Saturday, July 07, 2007


I was planning on having a nice debate in the class I am teaching on Usability Engineering. Anthropomorphism is the quality of human beings to attribute human-like emotions, behavior and thoughts on other objects. For example, imagining your car to be a person who can feel and think. In user-interface design there are many instances of this - having cartoon characters and fuzzy little virtual agents running around in the interface creates a sense of comfort, and minimizes intimidation. Icons that can smile, a word processor that greets you etc., create quite a psychological impact on the users. But there could be disadvantages as well... so my intent was to have a nice debate in class. But then, less than half of the class turned up, with more than half of those who came, yawing and struggling to stay awake. Either I'm a bad teacher, or it's plain Karma.

So anyways, this made me think on anthropomorphism in everyday lives and the advantages and disadvantages of it. As an extension to my previous post, it's always wise to not attach emotions on everything around us... it just leads us to further pain. And Vedanta preaches the same. But what could be the advantages? Apart from being cute and personal in naming our computers, cars and cycles, the main advantage comes in the way we take care of them. This is something I have seen with my father.

My father is passionate about electronic gadgets, and he views each gadget as a person with emotions. He doesn't name them, yet he treats them as if they were animate. I've been yelled at several times for not handling them the right way. I once heard him lecturing my mother, and that's when I understood his theory. For a while, my mom had been wanting a new fridge that had automatic defrost, and kept complaining about the old one. My dad said, "Technology changes with the day, and we can't keep affording to replace everything. More over, just because you think something is not good enough, you can't throw it. If you imagined the fridge to be your son, you wouldn't just throw it would you? Despite its faults and shortcomings, you try to fix it and do your best to keep it running. If you started seeing everything as being personal to you, you would be much devoted to fixing them and living with their faults, than trying to throw them away. You just wouldn't give up on them that easily. Once you learn to accept that nothing is perfect you are much happier and much satisfied."

It was like an eye-opener to me. No wonder he brings home old computer parts from the junkyard and tries to fix them. My home is an extension of my father's lab... we have around 10 telephones (each 10-20 years old), because they were cast away in his office for not working properly. And my father huddles them back home saying, "Just because one functionality doesn't work you cant throw it away! Who needs the call-waiting feature for domestic use? It's perfectly working, so lets use it". And there are some terminally ill gadgets at home still being fought hard by my father to revive and make them functioning again. His radio from the 1970s is one example. We can set up a museum of radios, telephones and computer spare parts. He literally feels bad and upset when a gadget fails to work... kind of like a doctor-patient relationship. My mom and I dread to inform my father of any gadget that stops working. The worst period was when our backyard tree was struck by a lightning and all plugged electronic gadgets died. Well, money was one aspect, but the pain my father felt was way deeper.

Jokes apart, I think it's a healthy concept, nevertheless. For example, who would have ever thought that a fridge from 1978 that completely failed to work, could still be used as a cabinet and cupboard! My father did, and it's quite handy in the kitchen to have one more cabinet holding spices :). Any emotional attachment in excess is of course going to lead to misery. Setting a balance is the philosophy of the Golden Mean preaches.


Meens said...

Nice :-)

Dont worry ... I'm here reading and I'm no way yawning! I'm WIDE awake :-)

And your dad is such a sweet man :-)

Karthik said...

I am surprised I missed reading this post of yours earlier !:-) My views match very closely with your father's !:-) However, having shifted from one place to another some million times, and after lugging around tonnes of non-working equipment each time, I have somewhat more tempered views now ;)