There are many words starting with the letter “I” that touch upon the heart of digital media and digital culture. Information, interface, interactivity, Internet. Although each one has a story behind it, most are too technical for our alphabet, and moreover, years of usage have made them cliché.
Interactivity is one of the key words that separated new media from the old media in the 90s. Interactivity is just another take on the word “interaction”. Computers were supposed to be the machines that introduced the rule of mutuality into relations between people and media ― and between broadcasters and their audience. When people succeeded in connecting computers themselves, the relations of people hiding behind the glowing screens also became interactive, thus further blurring the line between broadcaster and audience.
We can easily doubt new, interactive media. On some level even a washing machine is interactive: not only can I turn it on, but even pick a washing program that fits my needs. To defend themselves against such analogies, media theorists posited that interactivity in case of the media relies on “non-trivial” activities. These are activities, in which the degree of influence that the user has over the shape of man-machine relations translates into creating new meanings.
But there is also the level of everyday experience. The youngest generations, used to constant feedback from the content they consume, are no longer experiencing the awe and joy that were brought on by first interactive contacts with the media. Theoretically, we can assume that programming a laundry machine is interactive ― but it does not provide, and neither do novels or movies, the same experiences that first video games did. Despite horrible graphics, banal algorithms and simple stories forced by the minimal amount of memory in early gaming systems, playing a round of Pac Man of Boulder Dash was something quite remarkable.
Nevertheless, interactivity remains very intangible. That's probably why it simultaneously is a keyword carried around like a standard and one of the most criticized terms in the digital media playbook. Not only because it's hard to define ― or appraise ― the interactivity of a given medium. For researchers studying the Internet, a TV show asking the audience to vote by text messages lacks any meaning, but for those who study television, that can signify the rise of a new, interactive form of TV show. But also because even the concept of interactivity is tainted with ideology.
The critics of interactivity claim that this mutuality in people-media relations was never real, but was rather an expression of dreams and aspirations. Espen Aarseth, Norwegian researcher focused on video games and e-literature, thinks that term “interactivity” is based on a lie. Are we really in a position to engage in real dialogue with a computer? No, because we're moving among structures that have already been constructed by someone else. We are unable to go anywhere that the programmer or interface designer does not want us to go. We can make steps, but only on preordained paths.
From this point of view, the concept of new media ending the domination of the centralized communication model, in which one broadcaster communicated with an audience that was unable to reply, is overly idealized. We can even risk saying that this model is alive and well even in the Web 2.0 era, given how bloggers only seem to discuss what the big media provides them with.
Slavoj Žižek attacks the idea of interactivity from a completely different angle, using the ironic term of “interpassivity”. In short: people are lazy and don't really want to have any influence over the media, we can see that already in the structure of Greek tragedies, where the chorus is supposed to provide commentary to the audience, so the viewers don't have to do any thinking of their own. Alexander Bard claims that preference of interactivity over interpassivity (or vice versa) during media consumption is one of the main axes of social divisions.
When the global discussion on new media was beginning in the 1960s and 70s, it was led by leftist theorists (with the likes of Marshall McLuhan and Hans Magnus Enzensberger at the front) who were convinced that media that allow the audience to broadcast ― in other words, interactive media ― will be the cure for the crisis of the public sphere. Jean Baudrillard responded gloomily to these high hopes with his 1972 essay “Requiem for the Media”. He claimed that media are capitalist by nature and can only simulate interaction ― because even in interactive media, the broadcaster-audience dichotomy still stands. Media are the embodiment of social divisions and new forms of media, whatever they may be, will not change the world.
The key to solving this problem is to distinguish between two overlapping and yet not equally meaningful levels: one is communication technology, the other social communications. Henry Jenkins proposed one way to differentiate between the two. Interactivity is a characteristic of a medium, while participation is a characteristic of culture. That's why in the discussion on interactions computers should be pushed to the background, because interactions between people are more important. Media themselves are not able to force dialogue and participation in the public sphere. They can only help it. The rest is up to us.