Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Agency, anthropomorphism or next-gen magic?

Jakob Nielsen: "We're about to experience a world where spirit inhabits formerly inanimate objects. Much of the Harry Potter books' charm comes from the quirky magic objects that surround Harry and his friends. Rather than being solid and static, these objects embody initiative and activity. This is precisely the shift we'll experience as computational power moves beyond the desktop into everyday objects... I'm not so nerdy as to suggest that you read Harry Potter as an idea manual for next-generation product development. But the books are filled with examples of products that we'll soon be able to build, and they do provide some idea of what it might mean to embody awareness in the physical world."

When spirits inhabit inanimate objects, they cease being inanimate. More appropriately, in animism, these objects have never been "inanimate" - they are always already "possessed". That's why early anthropologists called it magic - animism is confusing to people deeply attached to the separation of object and subject. If an "object" takes on, or is granted, human characteristics, we have anthropomorphism. And we still have objects and subjects - they're just metonymically switching out with each other. Similarly, if an object can "embody," the object still remains a container separate from its contents. What we're talking about then is also myth and metaphor. More magic.

I want machines with agency. And surely agency requires more than (de)coding symbols, or even embodied interaction. This is more need for critical theory.

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