What things attract ghosts

"Smartphones mind" Animated Things: The Renaissance of Ancient Animism

The drum song of the West Greenland Inuit invokes the spirits, specifically the Tupilak. The Tupilak is a mystical being that emerged from the spirit of a deceased person, says Tuperna - a young resident of the small town of Sisimuit in western Greenland. Made from carved walrus ivory, the guardian spirit is ceremonially brought to life. Then he is at home in all the elements that surround his wearer in the Greenland ice world.

When I was a kid, my grandmother told me that each of us has a companion. It warns us about the weather, how it will change and how it will be. And who is bad in the settlement, who is not. His name is Tupilak.

Tuperna from Sisimuit

And when we are not kind to him, Tuperna adds, "he leaves us when we sleep."

A new form of belief in spirits

The belief in the soul in things is still there today, despite all the technology that surrounds us. It almost seems that he is experiencing a rebirth, precisely because of that. "The current renaissance of Spiritism certainly has something to do with the new and powerful technologies with which we surround ourselves today," explains Karl-Heinz Kohl, Professor of Ethnology in Frankfurt / Main. The "powerful technologies" of which he speaks primarily refer to smartphones or laptops and wearables - that is, computer technologies that are worn on the body or on the head.

Whereas in ancient cultures the environment was animated by godlike mystical beings - animism (from the Latin anima for soul, spirit) is what ethnology and religious studies call these ideas - today smartphones and the like are mystical-magical devices that are similar to the kami (Japanese natural spirits) or the tupilak around us. Smartphones are becoming more and more popular. They "give up", "go nuts" or "don't want to". That this is so is deeply human.

We basically strive to endow things in our environment with human characteristics, to anthropomophise them. That is the usual way of dealing with one another and we apply it to things as well. Rather, it is a mixture of the affective and the intellectual that play a role, and so the difference between classical animistic thinking and what is happening today is not that great.

Prof. Dr. Karl-Heinz Kohl, Goethe University Frankfurt

Since the beginning of the human presence on earth, weapons, places, houses or squares have been given mystical properties. For example Caesar's sword, which was called "Crocea More": "The yellow death."

But overall, says Karl-Heinz Kohl, animism is not a simple term: "It goes back to the British anthropologist Edward B. Tylor." At the time, he assumed that the cause of all ideas about spirits and souls was the dream experience. So that we see people in dreams, of whom we know that they are not physically present, explains the ethnology professor. "We see things, we see animals, plants and so on, which may not really exist, but which are present in our imagination." And that is why early humans would have come to the conclusion, Kohl continued, that in addition to the body there is also the spirit, which could detach itself from the body and develop a life of its own and which also survived death.

Magical technology

It is hardly surprising that the old animism is being redesigned today and is experiencing a renaissance thanks to the devices. Because, in fact, very many people do not know how a smartphone works. It almost borders on magic when you create, edit or delete contacts with a swipe movement, transfer money, send voice messages or search for a specific one among thousands of photos.

In order to visualize the gigantic, silent performance behind it, it is worth taking a look back. The Zuse 3, or Z3 for short, is located in Berlin's "Museum of Transport and Technology" - the world's first functional computer and built 80 years ago by Konrad Zuse. His son Horst Zuse and emeritus computer science professor, stands in front of the living room-sized device and says: "Swiping on the smartphone, so slowly moving your finger over the images, you would only need around five to six thousand of these Z3s for this operation. "

The new spiritism of our everyday devices came with digitization. And the more digital and at the same time incomprehensible our world becomes, the more space and appeal for spirituality with animistic forms become. What listens to us, speaks to us and answers, what searches for us, supports us, advises us and does services, can only be alive - in the sense of life in itself, with magical-mystical abilities. The only problem is: if I have all this around me, I am no longer missing anything. Or is it?

The dissolution of society into various identity bubbles that no longer communicate with one another is of course also a consequence of the cell phone. So it's no wonder that we humanize it more and more, even treat it like a living person, especially since Google, Apple and Co. have given it a voice of its own.

Prof. Dr. Karl-Heinz Kohl, Goethe University Frankfurt

"Hey Siri" is a call we use to bring the smartphone to life, adds Kohl. And that is why it is almost a matter of course that we equip it with human characteristics, as if it were a partner.