Silicon Valley’s Animism

Animism, the belief that inanimate objects possess a soul, was considered by anthropologists like Sir Edwin Taylor to be the earliest form of spirituality.

Psychologist Jean Piaget believed that all children pass through an animist phase. Because of these associations with childhood and with “primitive” cultures, animism may sound very far from Silicon Valley. But paradoxically, it’s technologists who are fueling a contemporary popularization of animist thinking.
 
With the development of the Internet of Things, inanimate objects are gaining voices and personalities. Computer scientists at the University of Birmingham, for example, are working to develop an “Internet of Clothes”, in which RFID-tagged garments will text their owner and ask to be worn if they’ve been sitting in the closet too long.

Smart clothes are just one manifestation of this phenomenon — as the IoT evolves, any object, no matter how humble, can become communicative and personified.
 
Silicon Valley’s animist slant also extends to its preferred aesthetic: minimalism. No one did more to popularize the aesthetic than Steve Jobs, who applied it both in his personal life and in his vision for Apple products and stores, and who created Siri, the first inanimate personality with mass recognition.

More recently, Japanese organizational consultant Marie Kondo has taken up the torch in her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo’s minimalism is deeply informed by Shintoism, an animist spiritual system practiced in her native Japan. Kondo worked at a Shinto shrine for five years, and has said “I’ve learned that all things have spirit in them.”
 
Kondo’s Shinto-influenced approach underscores that minimalism encourages deeper relationships with a curated set of the “right” objects, rather than a rejection of materialism.

As the sharing economy progresses further, we’ll have the opportunity to own fewer things — a trend sparks & honey calls “smallscaling.” We may see a future in which our relationships with objects are polarized between rented objects to which we maintain no attachment, and a set of personal smart objects that know our most intimate preferences and which we regard as entities in their own right.

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