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I really like the concept of anthropomorphization. Sure, I understand why vegetarians and vegans get bent out of shape when they see a pig clad in chef’s hat and apron, waving a hoof, and smiling invitingly for you to enter Bob’s B*B*Q. The idea of humanizing dinner is not incredibly appealing, even to a die-hard meat eater like me. I have no problem with my meal having been a living, breathing animal not too terribly long before it was plated for me (and the less that interval, the better, for I do love a rare filet mignon or a nice juicy, medium-rare rib-eye), but I would prefer not to be reminded during that short interval that my lamb chop was crying “baa” a short time ago.
Anthropomorphization is not a new thing, nor is it any wonder it’s been around forever. Think about our ancestors. They had no science, no technology, not even Wikipedia to get answers about why the sun rises and sets, why the tides ebb and flow, or why the sky is blue. In an attempt to answer these and other questions, and to help make sense of the universe in which they lived, they created myths and lore to explain things. They created gods who not only looked like human beings (when they weren’t disguised as amorous geese or other such things), but also personified human idiosyncrasies, human quirks, and human scruples. It helped to humanize the gods so as not to be so afraid of them. It also brought godliness closer to humanity. It is no coincidence that with the creation of monotheism and the use of religion as a form of social control also came the commandments against creating idols and graven images. These monotheistic religions were not about bringing God closer to us, but bringing us closer to God. If God had human features, we would have nothing to look up to or strive to be like. Nevertheless, mere mortals that we are, we still give some human attributes to God. In the Torah, God is seen as a father figure, slow to anger, but swift to mete out punishment and justice. When Moses is allowed a glimpse of God, he sees the back of the Almighty’s very human-looking head. Later, Christians anthropomorphized God in the form of Jesus. As the Son of God he is flesh and blood, and does not engender true godliness until his death, resurrection, and Ascension. Yet, even as a man, he is unlike other humans in that he still possesses God-like features, viz.: his ability to walk on water, turn water into wine, and raise Lazarus from the dead, among many others. (God-like perhaps, but each of his miracles had been performed by mortals in the Old Testament, even his greatest miracle of all, ascension: both Enoch [“And Enoch walked with God, and he was not; for God took him.” (Gen. 5:24)] and Elijah [“and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven..” (2 Kings 2:11)] ascend.) Even today, there is as little anthropomorphization within the Abrahamic religions as possible, with Jews and Muslims refusing to create any sort of image of God, and Christians using the image of Jesus upon the cross as a reminder, rather than an idol.
Yet in other aspects of our lives, we continue to anthropomorphize all sorts of things, not just Bob’s mascot at his restaurant. How many of us have named our cars (or worse yet, our genitals)? The next time you walk to your automobile, look at it from the front: headlights are the eyes, windshield the forehead, and side mirrors the ears (I had a car we called Van Gogh because the right-side mirror had been clipped). Have you ever looked into the rear- or side-view mirror and seen a semi hunkering down on you? Doesn’t it sort of look like a hunchback? And it’s not just the lights/eyes or mirrors/ears. Let’s say that you are on your way back to your vehicle after a long day of shopping at a crowded mall. Sure enough, there are 4 cars in a row, all the same make, model, and color as yours. (My mom is right that certain makes and models travel together: you see a rookery of T-Birds soaring down the highway, a herd of Impalas grazing at the light, a murder of Maseratis flying around the race track, and even a shrewdness of Civics lounging in the parking lot.) Yet, even without looking at the license plate, you can somehow identify your car. Why? It’s because cars have personalities. There is something unique and utterly indescribable that allows you to identify your car from all the others sitting next to it. That is anthropomorphization at its finest.
Like cars, computers, too, have their own personalities. Many times I feel that like me, my computer has not yet had enough caffeine when I start it up. It runs sluggish and angrily…especially on Monday mornings. My computer at home doesn’t like it when I “wake it” from “sleep mode” (I have a Mac, and even the indicator is anthropomorphized: there is a light on the front that, when in sleep mode, glows brighter and dimmer, mimicking the deep, steady breathing of a sleeping person. I thank God every night that my computer doesn’t have a deviated septum). We often complain that our computers are acting up, much like we do about our children. After all, isn’t a computer akin to a child?
The other day, a colleague was having problems with her computer. I overheard the tech at her desk, and it was rather embarrassing. I felt as though I was intruding on something intimate, private; as if I’d walked into a gynecological or prostate exam. I think I may have even blushed. His questions were very clinical: “Has your computer been acting up?”, “Has it been running slowly or sluggishly?”, “Have you noticed any weird emails lately?”, “Have you noticed any attachments that shouldn’t be there?”, “Has it been spitting out incomprehensible code lately?”, “Hmmm, it sounds like it might have a virus.” I was wondering if he was going to pull out a syringe and inject it with some antibiotic. There you go little computer, you’re all better…here’s a lollypop.
It makes sense that we try to humanize things. We are human after all, and it’s the only lens we have to view the world. It is always easier to comprehend things when we relate it to something we know, and many times we do this unconsciously (it’s quite intentional that most ads for watches show the time as 10:10—a smile—and rarely 8:20, a frown). Name your car, pet and caress your computer as you fire it up in the morning so it won’t be persnickety, but don’t ever forget that it’s not really a person. If we continued to see the moon as Artemis riding a silver chariot across the night sky and moonlight as her silver arrows raining down on us, then we never would have landed there in 1969. As science answers more and more questions, will we anthropomorphize less, or will we always see a human being in every inanimate object we use?