19.276 personification and anthropomorphism in software

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 10 Sep 2005 09:22:33 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 276.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 10 Sep 2005 08:51:06 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: personification and anthropomorphism in software

Thanks to the several people who commented on this topic.

Personification is an historically ancient subject, as some here will
know better than I. So there are many views on what it is, and I
suppose actually many personifications to have views about -- i.e.
many works of literature (popular or otherwise) that are best
discussed by shaping the conceptualization of the trope to them. The
best work of criticism on the topic that I know is James J Paxson's
The Poetics of Personification (Cambridge, 1994). He makes the
distinction between personification *characters* (persons in the
narrative) and personification *figures* (those that do not enter
into the narrative, usually being too brief, sometimes almost
unnoticeable). If you direct your attention to the latter kind,
you'll see that anthropomorphism ("having the form of a human being")
is too restrictive -- in fact even some personification characters
don't qualify, e.g. in Ovid's Metamorphoses, the trees that gather
around Orpheus to hear him sing -- no legs are ascribed, only
movement and the ability to hear and appreciate music. (Ok, it's
Orpheus who is playing, so one could argue that the trees have little
choice in the matter, but even so, they're personified.) It would
seem better, then, to say that while some personifications are
anthropomorphic, all are anthropocentric, in the sense that they are
human imaginative creations which behave more like humans than their
natural counterparts. The main point, I think, is that the poet
violates their ontology as we usually construct it.

Microsoft Bob, his Apple cousin and the like are one sort, but as I
think some contributors have pointed out, for obvious reasons the
whole design effort in HCI seeks to personify software in the more
generous sense of anthropocentrism. I'm interested in finding
intelligent discussion of this fact -- interaction design as an
imaginative act of personification. I think of the sentence early in
Winograd's and Flores' *very* important book, Understanding Computers
and Cognition: "We encounter the deep questions of design when we
recognize that in designing tools we are designing ways of being" (1987: xi).

Further suggestions most welcome. Many thanks.


Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax:
-2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Sat Sep 10 2005 - 04:29:16 EDT

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