Digital Animism: Through Looking at the Meaning within Noise
Ever since the most ancient of times, the concept of animism has followed the belief that things, from inanimate objects to landforms, have spirits residing inside of them, for example, a god of the mountain, a god of the river, a god of books, and so on. In today’s world full of machines and ever-increasing numbers of inanimate objects, it is important to expand the idea of animism, in order to reevaluate the possible spiritual properties of these inorganic objects.
In Japan, there has long existed an equivalent idea to animism, which is called “Yaoyorozu-No-Kami” (“eight million gods”); this concept is deeply rooted within Japanese culture. As the name suggests, this belief holds that a god dwells within each and every thing, and these gods are believed to utter a curse, should someone in their vicinity perform an act of malice or transgression. For example, were someone walking on the mountain to drop litter, the god of the mountain would be angered, and lightning would strike the mountain.
This type of polytheistic belief encouraged one Japanese shrine to produce good-luck charms in the shape of computers and other electronics, called “IT charms.” This project is inspired by this trait of Japanese culture, which readily allows for the adoption of new technologies into its religion.
Two concepts are fundamental to the explorations detailed by this paper. The aforementioned animism is one of these, and the second of these is so-called ‘object-oriented ontology’ (abbreviated to ‘OOO’). This school of thought opposes the idea of privileging human existence over the existence of non-human objects, and one of its principle advocates is Graham Harman, the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles. In direct opposition to existing Kantian anthropocentric ontology, Harman has proposed that objects exist independently of human perception, and the existence of these objects is not threatened by the existence of others. Harman opposes the accepted (and as he perceives it, ‘radical’) philosophical way of dealing with objects:
…there is no neutral history of philosophy; all such histories are guided by the view of the author as to what is more and less important, and by no means will we settle that issue here. What I opposed are all the various ‘radical’ attempts to eliminate the object from philosophy, whether in the name of relations, qualities, shapeless matter, or anything else. (Bryant, 2012, p.39)
Moreover, he considers the relationship between a human being and an object to be the same as that between two or more objects:
The raindrops or breezes that strike the hammer may not be “conscious” of it in human fashion, yet such entities fail to exhaust the reality of the hammer to no less a degree than human praxis or theory. (Harman, 2012, p.187)
Hence object-orientated ontology suggests that an object may have properties which make it suitable for use by human beings in certain ways, but it may also have other qualities, which are unknown, and even unknowable, to human beings.
In addition to this, one of the central tenets of animism is the interconnectedness of lives, and the concept that every element of nature combines to construct a greater and united whole; this is in contrast to anthropocentric ideas, which deem human beings to be the only extant forms in the world which are possessed of immortal souls. In this way, animism refutes the concept of an anthropocentric world, where human beings are in a central, and privileged position.
The most significant difference between object-oriented ontology and animism is whether objects are accessible by human beings or not. In this paper, the concept of animism will be extrapolated forwards into the digital world.
Animism is the concept that a spiritual property, or a soul, exists inside every animate and non-animate thing. Animism regards every single thing around us – for example rocks, mountains, stools, machines, and so on – as spiritual entities. The term “animism” as it is currently understood was initially developed by the nineteen-century anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor:
Religious ideas generally appear among low races of Mankind – Negative statements on this subject frequently misleading and mistaken: many cases uncertain – Minimum definition of Religion – Doctrine of Spiritual Beings, here termed Animism… I propose here, under the name of Animism, to investigate the deep-lying doctrine of spiritual Beings, which embodies the very essence of Spiritualistic as opposed to Materialistic philosophy. (Tylor, 1970, pp.417-425)
According to Tylor, animism is a minimum unit of religion which is found all over the world, and there are many religions which would seem to derive from core animist beliefs, cultivated by humans in order to overcome a world which they could not comprehend rationally (Harvey, 2005, p.6). Tylor argued for an evolutionary development of religions, ranging from animism to monotheism. Animism, however, is suggested by Tylor as a stage through which every religion might have passed, during its growth and development. Since the core tenet of animism is that all things and entities possess a spirit, animism cannot encompass the notion of monotheism, animism understands multiple gods to surround us, in the natural and human environment. As a consequence, the concept of animism declines the perspective of dualism of mind and body.
Tylor suggests that primitive religion has its origins in animism, and focuses specifically on whether entities have lives or not, and to what extent things look ‘alive’. In the more recent past, however, ethnological discussion on the subject of animism has seen a slightly new perspective adopted. The twentieth-century anthropologist Graham Harvey has suggested new possibilities inherent in the notion of animism. He proposes a ‘new’ animism, with a different viewpoint, in that he “refers to a concern with knowing how to behave appropriately towards persons, not all of whom are human”, and posits the question of “how persons are to be treated or acted towards” at the centre of the argument (Harvey, 2005, p.xi). In these terms, ‘persons’ are not only human beings, but also rocks, trees, mountains and so on. Since persons communicate with each other by means of language and this act is reciprocal, Harvey’s animism is the theory of relationship between persons and other-than-persons rather than merely to observe non-animate objects.
The twentieth-century Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget applied the idea of animism to childhood mental development. He argues that, in the context of animism, there are four stages in the way that children conceive of the world. The first stage is that all things are conscious. Piaget claims that children up to the age of 4 or 5 believe that almost every-thing is alive and has a purpose:
…any object may be the seat of consciousness at a given moment, that is to say when the object displays a particular measure of activity or is the seat of some action. Thus a stone may feel nothing, but if it is moved, it will feel it. (Piaget, 1951, p. 174)
In the second stage (5-7 years), only objects that move have a purpose for the child:
The characteristic of the second stage is, on the contrary, that consciousness is henceforth restricted to things that can move, that is to say no longer to objects, which can for the moment become the seat of a particular movement, but to those ordinarily in motion or whose special function is to be in motion. Thus the sun and moon, the stars, clouds, rivers, the wind, carts, fire, etc., are all regarded as conscious. (Piaget, 1951, p. 178)
In the third stage (7-9 years), only objects that move spontaneously are thought by the child to be alive:
In the majority of cases the animism is more reflective and the motive clearer than in the answers of the preceding stages, which, indeed, showed much more a general trend of mind than any systematic beliefs. According to the terminology adopted they were “liberated” rather than “spontaneous“ convictions. On the other hand, many children of the third stage (not the majority, but a considerable number) show a more reflective view and together with many “ liberated” convictions are a number that are “spontaneous.” (Piaget, 1951, p. 182)
In the last stage (9-12 years), the child understands that only animals, and possibly plants, are alive, since they tend to
…answer all the questions negatively and to restrict consciousness to animals alone or to plants and animals alone, [which] clearly shows that the questions cannot have been suggestive. (Piaget, 1951, p. 186)
Piaget work contributed a large amount to the process of construction of animistic view particularly in childhood. This process of acquiring the intellectual ability can be described as the one of decentration of self. Piaget depicts that Children grow up as they obtain the view of subject and object and realise that objects don’t have emotions and throw away the notion of animism gradually.
Harvey, however, qualifies this by engaging with Piaget’s theory, and suggesting that the concept of animism is not as clear-cut as might be suggested in the previous quotations.
…However, many adults continue to do animistic things even in cultures that do not vigorously encourage them to do so. Naming cars and swearing at recalcitrant computers are common examples of the personalising of the world – even if, when pressed, people insist they do not really expect a positive response from inanimate machines. (Harvey, 2014, p.6)
In brief, he opposes the ways in which Piaget experimented with, and explored the idea of animism, suggesting that Piaget’s narrow perspective is at odds with the animism which adults actually experience.
In the world of animism, people give gifts to somebody else or another community to obey the rule and show the appreciation. This action contains the notion that they exchange also their characters absorbed into gifts in the different way from the one of monetary economy.
The relationship between human beings and nature or animals, resource and food from nature consists of the one with exchange. For example, in nature human beings have to hide their existence by walking very slowly when they try to capture dears. They need to be a member of nature at least for a moment to appreciate the food. In this sense, nature and a human being are both nested in each other. Human beings receive the gift from nature, such as fish and dear, and in return they give fish bones or shells back to nature. Human beings can experience nature through animals, resource and food.
The difference which divides us to animate and non-animate things is the language. Human beings communicate ideas with each other via sound, text or gestures. Even animals convey least amount of messages via certain way of communication, such as barking, dancing and smells.
In this chapter, several ideas on animism were introduced. The animistic view exists not only among children and the primitive cultures, but also remains in many adults from the culture in which animism is not the major view. In the next chapter, it is discussed how communication between digital technologies allow non-animate things to become animate.
Communication is the behaviour of conveying ideas and what people think from one group to another (may not be human beings). There are many ways of delivering messages varying from non-verbal communication to verbal communication. The original idea of this term is sharing something with somebody. Here is the origin of the word:
Early 16th century: from Latin communicat- ‘shared’, from the verb communicate, from communis… . (Oxford Living Dictionaries, 2017, ‘communicate‘)
The famous theory established by twenteen-century mathematician Claude Elwood Shannon models the way of communication from the beginning of a message being conveyed to the end of communication act with 5 steps (figure 01):
1. An information source which produces a message or sequence of messages to be communicated to the receiving terminal…
2. A transmitter which operates on the message in some way to produce a signal suitable for transmission over the channel…
3. The channel is merely the medium used to transmit the signal from transmitter to receiver. It may be a pair of wires, a coaxial cable, a band of radio frequencies, a beam of light, etc.
4. The receiver ordinarily performs the inverse operation of that done by the transmitter, reconstructing the message from the signal.
5. The destination is the person (or thing) for whom the message is intended. (Shannon, 1999, p. 2)
Fig. 01 —– Schematic diagram of a general communication system.
In the communication between two persons (A and B), an information source is likened to a brain of A, a transmitter to a mouth of A, the channel to sound waves between A and B, the receiver to an ear of B and the destination to a brain of B. As the origin of this word implies, the communication between two entities is merely the act of sharing the message and can be modelled in the simple way. Significantly, this model is premised that an information source and the destination are existing independently to observe whether the message is conveyed properly or not. In the process of message being conveyed, information experiences some interference and is sometimes communicated properly, which is called noise in this model. When the message which was emitted by one person corresponds with the one received by another person no matter how much noise interferes in the middle, the communication is formed.
The digital communication is intended to be perfect and there are supposed to be no errors through the process of conveying message. Paradoxically, this perfection prevents us from considering digital devices as animate objects. How can communication enable non-animate digital objects to become animate?
Noise is the obstacle unnecessary in information and exists between its transmission and reception. According to Fiske and Jenkins (2011, p.8), noise can be distortion of sound or crackling in a telephone wire, static in radio signal, or ‘snow’ on a television screen. Noise occurs within the channel, but it could happen in the semantic level (e.g. an uncomfortable chair during a lecturer’s words and thoughts that are more interesting than the lecturer’s words (Fiske and Jenkins, 2011, p.8)). Because of its unnecessity, noise is sometimes treated as “a nuisance” or “a signal we don’t like” (Kosko, 2006, p.3).
Generally researchers and engineers have tried to reduce or remove noise in digital technologies. However, while machines have been becoming noise-free communication devices, human beings still make errors in communication. Italian Futurist composer Luigi Russolo stated:
Every manifestation of life is accompanied by noise. Noise is thus familiar to our ear and has the power of immediately recalling life itself. Sound, estranged from life, always musical, something in itself, an occasional not a necessary element, has become for our ear what for the eye is a too familiar sight (Russolo, 1986, p.27).
Clearly, the language is the one of reasons why animate objects including human are animate objects and, moreover, error of communication or failing to understand is also fundamental to be animate. Human beings and other animate objects have long attempted to overcome noise, which in the end turned out to be impossible to be removed completely, and thus, they compromised and chose to live better with.
Then another question arises: what kind of communication enable non-animate objects to become animate? In the next chapter, the way of generating and expanding noise is explored.
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As an example dealing with communication between objects, the project called “Chinese Whisper – An Intimate Conversation” offers the possibilities of animistic view of digital devices with some noise included (fig 02). This simple examination depicts the importance of noise generated by the ability of microphones and speakers. A graphic designer Hendrike Nagel intended to make two computers talk to each other and observe the scripts produced after the repetition of dictation and record.
Fig. 02 —– Project Chinese Whisper
A noise doesn’t mean the noise occurring only through the communication of sound but also through the interchange of information. The messages are transferred from encoder to decoder through channel. During this process the messages may be distracted or affected by physical noise like horn sounds, thunder and crowd noise or encoded signals may be distracted in the channel during the transmission process which affect the communication flow or the receiver may not receive the correct message.
Sometimes we hear rumours which is not likely to be reliable. Some rumours are generated by a certain group of people who intend to change the meaning. However, the other rumours are fostered either by accident (human error) or by noise developed through a set of communication unintentionally. Google translation contains noise within the process of translation. This figure 03 shows how the original script of a part of Canterbury Tales changes through a set of google-translation between English and Japanese back and forth.
Fig. 03 —– Google Translation Repetition
Fig.04 —- Avatar
Avatars (Fig. 04) is the exhibition held in YCAM in Japan. In this exhibition, there is a set of objects (e.g. car, cone, statue, plant, etc.) and people can log into a camera which an object moving around the venue has inside and manipulate objects online. The dive into the spirit of object makes people feel strange as if they were objects themselves, and, moreover, those who are in the venue are induced to feel the sense of danger when objects get close to each other. As I experienced this exhibition and controlled a plant, some other objects moved towards my object and I felt dangerous as if I was escaping from enemies. This experience of possession realise the world where non-animate objects have their lives.
Fig. 05 —– R/V
R/V (Fig.05) is the project in which two tiny vehicles are moving according to the control by two people respectively and onto which there are monitors attached. If they manipulate monitors close to each other, they can see the other’s face and talk to each other by using the microphone from the booth. This apparently bizarre way of communication produces the notion of possession and the new way of avoiding hesitation.
Slice of Time
Figure 06 —– Slice of Time
Figure 07 —– Slice of Time image sketch
An installation for the Italian luxury watch brand PANERAI designed by Japanese design firm Nendo. This design (figure 06 and 07) was made out of a transparent “empty-shell” like clock which consists of hour markers using one-stroke numerals and square-shaped cases. This clock was made by being elongated to a 16 meter length using the extrusion holding process. And then a piece of the clock was sliced out from the whole long clock extrusion to enable visitors to take them back home. A set of clocks with various dimensions were made since the ages of the visitors were converted into millimetres.
This example was used in the design process of our prototype. The act of cutting and slicing has the significant meaning in this project, and this participation is included in the design.
Fig. 08 —- Photo of the whole part of the prototype
Fig. 09 —- Photo of parts of the prototype
This prototype and design was made in line with the notion of animism emerging in and from digital technologies. In this prototype, we explored how objects talking to each other look like and what makes noise in the communication between objects.
There is an ongoing prototype which deals with VR and AR technology, in order to visualise the exchange of data between human beings and objects, by showing the transition of energy flows of both humans and nonhumans. Figure 08 and 09 shows the image of the first prototype. The initial idea is from the game of Chinese whispers; in this game, a message is whispered along a line of people, and passed on, complete with distortions, mangling of language and misapprehensions. At the end of the game, the person who has received the message last compares what they have heard with the original message, created by the first person in the line. The interesting thing here, is that human beings will automatically fill any lacunae in what they hear, reconstructing missing meanings or particles with human language to create their own sentences, according to their own experiences and cultural common sense. In this experiment, this phenomenon is recreated within the world of objects.
Our design concept was inspired by the project by Nendo shown in the chapter 5.3. In the project slice of time, the act of slicing the extrusion has a significant role, which inspired us in the way to create the noise. Moreover, Japanese candy called “Kintaro-ame” (Fig. 10) offered us the idea on how to design a set of devices. This candy originates from the middle of Edo period in Japan. A set of plate-shapes which turn colours of green, pink, black and white in order to depict the face of Kintaro, who is a main character appearing in a traditional Japanese old tale, is created before it is assembled in the right place to show the face of Kintaro when sliced. Then it is rolled to extend the length and sliced. Although faces showing in the sections are supposed to be the same, there are many faces different from the original one because when they are sliced, they are not always cut vertically. Thus this fact inspired us with the idea that cutting a tube with different angles offers sections different from the original one.
Fig. 10 —– Photo of “Kintaro-ame”, the candy.
In the prototype, initially we speculate one information cable in which information and messages are being conveyed from one end to the other. Then the cable is sliced at three points with two different angles into four different objects. By doing so sections emerge with some functions: speaker, microphone and display (figure 11) and suddenly these objects start to talk with each other. As a communication signal, we used Morse Code to examine how the noise is created. The first object functions as a transmitter, which connected to a laptop (as a information source) to enable us to type the text in the laptop via bluetooth. Inside this device, there is a speaker connected to an arduino and emit the sound with a frequency of 9000 Hz according to the text which the arduino receives from the laptop and is converted to Morse code ( e.g. the letter ‘W’ consists of one short signal, one long signal and one long signal in order (figure 12)). The second objects works as a receiver. This device has a microphone at one end and receive the sound emitted from the first object. Meanwhile, this object functions also as an information source and transmitter to relay the message. Inside this box, there are also an arduino and speaker in order to convert the Morse code which the microphone receives to texts and convert the texts to Morse code again to emit the sound 5000 Hz with a frequency of to the next device. Then the third device which contains a LED display and an arduino receives the sound emitted by the second device. The arduino converts Morse code to texts and LED display shows the texts one by one attached onto the section at the other end. This third piece functions as a receiver and the destination.
Fig. 11 —– Axonometric diagram of the prototype
Fig. 12 —– Diagram showing the letter “W” being conveyed from one end to the other.
This set of boxes are made from plywood. The textures of surfaces correspond to each other to emphasise the concept that these are used to be one cable. On sections of speakers and microphones, there are small holes located organically to match the texture of devices and enable sound to go through boxes. At the end of this process of communication, there is LED display attached underneath the surface which was sanded to be thin enough to let the LED light visible even from outside.
Two experiments are conducted using these devices to examine how the noise are generated. The text communicated during the whole of the experiments is “QUICK BROWN FOX”. This text is the abbreviation of “THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG”, which is an English pangram and contains all of the letters of the alphabet.This sentence is used for touch-typing practice, pilotting computer keyboards and displaying examples of fonts. The reason why this sentence is used is merely to prevent this sentence from making more sense than necessity and purely to observe the interference made by noise.
In the first experiment (figure 13), we use two devices to research the relationship between the proportion of errors which the sentence “QUICK BROWN FOX” might contain and the distance. The distances between two objects vary from 0 centimetre to 60 centimetre(figure 14). In the second experiment (figure 15), we use also two devices. The transmitter object is fixed at the centre of the circle with a radius of 20 centimetre and the other object functioning as a receiver and a display is set along the circle with the face of receiver towards the speaker the angle varying from 0 degree to 105 degree. The table of relationship between the angle
and the correctness of the sentence is shown below (figure 16). Significantly, the angle experiment shows less noise compared to the distance experiment. This offers the fact that a noise interferes the communication in relation more to the distance than to the angle.
Fig. 13 & 14 —– Distance experiment and distance-correctness table.
Fig. 15 & 16 —– Angle experiment and angle-correctness table.
Fig. 17 —– Final installation
Fig. 18 —– Final objects interaction
The theme of installation is still being developed and, furthermore, with experiences from prototypes, it will be improved.
In the future, we speculate a set of devices inspired by the prototype and these experiments. In the final installation, there are several objects (figure 17) attached on top of the stands, which are all able to collect the speech from either human beings or other objects and to speak in their own language with using the distortion of speech synthesizer.
In this installation, human beings are able to speak to objects about whatever they think and objects can listen to it and pass the message to other objects by speech synthesiser (Figure 18). This is aimed to demonstrate the interaction between objects and human beings extended from the previous prototypes we made.
This thesis sought how digital technologies transform non-animate things to become animate things comparable to living organisms by looking at the noise generated within communication between objects. Especially, Morse code, speaker, microphone and LED display are used as digital technologies during the whole prototypes and experiments.
First of all, the notion of animism was investigated to confirm whether it is possible to be applied to digital technologies or not. Various ideas on animism were introduced in the chapter 3. Tylor’s animism is mainly focusing on whether non-animate objects are animate or non-animate to human beings. While this elegant exploration in the field of primitive religion made the term ‘animism’ pervasive, there is still a division between human beings (or animals) and non-animate objects (rocks, plants and rivers). Compared to Tylor, Harvey offers the theory of animism in the different way. The theory situated all the animate objects in the relationship to non-animate objects. In this paper, term digital animism is used according to the concept presented by Graham Harvey in order to consider non-animate objects as independent entities as a first step before deeply researching into communication between non-animate objects.
Secondly, the way of communication among digital devices was examined in order to put emphasis on the communication itself as the one which enables non-animate objects to become animate. In particular, noise which coincides with the communication is considered as a fundamental part of what attributes characteristics of becoming animate to both animate or non-animate objects.
Finally, through a prototype and two experiments, how noise is created and to what extent noise interferes the communication among objects was examined. It was verified that the distance matters more and the angle between two objects does less. Subsequently, the installation of infinite and endless communication of devices was imagined to demonstrate that digital technologies transform non-animate objects to entities which generate own language as animate objects do.
What I have learnt from the prototype and experiments is that simple communication using More Code doesn’t look like their personhoods, but with the noise emerging within their communication, they look like they have their own lives. This unexpexted interaction can be obtained only through the noise occuring in their communication.
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List of Figures
Figure 01. Schematic diagram of a general communication system. Available at: http://math.harvard.edu/~ctm/home/text/others/shannon/entropy/entropy.pdf
Figure 02. Project “Chinese Whisper“ by Hendrike Nagel. Available at: http://www.hendrikenagel.com
Figure 03. Keisuke + Nakia 2017 Texts translated with Google Translate.
Figure 04. Project “Avatars“ by So Kanno + yang02. Available at: http://yang02.com/works/avatars
Figure 05. Project “R/V“ by
Figure 06. Idea sketch from project “Slice of Time“ by Nendo. Available at: http://www.nendo.jp/en/works/slice-of-time/?
Figure 07. Photo from project “Slice of Time“ by Nendo. Available at: http://www.nendo.jp/en/works/slice-of-time/empty-shell-clock/?egenre
Figure 08. Keisuke + Nakia 2017 Photo of whole parts of the prototype.
Figure 09. Keisuke + Nakia 2017 Photo of a part of the prototype.
Figure 10. Photo of “Kintaro-ame“, the candy. Available at: https://kotobank.jp/word/%E9%87%91%E5%A4%AA%E9%83%8E%E9%A3%B4-481508
Figure 11. Keisuke + Nakia 2017 Axonometric diagram of the prototype.
Figure 12. Keisuke + Nakia 2017 Diagram of the letter “W“ being conveyed from one end to the other.
Figure 13. Keisuke + Nakia 2017 Photo from the distance experiment
Figure 14. Keisuke + Nakia 2017 Table of relationship between distance and correctness.
Figure 15. Keisuke + Nakia 2017 Photo from the angle experiment.
Figure 16. Keisuke + Nakia 2017 Table of relationship between angle and correctness.
Figure 17. Keisuke + Nakia 2017 Photo of the final installation.
Figure 18. Keisuke + Nakia 2017 Diagram from the final installation