July 10, 2003

Towards a Working Definition of Interactivity

A general theme of my dissertation focuses on literary concepts of interactivity. Literary is probably too specific a term, as my interests range from pop-up books, to novels, to electronic texts, to computer games. And while my central training is textually based, I am also distinctly concerned with the image - and thus image-text interrelationships. For a while, despite a general enthusiasm for 'multimedia,' some literary criticism (or, criticism from traditionally literature-based institutions - especially that centered on 'hypertext') approached media less like 'multi' and more like 'text.' This resulted is less than adequate attention being paid to the image-as-image.

This is, I think, one reason for the continuing narratologist-ludologist debate, whereby the latter rightly want to insure that each media object is approached on its own terms. And, likewise, why considering issue of materiality strikes me as an important methodological approach (again, drawing on a long history, which I have discussed before). One of the few drawbacks in Espen Aarseth's otherwise wonderful book Cybertext is a less than adequate accounting of the image in a set of predominately textual examples of adventure games and electronic texts. This is, incidentally, why I think he makes the comment that Myst, to him, is dull. Predominately empty of text, Myst relies on images and video while it simultaneously reaffirms the materiality of the page itself. What Aarseth sees as textually (and interactively?) dull, I see as media rich (especially considering its historical contemporaries). [aside: I will give the exact reference later, as I seem to be unable to find the book in the large pile on my desk]

In Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction, Paul Dourish introduces his book with a history of interaction in programming. He tracks a shift from "a step-by-step model of procedural execution ... [to] a new conceptualization of computational phenomena that places the emphasis not on procedures but on interaction" (4, italics his). He further writes:

Interactional approaches conceptualize computation as the interplay between different components, rather than the fixed and prespecified paths that a single, monolithic computational engine might follow. These models of computation have more in common with ecosystems than with the vast mechanisms we used to imagine.

While I have often made the comment that the concept of "interactive" has taken such a broad meaning in our culture that it has ceased to mean much at all (often, people say they want an 'interactive' something, which is to say, "something that is not boring, and that sells my product"). I'm fascinated in our desire for the interactive, in historical and contemporary attempts to broaden the sweep and the depth of the page and screen. There are, of course, several methodological approaches that have historically taken a broader view of, say, books than just text on a page - the field of textual studies is ripe with such work. As I push towards my "working definition" of interactivity, I will continue to draw on such examples and methodologies, where assembled media components - text, the physical properties of page or screen, images, programming languages, software packages, and so on - not only function as recognizable entities, but also as interconnected (and thus inseparable) aspects of a working media ecology.

Posted by Jason at July 10, 2003 7:32 AM | TrackBack


For me, one useful touchstone for re-thinking the relative interactivity of image, word and word-image combinations is the Stewart Brand interview with Andy Lippman. (Stewart Brand, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T. (Penguin, 1988), p. 46) Lippman's definition builds upon the contrast between conversation and lecture. It is of course routed in a consideration of verbal transactions. Would it be possible to work from some activity with/on images to an image-based notion of interactivity. I mean how would the ways researchers categorize the things people do with images affect what researchers theorize as happening between people through images. That reads like a muddle. To simply how would relations between people and images map to relations between people through images? What I am struggling to suggest is that the criterion of connections between entities that seems to be emerging from you explorations is intriguing and may prod me to revisit these :



Posted by: Francois Lachance at July 10, 2003 4:12 PM | Permalink to Comment

Francois - Thanks for the citations; they look like they will be useful as I try to hash out my personal definitions/theory of media interaction. I'm working on a longer post that I'll hopefully have up by next week that might clarify my position a bit further (as you might have guessed, I'm trying to write through issues that I have no real answer for ;) )...

Posted by: Jason at July 11, 2003 9:28 AM | Permalink to Comment

Looking forward to the next materialization of your meditations.

Posted by: Francois Lachance at July 11, 2003 10:27 AM | Permalink to Comment
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