people’s days. Certainly rubber ducks mean different things to different people, to some they symbolize declining environmental sustainability, or the lack of caring over the amount of toxic chemicals presented to us every day. Rubber Ducks are a strange “rabbit hole” of sorts. People like me, or Donovan Hohn get pulled in by silly stories we hear about them, and find questions on top of questions. Even thought they have toxic chemicals in them, and they are contributing to environmental decline, it’s impossible not to think it funny and talk about rubber ducks in anything but a light-hearted fashion. If rubber ducks end up as the symbol of the end of human civilization, we’d still be laughing about to the point of our extinction. There’s a reason for that. I found a website called rubaduck.com, it has a page entitled “why we love rubber ducks”. It argues several things about the simplicity in design of the rubber duck, but argues, at the end of the day, that rubber ducks are nostalgic for so many of us. They’re symbols of childhood and innocence. The reason we still talk about rubber ducks, and why we’re drawn to articles about thousands of them being lost at sea, or by books entitled “slow death by rubber duck” is that rubber ducks are symbols of nostalgia itself. I never even played with rubber ducks as a kid, and they’re still nostalgic to me. It’s that widespread nostalgic feeling we get when talking about rubber ducks that makes stories about programmers, and songs about childhood toys become popular and well-known. To sum up, Rubber ducks are important to people, because they make us feel like children again, and because it does that for so many people.
Hohn, Donovan. 2011. Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. New York: Viking.
“Hong Kong’s Giant Rubber Duck.” 2014. CNN. Accessed November 2. http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/02/travel/hong-kong-giant-duck/index.html.
Hunt, Andrew. 2000. The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley.
Smith, Rick, and Bruce Lourie. 2011. Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things. Reprint edition. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.
“Why We Love Rubber Ducks!” 2014. Accessed November 2. http://www.rubaduck.com/articles/why-we-love-rubber-ducks.