1. The things that keep us busy
Despite strong misgivings, private eye Eddie Valiant eventually ventures into the city of Toontown (in Who framed Roger Rabbit, 1988). It is a truly nerve-racking experience: everything is throbbing with life, nervously responsive to his every move, incessantly calling for his attention—not just the usual toon animals, but plants, cars, buildings, everyday things like the elevator button—even the bullets in his toon revolver are alive. Everything is on speed as it were, Tourettic, incessantly making faces, quipping, jesting, collectively whipping up the environment into a bedlam of interactions. Toontown, the viewer soon realizes, is a madhouse where you would not maintain your sanity for long.
Is this our future?
Even though there are early examples of amazing constructions and machines with interactive abilities, everyday interaction with technical devices is to common people a fairly recent phenomenon brought about by the modern revolution in information technology. An avalanche of interactive devices, artifacts and systems has followed in its path. With this change come new questions and challenges.
It is hard to deny that our artifacts and environments are becoming more and more complex, more and more “alive,” and as a consequence more and more demanding. We have to interact more. Interactivity seems to be everywhere. Why is this happening? There are of course many answers to this question, among them some short and simple. Because it can be done: One obvious cause is the extraordinary and powerful development of digital technology that makes it possible to complexify and infuse everything in our environment with computational and interactive capabilities. Because we want it: It brings on many benefits that we would not want to be without. Interactivity changes our everyday environments in ways that previous generations would have seen as science fiction or magic. We are today able to interact in advanced ways with a range of diverse artifacts and systems, from the smallest device to our homes and with our environments. Interactivity promises that we can be in control of our lives and that we can shape it in any way we desire.
These days, everybody seems to be talking confidently and comfortably about interaction—you interact with web services, with apps, appliances, vehicles, and any form of technical equipment, but also with people, and even entire environments. To be interactive is generally considered good—a positive feature or property associated with being modern, efficient, fast, flexible, reasonable, dynamic, adaptable, controllable—perhaps even smart, curious, caring, involved, engaged, informed, and democratic. Still, there seems to be no very precise idea of what interaction is and what being interactive means, beyond a vague notion that it is some kind of interplay, usually optimistically understood as good-natured cooperation. This vagueness would not be very surprising if it were just the idea of the general public, but even among researchers and experts in Human–Computer Interaction (HCI)—a field of research and development with “interaction” in its very heading—a deep, crisp, shared understanding is wanting. We will in this chapter stay close to the inclusive everyday understanding of ‘interaction.’ In the following chapters we will approach a narrower and more precise definition of ‘interaction’ focused on interaction with digital artifacts and systems, while still keeping in touch with and drawing inspiration from the broader and vaguer everyday sense.
The closely related notion of interface, which has a more technical flavor in everyday parlance has similar problems of depth, preciseness and shared understanding. Yet, it has over the years attracted more attention than interaction from researchers and developers. From a design point of view this is understandable. Interaction, whatever exactly it is thought to be, is something fluid, a dynamic relation played out in time, in use time, not design time—whereas the interface appears as a stable property of the artifact or system, which is there also when no user interaction is going on, hence directly accessible to the designer at design time.
For these reasons, the interface appears more designable than the interaction. Even if a designer is really focusing on designing the interaction, it is hard to see how this design can be effectively implemented except indirectly via the design of the interface. To some extent, it is of course possible to influence the user through education, training, or seeding behavioral patterns, for example, but this path to shaping interactions is not as direct nor usually as potent as the concrete design of an interface and we will not investigate it further in this book. Our examination of interactivity will rather take as its point of departure the interface itself and how the way we think about it has radically changed over time, from being a physical surface with knobs and dials, to clickable symbols, to gestures, and finally to its disappearance.
Today we can interact with some artifacts and environments without there being any visible surface presenting controls or displays of any kind. It is obvious that even if there is no interface, we still interact. We open doors just by walking towards them, we turn on the light by clapping our hands, we get the weather forecast spoken to us by just asking for it, the red light turns green triggered by our car, etc. Of course, as soon as we move towards interaction without any visible surface the questions of what an interface is and what interaction is become more complex.
This development combined with an ability and desire for interactivity fosters a common feeling that the level of interactivity will just keep rising, inexorably. We feel that there is more interactivity, more interaction between humans and things going on, than ever before in history, and it just keeps increasing. There seems to be no retreat or escape from interactivity. Some well-informed critics worry that the proliferation of interactions and interactive things has already gone too far. Their concerns raise many questions. Does interactivity in fact increase? How can we know? What does it really mean to claim that it does? And if indeed it is increasing, what does it mean? Should something be done?
To be able to answer any of these questions requires a more careful and penetrating examination of the concepts of “interactivity” and “interaction” than has been common in research on human-computer interaction. We believe that the answer to questions about rising interactivity and how it affects us humans is not just a matter of belief and conviction about the overall nature of technology and its influence, or how we experience it on a personal and social level. We think it requires a careful investigation into the aspects of artifacts and systems that causes interactivity with a purpose to develop some common understanding that in turn can inform our opinions and positions. This is also the purpose and ambition of this book.
But before we enter into such examinations, let’s first take a closer look at some of the concerns that recently have been recognized in relation to the proliferation of interactivity, concerns that taken together paints a picture with a lot of unknowns. Unknowns that have inspired our examinations.