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It is striking that designers often speak of the spirit of good design. That spirit is the decisive goal of designers yet it escapes definition, description and often evades discussion. This essay is a meditation on the complex interaction between design and animism. First, an exploration of what is commonly known as animism is required, for the difference between animism and post-animism has only little to do with the belief in the life of things and actually is a severely outdated construct of the 19th century. Second, the current discussion on animistic epistemologies is reviewed in order to further clarify the term and to enable a more inclusive and relational discourse for design theory. Third, some evolutionary considerations are dedicated to the question of cognitive epistemologies in general and whether or not humans are innately animistic, specifically. Finally, purposeful animism- the idea of designing animistic relationships between objects and users of objects- is explored. Here emotional durability as a design direction is addressed since it seeks to create stronger emotionality and enduring interaction with things, which in turn can lead to a more sustainable use of resources. Things regarded as housing a spirit - it is assumed here- are more likely revered and protected.
Keywords: Animism, design, unilineal evolutionism, epistemologies
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C. Clark
In 1877 Thomas Edison used his “talking machine” to reproduce “Mary had a Little Lamb”, which he had just sung into a cylinder and for the first time one was able to listen to a reproduction of one’s own voice. The ensuing discussion caused widespread anxieties about a spirit world hidden in electrically animated objects and one can only speculate on the reaction of the same people to Apple’s launch of Siri (Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface) as part of the iPhone 4S in 2011. Talking to inanimate objects is nothing new and humans have likely done it since the dawn of speciation, but that communication has just transmuted to a dialogue. As our tools’ communication improves, users move in a little closer to listen and respond. We already pinch, tap, touch, hold and talk to our devises and it seems that ironically, Modernity has returned to animism.
Anthropologist Alfred Gell calls the spell speaking, beeping and flashing objects have on us the “enchantment of technology.” He writes that this is “the power that technical processes have of casting a spell over us so that we see the real world in an enchanted form” (Gell, 1992: 44). When the animated objects around us become interconnected- as in the phenomenon dubbed internet of things- our living rooms turn into living entities and we into modern shamans staring in disbelief. Indeed, it has become more normalized to be animistic, as the things around us are gaining “souls”. Of course things have still not literally been animated but the distinction between life and death has become a little trickier. As Arthur C. Clark famously stated in his second law, it gets harder to distinguish between technology and magic, the more advanced a civilization is. Our phones communicating with our cars, thermostats, washing machines and us has become a present scenario; the relationship we have with everyday objects is changing with a kind of renaissance of animism.
Diametrically opposed to such enchantment, stands Max Weber’s disenchantment to describe a world void of magic, a world predictable and calculable. Weber’s Entzauberung der Welt, first used in 1919 was a concept borrowed from Friedrich Schiller’s poem Die Götter Griechenlandes of 1788. Both Weber and Schiller meant the consequences of an overly rational worldview that dawned during the Enlightenment, resulting a romantic longing to times unexplored and full of magic. Perhaps, on a rational level the European mindset had accepted that there is no magic powering the things around us but on a deeper, cognitive level the human mind has not been able to keep up with the rapid technological advances brought by Industrialization. What is striking is that now, when there seems to bemore “magic” around us as ever before we seem to be extremely careless and wasteful with the things producing such magic. Perhaps the most satisfactory explanation for why we have become so careless with our magical artifacts comes from the seminal The Theory of the Leisure Class, where Thorsten Veblen combined economics and Darwinian theory to explain why we conspicuously consume (Veblen, 1899). Once the basic human needs are satisfied -the argument goes- it makes sense to advertise the ability to consume over and beyond our share of resources. The resulting runaway consumerism seems to follow some archaic patterns and when combined with planned obsolescence obviously has detrimental environmental consequences (Slade, 2007). Geographer and biologist Jared Diamond even speaks of ecocide (Diamond, 2005).
One approach to avoiding ecological disaster is the optimistic work of McDonough and Braungart. They believe that the green movement does not have to be based on austerity and to the contrary can be one of abundance as long as the “technical nutrients” are kept in a healthy cycle (McDonough & Braungart, 2010, 2013). Evolution as an innovative process is very wasteful, and experimentation tends to trump conservatism. Similarly, humans could enjoy a life of abundance as long as the design of our everyday things considers several lives instead of just one. Instead of doing “less bad”, designers should be encouraged to do “more good”, to_upcycle_ rather than recycle (McDonough & Braungart, 2010, 2013). Although such considerations are indispensable for a needed design revolution, this chapter argues for more attachment to the things we already have. As the things around us become “alive”, is it not feasible to expect more emotionality? It is argued here that that more emotional durability can be achieved not simply through more things “alive” but by actually overcoming the false epistemology of Cartesian objectivism. In the words of Bruno Latour:
If there is one thing to wonder about in the history of Modernism, it is not that there are still people “mad enough to believe in animism”, but that so many hard headed thinkers have invented what should be called inanimism and have tied to this sheer impossibility their definition of what it is to be “rational” and“scientific”. It is inanimism that is the queer invention: an agency without agency constantly denied by practice (Latour, 20110: 10).
The British anthropologist Edward Tylor (1832–1917) first articulated the term animism calling it the “idea of pervading life and will in nature” (Tylor, 1871). In his Primitive Culture, published in 1871 he clearly laid out the task of cultural anthropology to discover “stages of development or evolution.” One of the most important unilineal evolutionists of the 19th century, Tylor believed in set stages that all societies passed through. In that tradition, analysis of cross-cultural data was based on the assumptions that (1.) contemporary societies may be classified and ranked as more ”primitive“ or more ”civilized“, (2.) there are a determinate number of stages between ”primitive“ and ”civilized" (e.g. band, tribe, chiefdom, and state) and (3.) all societies progress through these stages in the same sequence, but at different rates. It is extremely important to note here that unilineal evolutionism built its “evolution” on Lamarckian not Darwinian premises. Specifically it was the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer with its assumption that cultural evolutionism followed the same laws as natural selection. Hence, “primitive societies” were like time machines illustrating the different stages of a universal human history (Koeb, 1996). Herbert Spencer, the author of the infamous phrase “survival of the fittest” was actually far more influential on 19th century social theorists than Charles Darwin ever was and most social scientists accepting evolutionism of that time were technically “Spencerists” not “Darwinists”. Perhaps the most important distinction to Darwin was that Spencer always included a teleologicalprinciple, which he called a persistence of force ordained by the Unknowable (Leube, 2003). Thus, it is very easy to hear echoes of Spencer in the following quote from Tylor written in 1889: “The social habits of Mankind follow each other like geological strata, universally in the same fashion without regards to the superficial differences of race or languages” (Altner, 1981). Unlike his contemporary Lewis Henry Morgan, who addressed such “strata” in terms of technological advances, Tylor did the same for spiritual stages. The anthropology of the 19th century was a science largely based on library research and grand theories and it was not until the early 20th century that scientists like Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas pioneered field research by actually visiting the people they wrote about. Peoples foreign to the so called “armchair anthropologists” of the 19th century had and did things Europeans did in prehistory and were thus seen as being stuck in the Neolithic. Indeed the term “stone age people” has remained popular to this day in popular science. While unilineal evolutionism argued that similarity is due to homology, a competing diffusionism postulated the spread of items of culture from regions of innovation.
Tylor will forever be held responsible for the anthropological construct known as animism. According to him, this was the most primitive stage in belief systems, strongly suggested spiritual or supernatural perspectives and came before the development of organized religion. The animist stage of belief was followed by a polytheistic and final monotheistic stage. Not an organized religion, to Tylor animism has no institution (e.g. a synagogue, mosque, or church), it does not have an unchangeable doctrine (e.g. a belief in a son of God), and it doesn’t have sacred literature (e.g. the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, the New Testament). From the Latin anima (“breath, spirit, life”) it became known as the belief in the possession of a spiritual essence or soul of non-human entities such as animals, plants or inanimate objects. Interestingly the vast majority of cultures do not have a term for such belief and even the described practitioners of animism do not use the term, suggesting that the phenomenon is little more than a European construct of the 19th century.
The concept is one of the oldest- if not the oldest- concept in anthropology and is generally presented as a human universal pushed to the background through the advent of Modernism. Although it is generally presented as something existing in all human cultures, the only thing truly universal is its presence in anthropology textbooks. Animism stands for traditionalism; for an outdated, even absurd practice no longer done. The term also became part of a larger construct of the notion of a time before and after bestowing souls onto things, a time before and after Modernity. If all matter has spirit- the logic goes- then the Cartesian duality of mind and matter and that of society and nature becomes senseless. With that juxtaposition, animism actually becomes a violation of the Cartesian worldview. Since the social condition and technological accomplishments associated with Modernity are founded on the categorical distinction of nature and society, animism became associated with something antiquated, nothing more than an anthropological curiosity.
In all fairness Tylor did not propose a clear-cut division between animists and non-animists. He did concede that the strange animistic rituals that we continue practicing are survivals of times past. Examples include the knocking on inanimate wood in order to expel any bad spirits that might interfere with future plans, or the widespread use of talismans and lucky charms. His definition of such survivals:
“…processes, customs, and opinions, and so forth, which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home, and they thus remain as proofs and examples of an older condition of culture out of which a newer has been evolved (Tylor, 1871: 16)
Tylor conceptualizes his famous survivals as cultural elements or complexes that although once making a certain sense within a specific context they are now anachronistic remnants. It is interesting to note that the concept is similar to the idea of the meme. In the The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins first called ideas that for better or for worse become viral, memes and actually founded a new field of inquiry called memetics (Dawkins, 2006). Survivals are no longer in harmony with current cultural settings and are thus like memes of the past. To Tylor they were to be eliminated as he considered them to be merely harmful superstition. Similarly, Dawkins considers religious practices anachronistic and harmful to a scientific worldview.
If we really are Cartesianists, and have moved beyond a spirited world safe for a few vestibules, when was that stance really adopted? Nineteenth-century positivism raised technology to Godly heights and with it created a semi-religious faith in techno-scientific progress and empirical methods. There was no room for a worldview that regarded all natural phenomena on par. Tylor and other unilineal evolutionists_ maintained that animists were somehow stunted and maintained a lower conception of the universe and animism became a failed epistemology or backward stage in the social development. The danger and far-reaching consequences of such ideas become apparent when considering that unilineal evolutionism is intrinsically related to Modernization Theory (Rostow, 1990) via the writings of the so-called Neo-evolutionists (White, 1954) and thus the idea that all civilizations imperatively have to move through the same stages of development are causally linked to world developmental politics. There are two problems with the original perception of animism. First, the belief system was wrongly defined, and second the so-called developed world, the West isn’t really Cartesian.
Ever since the Enlightenment, modern Europeans have decided to think in terms of subject/object dualism but such a mode of classification was just that: a classification. To a large degree Modernism is actually based on objectifying nature, of doing away with any notion of a subject-subject based relationship. Animism- as defined in the 19th century- rejects Cartesian dualism and is now- truly like a survival of itself- anchored in the esoteric, non-scientific traditions. Recently, anthropologists and comparative-religion scholars have re-defined animism_ to mean something different (Bird-David 1999; Descola 2005, 2006, 2009; Harvey 2006; Ingold 2000). Thus, our relationships with the world, and the frontiers between human and nonhuman- even between living and non-living- are being reconsidered.
Until recently, the core of anthropological research was indigenous knowledge, seen as mistaken epistemologies, as un-scientific and irrational worldviews. Lately the tables are being turned and indigenous thought is used to critique modern epistemology, which is closely linked to Western modernization theory. Tim Ingold (2000), Nurit Bird-David (1999) and Philippe Descola (1994) have shown that not only ancient but also contemporary people with diverse systems of subsistence from continue to approach their non-human environments through what is now being called a relational stance. Radically, such a posthumanism has spawned discussions on building a new Modernity after the present world order (Hardt and Negri, 2009). Indeed animism is going through a thorough reassessment (Nurit Bird-Rose, 1999; Ingold, 2006; Philippe Descola, 2013). Guthrie, in an extensive and comprehensive discussion of animism and anthropomorphism, defines animism as humans “attributing life to the nonliving” and anthropomorphism as “attributing human characteristics to the nonhuman” (Guthrie, 19993: 52). Animism is now treated as an alternative, relational ontology allowing a rethinking of the problem of matter and agency and as a worldview that goes beyond human exeptionalism and superiority; one that embraces all non-humans.
For example, in Descola’s writing, a new classification of the term hinging on two sets of variables is offered. Cultural groups perceive a basic similarity or a fundamental dissimilarity between humans and non-humans in terms of (1.) interiority, which could include such categories as_intentionality, reflexivity_ and subjectivity, and (2.) physicality, which include substance, form or phenotype (Desccola, 2009:150). He writes:
“Either most existing entities are supposed to share a similar interiority whilst being different in body, and we have animism, as found among peoples of the Amazonian basin, the Northern reaches of North America and Siberia and some parts of Southern Asia and Melanesia. Or humans alone experience the privilege of interiority whilst being connected to the non-human continuum by their materiality and we have naturalism – Europe from the classical age. Or some humans and non-humans share, within a given framework, the same physical and moral properties generated by a prototype, whilst being wholly distinguishable from other classes of the same type and we have totemism – chiefly to be found among Australia’s Aborigines. Or all the world’s elements are ontologically distinct from one another, thence the necessity to find stable correspondences between them and we have analogism –China, Renaissance Europe, West Africa, the indigenous peoples of the Andes and Central-America:” [Descola “Who owns nature,” http://www.laviedesidees.fr/spip.php?page=print&id_article=184, accessed: July 20, 20015]
For Descola animism is thus an articulation of one of four options. It is an understanding that all classes of beings (human and non-human) exchange signs, similar to the tenet of the field of biosemiotics, where everything that occurs in the universe is a semiotic event. (Hoffmeyer 1996; Barbieri 2008; Wheeler 2006.) What emerges is a scientifically sophisticated animism, which understands all things as related in their nature as signaling entities, but different in their physical appearances or phenotype. Entities such as plants or even rocks may be approached as communicative subjects rather than the inert objects perceived by rationalists. This new perception of animism is important because it overcomes the 19th century conundrum of animism as nemesis to Modernity. Here animism is something that could be shared by all peoples regardless of their technological advances, something that can lead to more emotional attachment to things and more sustainability. Thus, Graham Harvey has used the new animism as a way of more sound ecological harmony with all things (Harvey, 2005) since for humans it is likely easier to exploit and abuse a soulless entity. Tim Ingold, too has contributed much to a relativist understanding of the phenomenon labeled animism. He writes of the people we typically label animists of the Amazonian and the circumpolar North: “First, we are dealing here not with a way of believing about the world but with a condition of being in it (… )The animacy of the lifeworld, in short, is not the result of an infusion of spirit into substance, or of agency into materiality, but is rather ontologically prior to their differentiation” (Ingold, 2006: 10).
French philosopher, sociologist and post-constructivist Bruno Latour’s writes: “There is no way to devise a successor to nature, if we do not tackle the tricky question of animism anew” (Latour, 2010: 9). His parliament of things is probably the most radical notion emerging in a discussion on a new animism (Latour, 1993). He argues that Modernity was never more than a mode or ideology of sorting and that pensée sauvage_ (primitive thinking) was not displaced by a dualistic pensée modern (Modern Thinking). Of course Latour writes in accordance with structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who thought oft savage mind to not belong to primitive people but as a kind of mind untamed by rational domestication (Lévi-Strauss, 1962). Thus, we have actually ‘never been modern’ and the notion of modern people cleanly separating the world of subjects and objects might have been an illusion from the start (Latour, 2012). Modern, industrialized Westerners animate objects around them more than the so-called animists and in reality humans everywhere attach animacy and personhood to things. We talk to our cars and give them anthropomorphic forms. We have favorite trees, houses, cars and teddy bears. We curse at our computers, give our boats names and -at least children- sleep with inanimate forms resembling animals. According to Latour, such hypocrisy must be addresses by first accepting that the Cartesian dualism we are socialized to accept is phony in order to then recognize a new parliament of things. He writes:
“However, we do not have to create this Parliament out of whole cloth, by calling for yet another revolution. We simply have to ratify what we have always done, provided that we reconsider our past, provided that we understand retrospectively to what extent we have been modern, and provided that we rejoin the two halves of the symbol broken by Hobbes and Boyle as a sign of recognition. Half of our politics is constructed in science and technology. The other half of Nature is constructed in societies. Let us patch the two back together, and the political task can begin again.” (Latour, “We have never been modern”, trans. Catherine Porter, 1993: 83).
Truly, Latour did not invent this kind of “anthropology of things” and it does have a considerable history. At the end of the 1800s Émile Durkheim, for example already used his term social fact to mean equally a thing and a structure. Marcel Mauss’ Gift of 1950 gave a solid foundation to this analytic of things and is enjoying a kind of rebirth in discussions of post-capitalistic economies. And thus also can be understood Daniel Miller’s current analysis of material culture in such books as A Theory of Shopping (Miller, 1998). However, what sets Latour apart is his clear, persuasive approach. By creating symmetry between humans and non-human entities, Latour sees society as humans assembled around things instead of vice versa. In this way, he breaks down the heavy barriers between the realms of nature and of culture that we have learned to accept just as between the subject and object. This principle of symmetry, when coupled with John Law’s actor-network theory shows a highly complex world where humans and non-human things and animals interact freely. It is a world where the non-human actors are granted the same amount of agency as humans. Latour’s analysis is a fascinating exploration of hybridity of different “network-players”. Ignored by the rigorously divided chambers of science and politics, the parliament of things would finally lend a voice to the hybrids of Modernity. An example of such a hybrid- a network player that is both thing and structure- is the ghetto of most modern cities. But most importantly, Latour’s model is the rejection of the basic distinction between nature and culture and with that a rejection of modernity itself. Modern society itself seems to have rested on a collective self-delusion from the start.
There is no before and after in history. A modern, rational mind never replaced a superstitious, primitive one just like the conquistadores of various eras and nations never found savages on lower evolutionist strata. In short, mistaken epistemologies aren’t replaced. Rather, the human mind perceives and makes sense of the world on different levels of abstraction simultaneously and it is thus important to inject the above epistemological discussions with some biological considerations. Here, we won’t satisfactorily answer the question if humans are naturally prone to animism or not but we can assume that the human species- like all living organism- is a complex product of evolution. We are so good at reasoning on the basis of design from birth onward that it is very likely a genetically evolved adaptation (Wilson, 2011), and thus each one of us truly is a designer. At the dawn of speciation, Homo habilis developed the first artifacts, culture was synonymous with design and the designer was Promethean. Ancestral Hominids have failed to evolve many defensive characteristics (Lorenz, 1964), but without a doubt they advanced to become the species most sophisticated at niche construction since we deliberately change most aspects of our environment (Odling-Schmeeet al., 2003). The blueprint for the things we design – hand axes, houses and smartphones- are never genetically anchored but the potential to shape existing matter into new forms and in new ways likely is. Dennis Dutton believes all forms of design including art are innate, speaks of the_art Instinct_ and argues that the production and acquisition of aesthetic objects has brought our ancestors a survival advantage (Dutton, 2009). Most importantly here, is the consideration that while the designer has to design for the circumstances of the 21st century; he/she should never forget that the end user has an archaic mind.
Tim Ingold has addressed what he has labeled the “logic of inversion”, according to which “…the person, acting and perceiving within a nexus of intertwined relationships, is presumed to behave according to the directions of cultural models or cognitive schemata installed inside his or her head” (Ingold, 2006: 11). Thus a person is not able experience the world the way it truly is but is “sealed of by an outer boundary or shell that protects their inner constitution from the traffic of interactions with their surroundings” (Ingold, 2006: 11). When accepting a Darwinian evolution of the brain itself, it becomes plausible that individuals experience life on several epistemological levels simultaneously. Thus, it becomes plausible that the most archaic level of the human brain has set the basic belief that all things are acting entities as a default position. From the research of paleoanthropology, primatology, archaeology and genetics we now know that the vast majority of our evolutionary history was tribal, nomadic and sustainable and thus radically different to life today (Diamond, 2005, Diamond, 2012, Wilson 2012). If we just paid attention, we would realize that we are often ill adjusted to the niche we have designed around ourselves for hundreds of thousands of years. Hominids living in small tribes of hunter-gatherers evolved a decision-making pattern for archaic- not modern- circumstances and if that pattern led to their survival then their descendants’- our- heads hold a similar pattern to solve challenges today. Since cultural evolution has been much faster than biological evolution, however, our mental algorithms are often inapt for the travesties of modern life. Science writer Michael Shermer puts it this way:
“What may seem like irrational behavior today may have actually been rational 100,000 years ago. Without an evolutionary perspective, the assumptions of Homo economicus—that “Economic Man” is rational, self-maximizing and efficient in making choices—make no sense” (Schermer, 2008).
Long before the systematic evolutionary study of the human psyche began (Barkow et al., 1992), an evolutionary foundation to human behavior was predicted by Charles Darwin in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Darwin, 1872). Evolutionary psychology now stands as an explanatory framework with the potential for understanding all psychological phenomena. The aim of this young discipline is to understand why humans do what they do and it has the following main tenets: (1) Our ancestors faced many dire challenges during our species’ evolutionary history and natural selection designed our ancestors’ neural circuits to solve them. (2) Only those ancestors that were able to solve problems passed their genes on and those genes were used to build more successful neural circuits. (3) Thus, our modern skulls literally house Stone Age minds. (4) Most of the activity in our minds is unconscious and hidden from us. (5) The mind is modular and different types of neural circuits are all specialized for solving different adaptive problems (Dunbar & Barrett, 2007).
Interesting for the discussion on whether or not humans have animist tendencies is the psychological phenomenon called pareidolia, which lets humans wrongly perceive a random visual or auditory stimulus as significant. Seeing animals or faces in clouds or the man in the moon, and hearing messages on Black Sabbath records when played in reverse are examples of this sub-category of apophenia, the perception of patterns within random data. Faces in the Clouds: A new Theory of Religion, a recent book actually sees paraidolia as part of animism, positing that this might be a fitting evolutionary explanation for the birth of religions (Guthrie, 2015). It seems that we might actually be wired to see life rather than no-life in things. In the (critical) words of Tim Ingold: “Thus we have all evolved to be closet animists without of courserealising it. Intuitive non-animists have been selected out, due to unfortunate encounters with things that turned out to be more alive than anticipated” (Ingold, 2006: 11)
Another fascinating line of research suggests that we attach more significance to “original” artifacts then to copies as if the former somehow bestows a soul or spirit. Psychologist Brandy Frazier et al. have found that college students consistently preferred “authentic” objects (paintings, signatures…) to imitations even when the two cannot visually be differentiated (Frazier et al, 2009). Similarly, in a 2008 study, Bruce Hood of Bristol demonstrated that school age children were fooled into believing that an object can be “copied” but always preferred the original one to the “copied” one (Hood, 2008). Hood an his team of scientists demonstrated in three separate studies that the destruction of a photograph of an object dear to the probands produced significantly more electrodermal activity than the destruction of photographs of other control objects (Hood, 2010).
We can only speculate whether or not the first designers considered their creations to be animate. All organisms that were observed as coming to be- in the sense of being born- have always been observed as being animate and thus the first designers likely saw their creations in the same way. Describing the animist ontology Tim Ingold writes eloquently, ”One is continually present as witness to that moment, always moving like the crest of a wave, at which the world is about to disclose itself for what it is” (Ingold, 2006: 12). Is it possible that we have come so removed from the creation of the objects around us that we have dropped all parenthood-like affection? Industrialization and in a sense industrial design in have removed the production of things by one degree creating a system where things are mothered by things. Further research might address any correlation between the Cartesian dualism and the Industrial era.
The idea of “designed animism” actually dates back to the 1970s when design theorist treated the impact of pervasive computing on the human experience and design as a discipline (Laurel 2008). Recent approaches in design reseach have been steered towards purposely increasing emotional durability of products through design. Jonathan Chapman’s research has shown that emotional bonds with consumer goods reduce the likelihood of such goods to be discarded (Chapman, 2005). Importantly, the writings of Donald Norman consider the often-overlooked factor of cognition on design. He writes of three levels of human processing- visceral, behavioral and reflective- requiring three types of design considerations. Our everyday things might also be longer lasting by adding animacy (Norman, 2004). One type of design, interactive design actually requires a level of animistic thinking for the user experience to be a positive one. As shown in a recent conference paper, animism can actually be used as an appropriate design metaphor for interactive design (van Allen et al, 2013). Not all types of design share such intrinsic relationships with animism, but all would arguably benefit from the ongoing discussion of a _new animism.
Wake up to find out that you are the eyes oft he world – Robert Hunter
It is tempting to ridicule followers of the famous cargo cults of the Melanesian islanders for their use of sympathetic magic. But, it was easier for them to believe that the control towers, headsets, and runways were the cause of the cargo-carrying airplanes rather than an effect. “Modern” people make the same kind of mistakes, when for example it is assumed that wearing certain outfits worn by celebrities one is in turn transmuted into a celebrity. Similar tothe cargo cults, we talk of animism with disdain as if it’s only about ignorant, primitive people with a fascination for stuff.
In the end and we can ask if animism is a vice or a virtue. Is it something to be encouraged or renounced for society to work? The evolutionary process is not teleological and, as Popper remarked, “the future is open”. “Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil, but, rather, to fight for a better world,” he added (Popper, 1967). It is argued here that there can only be a better world with better design solutions. It is safe to say humans have a deeply ingrained fascination with stuff, which has become a serious concern when considering the resources required making all such stuff. Animism, understood as a deeply rooted understanding of a world unfolding, alive with things could very well lead to a more sustainable future.
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Along with some rare exceptions in the animal kingdom, we are the only designing species and thus this paper adopts the view that design, by definition is human- centered. In human society, those individuals especially gifted in the process of designing are more powerful then others with their ability to shape the future. With such an elevation in hierarchy comes narcissism, often marked by limited empathy and a thirst for recognition. In this text, design research is seen as a long overdue return to the needs and wants of the end-user. The anthropological sciences with their methodology and findings are seen as an antidote as they force the focus away from the design community and onto users. Conversely, design as a discipline produces culture and is thus an essential part of scientific scrutiny. This paper explores a positive feedback between four exemplary anthropological sciences- preventative science, biological anthropology, evolutionary psychology and ethnology- and design thinking, a term used here not as a patented process but rather as the purposeful conceptualization and shaping of a given phenomenon. Primarily, the aim is providing a review of anthropology research relevant to designers. Additionally, various design projects from the department of Design and Product Management (DPM) at the Salzburg University of Applied Sciences using an anthropology-infused approach will be discussed. Before that, some commonalities between design thinking and evolutionary theory are explored.
paper originally written for and lectured at the summer cummulus conference »virtuous circle« at the politecnico milano from 3.–7. june 2015.
INTRODUCTION: BRIDGING THE DESIGN-USER-SCIENCE GAP
Ancestral Hominids have failed to evolve many defensive characteristics (Lorenz, 1964), but they have gone far beyond mere biology and produced the most sophisticated culture on earth. We are so good at reasoning on the basis of design from birth onward that it is very likely a genetically evolved adaptation (Wilson, 2011), and thus each one of us truly is a designer. Richard Dawkins developed the idea of the extended phenotype, according to which genes do not only control protein synthesis inside an organism’s body but also affect the organism's environment through that organism's behavior (Dawkins, 1982). The blueprint for the things we design – hand axes, houses and smartphones- are never genetically anchored but the potential to shape existing matter into new forms and in new ways likely is. Dennis Dutton believes all forms of design including art are innate, speaks of the art Instinct and argues that the production and acquisition of aesthetic objects has brought our ancestors a survival advantage (Dutton, 2009). At the dawn of speciation, Homo habilis developed the first artifacts, culture was synonymous with design and the designer was Promethean. For Homo habilis, which literally means “handy man” the trump card became the design and manufacture of tools, but this was surely not done on an individual level. Judging from the paleoanthropological and archaeological evidence, the archaic process of ideation, manufacture, distribution and communication of the first gadgets could only have happened through teamwork and a continuous feedback between “designers” and users (Mithen, 2005). In the beginning, design surely was participatory and sources open!
Design research- qualitative, quantitative or otherwise- has become an important part of the design process (Brown, 2008). It is also firmly established in the curriculum of many design schools (Bayazit, 2004). However, the feedback between scholarly theory and industrial practice could be deepened significantly. While academia is often accused of staying in an exclusive ivory tower, the creative industries are said to disregard evidence. The reason for designers’ resistance and skepticism to scientific fieldwork may be the current emphasis on deductive exploration (Müller, 2011). The marketing sciences tend to use such a top-down approach of going from the general to the specific; when a product is accepted, a given strategy is repeated, when not it is dropped. Why, designers ask, should they do such research, when marketers already do it better? Numbers and facts on consumers are important but not sufficient for explaining why a person becomes a customer or not (Madsbjerg & Rasmussen, 2014). Marketing-driven research is skewed in behalf of the seller, rather than user and in behalf of profit rather than progress. Ideally, the design process is exploratory and neither inductive, nor deductive but abductive. John Chris Jones, one of the first design science thinkers defines the discipline of design as holistic, centered primarily on problem solving (Jones, 1970) and thus the basic steps of research in the anthropological sciences and design are similar. Any empirical insights concerning human action and motivation could be foundational for the design process and conversely design thinking could be studied by all kinds of anthropologists because only then does design return to being human-centered. Above all, the natural parameters provided by evolutionary theory could provide designers with a kind of matrix and it is this idea that we will turn to first.
Darwinian Design: Design Thinking and Evolutionary Theory
Evolutionary theory, showing us the mechanisms that led to a faulty present could readily be combined with design thinking for a change towards a more positive future but the marriage is not an easy one. Interdisciplinary, inherently optimistic and constructive, design thinking is a strong candidate for tackling some of societies’ wicked problems (Buchanan, 1992). Evolution as a concept is threatening because it is wrongly equated with genetic determinism implying an incapacity for change and thus- in the face of current issues- a dystopian future. However, even at the very lowest level of complexity, organisms respond to a set of if (a certain environment)-then (a certain action) rules (Wilson, 2007). The evolutionary process is not teleological and, as Popper remarked, “the future is open”. “Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil, but, rather, to fight for a better world,” he added (Popper, 1967). Theoretically, evolutionary theory would help designers understand why humans behave in manner x in situation x. On a practical level, designers could make truly human-centered decisions with an eye on likely outcome. If certain societal phenomena are unattractive, then the environments surrounding those phenomena have to be re-designed. In this vain, David Sloan Wilson’s The Neighborhood Project set out to “use evolution to change [his] city one block at a time” (Wilson, 2011). Together with his colleagues he surveyed four aspects related to pro-social behavior (prosociality) in his neighborhood.
Design thinking, as opposed to designing refers to the specific methodology with a clear aim to foster creativity for problem solving (Brown, 2008). On a purely theoretical level, the three crucial steps of design thinking— generation, selection, and retention—are surprisingly similar to evolutionary theory (Thoring & Mueller, 2011). (1) Retention: In both biological evolution and design thinking, a pattern of information must first be stored and reproduced. For living things this is accomplished through inheritance and breeding. Ideas must be retained in the mind, written down, or otherwise recorded. A brainstorming session will have no outcome if ideas are not saved. In this vain, founder of IDEO, David Kelley liberally praises the post-it as a retention tool (Kelley &Kelley, 2013). (2) Generation: In order to create variation, and consequently innovation with the retained pattern, that pattern has to either mutate or recombine. Chromosomal crossover is an example of this in biological evolution and similarly ideas mutate and recombine. Whereas in nature toxics or radiation can cause mutations, books, films or teachers can cause mutations in the mind. In his groundbreaking work The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins first called such ideas memes and actually founded a new field of inquiry called memetics (Dawkins, 2006). (3) Selection: Nature is master of prototyping; the pattern of information that has been retained and recombined must be tested under changing environmental contexts. While the genotype represents the genetic information of an organism, natural and sexual selection happens on the level of phenotype, which is what is actually represented. In design thinking testing of assumptions is done repeatedly through prototyping (IDEO, 2008). To make an analogy to design thinking, a concept or idea would be the genotype, while a representation of such an idea like a prototype, could be described as the phenotype (Thoring & Mueller, 2011).
The designer must try and understand what is done and desired on the level of phenotype, and some of the best available theories to make sense of human mind and body are broadly the principles of natural and sexual selection (Miller, 2009). Artificial selection helps when trying to understand cultural evolution (Schermer, 2008). Products that impress aesthetically and functionally will likely be selected over others and sometimes first-to-market commodities mark a path dependency (Stack et.al, 2003). In the department of (DPM), my courses Scientific Work 1, Scientific Work 3, Anthropology and Design and Ethnography: Design Research are taught using an evolutionary conception of human nature to produce and test any design decisions. Below, I will discuss some promising projects coming out of those classes.
Nudge: Design Thinking and Preventative Sciences
Recent research in various behavioral sciences (prevention science, cognitive psychology, neurology, experimental economics) is especially fruitful for designers as it shows that certain interventions can prevent many of the behavioral problems that trouble society. Indeed, it is now possible to positively influence the further evolution of cultural practices (Wilson et al., 2014). For example, at the British Behavioral Design Lab, a collaboration between Warwick Business School and the Design Council, scientific understanding of people is used to design better products, services and places (http://www.behaviouraldesignlab.org, accessed on 9/2/2015). Perhaps the most relevant for designers is the so-called nudge theory. The basic argument here is that non-forced compliance can be achieved at least as effective by positive reinforcement as by negative sanctions (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). Let us imagine we are hungry and walk into a self-service cafeteria. If the slices of pizza are found immediately after the entrance and the salad bar at the very end before the cashier, we will likely not eat many greens. But, for a designer wanting to fight a rising trend in diabetes, the environment of the cafeteria could be restructured in a way to encourage eating more greens and less lard. Especially designers of services and social innovation – but also those of commodities- can thus become choice architects by shaping the situations in which people make choices (Thaler & Sunstein 2008). Of course marketers, advertisers and shop designers have been excellent choice architects for decades but their motivation has been on behalf of the seller. Designers could just as easily study human behavior and use choice architecture on behalf of the chooser. A Master student’s project of (DPM) called MOTUS was a designed catalogue page for a furniture company that wants to add children’s furniture as a new product line. The students decided to fight – although only two-dimensionally- rising child obesity rates by nudging children to use their rooms to be like kids: wild.
We are not Modern: Design Thinking and Biological Anthropology
From the research of paleoanthropology, primatology, archaeology and genetics we now know that the vast majority of our evolutionary history was tribal, nomadic and sustainable and thus radically different to life today (Diamond, 2005, Diamond, 2012, Wilson 2012). If we just paid attention, we would realize that we are often ill adjusted to the niche we have designed around ourselves for hundreds of thousands of years. The glitches in the interface between the Pleistocene brain and Modern times are called cognitive biases and they serve as reminders for the need for a more naturalist design research. To use an example, consumer (B) buys something because a respected other (A) belonging to a desirable tribe has bought it before. Indeed, it has been known for a long time that advertising is largely based on the bandwagon effect, according to which we behave in a certain way simply because others behave that way (Packard, 1957). This effect can be a remarkable marketing strategy (Lindstrom, 2010), when celebrities – the Modern version of royalty – flaunt something material (Lindstrom, 2011). Nescafé did so well in part because George Clooney is shown sipping it and to the archaic brain Clooney is an alpha male stakeholder. Indeed, marketers have long exploited the tribal nature of people. Is it not time to work with that same nature but skew benefits towards end-users?
E. O. Wilson, father of sociobiology, argues that humans are one of only a handful of eusocial species ever to craze earth (Wilson, 2012). Eusociality is the highest, most complex level of societal organization consisting of factors such as many individuals caring for related and unrelated offspring, a multi- generational contract and a strong division of labor. The emerging picture of our eusocial species is one of radical egalitarianism and immense peer pressure often shown by displays of hive-mind (Boehm, 2012; Wilson, 2007). However, examples of the human species’ altruistic, pro-social behavior where the commons are protected and governed are never random or archaic but always include design principles, as was shown by Nobel-prize winner Elinor Ostrom (Ostrom, 1990). Edward O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson elegantly sum up human social motivation: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary ” (Wilson & Wilson, 2007). Thus, Seth Godin’s observations that overlapping networks of collaboration and allegiance are not just from the distant past or exotic locations, but a driving force of game-changing innovation (Godin, 2008) are supported by science.
We don’t think modern: Design Thinking and Evolutionary Psychology
Named after the evolutionary psychologist, Dunbar’s Number describes the cognitive limit of people we can have meaningful and stable relations with (Barret et. al, 2002). Robin Dunbar has made extensive research with other like-minded scientists and he discovered groupings of 150 almost everywhere he looked. The few remaining hunter-gatherer societies tend to be 150 members strong as are the smallest autonomous military unit in ancient as well as modern armies. The communes of the Hutterites and Mennonites, Amish-like sects of North America, divide when their numbers exceed 150. But, so do the offices of many modern corporations (Dunbar, 2010). Dunbar and fellow researchers believe that this was the number of people the tribes of modern humans emigrating from Africa some 50, 000 years ago had. This is very significant considering that each and every one of us is a descendant of those people and there exist no descendants of genetic losers (Dunbar, 2010). People are tribal, we conglomerate and virtual meeting points such a Facebook are no exception to the workings of Dunbar’s number (Saad, 2011). According to a 2011 paper the average number Twitter users interact with is lies somewhere between 100 and 200 (Gonçalves, 2011).
Hominids living in small tribes of hunter-gatherers evolved a decision-making pattern for archaic- not modern- circumstances and if that pattern led to their survival then our heads hold a similar pattern to solve challenges today. Since cultural evolution has been much faster than biological evolution, however, our mental algorithms are often inapt for the travesties of modern life. Science writer Michael Shermer puts it this way:
What may seem like irrational behavior today may have actually been rational 100,000 years ago. Without an evolutionary perspective, the assumptions of Homo economicus—that “Economic Man” is rational, self-maximizing and efficient in making choices—make no sense (Schermer, 2008).
Sure, the designer has to design for the circumstances of the 21st century but he/she should never forget that the end user has an archaic mind. Long before the systematic evolutionary study of the human psyche began (Barkow et al., 1992), an evolutionary foundation to human behavior was predicted by Charles Darwin in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Darwin, 1872). Evolutionary psychology now stands as an explanatory framework with the potential for understanding all psychological phenomena. The aim of this young discipline is to understand why humans do what they do and it has the following main tenets: (1) Our ancestors faced many dire challenges during our species’ evolutionary history and natural selection designed our ancestors’ neural circuits to solve them. (2) Only those ancestors that were able to solve problems passed their genes on and those genes were used to build more successful neural circuits. (3) Thus, our modern skulls literally house Stone Age minds. (4) Most of the activity in our minds is unconscious and hidden from us. (5) The mind is modular and different types of neural circuits are all specialized for solving different adaptive problems (Dunbar & Barrett, 2007).
Evolutionary psychology also claims that modern aesthetic sensibility is a product of natural selection of those ancestors who responded positively to the environment of their time (Buss 2005). Especially interesting for design is the so-called savanna hypothesis, arguing that a preference to the basic environmental clues of the distant past must still be present in modern minds (Barkow et al., 1992). This hypothesis has been verified in a very elegant study and modern humans do seem to prefer some environments to others universally (Balling & Falk, 1982). I consulted GP designpartners, based in Vienna on a park project using such evolutionary criteria in 2013. An unattractive piece of land was thus transformed into a naturally more appealing park (http://gp.co.at/ottobock-park, [updated link: 11.7.2015]). It remains to be seen if the surrounding offices reported higher outputs from their human resource departments.
Since designed products always appear in different environments, be it the display, the store or just the packaging, the environment in which an artifact is observed or handled must be extremely important (Heufler, 2004; Dutton, 2009). A master thesis project at (DPM) last year used the theory of evolutionary psychology regarding landscape perception and compared it with consumers’ reactions to and perceptions of commodities. The preference of humans towards landscapes and surroundings fit for their survival may thus be in line with the preference of products placed inside a somehow favorable surrounding. A preferred environment might in the long run secure more chance of survival and reproduction, and the resulting preference for that type of surrounding are cross-culturally universal (Dutton, 2009). Thus following evolutionary logic, it was assumed that objects will be judged as more attractive when presented in front of a harmonizing background. Following the premises of natural selection, harmony of objects and background might be unconsciously perceived as offering more security to the individual customer. Due to the pressures of sexual selection, individuals might prefer a harmonic product display because it may make them appear more desirable to the opposite sex. The hypotheses used to test the styling model -used by such companies as IKEA where commodities are displayed inside fake environments- were defined as follows: (1) The color or graphic variation of the surface and surrounding created for a specific target group is sufficient to change the perception of the product design and price significantly for the better, (2) styling of both surface and the surrounding together will have the most significant positive effect, and that (3) the surrounding will have a more significant effect on the perception of the product than the styling of the surface. Theses hypotheses were tested and verified in the actual showrooms of a large furniture house outside Salzburg by (1.) Displaying un-styled furniture in front of un-styled walls, (2.) Styled furniture in front of un-styled walls and (3.) Styled furniture in front of styled walls. On a fourth day, (4.) the showroom was displayed as un-orderly (Topic et al., 2014).
Runaway Consumerism: Design Thinking and Conspicuous Consumption
In the seminal The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorsten Veblen combined economics and Darwinian theory to explain why we conspicuously consume (Veblen, 2007). Once the basic human needs are satisfied -the argument goes- it makes sense to advertise the ability to consume over and beyond our share of resources. If biological signaling theory can explain the tail of the peacock or the antlers of the buck (Smith, 2003), than it can also explain a Porsche Cayenne or a handbag made by Louis Vuitton. What the consumer wants to advertise could likely be psychological traits of the “Big 5” (Miller, 2011). The resulting runaway consumerism seems to follow archaic patterns and its unholy alliance with planned obsolescence has detrimental environmental consequences (Miller, 2011; Slade, 2007; Chapman, 2005). Geographer and biologist Jared Diamond speaks of ecocide (Diamond, 2005).
Flaunting things that do not help- and often hinder- our chance of survival, can be explained by Darwin’s theory of sexual selection (Andersson, 1994). Evolutionary psychology has shown that we design ourselves and our surrounding not to be but in order to appear a certain way. Selection by mate choice is as ancient as sex itself and crucial for the “designing” process of nature (Miller, 2000). In the words of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller: “Sex became the foundation of almost all complex life because it was so good at both short-term damage limitation ... and long-term innovation...”(Miller, 2012). In a pioneering study of products as fitness indicators, anthropologist Marek Kohn and archaeologist Stephen Mithen have independently come up with an extraordinary twist on sexual selection theory to account for the exact symmetry and razor-like edges of Paleolithic hand axes. Such hand axes varied little over vast temporal and geographical distances, were found in (over)-abundance and often lacked signs of abrasion. Strange as it may seem, their functionality may have moved beyond cutlery and to signaling attraction of the user (Kohn & Mithen, 1999). Just like the owner of a flashy new smartphone, the Paleolithic population wanted to be seen with one of these gadgets (Kohn, 2000). A lot of purchasing decisions are made in order to “keep up with the Jones”; to conspicuously display what others display. Currently, a (DPM) Master student is analyzing selfies posted on Facebook in an attempt to see sex differences in consumer goods display. Her goal is to continue in the vain of the thesis of (Topic et al., 2014) mentioned above by exploring what in design makes a user be rated as more attractive. Finding some answers could certainly add to the growing literature on ecological design and instilling that something into commodities would be an easy sale.
Into the Field: Design Thinking and Ethnology
Many indigenous cultures have disappeared and most craftsmanship has been industrialized. Yet, perhaps more than ever before, this globalized and disruptive post-Modern world has urban, visual, economic, corporate and cyber-anthropologists poring over new mysteries. Beyond all the data, ethnology also has validated and rigorous methods for gaining entry, conducting interviews and analyzing emic and etic information (Harris, 2001). Recommended by modern firms such as IDEO and méthos, obvious to ethnologists, the designer has to be – above all - empathic. In short: the designer has to become an ethnographer. Francis Müller, ethnologist in a Zürich-based design school laments that designers are still not spending enough rigorous time in the field observing and interviewing real people (Müller, 2011).
Thinking of design as a participatory, emphatic discipline calls for optimism (Brown, 2008) and reminds us that in many ways design thinking is social science thinking. One promising contribution to fieldwork is the cultural probe devised by design professor Bill Gaver, where a member of the target group is asked to actively participate in the research phase of a project (Gaver, 1999). A (DPM) master student spent three weeks living with the Maasai of rural Kenya to gain insights to their problems concerning water transportation. She employed culture probes using cheap, throwaway cameras in order to capture the day-to-day experiences of her subjects. Exemplary human-centered design research, but merely a helpful extension of participant observation, practiced almost a hundred years ago by the founding fathers of cultural anthropology Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas.
Conclusion and Outlook
Homo sapiens are without a doubt the species most sophisticated at niche construction since we deliberately change most aspects of our environment (Odling-Schmee et al., 2003) and design is as old as the species itself. Today, design needs to return to being an inclusive undertaking for and with the end users. Human needs and wants leading to a willingness to purchase a designed object are based on emotions, instincts and cognitive biases, all of which are innate, evolutionary drivers and largely elusive to traditional market research. Before any successful empirical research can be done, the designer has to consult the lush findings of the anthropological sciences in order to see the larger patterns. Then, designers can go out, gain rapport and through participant observation become part of the myriad of different tribes. In order to positively shape the future, design has to move from being a selfish endeavor to an altruistic one and from an individual one to a tribal one. If design aspires to holism, then a qualitative field-based approach becomes mandatory. In short, the social sciences have known all along that good design can only possibly be human-centered. As far as anthropological science is concerned: What could be better than studying the process of humans giving birth to culture itself?