The tendency for human beings to ascribe human characteristics to non-human entities or objects, known as anthropomorphism, is universal. It seems to be a natural by-product of the way our minds work, and a pre-requisite for empathy. It requires no training: children, from the earliest ages, identify objects as having personalities. In philosophy, this phenomenon is considered an error, and is known as the “pathetic fallacy”, the mistake of attributing human aspirations, emotions or thoughts to inanimate objects.
In the context of artistic practice, anthropomorphism is the rule. Artists and their audiences invest emotion and cognition in the ofteninanimate medium of the art work. Many artists cannot function without forming personal relationships with their materials. The designed world we live in is populated with objects that intentionally resemble living beings in form or behavior. This complicates the distinction between creator and created. In daily life, when confronted with technology that fails to yield a desired result, people talk to their machines, scolding and pleading with them as if words could affect the operational parameters.
A related, and inverse, phenomenon is that of “technomorphism”, a neologism for the tendency to describe human behavior and emotions in terms of metaphors drawn from our interactions with technology. Most technologists subscribe to a mechanistic system of reasoning, which would initially seem to exclude anthropomorphism and its inverse as bad science. In practice, however, they often find it useful. Anthropomorphizing technology may be seen as an expression of humility, recognizing the importance of emergent, non-designed behaviors of complex systems. Consciousness and other human traits are observed to be interesting surface phenomena independent of the platform upon which they are implemented. Humans are often equated with machines. If a human machine can have intentions, it is no less credible to posit that a given system “wants” a specific outcome than to state that its designer does. Seen in this light, every act of personification, whether the object of the classification is human or otherwise, is in fact a guess as to the nature of the complexity of the object at hand.
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