Interactivity and the problematic nature of a substantivist reading
Dr Marcus Leaning University of WinchesterPaper presented atInteractivity: a symposium,21st September 2011,University of Winchester
Considerable literature on Interactivity – intrinsic to digital media. Rice (1984) interactivity is what defines digital media. Manovich (2001) cannot talk of digital media without the concept - cannot conceptualise digital media without the idea of interactivity.
Jenson (1998) notes its not a fixed concept and different disciplines understand it in different ways. He notes the current use draws upon: ◦ Sociology - interpersonal interaction ◦ Communication studies more correctly literary / cultural theory – PM theories of the changing nature of text ◦ Informatics - field of HCI
Dominant view is that it is a ‘quality’ or characteristic possessed by media forms to a greater or lesser degree (Reinhard, 2011): Definition: Interactivity is a quality of media technology that allows for control over the flow of information and the selection of content presented by the media. ‘Amount of interactivity
Important to realise that interactivity is not ‘freedom’. Interactivity controls our engagement with a text, points us in certain directions, prohibits others. Better to think of engaging with an interactive media as entering a maze - you can go in any direction you want as long as it is not blocked.
Interactivity can also be understood as communication between people. Two meanings here: ◦ ‘Classical’ media mediate content - technology mediates us. ◦ ‘Architectural’ view – the interactive technology itself is a design and communicates meaning. The issue becomes interesting comes when we examine the degree to which a technology represents or stands in for another human.
Interactive media do not simply mediate content (as old media do). Interactive technology is itself a mediation of the will of the designer. We are in ‘dialogue’ with the designer or producer of the media technology. The decisions they make in coding, in software design are very important and structure our experience. The form of an interactive media is itself a ‘text’ as much as the content it delivers. Emerging field of ‘computer criticism’ (Papert, 1987) ‘software’ or ‘code’ studies (Berry, 2011).
To understand the dual nature of interactivity: ◦ That it both structures our experience and gives us some (impression, at least) of control ◦ It is itself a text that requires examination Various social-psychological attempts to explore interactivity (Reinhard, 2011) – individualist, cognitive or biological in explanatory orientation. Here I want to draw upon a social theory of technology. However perhaps this theory needs some rehabilitation…
A broad and critical approach to: ◦ Understanding the impact of technology upon society and individuals ◦ Understanding the impact of society and individuals upon technology. Society and Technology individuals The story starts in early Modernity…
Modernity more than a drive to rationality. As well as the positivist, teleological emphasis there also existed the counter weight of: ◦ the veneration of nature, ◦ Romanticism, ◦ the emergence of the transcendental-self tied with nationalism and sub nationalism; ◦ and a whole plethora of decidedly anti-‘modern’ tendencies.
Technology, as the application of science, was understood in certain ways in Modernity. Indeed technology is considered by many as an intrinsic part of modernity (Giddens, 1990). Technology was The handloom gives you understood to drive society with the feudal development – lord; the steam mill technology impacts and society with the industrial structures society capitalist. (Winner, 1987).
At the same time there was a reaction based upon an economic (real or not) and ‘spiritual’ rejection of technology combined with a sense of nostalgia. Luddism - initially an economic fear - come to mean a more cultural fear Arts and crafts movement (late C19th)
This critique of technology saw technology as something bad and alienating of humanity from its integration with nature. Became more formalised in Heidegger’s work esp. his ‘Question Concerning Technology’ (1977) where he saw modern technology as deeply problematic as we are given over to it and become part of a ‘system’. Modern physics based technology is inherently different older practical technology. Philosophical critique - technology itself is problematic for what it does to us as humans.
Challenges the modernist ontological divide between humans and non-humans. Humans, Nature Culture Non-humans TechnologyOffers an alternate description of how we exist – in networks ofactors (human) and Actants (non-human).
Jim Johnson / Latour examines the micro nature of the impact of technology upon action. Sees technology as functioning as our ‘Lieutenant’ – we give it instructions and it carries them out and corrals the freedom or controls the actions of others. Adds a sociological sophistication to the spiritual anti-technology of Luddism. But both seem to lack a bit of a cultural critique.
Frankfurt School Marxist scholar, Negations (1968) argued that technology is not something deployed in the service of a political ideology but is essentially political at core. Thus politics is not added to technology but is their in technology’s creation through its design and manufacture.
In seeing technology in this manner Marcuse mirrors the Cultural Materialism of thinkers such as Williams (1974) and cultural anthropologists. Cultural Materialism sees cultural texts as deeply imbued with the historical situation of their production, they carry within them a strong imprint of that situation and it is possible to read a society’s culture from its material artefacts.
One of Marcuse’s (many) points is that technology is the same, it carries cultural values. However, because technology causes change and transforms society, we must be careful. If we use technology to drive social change we automatically import the cultural values of the society that produced the technology. In bringing about a new society with a new social form we are ‘staining’ the new society with the cultural values of the originating culture.
Said Pol Pot. If we use foreign capitalist running-dog technology we will simply create another capitalist running-dog society! The only option is to go back to Year Zero and start again, recreate technology from scratch in a socialist utopia. We had best kill all the teaches, doctors, engineers, intellectuals and people with glasses so as to rid ourselves of capitalist infection.
The adoption of substantivist principles by various Maoist revolutionary movements and the subsequent horrific brutality performed by them when the principles are taken to extremes has perhaps damaged the substantivist approach to technology. Not terribly popular today.
However, I would argue that substantivism with its double edge of enquiry – examining both the impact and origin of a technology offers a valuable lens through which we can examine interactive media. While we often theorize the power of various technologies to bring about change we rarely integrate this into accounts of technology’s history. Latour’s work partly did this but could benefit from a cultural materialist turn
Proposal for a ‘cultural’ or substantive critique of interactive media - not just content but technical form. Interactive media needs to be examined not only as a representational form but as a further structur(al/ing) system. Substantivism as a underpining rationale for semiotics of performative action…
Berry, D. M. (2011) The Philosophy of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age, London: Palgrave Macmillan.Fuller, M. (2008) Software studies : a lexicon, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.Giddens, A. (1990) The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press.Heidegger, M. (1977) The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, New York: Harper Torchbooks.Jensen, J.F. (1998) ‘Interactivity: tracking a new concept in media and communication studies’, Nordicom Review, 19(1), 185-204.Johnson, J. (Latour, B.) (1988), Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer, Social Problems, 35, 298-310.Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.Marcuse, H ( 1972) Negations, Harmondsworth: Penguin University Books.Papert, S. (1987) Computer criticism versus technocentric thinking, Educational Researcher, 16(1), 24–28.Reinhard, C. (2011) ‘Studying the interpretive and physical aspects of interactivity: Revisiting interactivity as a situated interplay of structure and agencies’ Communications, 36(3), 353- 374.Rice, R. (1984) Development of New Media Research in R. Rice ed. Communication, Research, and Technology, pp 15-31, Beverly Hills: Sage.Williams, R. (1974). Television: Technology and Cultural Form. London: Fontana.Winner, L. (1987) Autonomous Technology: Technics-out -of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought, Cambridge, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
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