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Animism as a Metaphor for Interaction Design

On 22, Apr 2013 | In Blog, ideas, portfolio | By phil

SIGCHI 2013 paper

AniThings: Animism and Heterogeneous Multiplicity

Joshua McVeigh-Schultz and I presented our paper at SIGCHI 2013 in Paris. It presents ideas and a project on using animism as a metaphor for interaction design, something I’ve been exploring for the last few years.

Go here for a link to a free download of the paper.


As a context for this work, Evgeny Morozov has recently identified “Solutionism” in his new book, Click Here to Save Everything – The Folly of Technological Solutionism, where Silicon Valley sees everything as a nail: “There’s an app for that.” We agree that not everything is a problem to solve, and are interested in something different. We want to facilitate divergent thinking, problem setting, and open-ended explorations. Our approach is to provide a range of responses with honest biases, and leave the creative thinking, intelligence and discernment to people.

Heterogeneous Multiplicity

The paper advances something we call heterogeneous multiplicity, an ecology of digital objects with behaviors that evoke a perception that they have autonomy, intention, personality and an inner life. These “AniThings” are seen as collaborators, each with a distinct personality, that play a contributing role in creative activities. Unlike systems that try to provide “best” recommendations, the AniThings provide a rich information space from which to consider, select and pursue.

AniThings Diagram

This heterogeneous ecology fits especially well with the kind of divergent thinking that goes with creative endeavors, whether personal or professional, such as finding a house to buy, or designing a new medical device. The AniThings are given permission to access the user’s various data sets (library of books, design projects, music library, written notes, etc), as well as free and commercial information such as the open Web, Lexus-Nexus, or a Big-Data source. In addition, they have access to the person’s material related to the current projects at hand, such as designs, research, writing, etc.

Embodied Digital Ecologies

Based on their personalities, each AniThing searches, correlates, and selects material it finds “interesting” and related to the current context, and presents it to the user and other AniThings. The user then interacts with the devices, which can be spread out across the workspace, asking for more or dismissing their input. At times, one of the AniThings may interject something it thinks is important. At other times an AniThing may daydream or dose off. They also operate and interact with each other even when their human is away.

This embodied group of animistic personalities creates a wide field for the user from which to select, reject, query, imagine, and investigate. It’s a different model than the typical single channel interface we have to the digital space that’s often ineffectively narrowed by our own biases and automated recommendation systems that make assumptions about our needs.

Animism offers the chance to create rich digital ecologies that stimulate human intelligence and creativity rather than emulate or replace it.

Speculative Fiction Videos

The following are videos that explain the AniThings speculative design fiction that explores the topic.

Thanks to Nokia Research and Sean White who funded part of this work with a generous grant.