syngva: An Object that Raises Questions of Agency, Relationship, and Control


Philosophically, the division between sub ject and ob ject
has always been muddy. Yet it has only been recently that in
our day-to-day lives, with the proliferation of computational
ob jects and relational artifacts, that we personally witness
situations that upset the seemingly clean distinctions be-
tween sub ject and ob ject, agent and non-agent. The place
of agency in the human is slowly being joined by a type of
agency (or at least presumed agency) in the ob ject itself.

From the Aibo to Paro, ubicomp and situated technologies,
a better understanding is needed of how we interact with
ob jects with (presumed) overt agency. Questions arise as to
the nature of our relationship with these new ob jects.
Where does this leave the psychoanalyst, the designer,
or the anthropologist as each tries to make sense of these
ontologically novel ob jects? How can each respond to the
challenges posed by interactions with and development of
relational artifacts? This work aims to offer some poten-
tial avenues to follow, suggesting ways in which a perturba-
tional design approach can create situations of interest to
all parties mentioned. The method is by definition interdis-
ciplinary, and thus this document delves into a number of
fields to describe complementary but separate approaches
that will develop in parallel. From one perspective, I ap-
proach this as a psychological research question: how do
people deal with these new things with “intelligence”? In
what ways are their own behaviors influenced by the actions
of another ob ject? From the point of view of a designer, I
ask: in what ways can I create an ob ject with certain be-
haviors that influence a human to explore other manners
of experience? How can I design the ob ject such that I
do not create another form of dependency on a non-human
entity? From the anthropological viewpoint I question: in
what ways can I observe or take note of a person’s actions in
order to discover the influence of my designed probe or cat-
alyst? What methodology is most appropriate for studying
these new types of artifacts?

Later I will outline my development of syngva, a non-
anthropomorphic and non-zoomorphic ob ject designed for
personal psychological reflection and used as a probe of how
people deal with ob jects that possess presumed (or actual)

I want to raise some motivating references regarding our
psychological experiences with ob jects. In “Mourning and
Melancholia”, Freud describes how melancholics come to in-
ternalize the ob ject of their loss as a way of dealing with it,
“devouring” the ob ject, swallowing the loss: “The ego wants
to incorporate this ob ject into itself and, in accordance with
the oral or cannibalistic phase of libidinal development in
which it is, it wants to do so by devouring it.” [10, 250]
Freud’s observation that an exterior ob ject becomes an in-
ternal representation, becomes a part of the person’s self,
forms one basis for thinking about our relationships with
ob jects of importance.

In a complementary vein Winnicott examined those ob-
jects of an infant that are first recognized as being separate
from the infant: the first “not-me” ob ject. He describes
these ob jects as transitional objects and the experiences as
transitional phenomena, the “designation of the intermedi-
ate area of experience, between the thumb and the teddy
bear”. [26, 2] Transitional ob jects in childhood enable cul-
tural experience in adulthood: “The place where cultural
experience is located is in the potential space between the
individual and the environment (originally the ob ject).” [27,

This Winnicottian potential space can be experienced, in
part, through the the creation of uncanny situations. For
Freud the uncanny is “that species of the frightening that
goes back to what was once well known and had long been
familiar”. [11, 124] But the uncanny is not always fright-
ening: it can also represent a resemblance to something we
know but can not entirely remember. This concept directly
informs the visual design of syngva.


The study of personal interactions with computationally
enhanced ob jects and artifacts is a path well-traveled. Im-
portant is Turkle’s early work in The Second Self detailing
the impact of early computational ob jects—programming
languages, video games, and physical ob jects such as the
PDA—on personal understanding of the self [24]. In Life on
the Screen, she extended this inquiry into the on-line world,
showing how people, children and adults alike, question no-
tions of aliveness, gender, and identity through virtual en-
vironments and artificial agents [23]. More recently Turkle
has explored in-situ studies of what she calls “relational arti-
facts”: robotic ob jects such as Paro and My Real Baby that
raise troubling questions about love, pro jection and agency
in both children and the elderly [12, 25]. These sociological
studies of human-made artifacts present results that suggest
alternative design realities, but also express an evaluation
methodology that does not focus on standard HCI practices
such as the user study.

Obviously relevant is the work in sociable robotics, no-
tably that of Breazeal [4]. As I detail below, although my
goal is less the creation of behaviors that mimic or resem-
ble infants or adults, the insights of Breazeal into a socially
situated robotics informs my desire for in-situ experiences.
As well, Dautenhahn and Billard [5], following developmen-
tal psychological studies from Piaget and Vygotsky, suggest
means for robotic learning that is situated in a social con-

While much academic and commercial robotic and agent
work focuses on instrumental uses of the technologies, artis-
tic practice does not follow the same disciplinary mores.
A piece such as Petite Mal by Simon Penny [20] directly
confronts the viewer’s perceptions of agency and intention
through the motions of a non-linear, dynamical system. Marc
B¨ohlen’s Whistling Machines suggests a non-logocentric, non-
iconic means of interaction with an agent-based system [2].
Max Dean’s and Raffaello D’Andrea’s The Table: Childhood
engages the gallery visitor by having a common household
item, the table, “select” one person for attention and track-
ing through movement of the table. Outside the realm of
robotic art, but still considering notions of agency and re-
lationships, is the Placebo Pro ject of Anthony Dunne and
Fiona Raby [8], a consideration of our founded (but not
always rational) experience with electromagnetic radiation.
Recent pro jects of Kelly Dobson, including Machine Ther-
apy and Wearable Body Organs [7, 6] suggest alternative

Figure 1: The first version of the creature, syngvaa.
ways of relating with the plethora of machines around us
as well as creating new ob jects to help one deal with the
mechanical world.

The ground on which this work walks is that of critical
technical practice [1]. My attempt to articulate an alterna-
tive role for agents and robotics and their joint relevance for
humans owes much to the pioneering work of Agre.


Recalling my stated desire to make this a truly multi-
disciplinary endeavor, I will describe the products that re-
sult from two of the disciplines that I embrace: that of the
designer and of the sociologist.

3.1 The Design of syngvan

At the most base level, syngva1 is a creature you sing
to. Yet this description belies the subtlety and intricacy of
my desired interactions. As an ob ject, syngva is not an-
thropomorphic; it is not zoomorphic. The first version was
blobular with one end “thicker” than the other.2 The mo-
tion and (perceived) agency is simple: as your singing pitch
increases, syngvaa moved forward; as your singing pitch de-
creases, syngvaa moved backward. (See Figure 1.) Ampli-
tude determines whether the movement is in a straight line
or curved. Technical problems related to wireless instruc-
tion transmission and pitch tracking caused the movements
to not always follow the programmed patterns. Even in
this simple formulation people’s behavior was modified un-
consciously by syngvaa: in a number of interactions, when
syngvaa stopped moving, the person stopped singing, even
though there were no instructions to do so and there was no
reason to do so, other than the influence of the creature’s
actions on the persons behavior.

I want my design for the next version of the creature to
live in the interstices of determinism and automation, of the
instrumental and the artistic. To do this I have to con-
sider alternative modes of both motion and action. While
the syngvaa moved on wheels, what would it mean for the

A note on naming: The word “syngva” comes from Old
Norse meaning simply “to sing”. I see this pro ject taking a
number of forms as it develops. Rather than enumerating
each new revision with the suffixes “Version 1.0”, “Version
2.0”, and so on, I have decided to add letters to the end of
the word instead, moving to the next letter of the alphabet
with each new revision. Thus the first version is “syngvaa”,
the second is “syngvab”, and so on. For the remainder of this
document, however, I use “syngva” to refer to the pro ject
in general.
Indeed, this shape already provoked interesting responses,
with disagreement as to which end was the “front”.

next version to “waddle” in response to your singing? If
extra “appendages” came out of the “body”, changing the
center of mass and thus its motion? If these appendages un-
dulated while you held syngva in your lap? This is merely
one example of a possible motion system that moves beyond
hegemonic wheels.3 The creature is more than its motion,
of course, and thus just as I require a special motion sys-
tem I require a special agent system. Here I draw from
Phoebe Sengers’ work on “anti-boxology”; that is, an active
aversion to creating behaviors that live in conceptual and
programmatic boxes with impenetrable walls [21]. While
there is certain knowledge that every embodied agent must
know (such as its orientation and position of appendages),
as well as common behaviors (such as movement towards
a “goal” and repetition of a desired action), the division
between knowledge about the world and the transition be-
tween behaviors does not have to be a chasm. Beyond the
requirement that the agent (the creature) responds only to
singing and not to the voice (a signal processing problem,
complicated somewhat by tonal languages), I want a system
that learns something about a particular person’s vocal pat-
terns, about her way of expressing herself. I want to create
a bounded blank slate from which the agent, in response
to regular interactions with the human, launches into id-
iosyncratic behaviors partially created on the fly. I will use
techniques from evolutionary robotics [19] to develop con-
trol mechanisms that reflect the individual characteristics of
each person’s singing.

Outside of the laboratory context there must be a reason
for someone to want to continue to interact with the crea-
ture. I see the syngva pro ject as a way to encourage non-
linguistic reflection. Given the open-endedness of the inter-
action, and the design that does not demand the creation
of a creative product, syngva will encourage exploration of
non-standard means of expression. syngva decontexualizes
personal experience, creating an uncanny situation where
the action of singing is strangely familiar, with the outcome
(the behavior of syngva) providing a unique situation. syn-
gva requires a continual semiotic process that barely touches
on existing knowledge. While a user can call forth concepts
such as “front” and “back”, my conscious choice to not make
reference to animals or humans forces the user to create, de-
velop, and refine links between the signifier (the observed
actions of syngva) and the signifieds (the human’s internal
representations). By carefully constructing a bounded blank
slate I hope to find pro jective mechanisms in the person’s
descriptions of their interactions.

3.1.1 Aside: Whither Designer Ethics?
Whither ethics when the designer can create an ob ject
that modifies the user’s behavior without her knowledge?
This aspect of my pro ject is troubling and can only be faced
through the development of the ob ject itself. As a designer I
must be aware of the pro jective mechanisms at work, contin-
ually raising questions as to how this ob ject could adversely
affect the user. This is all the more important when creat-
ing interactive ob jects that have the potential to pull our
evolutionary strings [22, 25].

See the work of Hod Lipson and colleagues [3, 17] for
evolutionary motion and control systems that provide id-
iosyncratic movement profiles. Additionally, I would like to
consider evolution of creature morphologies, similar to the
Golem pro ject of Lipson and Pollack [18].

3.2 in-situ Understanding of syngva

“If this is an awful mess . . . then would something less
messy make a mess of describing it?” [16, 1] John Law, a
sociologist of scientific knowledge, is describing a juxtaposed
drawing: images, geometric shapes, text, lines. No “order”,
as we would usually understand it. His use of the graphic
illustrates the messy situations of contemporary sociological
studies of technology. When you consider the variety of
actors in any one technological artifact, the incongruence of
each with the other becomes apparent: graduate student,
advisor, data sheets, assembly code, institution, users, local
community, conference paper, etc. Would a framework that
attempts to smooth away the differences between each of
these actors merely “make a mess” of the situation? Would
purification into the oft-mentioned spheres of nature and
society [13] really give us a better understanding of these
novel experiences?

Beyond the preliminary laboratory studies I want to present
syngva to a handful of people for at least one-week periods.
My approach to analysis of these situations is to work from
an actor-network theory (ANT) point of view. Less a the-
ory and more a methodology, ANT, among other things,
considers the ob jects of study to be on the same ontolog-
ical level as the sub jects, the humans interacting with the
ob jects [14, 63–86]. In science and technology studies this
representations a radical shift in point-of-view(see Latour
and Woogar [15]); for my purposes, this aspect of ANT is
especially relevant when we consider ob jects, such as syn-
gva, which can act on their own, and which do have at least
presumed agency.

In addition, ANT challenges Western metaphysical as-
sumptions about reality: that we assume reality is “out-
there”, independent of our actions, that it precedes us, that
it is definite, and that it is the same everywhere [16, 23-26].
Law shows in a number of examples that even if there is a
reality “out-there”, it is not independent of our actions (our
measurement equipment, what he calls inscription devices
influences the types of data we obtain), that it does not pre-
cede us (knowledge about a transcription factor only exists
after we have discovered it), that it is not definite (forms
are fluid depending on points of view), and finally, that it is
multiple (different accounts of the same event can exist at
the same time).

What does this mean for my evaluation methodology? I
will go into my observation of interactions of people with
syngva without a framework in mind, without any prior de-
sire to reduce my eventual space of observations to n points,
where n is small. Rather, following the expositions of Latour
and Law, I will look for assemblages, for multiple realities,
for creations of new social groups by the actors in the situa-
tion. I will observe how syngva, as an object, creates a new
reality for the user, how syngva enables the expression of al-
ternative forms of reflection. I will look for situations where
the ob ject has left traces of its influence on the person. As an
example, a recent paper examined people’s reactions to the
Roomba, a robot developed by iRobot for cleaning purposes
[9]. Without remark, they reproduced the following quote:
“I [sic ] made me think it was a little bit pathetic, because
it would sorta near-miss all the time, you know, slam into
things by a quarter to an eighth of an inch.” [9, 261] Rather
than observe that the informant was pitying the robot for
its stupidity, they chose instead to refer to how people were
“pleasantly surprised” when using the Roomba. My hope
is that interactions with syngva provoke these sorts of re-
sponses, situations where I can see how interactions with
the ob ject have modified people’s descriptions about them-
selves and the ob ject.

My choice of not coming into these situations with a prior
framework in mind will hopefully prevent me from reporting
the previous quote without comment. Since my only guiding
principle will be to follow the data, to follow the accounts
of my informants, I will be able to see how their personal,
idiosyncratic way of relating to syngva develops over time.


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