Saturday, May 04, 2019

All artefacts are anthropomorphic

I was reflecting on the phenomenon of anthropomorphising space technology.

Two social media-mediated incidents are central to my personal experience with this. From my early days on Twitter, I've followed Voyager 2. The account was not an official NASA account: it was run by scientist Dr Paul Filmer. During the now-forgotten US government shutdown in 2013, NASA closed it down. He was allowed to continue tweeting as the spacecraft, but using a different handle - @NSFVoyager2.

I found the impact of this quite informative. I woke up one morning to find people messaging me, wondering why Voyager 2 was silent on Twitter. We figured it had something to do with a recent tweet in which the spacecraft expressed a - very mild - opinion. We tried to reach Paul. I cried. I felt that I was cut off from the solar system, closed in like a fish caught in the ocean and transferred to a glass bowl on a table in the vestibule.

The second is the Rosetta/Philae mission to Comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The European Space Agency's public outreach campaign was designed to get people emotionally invested, and it sure as heck worked on me. In 2016 the equipment used by the Rosetta orbiter to communicate with the Philae lander was turned off. As I've written here, knowing that Philae could no longer speak and be heard made me quite emotional, as if a friend had died.

Some are critical about this anthropomorphisation. They would say it's wrong to attribute our agency to things instead of letting them have their own, almost an oppression of things. 

Musing on my bus ride in this morning, it struck me that all artefacts are anthropomorphic, if only because they are made, shaped, used and discarded by humans. They're a non-flesh shadow, the reverse of our obverse, the mirror of our discontent. If they were not, how could we possibly use them to speak to us about absent humans?

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