tends to evoke mostly images of the digital media. In literature,
digital interactivity is commonly associated with hypertext
and more recently with cybertext. George Landow traces the origins
of this term to Theodor Nelson who used it in the 1960s to refer
to non-sequential writing on a computer. Hypertext gives the
reader choices to branch out among chunks of text linked by
multiple pathways. Espen Aarseth looks
beyond hypertexts to cybertexts which he defines as involving
calculations in their production. Such
explorations of other possible ways to generate literature open
the question of the very nature of literature as a collection
of fixed texts. Literature is moving from its origins in oral
traditions to a future that we can hardly envision from current
experiments in the new media. As for the
arts, the objective nature of museums is turning fuzzy. The
art work is becoming harder to contain. Fixed objects are increasingly
perceived as fossilized traces of broader ensembles, organic,
Sherry Turkle observes that we are starting to move toward a
culture of simulation. This is possible,
she points out, because people are increasingly comfortable
with substituting representations of reality for the real. How
simulation is able to deal flexibly and creatively with the
always problematic notion of reality, is perhaps one of the
most important epistemological advances of our times.
such developments overflowing traditional boundaries actually
recall creative features which have atrophied over time, or
have been neglected and now resurface in new guises. The sense
of interactivity which dominates the digital media stretches
as far back as we care to look into the roots of human creation.
The most deliberately interactive books span the ages, from
the I Ching to Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch. In many ways
these books are beyond what computer driven texts achieve these
days. In an entirely different cultural
world, interactivity surfaces right from the start of the Popol
Vuh, the ancient Maya book of creation, when a narratorial voice
speaks of the text as a seeing instrument which can help the
viewer understand clearly all there is. The notion of interactivity
appears in Aristotle's notion of tragic catharsis and the pleasures
of imitation described in the Poetics. I recounted in The Festive
Play of Fernando Arrabal how theatre developed in ancient Greece
as a festive medium using mainly episodic forms. This was a
highly interactive mode of creation. It served as vehicle to
interconnect performance, audience, and a pre-existing festive
background. But this began to change as theatre detached itself
from its active web of links. Aristotle rejected the
episodic form in favor of the more sophisticated plot-structures
which had started to emerge. The constraints
of plots have in fact reduced the interactivity of theatre and
literature. Such well-made frames tend to tame the imagination
and narrow the field of expectations. However, they can enhance
a game-like virtuosity through a mastery of specific rules,
so that both authors and audiences can rely on artificial yet
objectified expectations as marks of excellence.
Antonin Artaud used the medium of theatre in an intransitive
mode, as incantation, to make what he envisioned as its double
reveal itself. Political and philosophical
literary texts use the medium in a more transitive way to communicate
messages which could effect change. In the arts, André
Malraux conceived museums without walls. He wished to see art
works move beyond the boundaries of museum walls, and have art
history establish dialogues across space and time. Malraux noted
how Picasso was interested in the process of creation rather
than in the final products. He quoted Picasso saying: "it's
always painting that wins in the end."
Picasso was satisfied by the certainty that, like, cave painters,
he had captured something with his creations. Whatever it was,
he could not tell. The object captured is not important. Framing
only brings the work to an end. The process of interaction is
essential for artists. It is now beginning to count for the
museum as well.
exploration of interactivity brings us back to the roots of
literary and dramatic creation. It takes us beyond more classic
issues such as Eco's question of whether texts are to be used
or interpreted. Interpretation becomes
one of the many uses of texts, rather than being an alternative.
Richard Rorty has already noted that a work of literature is
neither a mirror of nature nor a fixed object, thus recalling
many other uses of literature including its potential for simulation
and modeling which are essentially interactive features. The
issues which return when exploring interactivity, not surprisingly,
are concerned with the play set in motion through the medium.
As it turns out, these are pragmatic issues.
an interactive work? Without shutting the door on an open concept,
we can say that interactivity points to active interrelations
between players and mediums. The interactions can be of many
types. The forms of interactivity tend to be as diverse as the
artists who make them possible. What the rise of new digital
media has done is to widened the focus of interest beyond the
object created, to the participation in a process of playing
out multitude of interactions. Interactivity in its most general
form is a mode of creation, a way of being, a perspective. The
basic characteristics of such a perspective can be grouped tentatively
into four areas. An interactive approach favors the use of multiple
points of view which can coexist even if they appear mutually
exclusive; it celebrates the creative value of play; it is a
catalyst for emergence; and it tends to be ultimately pragmatic.
Like a statue
on a pedestal or a frozen oracle, the object of creation has
been defined classically as something to contemplate. From an
interactive perspective, this leaves most of the creation out
of the picture. A first quality of an interactive perspective
is that is opens multiple points of view through the blurring
of boundaries of realities and objects once conveniently fixed.
This shifts the emphasis away from the object and tilts it more
toward the subject who perceives. Viewers interact with objects
in a way that celebrates subjectivity and diversity. Multiple
views of a common phenomenon can coexist even if they are mutually
exclusive. Objects themselves can remain fuzzy and metamorphic.
The genial French mathematician Henri Poincaré provided
a striking illustration of both classical and interactive views
in the sciences. Poincaré used to say that when truth
is reached, what remains to be done is to sit back and contemplate
it. Truth, when perceived in detached, static terms, becomes
a precious object which can only be admired from a distance.
The world turns into a museum. Look but don't touch.
however, had other more complex and contradictory views. The
man who would sit back to contemplate, also thought it was impossible
to find truth in things in themselves. Truth hovered only in
relations among things. He saw in the emergence of non-Euclidean
geometries a clear indication of the ephemeral and arbitrary
nature of theories: what mattered was not an ontology but convenience
of use. He thought that failed theories left a valuable trace
even as they vanished, and that trace had the scent of truth.
second characteristic of an interactive perspective is that
it favors open approaches which stimulate play. Unfortunately,
the creative function of play at the adult level tends to be
underestimated. In cultural studies, Johan Huizinga's Homo ludens
sparked an interest in play. It was published in 1938 when Herman
Hesse was already at work in his novel The Glass Bead Game.
Both writers situated play as a free activity deliberately outside
of ordinary life. Huizinga saw play as an activity originating
in the mind, distinct from all other forms of thought as a "second,
poetic world alongside the world of nature." In this realm
of illusion, the mind is able to break down what Huizinga presupposed
was "the absolute determinism of the cosmos."
In a similar fashion, Hesse separated Castalia, the domain of
the abstract, intellectual & artistic glass bead game, from
the domain of sensuous, down-to-earth wordly life. But such
view left out the interactive side of play. The ending of The
Glass Bead Game highlights such conflict. It is precisely the
dilemma that Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht faces toward the end
of his career. He has reached the limits of the game and begins
to find it an empty exercise, all too perfect and formulaic.
The world, thought imperfect and chaotic from a Castalian point
of view, begins to appear vaster and richer, full of change,
history, struggles, and new beginnings. Knecht fears that the
isolation of the Castalian game-culture might be its own doom
because it has lost the capacity for further growth and change.
Castalia has reduced interactivity to a minimum. The only variations
allowed are brilliant new moves within the strict rules of the
world-like Glass Bead Game. But these moves escape the ongoing
changes which take place in the outside world. Knecht foresees
that unless Castalia interacts with the world, it will come
to an end. Such is the end of all systems that try to remain
close, and exhaust their possibilities.
Huizinga's separation of play from "ordinary
life" cuts along somewhat similar lines as Hesse's but
is more problematic. Whereas Hesse saw that life was the realm
of change, Huizinga considered life fixed in its basic order.
Chemist and Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine bridged this gap and
introduced the question of play directly into what Huizinga
had imagined was an absolutely deterministic cosmos. Prigogine's
work in the area of complex systems explores a world that might
function with both laws and play at the same time. In The End
of Certainty, Prigogine pointed out that scientific laws formulated
in traditional ways, describe an "idealized, stable world
that is quite different from the unstable, evolving world in
which we live." He envisioned science
hovering between "the two alienating images of a deterministic
world and an arbitrary world of pure chance."
Jean Piaget offered the most functional definition of play.
He presented play as a type of adaptive action understood in
contrast to imitation. Adaptation to situations involves a combination
of imitation and play. These two activities are the extremes
in the spectrum of adaptive behavior ranging from accommodation
to assimilation, respectively. When imitating, we accommodate
to the outside model. But in play we undo the world, so to speak,
and assimilate it to our preferences. Adaptation is reached
through a balancing of these processes.
A way to look at the spread of adaptive attitudes ranging from
imitation to play is to gauge them in terms
of interactivity: imitation minimizes interactivity, but interactivity
increases the more play there is.
McLuhan used a temperature metaphor to distinguish between what
we consider are interactive features. He distinguished between
hot and cold media. He wrote that hot media
leave little to be filled or completed by the audience. Hot
media are low in participation, and cool media are high in participation
or completion by the audience. In this
sense, the new interactive media is mostly cool.
prefers the metaphor of solidity to that of temperature. Cool
media for her is soft. It allows for
flexible, nonhierarchical interactivity. It embodies the notion
of a decentered self. It facilitates bricolage
and simulation. Along similar lines, Ian Hacking proposes that
hard sciences tend to be indifferent because participation is
excluded. Natural laws are supposed to be what they are independently
of the observers. But social sciences, far softer, are interactive
because there is change introduced by the very process of structuring
the sciences. In other words, observations
affect what is observed.
Many have already started to question the validity of the metaphorical
division of the sciences into a range from hard to soft, noting
that there is interaction and lack of objectivity even in physics,
in the area of quantum mechanics, for example. The possibility
of interactive emergence extends then to all areas of human
research and creation. Much depends on how a medium is used
rather than on the properties of the medium or on the discipline.
As works like the I Ching or Hopscotch show, hot medium can
be used in cool ways. Or, to put it differently, a hard science
like physics has plenty of soft spots.
and perhaps the most unique feature of an interactive view is
that it allows us to consider emergent phenomena without downgrading
them by reductions. An emergent phenomenon cannot be predicted.
Nor can it be entirely explained away a posteriori. Emergent
phenomena are above all those which cannot be predicted by the
behavior of its constituent parts. They
happen as if on their own. Here we see the crucial role of interactivity.
Only through the play or jiggling of interactivity is the stage
set for emergent surprises. Marvin Minsky ranks intelligence
as one of such surprises. In The Society of Mind he investigated
how a mind could possibly emerge from an ensemble of mindless
little parts. In writing the book, Minsky tried to simulate
the process of emergence of possible solutions to the question
of how a mind comes into being, by writing collections of short
pieces and letting the parts conjure themselves into solutions.
Emergent phenomena can be seen as successful
yet unpredictable mutations. John Holland has even suggested
that life itself may well be an emergent phenomena.
the digital media, Jim Gasperini has noted the emergence of
an interactive aesthetic in the structural ambiguity which permeates
decentered computer environments and the internet.
He thinks this sense of interactivity is still in its infancy,
especially in the area of interactive games.
But the development of more user-friendly interfaces and the
way the internet has broken down barriers so that every page
is literally next to every other one in the world, are interactive
breakthroughs which begin to show the extraordinary richness
of the digital media. Eric Drexler suggested that a breakthrough
in the order of the Gutenberg revolution has taken place with
the advent of digital hypertext. The introduction of movable
print made producing texts much easier. Now hypertext and its
spread to the internet, make searching for information incredibly
fast and effective.
The investigation of emergent phenomena is trully a new frontier
of both the sciences and the arts. The two domains of human
creation seem to join hands in this realm of exploration. Science
has traditionally dealt with repetitive phenomena, whereas the
arts have favored special events charming by their inspiring
uniqueness. In the realm of emergence we begin to look into
events which are neither regular nor unique. They are suprises
which can be managed to happen but never coherced into predictable
repetitions. What I suggest is that an interactive perspective
helps us map more effectively this new frontier opening between
chaos and total order.
fourth broad characteristic of an interactive perspective is
that it favors pragmatic views. Richard Rorty captured the spirit
of pragmatism stating that it is the "refusal to believe
in the existence of Truth, in the sense of something not made
by human hands, something which has authority over human beings."
Pragmatism is a self-organizing, bootstrap-like approach.
out that "the end of human activity is not to rest, but
rather richer and better human activity."
He envisions solidarity as an expression of this human interactivity
directed toward the goal of enhancing our lot in the world in
an all inclusive rather than exclusive way. The method of working
in solidarity hinges on what Rorty calls a "new fuzziness"
in which "objectivity" gives way to "unforced
agreement."  The expression of
this creative solidarity is democracy: "a conception which
has no room for obedience to a nonhuman authority, and in which
nothing save freely achieved consensus among human beings has
any authority at all." Following
John Dewey, what Rorty stresses is the notion of interactive
participation, of being an agent rather than a spectator.
From a pragmatic
point of view, objectivity is an illusion. What Rorty proposes
instead is to acquire habits of action to deal with the world.
Pragmatic interactions should not force preconceptions on others.
Agreements for action should come from reaching positions of
solidarity and working toward common purposes freely chosen.
In this sense, pragmatism favors a local flexibility. In the
absence of absolutes, what works, works--within a context which
by necessity must be local.
that the reward for pragmatists is Dewey's sense of democracy
with its utopian possibilities and sense of hope. He believes
that we can mitigate our finitude by self-creation rather than
by invoking untenable and ultimately confining truths. This
creative imagination begins with self-imagining: an inward interaction
which gives rise to processes and models to interact with the
world. The pragmatic high value of feed-back, a deep concern
with reflexivity, is perhaps the most critical navigating tool
of a mature interactive perspective.
interactivity itself can be brought under focus. What does interactivity
have to offer in its approach that we did not already have?
I have suggested that it is best suited to deal with multiple
perspectives, it invites emergence, offers a broader sense of
play, and has a pragmatic outlook. In other words, an interactive
view celebrates a constructive flexibility well suited for navigating
in open, changing, or unknown environments. But such outlook
also exposes us to the risks of the new, to sudden conflicts,
disintegration, fragmentation, and other unpleasant surprises.
When science is more open to the whims of the imagination it
may be more vulnerable to ridicule. Literature may lose the
greatness of canonical values. The message in the new media
may turn out to be hollow, mindless. Creativity could be compromised.
Minsky already warned that total interactivity leads to chaos.
He argued in the appendix to The Society of Mind that insulators
are needed just as much as interactive links.
On the other hand, change is all around us. Borders have shifted
from autocratic theories to democracies of models. Politics
are evolving from dogmatisms to networks of pragmatic solidarities.
A drift in cultural plates is changing the artistic landscape.
And as new architectures metamorphose the imagination, science
also seems to overflow its banks an touch uncharted domains.
The internet is emerging as an example of total freedom to link,
without insulations or barriers to links, and yet we manage
to use it constructively. These reconfigurations are best explored
from an interactive perspective which moves us from teleology
an interactive perspective does not exclude other approaches.
Its tendency toward decentering and autonomy does not negate
hierarchical structures. This perspective is one more tool at
our disposal, another creative instrument to enhance our flexibility.
And in order to learn how to manage the initial anarchism of
total interactivity, we must put to good use all the tools we
have at hand. The development of new links is not enough. We
must also develop new ways to manage those links. The open development
of flexible management tools is one of the critical and challenging
aspects of our interactivity.
couldn't we say that all creative works are always produced
by interactions? Yes, to varying degrees, unless, of course,
we think they originate from one-way divine inspiration, from
the whispers of muses.
George P. Landow, Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary
Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP,
1997), p. 3. return
Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997), p. 75. return
It is important to keep in mind Robert Markley's warning in
Virtual Realities and Their Discontents (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1996) that the new media is not displacing
the old ones. Markley and the authors who contributed to the
book he edited, suggest that we must remain skeptical of the
notion that a new form can place itself above what has come
before. This verges on a totalitarian perspective. The denial
of other forms of expression or the claim to transcend them,
goes against the grain of interactivity, as I argue in this
essay. Virtual reality is essentially a new modeling medium
sprouting among the many others we already have. This, in itself
is plenty. return
Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the
Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 20. return
Cortázar favored active readers rather than armchair
ones, as he put it. Hopscotch celebrates his notion of interaction
by inviting the reader in its table of instructions to follow
at least two paths through the text. Works which focus on plot
are the least interactive in this sense. The interactive nature
of Maya textuality is rather different. Readings are based on
spiritual links with the text. Readings vary depending on the
quality of such links, so to speak. The I Ching also contains
this type of interactive quality of reading, although here it
is enhanced with the throwing of sticks or coins to arrive at
one of sixty-four hexagrams. Espen Aarseth noted the hypertextual
nature of the I Ching and argued that it is the first expert
system based on the principles of binary computing (Landow 1994:
Luis O. Arata, The Festive Play of Fernando Arrabal (Lexington:
UP of Kentucky, 1982), p. 1. The episodic form reappeared during
the revival of theatre in the Middle Ages, and has continued
to crop up since then in many playful guises. return
Such was the case with classical French tragedy made to follow
neo-Aristotelian rules of time, place, and action. Shakespeare,
fortunately, had enjoyed a much freer hand. return
André Malraux, Picasso's Mask (New York: Da Capo Press,
1994), p. 98. return
Umberto Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation (Cambridge:
Cambridge U P, 1992), p. 93. return
Henri Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis, (New York: Dover,
1952), pp. xxvi, 50, and 143. return
Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), pp.
Ilyia Prigogine, The End of Certainty (New York: The Free Press,
1997), p. 26. return
Ibid. p. 189. return
Jean Piaget, Six Psychological Studies (New York: Random House,
1968), p. 8. return
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (Cambridge: MIT Press,
1994), p. 23. return
This mirrors a solidity scale common in the sciences. Physics
is considered the hardest discipline. return
Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge: Harvard,
Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster,
John H. Holland, Emergence: From Chaos to Order (Reading: Addison
Wesley, 1998). return
Jim Gasperini, "Structural Ambiguity: An Emerging Interactive
Aesthectic." In Robert Jacobson, ed. Information Design
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), pp. 301-316. return
Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation (New York: Anchor Books, 1986).
Of course, Drexler wrote this book before the internet took
off as a hypermedium, but his observations carry over quite
Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1998), p. 27. return
Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Realism, and Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1991), p. 39. return
Ibid. p. 38. return
Achieving Our Country, p. 18. return