Alden’s ITP Home

What Is Interaction?

Within ten minutes of using any screened device my left eye begins to strain and ache. My wrists hurt almost constantly and frequently I need to use wrist splints when typing in order to avoid the pain. When I go to sleep at night I have a dull ache in my neck and between my eyes, and when I wake up my first thought is to check my phone. Before thinking about coffee, before thinking about food, or work, or my day ahead, or my partner lying beside me, a light goes off in my brain, a synapse fires, indicating that it is seeking a dopamine reward for checking Twitter. I have callouses on the fingers of my right hand from holding my phone.

Is this interaction? Bad interaction? Parasitic assimilation? These interaction stress-points within my body – eyes, wrist, neck, brain – appear to be failing, or at least warping in accommodation of the devices I use every day. My phone and my eyes might be in daily conversation, but their relationship is an unhealthy one, with an uneven power structure in which my phone does all the talking. Even with my Alexa robot I feel on unequal footing. While the physical stress points I experience with my phone or my computer are removed when interacting with it, I find that regardless of where I am thoughts are now occasionally coming to me in the form of “Alexa, what is ___”.

Interaction conceptually stretches quite a bit of ground beyond that of the relationship between a human and its electrically powered glass-encased computational tools. Starting in the activity of hewing down that ground to something precise a natural question arises: is some level of consciousness necessary for interaction? Could two comets colliding in deep space be said to be participating in an interaction? I would tend to say no, and my inclination in saying no is that there is no information meaningful to either party being exchanged. Chris Crawford’s metaphor, but essentialized to information exchange. Two cats fighting in an alley: definite interaction, with meaningful information being exchanged back and forth. Me staring at a painting and spurned to contemplate all the bad art in the world: there is information being consumed and processed but not exchanged, so I would incline to say no, not interactive.  Two computers pinging each other over a network exists in a debatable grey area for me. Perhaps I’ve anthropomorphized the computer a bit too much out of familiarity; it seems more meaningful to a computer to receive a ping that instructs it to emit a ping than it is meaningful to a comet to lose some of its mass in a collision with another comet. Perhaps it is that computers are human made tools, so any communication between the computers is more grandly thought of as their human creators communicating across time. Perhaps it is the reciprocity, the computer takes in information and then interprets that information as a call to emit different information.  It’s really little different between a human and a computer interacting, though the human adds an element of unanticipatable information to the exchange.

So then interaction is the exchange of information between two entities aware of the exchange, and some definition of bad interaction could be one that causes frictions and damage to one or both of those entities.  What then is good interaction? Just the opposite of bad, pain free interaction?  I would add another condition, that of “mutually desirable results”. Rather than try to define that concept generally let’s just assume that that will make itself apparent in any given interactive situation. Moreover, the interaction should be didactically simple, the method of information exchange should be easy to learn if it is not already known.  So then “good” interaction meets these three criterion: it causes no harm in the long or short run to either entity, it achieves mutually desirable results, and it is didactically simple. Easy!

To end I have one fairly simple digital work that I thought of that I saw in San Francisco at Grey Area that is intentionally non-interactive: