In the fields of electronic literature and new media art, ‘interactivity’ is a key but contested term. Some poets and critics regard it as a unique and validating quality of on-line digital works, since such works frequently allow the reader to choose sequences and pathways, enter words, select from a range of options or otherwise modify the reading experience through key strokes and mouse movements. However, the concept and practice have also been sharply criticised. The book The Language of New Media, by the theorist Lev Manovich, includes a section entitled ‘The Myth of Interactivity’, in which Manovich suggests that the breadth of the term limits its usefulness: human-computer interaction is ‘by definition interactive’ (55). He also criticizes the aesthetic consequences of the practice of interactivity, on the grounds that hyperlinked works in interactive computer media ‘externalize and objectify the mind’s operations’ so as to invited us to ‘mistake the structure of someone else’s mind for our own’ (61). Among digital poets, Young-Hae Chang (one of the duo forming Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries), has remarked on her distain for interactivity, while John Cayley, a leading creator of works in works immersive 3D audio-visual environments, has pointed to the degree of constraint usually involved.
One of the most useful perspectives on the issue is provided by the digital artist Simon Biggs, who seeks to reserve the concept of interactivity for processes which actually effect a change in the work, rather than those in which the reader follows a non-linear pathway through fixed data: ‘The term interactivity can be used to refer to those works which feature some form of responsiveness to the reader, where that responsiveness causes the content of the work to be altered. Such an approach is in marked contrast to the unresponsive character of non-linear navigable work’ (‘On Navigation and Interactivity’).
In a broader sense, of course, interactivity is a feature of all aesthetic experience, and indeed experience in general, ranging from our imaginative interaction with art works and our physical and sensual engagement their material properties, to our interaction with others humans, with natural and built environments, and with technology. As such, issues around the concept of interactivity cross the boundaries between literature, art, architecture, psychology, sociology and many other disciplines, and in many of these fields have acquired new urgency from the development of interactive forms of technology.
In these experiments we focused on concepts of interactivity and affectivity in relation to works of electronic / digital poetry. The context for this part of our research included the debates about interactivity in digital media: in particular, the validity or otherwise of the concept of interactivity and the relationship between physical and imaginative interaction. Another key context was the field of embodied cognition, which links body, affect and mind, so that, for example, Mark Hansen uses ‘embodiment’, ‘in the sense it has been lent by recent work in neuroscience: as inseparable from the cognitive activity of the brain’ (New Philosophy for New Media, p. 3). For Hansen ‘affect is not a collection of feelings, it is a mode parallel to perception and action’ (Sara Mills, ‘From Interactivity to Affectivity’, review of New Philosophy for New Media, New Formations, 154). Also relevant is Hansen’s definition of affectivity as ‘the capacity of the body to experience itself as “more than itself” and thus to deploy its sensorimotor power to create the unpredictable, the experimental, the new’ (New Philosophy, 7). The key question this experiment sought to address was the extent to which works of digital poetry promote, call upon, or make readers more aware of this capacity.
The experiments also incorporated the concept of the ‘reflective feedback loops’: since self-awareness about one’s own responses is integral to aesthetic perception, our approach was to study explicitly how taking part in the experiments, and seeing the results, modifies subsequent responses. This recognises that aesthetic experience includes variable conscious and unconscious elements. So additional questions were focused on how the experience of the work informs the understanding and evaluation of the work, and vice versa, and how one’s own interpretation, and one’s exposure to others’ interpretations of the work informs the experience of viewing, reading, re-viewing and rereading it. An aspect of the context for affective responses is the strategy which Philippe Bootz calls the ‘aesthetics of frustration’, which entails rendering paradigmatic digital processes and the process of reception deliberately complex and difficult (Philippe Bootz, ‘Reader/Readers’, p. 111).
These were selected for the comparatively high level of interaction that they demanded, and for their comparative complexity. Carrier has a more accessible thematic concern and clearer narrative strategy than Lexia, which is highly self-reflexive and requires a high level of interpretative skill to process. The former is also less formally complex, and likely to be more predictable in terms of navigational click paths. In order to explore the CRs physical and cognitive interaction with the chosen pieces, mouse movements were recorded and interpretative responses requested. The CRs were split into two groups, A and B. Group A was in control of the mouse at all points during the experiment, group B was shown the works by the experimenter who controlled the mouse during the first viewing of each work. Within these groups, some CRs saw Carrier first (twice) and Lexia second (once) and others saw Lexia first (twice) and Carrier second (once).
CRs were first told the format of the experiment. Then, depending on the group, they were either given the first work to familarise themselves with or shown the first work (they watched the work while physical interaction was controlled by someone else) for 15 minutes. The screen, including mouse movements, was recorded. After the initial viewing they were asked to complete the response sheet relevant to the work, including a sentence-completion task, constructed with the aim of analysing the level of engagement with the work, in terms of memory, semantics, and mood. It also asked CRs to answer the following questions:
1. How did you feel during the process of looking at / reading the work?
2. Did you enjoy interacting with it?
3. Did you feel very engaged with the work?
4. How would you evaluate it as poetry?
5. How would you evaluate it as an interesting experience?
6. What associations did it bring to mind?
And finally, the CRs were asked to rate the work in terms of emotional content (rate between 1 and 5 for each word) on the following criteria:
CRs were then given an interpretative critical passage relevant to the work to read, and were given another chance to engage with the work: irrespective of group, they all controlled this interaction with the mouse and the screen was again recorded. The CRs were then given the response sheet for a second time, and asked to fill it in again.
Finally, CRs were given access to the second work, while the screen was recorded: depending on the group, they were either given the second work to familarise themselves with or shown the second work (they watched the work while physical interaction was controlled by someone else). After the initial viewing they were asked to complete the response sheet relevant to the work.
This experimental structure allows us to distinguish between 3 viewing conditions:
1.‘Innocent’ (first viewing of work, without priming)
2.‘Informed’ (second viewing of the same work, informed by their own reflections and by ‘teaching’ process with information and interpretation of others)
3.‘Primed’ (first viewing of second work, primed by experience of first work)
What did we find?
CRs were equally divided as to whether Carrier was a more visual or textual work, while more of them saw Lexia as textual, especially after more than one viewing.
The sentence completion task was perceived to be quite difficult, although most CRs picked up the tone of the works quite quickly and frequently they chose suitable/passable vocabulary there were very few matches with the original sentences. More strikingly, several CRs left sentences incomplete and most completed them with a single word or two. Only two CRs appear to have been happy to use their imagination / creativity in the task (completing all and using technique, tone and vocabulary consistently): these were also the two who seem to have had the most positive responses to the works overall.
On the whole CRs tended to perceive the second viewing of the work, irrespective of which work, as a less aesthetic experience: some identified it as less enjoyable because more ‘informative’, some identified it as less puzzling and therefore less engaging. Only one CR appraised Carrier more positively in terms of enjoyment and engagement on the second viewing.
Of the four that saw Lexia as a first work, two responded quite negatively, finding it “overwhelming”, “confusing”, a “maze” and “highly frustrating”. One reported the same feelings but enjoyed it. The fourth was almost completely neutral but reported having felt he was spending his time trying to orient himself in a maze-like structure. Those who saw Lexia as a second work, after spending time with Carrier, found it “confusing”, “boring” and “annoying”: only one of the four responded to it in neutral terms, also describing it a confusing and difficult, but therefore “challenging”. Thus the priming effect of Carrier does not seem to have made much difference. The two CRs that saw it as a first work, controlled by the experimenter, both felt that they got little out of it and counted it as a primarily visual experience: they felt they couldn’t read it on the first view. However, one of the self-controlled viewers also noted the same feelings, calling it text “hampered by” visual style and images. Both the CRs who saw it controlled by the experimenter noted that they were more aware of the information aspect of it when they could control it themselves. There was no acknowledgment of the impact of the interpretative information in any of the second responses, and little evidence of their reading it in terms of the responses seeming more informed.
Of the four that saw Carrier as a first work, three mentioned the effect of it using their names (which the work asks you to imput), and the fourth talked about the importance of interactivity in the work quite prominently. All four responded quite positively to the work, finding it “curiously satisfying” in terms of language, and enjoying the poetic aspects. Of those who saw Carrier as a second work, after spending time with Lexia, all mentioned the naming as a particularly engaging aspect of the work and found it a more positive experience than engaging with Lexia: it was “clearer” and less confusing. The two CRs that saw Carrier as a first work, controlled by the experimenter, both reported finding it interesting and informative. What seems to have been perceived negatively in this work was the thematics or content, which two CRs noted as repellent. However, both acknowledged an attraction in the repulsion, and rated it as seductive/attractive (so the nature of the content wasn’t enough to put them off). There was no acknowledgment of the impact of the interpretative information in any of the second responses, although two CRs did question the veracity of aspects of the work in the second responses (so we may assume they had a heightened sense of it as a created work). There was little evidence of their reading it in terms of the responses seeming more informed.
Differences between controlled (A1 and A2) and self-controlled (B 1 and B2):
Memory test: Generally a lower rate of completion when interaction was self-controlled, which could suggest the cognitive load of interaction interferes with memory.
Reflection: 3 CRs reported having a primarily visual experience when ‘watching’ the works, as if reading was more difficult than when self-controlled. With Lexia, three of the four reported not enjoying/being engaged with the work because of not being in control. Thus in terms of the question posed in the theoretical context for the experiment, there seems to be some evidence of such works promoting or making readers more aware of ‘the capacity of the body to experience itself as “more than itself” and thus to deploy its sensorimotor power to create the unpredictable, the experimental, the new’, in that the sense of the unpredictability of the act of clicking through the work seemed to be experience positively.
Click paths in general were found to be highly individual. With Lexia, most CRs tended to make scanning movements with the mouse over the page, often attempting to click on objects but sometimes just randomly moving. Lexia has no obvious menu or navigational tool (except the menu at the top left, which few seemed to notice), and changed according to both types of action. They seldom read an entire section when it appeared. In general, the times in which the mouse stood still were the moments in which chunks of text appeared on screen, which may suggest that the cognitive process of moving the mouse is felt to interfere with reading. In Carrier, the tendency seemed to be to use the menu to navigate firstly, and then begin to click on objects after a few minutes of navigating. Most CRs seemed to move their mouse reflexively to text-boxes that opened on screen. Here too, when reading texts there was very little mouse movement. Carrier prompted more systematic approaches to navigating, whilst lexia saw CRs frequently returning to pages again and again in visible order: the space of lexia seems considerably more confusing. Speed did not seem to be linked to positive or negative reactions to the piece.
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2001.
Simon Biggs,‘On Navigation and Interactivity'