17.16, Wednesday 12 Jan 2011

Back in 2003, Mike Kuniavsky gave a talk called The Coming Age of Magic in which he speculated about how to design for ubicomp.

Ubicomp? Ubicomp is ubiquitous computing, and it's the quick way of talking about what happens when computers are so small and so cheap that we put them in all kinds of products and environments. Like toys, and toilets, and clothing, and desks and buildings. Why? Because it can be handy and fun. In 2003 this was future. In 2011 it's everyday (just flick through a copy of the Argos catalogue), or at least getting that way. I mean everything from iPhones to digital photo frames to the Magic Wand TV remote control (swish zap) to Zhu Zhu Hamsters (artificially intelligent!).

Mike talked about animism and enchanted objects, which is where we interact with things like they have lives of their own. It's the difference between a screwdriver (a tool) and a puppy (a fuzzy autonomous being). Once products start behaving in ways that aren't totally predictable, maybe we need to start designing them to show off their magic.

Along the way he cited some research that stuck in my head: Folk Biology and the Anthropology of Science: Cognitive Universals and Cultural Particulars (S. Atran, 1998). Mike summarises, Most world cultures classify all entities into one of four general classifications. ... Humans; nonhuman animals; plants; nonliving things.

It's a lovely little insight. And it's interesting because it happens across a bunch of cultures! The paper puts it pithily: Such taxonomies are not as arbitrary in structure and content, nor as variable across cultures, as the assembly of entities into cosmologies, materials or social groups. These structures are routine products of our 'habits of mind,' which may be in part naturally selected to grasp relevant and recurrent 'habits of the world.'

Atran goes on to look at this folk biology in some detail. ("Folk" is the prefix given to pre-theoretic understanding of a bunch of different disciplines. For instance, folk physics says that we believe, like Aristotle, that objects fly through the air then drop suddenly when thrown, like Coyote charging off a cliff then falling only as he realises where he is, rather than falling with the smooth parabola that actually occurs in ballistics, and you can observe this innate belief when studying the reactions of babies. There is also folk psychology, which I don't know much about, and more.)

It turns out we treat plants and animals somewhat specially: we're really good at classifying and grouping them, and - as humans - we tend to all do it roughly the same way. This grouping ability doesn't carry across to things that aren't animals or plants. There's a neat bit of evidence for this that made me laugh: comparing constellations in the cosmologies of Ancient China, Greece and the Aztec Empire shows little commonality. By contrast, herbals like the Ancient Chinese ERH YA, Theophrastus's Peri Puton Istorias, and the Aztec Badianus Codex, share important features, such as the classification of generic species into tree and herb life forms.

Anyway, my question is this: as humans, we'll treat animals and not-animals differently. There are qualities of animals we'd be surprised to see in not-animals, like autonomous behaviour and memory, and maybe we're more inclined to learn from animals or treat them ethically? So how do we distinguish between the two? Would it be enough to put a smiley face on a doll? Or would it need to be a doll that said random things? Or a doll that wasn't random but reacted to you in some way?

How much spirit of life is enough spirit of life to make the difference?