In Defense of Anthropomorphism

Note: This paper was delivered at ACM SICGHI'92 as part of a panel entitled "Anthropomorphism: From Eliza to Terminator 2." The panel took the form of a debate over the use of anthropomorphism in human-computer interfaces among myself, Dr. Ben Shneiderman, and Dr. Susan Brennan. The panel was hosted by Abbe Don.

Copyright © 1992 by the ACM

Although I'm not a storyteller, I hope you will forgive me if I begin by telling two stories. Neither is from my own "native" Midwestern culture, or even from the English, French, German, or Cherokee traditions of my ancestors. But they are stories from which I have learned some interesting things.

The first is a story about a creature called "The Golem." There are many old Jewish folk tales about the Golem, and I'm not sure if there is one quintessential Golem story from which all the others have sprung, but I will tell you one that I have heard.

A group of exiled Jews came to the city of Prague, and in the city they found a great Rabbi. The Rabbi decided that they needed to create a special protector for their new community. So, the Rabbi and some of his advisors went to the river and spent seven days and nights in preparation. Then they modeled a human-shaped form from clay. On the seventh day, they circled the form seven times chanting, and it began to grow hair and nails. Then the Rabbi circled it seven more times alone, chanting a verse from Genesis about how God made Man a living soul.

Then the Golem stood up and they dressed it and named it Yosef. The Rabbi took a parchment and wrote four letters on it, "emet," which means truth, and he put the parchment under the Golem's tongue. When the parchment was there, the Golem was animate and did what it was told, and when the parchment was removed it reverted to a lifeless clay doll. Now, the Golem would do all sorts of tasks for people, like fetching water for the Rabbi's wife, but it was a kind of automaton - if she didn't tell it to stop, it would fetch water until the house was overflowing.

On Friday afternoons the Rabbi had to be sure and remove the parchment, because if the Golem were awake during the Sabbath, its life force would become irrevocable, because the Sabbath is the vital force behind all things. Of course you can imagine what happened - one Friday afternoon the Rabbi forgot about the Golem. Now some versions of the story say that the Rabbi discovered his mistake in time, and that later, when a strong new king became the people's protector, the Rabbi took the Golem back to the river and destroyed it. Other versions say that the Golem did indeed gain its life force and wrought all kinds of havoc before the Rabbi caught it, and that the Rabbi had to grab the parchment and erase a letter from the word, transforming it from "emet," the word for truth, to "met," the word for death, in order to end the Golem's life.

Now here is a different kind of story, an old folk tale from Russia about a witch named Babayaga and a little girl. The little girl lived with her stepmother and stepsisters in a cottage in the woods. She was a very good little girl, and did all the work for her step-relations without complaining, and even though they enjoyed the fruits of her work, the step-people were really fed up with her sweet little attitude. So one day they resolved to get rid of her once and for all. As part of their plan, they pretended to let the fire go out. Now, the little girl knew that without fire they would all die from the cold pretty quickly, so they easily convinced her to go deep into the forest to the home of the witch Babayaga to fetch some fire from her. They knew that Babayaga was a terrible witch, and that she ate children for breakfast, and that the little girl would soon be gone from their lives forever.

The little girl, however, set out bravely. In the pocket of her apron she had a little doll that was made for her a long time ago by her real mother, and when she felt afraid she absent-mindedly slipped her hand into her pocket and touched the little doll. When she came to a crossing in the woods and didn't know which way to go, her hand would find the doll, and she would seem to hear a whispered voice saying, "go left," or "go right," and eventually, she found her way to Babayaga's house. The house was a fearsome thing - an awful, dark house that walked around the yard on giant chicken legs. The fence around the house glowed with a thousand points of light, but when the girl approached, she saw that the lights were glowing coals set inside the skulls of people Babayaga had killed. She touched her doll and her fears quieted.

Then Babayaga came out. "What are you doing here?" she demanded. And the little girl told her she was sent to get some fire. And the witch said, "I should eat you for breakfast, but it's late in the day. See that pile of dirt over there? Somewhere in that pile is a very tiny diamond. If you can find the diamond during the night, I will give you what you need. Otherwise, I will eat you for breakfast." And Babayaga went to bed. There was no moon, and it was very dark, and the little girl despaired. But as she touched her doll, the voice seemed to say, "thrust your hands into the dirt and you will find what you need." And she dug and she dug in the dirt until she fell asleep. And in the morning, when the sun rose, she awoke and opened her dusty dirty little hand and saw a shining diamond. And when she gave the diamond to Babayaga, Babayaga grunted and gave her one of the skulls on a stake and sent her home. And when her stepmother and stepsisters saw her coming through the woods with a glowing skull held high in the air, they all collapsed and died of fright and that was the end of them.

The stories are both rich with meaning, unlike in many ways, but alike in that they are both about anthropomorphic representations. Interpreting them in detail would take hours, but I will try to point out some of the elements that can help us think about our topic. "The Golem" is a kind of cautionary tale, similar in some ways to "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" or Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." The moral is that humans should not try to create life because that is the province of God. If you try to do it anyway, what you create will carry all of the fatal flaws of humanity - unbridled wilfullness and power untempered by reason or morality.

The little girl's doll, on the other hand, seems to embody the spirit of her true mother her, or what Jungian storytellers would call the "higher woman" or even "intuition." The doll functions as a reminder and an amplifier of the girl's personal power. It teaches a symmetrical kind of lesson: that an anthropomorphic representation can carry some of the good gifts of humanity - intuition, perserverance, bravery, and trust in the power of love. Taken together, these two anthropomorphic representations demonstrate the same principle - that dolls or characters are screens onto which we project human traits, both good and bad, in order to inform ourselves.

Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines anthropomorphism as "an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics." This definition dovetails well with a Jungian interpretation of stories, in which everything represents something archetypal about humanity. Anthropologist Ruth Stotter says that in stories, "Emotions and feelings congeal into characters, objects and relations. Every child senses this, and that is the way in which stories work for them. If you take the elements in stories too literally, you do damage to the material and the way it means."

Characters work because we recognize even the most distorted traits as human, and we empathize because we see evidences of those traits in ourselves and those around us. I spoke about the use of dramatic character in interfaces at CHI in 1989, and I will only briefly review that material now. The art of creating a character is the art of selecting and matching traits well - matching external traits (the traits we can observe) to internal traits (the traits we infer from the behavior of the character). Characters work because they take advantage of a marvelous cognitive shorthand - the ability to infer internal traits from external ones and to make predictions about behavior, and of course, the ability to make those inferences iteratively and debug them as time goes by. Every civilization in the world has afforded us ample practice at this task, for every civilization has stories or plays with characters.

Dramatic characters are constructed with many orders of magnitude fewer traits than human individuals, but they work because we know how to flesh out a character through experience, extrapolation, and inference. This is exactly the same skill we use when we meet new people, at cocktail parties or conferences or on the first day of class. People the world over share a common kind of literacy - the knowledge of story and character, whether oral, written, performed on stage, filmed, animated, or enacted on a computer screen. Anthropomorphic interfaces can bring this literacy to bear in interactive media by helping us to make predictions and by enhancing empathy and engagement.

There are still more reasons why characters are important to interactive media. Since at least the inception of language, stories and characters have been the means whereby cultures and individuals communicate their beliefs, their histories, and their wisdom. Contemporary American culture is no exception. But what is different, as Neil Postman points out in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, is that even the evening news takes the form of entertainment in the television age. Not only has the content of the information become less personal and generative - the workings of the dramatic form itself have become invisible. Ben worries that kids won't know that computer-based agents are characters. Kids know that Cinderella is a character. They know that Wiley Coyote is a character. They know that Super Mario is a character. But how many of us know that Ted Koppel is a character? And of those who do, how many can articulate from what mythical fabric his traits have been congealed? And if this is the myth of our culture, then how much trouble are we really in?

Well, to conclude this barrage of thoughts, I want to reiterate a couple of points.

I believe that Ben [Shneiderman] will advocate direct manipulation over anthropomorphism for several reasons. Ben is comfortable with tool-like interfaces because he works primarily with tool-like applications. But one can no more confine computers to applications like spreadsheets and word processors than one could confine the printing press to Latin versions of the Bible. The very notion of the computer as exclusively or even primarily a tool is already outmoded - look around you, at games, multimedia, virtual reality. In this landscape, we begin to see the forest through the trees - a forest where tool-like applications are merely the first growth of a rich representational medium. The people, stories, and characters that are springing up on the Cyberspace frontier are doing for computers what vernacular literature did for the printing press. As William Gibson said, "the street finds its use for things." In a way, anthropomorphic stories and characters are spearheading the cultural and personal appropriation of computer technology.

We live, as humans always have, in a narrative context. Stories and characters can have enormous power for us, in learning and teaching, in communicating, and in understanding our lives and our condition - what Shakespeare called "holding the mirror up to nature" - and by this he meant human nature. The problem comes, not when we don't like what we see in the mirror, but when we don't see the mirror.

The solution is not to avoid or suppress story and character, but to deploy them deliberately, responsibly, creatively, and convivially - to reinvigorate the narrative tradition as an interactive experience with personal as well as cultural relevance.

I will leave you with a short parable. The other day I was talking with a representative of a large computer game company about a new line of story-oriented children's products they wanted to create. He asked me what I would suggest in the way of content. Getting in touch with my roots for a moment, I suggested that we explore some of the darker Grimm's stories, like "Hansel and Gretel," for instance - a kind of kid-empowering tale. Remembering that the children ultimately escape by shoving the witch in the oven just as she is preparing to cook them, the person shook his head and said, "oh no, we have a rule that we're not going to represent death in our children's products." Now mind you, this is a company that has made its fortune on flight simulators and action-adventure games where millions of children have routinely massacred faceless legions of "the enemy," and mostly with direct-manipulation interfaces. And the moral is, beware of pat, pseudo-ethical rules about what should and shouldn't be in representations.


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