One of my core principles as an animist is to relate to everything as though it might be capable of intention, feeling and preference. This is not a position that requires either belief or evidence, it is first and foremost an ethical position about treating everything kindly and with respect. When it comes to natural things – including inanimate natural things and places, I do not find it difficult to assume the presence of spirit.
When it comes to objects made by humans, my scope for understanding things as having spirit is variable. I like the Japanese idea that given enough time, anything will develop spirit – older items made with love and used with care and respect over time certainly develop character. I’ve always experienced music instruments as being people in their own right.
I’ve seen people talking about AI art software in terms of this being a genuinely emergent intelligence. That’s not something I agree with – we aren’t all helping to train an artificial brain that will spontaneously create original and new art in the future. We’re teaching software to steal and recycle on command. But… if everything is potentially capable of intent and feeling, why am I so reluctant to attribute those qualities to the art-theft software currently being used to make products?
Having been round this a lot in recent days, I come to the conclusion that it is because the software being used to steal art is doing exactly what it was intended to do. At present, it seems to be doing what it was designed for, in brief bursts that depend on other people using it. I’m responding in much the same way as when I don’t attribute a great deal of presence or intent to crisp packets, even when I’m trying to remove them as part of litter picks.
There are bits of software I’ve related to in ways other than this. Many years ago, before social media, when Yahoo egroups were a thing, we used to joke about what kind of sacrifices you might have to make to win the favour of Yahoo and to stop it from randomly punishing you. I’m finding Facebook much the same – an erratic and jealous entity that does not reliably cooperate and that may lash out at you for no obvious reason. Things seem more capable of intent when they aren’t simply doing what we made them to do.
It’s interesting to consider what seems like an entity in its own right, and what seems like an expression of human will and desire where that’s simply been expressed through something outside of a human form. Clearly there’s nowhere a hard line can be drawn, but I think there’s a lot to be said for asking about our own relationships and feelings. What defines something as an entity in its own right?