On the Application of Animism in Design


In this text I want to focus on issue I have with the research project Animistic design: how to reimagine digital interaction between the human and the nonhuman.

“What this article advocates, then, is a shift toward uncertainty-driven scenarios where the unexpected is fostered, instead of closed loops, prediction and linearity, and where conversations with things, rather than about or to things, take place.” 1

Not necessarily a bad practice, but a case for which I can add a critique I’d like to mention this research project by Betti Marenko and Philip an Allen. The project concentrated on the application of animism in interaction design, with a focus on uncertainty. Their approach was to introduce uncertainty into the interaction with digital assistants.

Usually, we expect our interaction with the digital to be of deterministic nature. The user gives an input upon which an anticipated output is generated. In the case of a digital assistant the following scenario could play out. The user asks Siri, Apple’s digital assistant, how the weather will be today. Siri will respond with a short answer, giving an overview of temperature and if there will be rain. Today's digital assistants are limited to concise cases where more or less precise inputs and outputs can be produced.

Marenko and van Allen’s research tried to introduce uncertainty into this process in the form of digital personas with attitude to speculate about different interactions. How would the interaction be, if Siri had an uncertain character?

The application of animism in the project, as well as the concepts of agency and new materialism, are well based in theory. Whereas I’d like to differ is that animism is not merely a psychological concept but an entire cosmology, still practiced today mostly within indigeneous communities.

The difference is, that in animism as a psychological concept things are put on par with humans, depending on certain attributes of said things. Whereas in animism as a cosmology, there is no ontological difference between humans and things in the first place.

Basically, I oppose the usage of animism as something simply being alive or animated. I would love to have a look at animism in design, in which animism means something akin to attributing personhood to things.