nettime on Wed, 8 Apr 1998 23:41:17 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> interactivity: Stalder, Byfield

From: Felix Stalder <>
Date: 	Wed, 8 Apr 1998 10:30:13 -0400

A. Cinque Hicks wrote:

>i don't really see the use of an adjective so vague that it describes
>*everything*, but okay, if we provisionally agree that all machinery has
>SOME degree of interactivity, then in fact clocks do as well. i have a
>clock sitting right in front of me and believe me i have to interact
>with that goddam thing every morning at 8:30.  for that matter why limit
>interactivity to physically touching things?  a clock does have to be
>looked at in order to do its job.  isn't that then also a form of

At 8:30 you turn off the alarm not the clock , I assume.

>interactivity?  limited, sure, but a clock only gives us an answer
>because implicitly we have asked it a question.

You interpret the clock, no doubt, but I hope that does not influence its

There is a reason why I brought up the interactivity question and put it in
somewhat provocative terms that ALL machinery is interactive with the
exception of the clock.

Interactivity is a good example how the techno-discourse works. It goes
like: Take something that sounds good -- interactivity -- rip it out of any
context, then blow it up beyond proportion and declare it absolutely new,
at least revolutionary.

This will do two things at the same time: first it will sell the product
and second it will make any discussion about what's really happening
impossible because most of the critiques will accept those inflated terms
and simply try to denounce them. Like the "Is Technical Interactivity a
Mere Pretense of Social Interaction and Democracy?" mentioned by Abramson
in an earlier post. Judging from the quote, a typical piece of criticism
that accepts the terms of the hype but simple turns them around. We enter
the tired game: Is it a good thing or is it a bad thing?

If we could postpone the good/bad question for a while and ask: what the
hell is it? then we could have a change to go a little further. By
understanding that interactivity _per se_ is nothing special we can start
to understand the variation of that old theme introduced by some aspects of
the new technologies.



Les faits sont faits. 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

Date: Wed, 8 Apr 1998 17:18:41 -0400
From: t byfield <>

Somewhere in my hazy memory (or maybe in my imagination) I have this idea that
Theodor Adorno denounced (he liked doing that) people experimenting with radio
sets as "pioneers of the prefabricated," or somesuch. He was, in general, very
skeptical about variations in techniques of communications, in the forms those
communications took. But my point isn't academic accuracy, my point is a quick
jab at this idea of "interactivity." It's a new idea; and, like most ideas, it
formally implies that it denotes some meaningful distinction--for example that
some things aren't interactive. That's what this quick debate on interactivity
has been about: what is, what isn't and what interactivity means. That's where
my maybe-imagined Adorno comes in: from a certain perspective (not necessarily
one that I believe, mind you), it doesn't really matter if what we are talking
about is or isn't "interactive," because the larger field in which the distinc-
tion occurs is just silly. Like I said, I don't necessarily believe this; as a
matter of fact, I don't. 

As far as "interactivity" is concerned, my main question is this: What is *not*
interactive? And my interest isn't in answering it myself, but in hearing what
others say. Maybe this is my editorial attitude, maybe it's because, as far as
I'm concerned, interactivity is in the eye of the beholder. People ask, "So is
a clock interactive?" My question is: "Is *nature* interactive?" And my answer:
It's almost a cultural universal that small boys, confronted with nature, will
do things like throw rocks at it for a little while (water-nature), or they'll 
walk around all day hitting it with a stick (path-nature, object-nature) which
they then leave next to the door because---but of course!--they will spend all
day tomorrow walking around hitting things with a stick. Obviously, they're in-
teracting with nature; so is nature "interactive"? You bet. Is each individual
tree that got hit (or climbed, or hid behind, etc.) interactive? Naturally! Is
it so for everyone? Probably not. Is a copy of MYST sitting on a shelf full of
software "interactive"? Nope. How about when someone plays it? Yep. Is it more
interactive than a tree, or a doll, or a box of Lego, or a mathematical theory,
or a watercolor set, or a Jan van Eyck painting, or a clock, or a programmable
calculator with a clock function? Who cares? We could sit around all day devel-
oping a classification scheme for gradations of interactivity, but, really, it
would be buying into the fallacy that interactivity's an attribute of things...

What's good is that this debate has been oriented toward *questioning* interac-
tivity, doubting it, doubting where it is or how important it is, pointing out
that it's dangerous to confuse interactivity with interacting, and so on. When
I say I'm more interested in hearing about what supposedly *isn't* interactive,
it's for this reason: claims that X or Y is interactive boil down to hype, but
claims that something isn't interactive are more openly ideological--"the book
is not interactive," "corresponding by snail mail is not interactive," etc. OK,
that tells me much more than someone saying, "cdroms are interactive." The cat-
egory "interactive" is a comparative assessment--what it really means is "more
interactive than X"--not an absolute condition. When someone doesn't recognize
that, and mistakes it (even casually: lazy assumptions have anarmy behind them)
for a yes/no question, that's when the moral judgment can creep in: interactiv-
ity becomes a New Dispensation or a Reformation, books become pharisaic clever-
ness or Catholic tyranny, bla bla bla. That's totally boring horseshit, a book
couldn't be more interactive, and nothing could be more interactive than books:
if you really want to, you can write in them or even pile them up and burn the
pile, but also you can read one, put one down, and go act somewhere else. I've
never understood the single-minded commodity fetishism buried in interactivity,
as though the test of something's worth is its ability to *absorb* a user's re-
sponse. If anything, The fact that a book--*this particular book* not intertex-
tuality--can't absorb a reaction in quite that way is GOOD not bad. The closed
technological loop that interactivity implies serves to validate technological
techniques, an error-correction handshake procedure for the machinic phylum or
something. (This brings to mind Klaus Theweleit's chapter "Circles Lines Bits,"
somewhere in _Buch der Koenige_: "We misunderstand those elaborate formations
made from human bodies set in motion and put on display by seeing them as mere
ornaments, as deindividualizations, as luxury-product nature (flower- or wave-
nature), or as indulgent forms of waste. They are also, clearly, technical ap-
paratuses, machines as well as diagrams of an overlapping of the human with a
posited "universal harmony," which is reconstructed or anticipated in such
forms (whether in the theater, in a rvue, in film, in alchemical circle-con-
structions or in political mass-formations).... [They are] also a machine for
the structuring and inspiration of mechanical engineers and those other employ-
ees whose task is the conversion of human-chaotic work processes into technical
social ones.") Got it: "interactivity" is the moment when cybernetic processes
(for example, consistency) structure human activities and relations.


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