[iDC] animism and such

Malian Lahey mlahey at artic.edu
Fri Oct 6 08:25:11 EDT 2006

> >
> > 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.

Has anyone read "Original Wisdom" by Robert Wolff?  A professor at the
University of Hawaii, his experiences of "magic" relate to the discussion here.
 He was taught by an aboriginal Malaysian shaman (for lack of a better word). 
Many of his experiences involved synchronicity, for example.  The aborigines
made a distinction similar to Julian's between "our" diseases that could be
solved through their traditional methods, and "White People" diseases that had
to be solved with white people medicine.  In their society, almost all that
they eat and use (the exceptions being things like tea and the communal cooking
pan) comes directly from nature.  Their approach to knowledge is nothing so
suspicious and detached as science; they just "know" things.  For example, in
the morning they all sit around discussing their dreams from the previous
night.  Intuitively, they assemble these dreams into a story; eg a story about
birds bringing other birds to see a giant flower.  During the day, the
villagers let Wolff on a long journey through the forest at the end of which
they encountered a rare Rafflesia flower.  The villagers did not know it was
there in advance, they simply navigated their reality through what I would
guess is a very thorough experience of information synthesis in the brain.  

I'm disturbed by the ideas about "magic" as either coercive force or "ways to
create pleasure".  These articulations seem to me abysmally ethnocentric; sorry
if that feels offensive.  We come up with those ideas because those are the
experiences we have previously had; fine.  Yet what about the possibility that
our social structure simply doesn't give space for other experiences of that
kind?  I mean, with H20 molecules, there are a zillion possible variants of
snow crystals, and yet they all have six sides.  Isn't it possible that we're
just completely bombing out when it comes to seeing our own limitations?  I
happen to think that its not just possible, its 100% certain.

the Malaysian Sng'oi who taught Robert Wolff have a society where no one tells
someone else what to do, ever.  They just "know".  They don't dominate or
coerce and people who get angry are considered deeply humiliating and socially
aberrant.  I think most Americans would never believe that such a society could
even exist because we have had it drilled into us that there's only one
"reality".  We've never considered that it might just be that our reality is
something we have to constantly re create and agree to experience.

Further, practicioners of what we may call "magic" in nature-based societies do
not "create" pleasure as a phenomenon.  In order to be magical, one has to
*exist in pleasure*, magic *is* pleasure.  Again, telling the Westerner that
they *potentially* could experience a life of constant, satisfying joy
generally falls on deaf ears.

Westerners generally prefer to toy with such ideas and create a "trend" based on
them without relinquishing a fundamental denial of their truth.  A trend brings
one close enough to the "trope" to be exotic and fascinating to their peers,
without challenging the persistent structure of their culture.  Very boring.

as for animism, has it ever occured to anyone that glitches and syncronicity
with regards to objects could imply that the object (for example, computer) is
simply a nexus through which the accumulated consequences of many events and
thoughts becomes redirected at what is normally the agent (computer user)? 
It's not necessary to lump it all together into the word "magic" and then
forget about it.  Actually, I find the impulse to assign the category "magic"
to this phenomena, cowardice or laziness.  Subconsciously, we know that a real
effort to understand this phenomena would ultimately threaten our way of being
in the world (otherwise known as "reality").  

interestingly enough, it seems that only that which threatens the foundation of
our "reality" is powerful enough to actually alter it.  Since our "reality"
seems to be heading for a crash-landing, wouldn't it be time to consider
exploring some of those threats as potential life-savers?


Quoting Mike Kuniavsky <mikek at orangecone.com>:

> 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:
>   http://dorkbot.org/dorkbotsf/
> 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."
>   http://www.orangecone.com/archives/2006/06/partial_bibliog.html
> 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.
> >
> > 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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> >> 
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> >
> -- 
> Mike Kuniavsky
> mikek at orangecone.com
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Malian Lahey

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