Posted on 2021-06-03.
things are people too
Application for NERD 2021, Adrian Demleitner
Do you believe that things can have a soul, or contain a spirit for that matter? If yes, you are not alone. Looking at the different cultures of this world, one notes the Eurocentric perception of things as passive or dead material is the exception. Summarized as animism it is defined as the elevation of material things to other-than-human subjects. Either way, taken as literal ontological truth or as a metaphor for the aesthetic surplus of grand design, this research is based on the hypothesis that an animistic point of view can change the interaction and relationship we have to an object.
Consumer electronics became steady companions in our life. Not only do we interact with them regularly, but they are also with and close to us throughout the day. We could call them companion objects, following Donna Haraway’s concept of companion species — electronics and people, who are bonded in significant otherness. This notion is furthered by ontological design, which states that we’re not just users of products, but that the products actively make us who and what we are. Even if we’re not aware of this process.
Despite continuous innovation, consumer electronics also became mass-produced devices, that can’t hold meaning for a longer time. We enjoy them for a short time after the acquisition and during a brief moment, we can have a rendezvous with the ephemeral spirit of innovation and technological superiority. Yet, we can neither truly relate with the acquired technologies, nor can they evolve with us and our progressing of our life. Soon, the little meaning they held for us vanishes, and the devices, although practically functioning, become disposable. They will be getting rid of as soon as we see a reason to do so. We essentially become alienated from these devices. One of the most direct consequences of this alienation is that we consume technology in rapid turnovers, producing more electronic waste than we can recycle. Knowledge emerged in the last decade, that the mining of raw material for electronics as well as the production of these devices can harm the environment as well encourage the exploitation of the workforce.
Designers have repeatedly tried to change people’s consumption to address these problems. Be it through quality (Gute Form), DIY (Whole Earth Catalog, Papanek), deceleration (Slow Movement), new design approaches (Transition Design, Circular Design), or humanistic ideals (Human-Centered Design). Contemporary technology consumption seems to elude these discourses. Except for a few products (Fairphone) or practices (Low- or ethical tech, the Closing-Worlds Initiative), the problematics of contemporary technologies are ignored. Until today, design theories often understand design as a problem-solving approach, reproducing a modern narrative that disregards the plurality of the world. 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.
Believing that things have a soul can make us bond with them respectfully. By focusing on this intersection of emotionally durable design, our relationship to consumer electronics and animism, this research addresses the following questions: How can animism support the development of emotionally durable design?
In this two-parted presentation, I will go into the interim results of the project as well as the overall project architecture. After the literature review and an ethnographic sampling, especially the thematic analysis of the gathered data as well as the prototyping phase is of interest for design research. The second part of the presentation will outline how the project structure will try to answer inquiries into epistemological matters.
My interest in other-than-human subjects is rooted in my profession as a software engineer and the recognition of actor-network-theory as a fundamental change of what we consider having agency. As such, I have been working with artificial intelligence, bots, and digital artifacts as actors but also with the multispecies discourse. However, as a Master’s student in Design Research and my background as growing up surrounded by art and craft, I am also deeply entangled with design and its material aspects. This conjuncture builds the base on which the intention for this project grew. Specifically, it is an attempt to bring aspects that make up a rich life to a field, which is mainly concerned with innovation and functionality. The potentials and interests of design include subjective experience, generating and embedding meaning within things, and of course emotions. These potentials need to be brought to the design of technological artifacts.
The research project is aimed at tracking and describing existing animistic aspects and practices as well as entry points in a user’s journey with technological devices. The development of these aspects, “weak signals”, into prototypical narratives will take place in a second phase within participatory workshops. The aim is to develop manifested narratives, prototypes, around an already existing technology, which can then be tested.
In the first phase of the project, I focus on the voice assistant devices Amazon Echo and Google Nest Mini. Specifically, I will use ethnographic sampling and data collection to learn more about the specific role and meaning it has for their owners, respectively the household they are placed in. This data and the subsequent thematic analysis are treated as weak signals. Weak signals can be found in the already existing daily routines and stories of the interviewed and observed participants. The detection of weak signals is based on ethnographic research with the methods of observation, interviews as well as user journeys, narrative inquiry, and experience reports. The collected data is worked on through thematic analysis with a reflexive approach after Brown and Clarke. The developed codes and themes serve as input for the second phase.
The second phase will explore the potential of design to develop other ways of interacting with technology. Prototypes will be developed in a series of interdisciplinary and participatory workshops together with experts from different design disciplines (industrial- and product design, graphics, service design) as well as professionals focused on writing or craft. These prototypes should apply to already existing technologies, in this case, voice assistant devices. The workshops focus on the user and the device, the interaction between them as well as the generated meaning out of this relation. The prototypical narratives can contain elements of storytelling, ritual, aesthetic add-ons, or complete reshaping of the device itself. The process of the workshop is guided by theoretical inputs on animism as well as the weak signals generated in the first phase.
To summarize, the project aims to understand animism from an epistemological point of view and its application in the design of technological devices. Animism then is the consideration of a thing as something with an agency, even if it is not physically animated, respectively physically acting. Simply by existing, a thing has an impact on the world. That is, even more, the case with the electronics that we surround ourselves with. This approached is backed by emotionally durable design, which demands, among other things, the design of consciousness into products. Animism, the idea of a thing having a soul, can be taken on par with this demand. At least, epistemological speaking. There are many questions involved regarding this approach, many of which can’t be tackled through this project alone. The main guiding question therefore will be: How can animism support the development of emotionally durable design?
The project aims to produce knowledge for the domain of design, from which a few disciplines and fields could profit. These include industrial and product design, disciplines involving storytelling like marketing or event design as well as fields concerning the environment like transition or circulatory design. Beyond the scope of this project, further questions can be asked. Can an animistic point of view prolong and intensify the emotional bond we have with technological products and processes? What are the epistemic effects on the users of animistic narratives in design? Can animism be introduced to non-animistic communities? Can design tackle such a challenge?