My auntie the clock and the lying-down policeman

In the Aug 30th issue of The New Yorker, Ian Frazier visits a gulag prison and discusses their history and place in the Russian psyche. In the midst of this story is a wonderful paragraph about the relationship people in Russia have with objects and technology that I’ll repeat here since the full article is not available online:

Beneath a surface layer of unbelief or Orthodox Christianity, Russia is an animist country. Ordinary physical objects are alive in Russia far more than they are in America, and, however Russia’s religious or political currents flow, this native animism remains strong. Tree, streets, utensils, groves, machines–each has its own spirit and its own personality, like the cabin belonging to the witch Baba Yaga that could get up on is chicken legs and run around. A Russian telephone isn’t just a phone, it’s a being; once, at my friend Alex Melamid’s mother’s apartment when I was having trouble dialling her phone, she showed me how, explaining, “He likes to be dialled slowly.” In Russia, alarm clocks don’t ring; they burst into rooster-crowing. Another friend Luda, had a clock in her apartment that announced the hours in an old-lady voice: “The time is one o’clock exactly!” Luda referred to the clock as moya tyotka–“my auntie.” When you pass a turnstile on the St. Petersburg or Moscow metro without paying, there’s not a siren sound, as in New York, but a frantic chirping, as if you’d just trod on some creature’s nest. In Russia the windshield wiper on your car isn’t called a mechanical name–it’s dvornik, a word whose more common meaning is “custodian.” What we call a speed bump in America the Russians call lezhachii politseiskii, which means “lying-down policeman.”

This type of anthropomorphizing of everyday objects can be found in any language, but it’s interesting to hear that it’s particularly strong in Russia. It reminds me  of Bruno Latour’s article Where are the Missing Masses? Sociology of a Door, where he talks about delegating human roles to technology. The article starts with a story about finding a note on a door that read “The groom is on strike, for God’s sake, keep the door closed,” in reference to an automatic door closer that was broken. As a designer, it’s an interesting exercise to explore how people might assign agency to something you’re creating, and decide if you want to encourage it through naming or metaphor. I like to imagine the language they would use, the matter-of-fact and even humorous way, they might explain to a friend what it does for them.