Reflections about Interactivity

by Luis O. Arata
Department of Fine Arts, Languages & Philosophy
Quinnipiac College

3,877 words
posted:  december 19,  1999

[This is the text of a paper presented at the Media in Transition Conference at MIT on October 8, 1999.]

Interactivity 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.[1] Espen Aarseth looks beyond hypertexts to cybertexts which he defines as involving calculations in their production.[2] 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, in process.[3]

More generally, Sherry Turkle observes that we are starting to move toward a culture of simulation.[4] 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.

Yet 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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."[8] 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.

The 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.[9] 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.

What is 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.

Poincaré, 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.[10]

A 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."[11] 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."[12] He envisioned science hovering between "the two alienating images of a deterministic world and an arbitrary world of pure chance."[13]

Perhaps 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.[14] 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.

Marshall 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.[15] In this sense, the new interactive media is mostly cool.

Sherry Turkle prefers the metaphor of solidity to that of temperature. Cool media for her is soft.[16] 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.[17] 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.

A third 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.[18] Emergent phenomena can be seen as successful yet unpredictable mutations. John Holland has even suggested that life itself may well be an emergent phenomena.[19]

Concerning 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.[20] 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.[21]

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.

A 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."[22] Pragmatism is a self-organizing, bootstrap-like approach.

Rorty pointed out that "the end of human activity is not to rest, but rather richer and better human activity."[23] 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."[24] 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."[25] 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.

Rorty suggests 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.

Finally, 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 to play.

Nevertheless, 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.

Finally, 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.


[1] George P. Landow, Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997), p. 3.

[2] Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997), p. 75.

[3] 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.

[4] Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 20.

[5] 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: 64-65)

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] André Malraux, Picasso's Mask (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), p. 98.

[9] Umberto Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1992), p. 93.

[10] Henri Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis, (New York: Dover, 1952), pp. xxvi, 50, and 143.

[11] Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), pp. 3-4.

[12] Ilyia Prigogine, The End of Certainty (New York: The Free Press, 1997), p. 26.

[13] Ibid. p. 189.

[14] Jean Piaget, Six Psychological Studies (New York: Random House, 1968), p. 8.

[15] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), p. 23.

[16] This mirrors a solidity scale common in the sciences. Physics is considered the hardest discipline.

[17] Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge: Harvard, 1999).

[18] Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986).

[19] John H. Holland, Emergence: From Chaos to Order (Reading: Addison Wesley, 1998).

[20] Jim Gasperini, "Structural Ambiguity: An Emerging Interactive Aesthectic." In Robert Jacobson, ed. Information Design (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), pp. 301-316.

[21] 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 well.

[22] Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 27.

[23] Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Realism, and Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 39.

[24] Ibid. p. 38.

[25] Achieving Our Country, p. 18.