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Toward a New Animism: Old Interaction Paradigms for an Everyware World

Adam Greenfield, Principal, Studies and Observations

Date: Tuesday, March 27
Time: 2:15pm - 3:00pm
Location: Douglas B

For most of our sojourn on this planet, human beings have understood the physical world as a place intensely invested with consciousness and agency; the idea that the world is alive, that the objects therein are sentient and can be transacted with, is old and deep and so common to all the cultures of humanity that it may as well be called universal.

As Freud described it, "the world was full of spirits...and all the objects in the external world were their dwelling-place, or perhaps identical with them." It is only comparatively recently that most people have believed otherwise -- indeed, most of the humans who ever walked the planet would have found it utter folly to conceive of the natural world as mainstream Western culture did until very recently: a passive, inert, purely material stage, on which the only meaningful actors are human ones.

And if we have always acted as if the things around us are alive, then the will to make it so in fact (or at least seem so) the moment the technical wherewithal became available is understandable. That things like gestural and voice-recognition interfaces are so fervently pursued despite the many difficulties involved in perfecting them might tell us something about the deep roots of their appeal, if we're willing to listen.

Folklore is replete with caves that open at a spoken command, swords that can be claimed only by a single individual, mirrors that answer with killing honesty when asked to name the fairest maiden in the land, and so on. Why should anyone be surprised when we try to restage these tales, this time with our technology in the central role?

In this talk, Everyware author Greenfield argues that many current models for interaction with ubiquitous information-processing systems amount to a reassertion of animism -- and a reawakening of something that has lain dormant within us for much of modernity. What are the consequences of this reawakening for the designers, developers, and marketers of ubiquitous systems?