What is Interaction?

Physical Computing

As soon as I started reading Chris Crawford’s book called The Art of Interactive Design, I thought about a Facebook post that my friend (and ITP alum!) Sharang Biswas put up a few days ago:

The word “interactive” seems to have become a synonym of “embedded with electronics”… I just saw a post about an “interactive ball”…because obvi balls are never otherwise interactive…

I think Crawford would argue that balls in and of themselves are not interactive (a ball is not an “actor” that listens, thinks, or speaks…but a ball can certainly be the facilitator of interaction). However, Crawford would agree that just because something has an electronic component does not make it “interactive”. The examples he initially cites are not electronic at all–Interactive Rugs! Interactive Shampoo! Interactive Granola Bars! I would pay good money to see an interactive granola bar.

I scoff, but I admit that defining interaction is difficult, and I’m struggling to come up with a definition of my own. I appreciate Crawford’s idea of degrees of interactivity, as opposed to a binary. For example, I interact with a vending machine to get my granola bar, but it’s a fairly low level of interactivity. My granola bar is a zero interactivity object. I can anthropomorphize the thing, create a whole dialogue for it, like, “Please Melissa, I am but a paltry snack, unworthy of your stomach. Spare me!” but all this is for naught. I have no empathy for the bar. I eat it noisily and mirthfully.

The part of Crawford’s definition that trips me up is the “thinking” element. Aren’t musical instruments interactive? But these are unthinking things. Is a guitar only truly interactive if after hearing me play it’s got something to say back? Like, “Melissa, the e-string is out of tune” or “Melissa, the song you’re writing is very derivative of the Pachelbel’s Canon.” Is that better? Do we want to endow our instruments with the insights of our shitty boyfriends?

I strongly agree with Bret Victor that we need to harness human capabilities. Something that strikes me in the “vision of the future” is that there’s no need for humans at all. The girl can look up recipes without her mom’s help, the office dudes can see they need a new pump without a meeting…basically the computers can do all the work, and all we need to do is make little swipey motions. It’s hardly a future I want to live in.

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