[iDC] animism and such

Mike Kuniavsky mikek at orangecone.com
Tue Oct 3 13:44:51 EDT 2006

I was at Ubicomp and apart from being pleased that people were talking 
about animism and magic (things I've been looking at lately), I was 
initially a bit surprised at Sterling's strong stance against it.  Then I 
interpreted his criticism, as you explain, as being against the use of 
magic as coersion. His point is that that there's enough history of the 
developers of technology cloaking the functionality of technology for 
there to be concern that animism and magic as a metaphor would make it too 
easy. Laurel's keynote, on the other hand, was about using magic and 
animism as ways to create pleasure.

MY take on it is as a convenient explanatory framework for the 
functionality of ubiquitous technology devices. Just as people aren't 
fooled by the desktop metaphor in GUIs into thinking it's a desk, I don't 
think anyone will think using magic as a metaphor will make anyone believe 
in magic, but it's useful in the same way.

BTW, I'm going to be talking about it at DorkbotSF next week:


Here's a partial bibliography of magic in user experience design. The idea 
goes back at least 15 years, and more than 20 if you count the influence 
of Vinge's "True Names."


On Tue, 3 Oct 2006, Julian Bleecker wrote:

> Aiyee.. I'm not sure I heard Sterling come up _against_ animism or magic, did 
> I? I mean, I heard him take a position, but I'm not 100% sure that it was 
> _against_ magic, the way one might be unquestionably against fascism or 
> something, like it's a bad thing, unexceptionally. What would it mean to be 
> against magic, anyway? Seems a bit like being against breakfast cereal or 
> summer or something.
> Anyway, for myself, admittedly, I have limited exposure to this magic trope. 
> My bargain-basement understanding of magic is that, on one hand, it can 
> produce fascinating, awe-inspiring delight and candy for the imagination (the 
> guy at the kid's birthday party or at the Magic Castle supper club over there 
> in Hollywood.)
> Then there's the other kind of magic that articulates the will of the guy who 
> happens to have the beater for the medicine drum and the necklace with the 
> most bear claws, sublimating his will through the deployment of magic.
> The latter is really a cloaked, non-transparent process for activating power 
> and will, the former a playful and metaphorical interface between our desire, 
> imagination and our objects.
> I suspect magic has its place as an intermediary, as do most tropes. I really 
> don't want any magic mumbo-jumbo in the technical documents produced by the 
> aeronautical engineers who are trying to work out how a 617 ton Airbus A380 
> will actually get off the ground and stay off the ground in a controlled 
> manner for the duration of its 9,000 mile flight. That's just not funny or 
> helpful. Same goes for the civil engineer's bridge, the politician's 
> environmental action plan, or the prostate surgeon's procedures.
> Magic and animism works well-enough for me as a way to describe the quirky 
> personality traits of a cranky laptop, for example, the culinary flair of a 
> dinner chef or the sudden appearance of favorable weather. The stakes are in 
> the description.
> Am I for it, or agin' it?
> Julian
> On Oct 3, 2006, at 3:27 PDT, molly wright steenson wrote:
>> Did no one here attend Ubicomp? Animism was out in force. In the opening 
>> keynote, Bruce Sterling ranted about (that is, against) animism. Brenda 
>> Laurel, in the closing session, was all for it. Karen Martin, in the EngD 
>> program at the Bartlett, provides a write-up here:
>> http://www.prusikloop.org/mrwatson/?m=200609
>> Which reminds me... in 2003, Mike Kuniavsky <www.orangecone.com> wrote an 
>> essay about animism and ubiquitous computing while he was a founding 
>> partner at Adaptive Path.
>> http://www.adaptivepath.com/publications/essays/archives/000272.php
>> On Oct 2, 2006, at 9:10 PM, Kazys Varnelis wrote:
>>> I always hope to make longer posts and never do, so let's put an end to 
>>> that idea quick.
>>> Indeed, this is something we've been covering with AUDC in our upcoming 
>>> book and, to some extent in the wiki section of our site, 
>>> audc.org/projects.
>>> The last chapter of Elaine Scarry's the Body in Pain is a great source on 
>>> contemporary animism (you stubbed your toe on the garbage can so you threw 
>>> it across the room. REVENGE! etc.).
>>> On Oct 2, 2006, at 12:03 PM, idc-request at bbs.thing.net wrote:
>>>>>> Many human cultures have traditions of animism and the imanenence of
>>>>>> space.I suspect that this cultural history is also part of the drive
>>>>>> to
>>>>>> make an Internet of Things.
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Mike Kuniavsky
mikek at orangecone.com

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