Social Robotics and the Shamanic Properties of Innovation Thinking

As human-centred innovation strategists, we’re well-versed in the employment of anthropological theories and fieldwork methodologies so as to form humanistic models depicting the deeper motivating factors that drive manifest social behaviour. From Lévi-Strauss to Latour, from Mauss to Foucault; we seem to be pretty good at employing the most pertinent evolutions in contemporary sociocultural anthropological theory in the context of our work.  As of late, however, the world of anthropology has arguably experienced the most radical of evolutions in its disciplinary history, yet we as innovation strategists have been very slow to embrace this development. Said disciplinary evolution refers to what some have termed as ‘the ontological turn’ in contemporary anthropology; and like it or not, it’s taking the anthropological world by storm.

Why is it, though, that innovation strategists have been so slow to adopt this latest disciplinary turn? One could argue that this has occurred on account of the new development’s somewhat ambiguous definition within the discipline of anthropology itself. Although anthropologists like Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Nurit Bird-David, and Philippe Descola have all put forward potentially dogmatic definitions, we as social innovators need to look past these theoretical contentions so as to find a definition that works best for us. Arguably, one of the most useful ways to understand ontology is through John Tresch’s interpretation of ontology as the study of ‘cosmograms‘, the foundational categories by which people come to understand what agentive entities inform their sense of being-in-the-world. At its most basic level, ontology therefore refers to the study of what exact entities can exist in the world, and what kind of prospective relations can exist between particular entities visàvis the observer’s personal cosmogram. How is it though that we can concretely analyse these cosmograms? From an analytical perspective, studying the constituents of selfhood within a particular analytical context can prove to be the most efficient way for understanding the internal logics of a particular cosmogram.

Why is it that CEOs in Silicon Valley are choosing to participate in Ayahuasca induced bodily purifications? Why is it that contemporary developments in the world of nutrition are fixated on optimising one’s use of the latest technological innovations so as to maintain absolute control over one’s bodily functions? Why is it that many now afford more credibility to personalised experiences as opposed to ‘objective’ scientific empiricism, as seen in the recent intensification of post-truth thinking (this is something that I address in-depth in a previous post)? Ontological analysis forms an important aspect of the explanation for all of these phenomena, and we as social innovators can therefore never hope to do our jobs properly as interpreters of cultural alterity if we do not take ontology’s pertinence in the coordination of individual lived experience seriously. As abstract and irrelevant as this may sound at this point, one case study frames the relevance of ontological analysis to social innovation particularly well: the future of social robotics in an evermore globalised and precarious world.



In attempting to understand the means through which social innovators can engage more intimately with the kinds of alterity that exist in contemporary societies, we need to turn to the spiritual adventures of shamans the world over. These cosmological diplomats are experts at taking on the perspectives of other physical entities within the confines of their own cosmogram so as to formulate a more comprehensive narrative of their immediate social and physical environment; a feat that many an innovation thinker would do well to master (Photo Source: 56th Parallel)  


Ontology, Social Innovation, and Japanese Techno-Animism

Western constructions of selfhood are contingent upon an ontological dogma that can be traced back to the days of René Descartes and his famous formulation of mind-body dualism. For Descartes, the world is divided between a domain of fixity (i.e. nature) upon which humans act through their will and agency (i.e. culture). In other words, ‘culture’, ‘nature’, and ‘society’ operate as intractable and fixed categories of existence. This kind of strict ontological differentiation is contingent upon a macrocosmic projection of the condition that is Cartesian selfhood: an ever-changing state of interiority (or ‘mind’) that can be bound by fixed material parameters (or the ‘body’). The cosmogram that is Cartesian dualism therefore glorifies the anthropomorphic form as the prerequisite for cultural agency through which nature can then be acted upon. This anthropomoprhisation, however, has also led to an interesting engagement with the world of social robotics on account of the prominence and privilege afforded to ‘human-centric’ understandings of selfhood.

Let us now shift our focus to Japan, wherein a very different cosmogram provides affordances for an alternative constitution of selfhood. In much the same that Amerindian Yawalapíti and Araweté communities, South Indian Nayaka communities, and northeastern North American Ojibwe communities all see selfhood as being a matter of transubstantiated vital essence, the Japanese too view selfhood as a matter that extends far beyond the conceptual parameters of the anthropomorphosised, Cartesian self. In the aforementioned communities, selfhood is seen as a product of ‘dividuation’ as opposed to ‘individuation’, by which we mean the ability of relationships between entities to generate selfhood. For example, according to Japanese Shinto cosmograms , animated selfhood is bestowed through the inherence of kami, which refers to a specific spiritual relation of respect between two different entities. Although two entities may appear to be different in respect to their physical appearances (such as when comparing a tree to a human being), their potential for demonstrating selfhood in the context of Shinto cosmograms is not limited by their physical characteristics in the way we would conclude in our Western, Cartesian contexts. In other words, it would be virtually unthinkable for a Westerner to call a tree a person, but in Japan, this is certainly not the case.



The position of robots in Japanese society is a particularly unique one; robots have been so successfully and hospitably integrated that they have even be accorded with positions of intense sociocultural capital, such as chanting hypnotic sutras during important Buddhist ceremonies (Photo Source: TechWire Asia)


This kind of ‘multinatural perspectivism’ (as per the words of Viveiros de Castro) has important ramifications for the differential ways that robots are perceived in Japan and the West respectively. In her instructive ethnographic work on robotic design in the MIT Media Lab and at Honda’s ASIMO research laboratories, Kathleen Richardson (2016) employs a combination of psychoanalytical and ontological schemas so as to understand how robots are perceived in Euro-American and Japanese contexts respectively. 

Turner argues that robots in Euro-America are often designed either in an infantilised form or are made to appear as though they do not resemble human beings at all. Turner employs Masahiro Mori’s infamous concept of the ‘uncanny valley’ so as to explain how the strict modernist delineation between nature and society underpinning post-Enlightenment Euro-American ontologies has given rise to a narrative that depicts robots in a threatening light (as is evident in the apocalyptic, dystopian narratives put forward by such scifi cult classics as Terminator or Battlestar Galactica). Turner argues that Euro-American robots are intentionally designed so as to never bear any exact human resemblance nor propensity for absolute social integration because of how this prospect threatens to destroy the stability of individual and materially bound egos; a phenomenon that attests to how Euro-American ontological categories limit the degree to which robots can be integrated into the wider fabric of society.


Genuinely disruptive ideas in the context of good design thinking can only arise from the shamanic trips that we as innovation strategists can take between different cosmic realms, but we can only truly experience these trips if we are to take the ontological dimension of human value systems seriously.


On account of how the concept of kami allows for the problematisation of the boundaries between humans, animals, spirits, and machines, Shinto ontologies allow for personhood to be accredited to robots as well. Indeed, the Japanese fascination with robotics can be traced back all the way to the 1600s, wherein the art of Karakuri Ningyo saw wooden figures become animated through intricate internal clockwork mechanisms so as to perform elaborate parlour tricks like handstands and serving tea.

As per the words of Casper Bruun Jensen and Anders Blok (2013), Japanese techno-animism’s social centrality has led to the accreditation of robots with an important role in the functioning of Japanese society — as is evident, for example, in cases where robots conduct rituals in Shinto robes or provide geriatric care for Japan’s rapidly ageing population. The embracement, as opposed to resistance, of robotic technologies in everyday life has therefore played an important role in contemporary Japanese postwar nation-building and techno-capitalist expansion specifically because of Shinto cosmograms and the subsequent ontological categories that said cosmogram can give rise to. This embracement has also allowed the concept of Shintoism to move away from its popular characterisation as a form of violent ideological protofascism, as seen during the rapid expansion of the Japanese Empire during the run up to the Second World War.



Why is it that Japanese social commentators have proven to be so excited over the unveiling of Hiroshi Ishiguro’s ‘Erika’ robot, whilst the same innovation has received off-handed and sceptical (even daresay apocalyptical) comments from Western observers? Delving deeper into the ontological layers of a debate might prove to be a constructive way of understanding the underlying logics of culturally-rooted differences in the context of an evermore globalised world (Photo Source: Picssr)


This ontological argument does, however, also leave itself vulnerable to certain criticisms, particularly when analysed through a Cartesian interpretative lens. If kami, as opposed to Cartesian anthropomorphism, is to be the ontological determinant of selfhood within the Shinto cosmogram, why do Japanese robotics engineers place such an emphasis on aligning the visual appearance of contemporary robots with those of people, as perhaps best exemplified in the case of Hiroshi Ishiguro’s ‘Erica’ robot? Furthermore, why is it that these robots are currently only to be found in positions that are seen as servicing the affective and functional needs of human beings? If robots are viewed as being ontologically equal to humans, then surely humans servicing robots must also be a potential social phenomenon? The short answer to all of these questions is that the very desire to place the agency of the anthropomorphosised individual at the heart of the debate is based on a fervent desire for ontological totalisation because of how Cartesianism rejects any kind of alternative cosmogram seeking to disrupt its hegemonic account for the fixed relations between ‘society’, ‘nature’, and ‘culture’. Further engagement with ontological study will actually reveal that these questions are not relevant when we leave the all-too-familiar domain of Cartesianism behind in the interest of experiencing the diverse world of ontological alterity.


Social Innovators as Ontologically Disruptive Shamans

Seeking to place one ontological schema in a position of superiority over the potentially infinite amount of alternative schemas that may exist is, ultimately, a futile task that will never allow us to generate creatively meaningful strategy disruptions in this evermore globalised world. On account of how the worldview that is created by an alternative cosmogram will always remain inaccessible to someone trapped within the confines of another, the best we can hope for is to do like the shamans of contemporary Amazonia and Siberia who traverse complex cosmic boundaries with the help of altered states of consciousness so as to try and enrich their own ontological schemas and positioning within the world through the help of another. As innovation consultants trying to get to grips with different kinds of world-views constituting individualised experiences of consumption and service-design, we must therefore be able to hybridise elements of different ontologies so as to formulate a better understanding of the value systems and ontologically-specific needs that we may encounter in our work.  



The future of labour and service-design will inevitably be underpinned by evermore pertinent automation and tech innovations; the format, however, in which these innovations are to manifest and the benefits that they are to offer our society will be contingent upon how well they conform with our current ontological dogmas. The next question we need to therefore consider is what kind of ontological dogmas are the most appropriate for sustaining the future of humanity? (Photo Source: EDB Singapore)   


In the context of a robot conducting a Shinto funerary ritual, for example, a hybridised ontological schema allows the analyst to understand how seemingly ‘inhuman’ machines can have such an incredibly agentive effect on the behaviour of those that we recognise to be like ourselves. If we are to therefore understand why Western social robotics may never become quite as mature as their Japanese counterparts, we as human-centred innovation thinkers must use our shamanic abilities so as to tease out the differential mechanisms constituting Shinto and Cartesian cosmograms. In so doing, we become better positioned to understand how our own ontological shortcomings will therefore have very concrete ramifications for the prospective roles that robotics and artificial intelligence can play in the future of the Cartesian world.

Indeed, no account for the current widespread fear of industrial automation, for example, can be completely understood if the socioeconomic woes of those whose professions are being automised are not contextualised within an ontological schema that justifies viewing robots as fundamentally inferior to animated, anthropomorphised agents. Any attempts to therefore alleviate these Cartesian anxieties must thus address the potential ways that automation and industrial innovation can be made to feel less threatening in the interest of ensuring that the primacy of the anthropomorphosised self remains intact. Genuinely disruptive ideas in the context of good design thinking can only arise from the shamanic trips that we as innovation strategists can take between different cosmic realms, but we can only truly experience these trips if we are to take the ontological dimension of human value systems seriously.


The featured image for this post features an original Karakuri Ningyō robot; the foundational concept behind the ideas put forward in this blog post (Photo Source: Maho Beauty). 

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