things are people too

Good morning everyone. My name is Adrian. I’m based in Switzerland, located very close to the invisible border between the german and french speaking population. I’m originally from the eastern part of Switzerland, but I feel much better here, where worlds collide and spaces of possibilities open up. I’m working in software development since a good 20 years, mainly in and around web technologies. I’m very interested in code as a creative medium and touched most of the common creative coding languages that are out there. I’m also very interested in what code, software and algorithms do to the world at large as well as us. I did a BA in Postindustrial Design in Basel and am currently doing a MA in Design Research in Bern, at the HKB. Bridging these two world, professional and studies, is my engagement as scientific assistant at two projects at the ixdm, the institute for experimental design and media cultures. One project was about electronic waste and ended in 2018 and the other project is about the categorical leftovers in archives and would start next year, if it’s funded.

This talks topic arises from my ongoing research project that I’m currently working on during my MA.

In the next few minutes I would love to talk about the hypothesis and questions that I carry through this aforementioned research project. In it’s core, it is about animism and animism’s relation to design and it is very much about relationships between us and the technological artifacts we produce and surround ourselves with.

First, we must find a shared understanding of animism, how it is applied in the project. Then we will have a look at the problem that animism is the supposed answer to. In the last part I will go into the inner workings of animism as well as the proposed research design.

I do not use and understand animism as an anthropological category, but the philosophical consideration of a category in the becoming. More concretely, I see animism as the elevation of material things to non-human people. These processes can be carried out by various epistemic mechanisms, for example trough the attribution of consciousness or soul. These mechanisms can be understood as aesthetics from the perspective of design philosophy. Basically, this understanding of animism is very close to New Materialism, but the latter lacks a poetic dimension that has not been lost to the former, in my opinion.

There are some problematic terms in this outline I just made, which need to be unpacked at an other moment. There is one point that needs special consideration. Animism is an anthropological term, coined in colonial times by a christian-raised man. When I speak about animism we also need to consider the weight of this colonial past and often still ongoing neocolonial practices. It is far to easy to fetishize the epistemological treasures of various indigenous people and communities. I will and can’t speak for or about them. As such, the animism presented here is also not the animism of a indigenous people and communities but something that needs to arise from local knowledge and practices.

There is a small, but rich, current in european thought that occupies itself with the term animism, from Marx’ concept of the fetish to Deleuze and Guattari’s incomprehensible machinic animism. There is renewed interest in the subject since the material turn and the rise of new materialism in the last 20 to 30 years, which emerged out of the front lines of feminism, philosophy, science studies, and cultural theory. New materialism is itself a loose collection of related streams that are united by the belief, that we urgently need to rethink what it means to be human, often with a focus on the non-human or even actively decentering the human.

expand again on what animism is, bring example of talking to plant

Last but not least, this understanding of animism is heavily guided by the paper “Animism Revisited” by Nurit Bird-David in which she positions animism as a relational epistemology.

“This epistemology is about knowing the world by focusing primarily on relatednesses, from a related point of view, within the shifting horizons of the related viewer. The knowing grows from and is the knower’s skills of maintaining relatedness with the known.” - Nurit Bird-David, Animism Revisited

This is in stark contrast to our specific way of knowing the world, including ourselves, where the focus is on how something is constituted or how can I use something - where we quickly have a dichotomy between subject and object.

In western thought we have this idea that to be human is to be a body and a mind and in many cases also a soul and that this configuration is only possible in humans. In animist thought subjectivity, the experience of I, arises out of social ties to other people. In this web of relationships plants and animals as well as inanimate matter and objects can be people as well and as such be open for social relations. It helps to imagine an object like a pet, in which we can find a companion, but whose language we can’t understand.

What is the problem?

Technologies are the things that we produce to gain competences that are beyond our being or even actively alter them. Cooking, shoes, solar panels, farming, deep sea cables and of course things like smartphones and the internet. I’m especially interested at digital and electronic technologies that can be found in our everyday vicinity. All technologies are intimately linked with us, our being-in-the-world and our becoming.

An analogy can be helpful to demonstrate the entangledness of technology. What is the spiderweb to the spider? Spiderwebs are technologies, produced by spiders to catch prey. The webs also help the spider know if a prey got stuck in them. As such they are cognitive and epistemological devices, they produce spider-specific knowledge. Webs also ensure that the spider gains hunting competences and it produces sustenance. In spider-ontologies, webs are essential world-building things. No spider-being without web-technologies.

There are a few tendencies in the design of technology that are highly problematic and symptomatic for the issues I would love to tackle.

Generally speaking consumer technologies like wireless headphones, social media platforms or rental services are highly branded experiences. In terms of quality of the goods and services provided by these tech-companies, there is not much difference honestly. That leaves us with just one choice, and that is which story we buy into. Subscribing to a brand is subscribing to its branded world-making-project. Within this subscription there is not much space to create our own, genuine relationship to the things we acquired. The space of possible relations is already a given. For example I can buy many phones for little money, but I will not be able to fix any of them without some hassle, let alone do it myself.

“Animism had endowed things with souls; industrialism makes souls into things.” - Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno

Underlying this branded experience, that robs us of our possibility to get into a relation with the thing, is the assumption that we neither can nor should be bothered with the problematic side of technology - the bugs, the glitches, the shortcomings and let alone the ecological impact as well as the extractive business of exploiting a workforce in precare situations. These aspects are hidden away from us, quite often through design. The things we acquire, through money or with our data, have absolutely nothing to do anymore with the processes that created them. As such, they are technological artifacts without narratives, that embed them into the world at large. And by surrounding and actively participating in those things, the same happens to us.

One of the most direct consequences of this alienation is that we consume technology. Complex artifacts, that draw out the planet’s most rare resources, going through the hands of the poorest, become disposable experiences. We know exactly what this neoliberal, extractive processes do to the ecologies and the exploited.

This project carries the assumption that, next to all the other problems, like the embedded racism in algorithms, the exploitative production processes, the impact on the planet, there is also the issue of that these technological products and processes actively undo our ability to be in the world. Through the design of these technologies we become branded individuals, living inside the possibility-spaces of the companies we ascribed to.

How we treat our things, we treat our fellow human beings, we treat our environment and vice versa. These acts, this habitus, can be found again in our language, our thinking, our ideas. All these things are interlinked and interwoven.

In the discourse on design, these problems of global industrialization are mentioned early on: designers have repeatedly tried to change people’s consumption in order to address these problems, whether through quality (die Gute Form), DIY (Whole Earth Catalogue, Papanek), deceleration (Slow Movement) or humanistic ideals (Human-Centered Design). Contemporary technology consumption seems to elude these discourses. With the exception of a few products, the FairPhone, or practices, like Low-Tech or the Closing-World Initiative, the problems of technology are ignored.

What the dominant theories have in common is that they still see design as a problem-solving approach (see “Human-Centered Design” 2020) and thus already present a modern picture that disregards the plurality of the world, for example presented through Arturo Escobar’s work. The criticism and introduction of new ways of thinking into the design discourse thus also raises the question of the topicality and relevance of modern dogmas in the design of technological processes and products.

Frictionless design is design that tries to take work off the shoulders of people. Work that we would have to spend to achieve something that is made difficult through aspects of the designed thing.

Reading Marx through Erich Fromm, work is a person’s active relationship to nature. Work is therefore the energy and life time that can be invested to connect with a whole, related one; to embed oneself in the world. The alienated work consumes the same energy and life time, but does not create the relation to the world but the alienated human being.

Animism is a practice that can create connectedness by making the person be embedded through it’s poeto-aesthetic powers. Poetics is about being imaginative, sensitive or having an emotional style of expression through an aesthetic impact. Poetics is closely related to literature and writing and as such it is related to communication. In this, it attempts to go beyond the mere transportation of information. Poetics tries to create relation not only on practical level, but also by conveying that which can be hardly put into words - beauty, emotion, experience. In short, those things we can probably agree on to make for a better living.

Speculative or critical design is heavily inspired by literature and it’s ability to create the fantastic.

“Of all these areas of research, it is literature and fine art that offer the most promising sources of inspiration. They can push the notion of fiction to the extreme, going well beyond logical worlds and more pragmatic world building.” (Dunne and Raby 2013)

Speculative design is about extrapolating from the present into a possible and desirable future through different methodologies of creating the fantastic.

The poetics of animism is the aesthetic force of giving form to an otherwise fantastic epistemology. Again, animism is understood as the process of highten the ontological status of a thing from passive materia to a non-human person. One could be quick to dismiss animism as a naive make-belief, but since the renewed interest in new materialism we have a beautiful theoretical foundation for such an epistemology. We do not have a practice.

Animism does not only enable form to be given to this, it also makes these forms approachable for humans, through emotions, intuition and stories. Animism in design could be a step away from use cases to narratives.The aesthetics of animism are like the affordances of narratives, or the packaging of the animistic narratives. This aspect of animism is where design practice and design research come in. The creation of affordances on all planes of experience is where design is strong, be it visual, as written story or a physical object.

There are two fundamental questions. First, can animistic views and practices be found in approaches in our society, even if it can no longer show any animistic tradition? Secondly, can animistic practices in design lead to a more intensive connection and examination of technological products and processes? The second is considered desirable within the framework of this project.

The research project aims to track down these possible existing animistic partial aspects or practices. These weak signals, once found and categorized will feed into participatory workshops. The goal is to extrapolate from the weak signal into a manifested narrative around an already existing technology, which can then be tested. The testing then should determine whether animistic narratives can generate effects and whether such effects are positive or negative in nature. Within the context of this project a narrative can be seen as a kind of prototype that has physical as well as immaterial parts, something that retells the story of a thing and reengages the entangled people.

To round it up and put it briefly.

The current design of technological processes and artifacts actively hinders us from creating relationships with those things and the world at large. That is leading to ecological catastrophes and furthers the exploitation of a global workforce in precare situations. Animism is proposed as a way around this by giving the power of creating said relations to the people, strengthening the bonds and leading to a heighten awareness of being in the world and the consequences of consuming technology.

The latter needs to be proven and that is what this research projects attempts.

Animism is not an immediate solution for the problems at hand but an active way how we think and act towards technology. It does not tackle the injustices and exploitation that are embedded in and advanced by current technologies. There is also no safe guard against neoliberal appropriation of any results.

Animism in Design is for now a rather philosophical, speculative approach and i hope there will be results that help us out of the problems we created, but that is to be seen. I’d love to end this input with one of my most favourite quotes by one of my beloved scholars.

The recordings you saw during the talk are from an ongoing practice, in which I engage the things in my home. It is a meditation on what makes me, makes this place and what are the relationships in place - from memories to crude oil extraction.

Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. 2013. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London: The MIT Press.