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This text was written as a personal contribution for the preparatory meeting of the forthcoming International Telecommunication Union TELECOM INTERACTIVE '97. It is in no way meant to necessarily represent the opinions of the ITU, TELECOM or INTERACTIVE '97. Many thanks to Mark Selby (fornerly) of the Health on the Net Foundation for his comments about the first version of this text.


The relationship between people and machines and between people via the machine is the stuff that interactivity is made of. However, before discussing aspects of the interactive relationship, it is necessary to evoke two fundamental pre-requisites of interactivity:

  • The basic person/machine interface;
  • Machine/machine interaction.

The "natural" interface

Interaction between people and machines depends very much on the unobtrusiveness of the basic interface. Although considerable efforts have been made to create more "natural" person/machine channels of exchange via sound and touch, input is still essentially key-board oriented and output is predominantly screen-based. With the expected convergence between telecommunications, media and computing and the plans for mass use within the Global Information Infrastructure pressure will increase to further "humanise" people/machine interfaces. Science-fiction writers and pessimists would have us directly hooked up to the computer, but we probably have a vested interest in keeping our distance. Being at one with the universe would probably take on a quite different meaning if the dividing line between machines and people became even more blurred.

The shrinking world

In a network context, interaction depends on the capacity of machines to interact with each other in a seamless way. It is this seamlessness that creates the illusion that the network is just one gigantic machine and abolishes the notion of geographical distance. On the Internet, the new countries are called ".com", ".org", ".int", ".edu". When domain names free themselves from traditional boundaries and adopt natural on-line frontiers around "communities of interest", an emancipated virtual landscape will start to take shape. In seeking to adapt current legislation to this emerging on-line context, it becomes clear how much of our social and political organisation is anchored in traditional country boundaries.

Degrees of interactivity

Returning to the interactive relationship between people and machines, there are at least three interrelated, overlapping degrees of interactivity seen from the point of view of the machine:

  1. Responding to explicit requests in person/machine exchange.
  2. Perceiving and acting in accordance with non-explicit user needs and requirements.
  3. Enhancing exchange and collaboration between people.

The trusty slave

Most current forms of interaction fit into the first category mentioned above. This type of interaction is the easiest to achieve and is attracting much attention as it enables mass market activities to extend their field of play, opens up possibilities for new smaller actors and promises improved efficiency of administrations. At the same time, it doesn't seem to require undue modification of existing ways of working. This apparent similitude may however turn out to have been misleading as we shall see further on.

Stand-alone devices

Interactivity in stand-alone devices is based on pre-programmed choices amongst content provided in a fixed form (CD, CD-ROM,...). However, as society "accelerates" and the lifetime of products - in particular information - diminishes, it is the most recent information or version that has the highest market value. As it is uneconomical to constantly renew content made inflexible because of its medium, hybrid systems are coming onto the market that add network access to former stand-alone devices. In many ways, stand-alone interactive devices can be seen as palliatives to current failings in networked interactivity (in particular limitations in programming possibilities, insecure forms of payment, slowness of access, copyright problems and lack of mobility). Presumably, when these network shortcomings have been overcome stand-alone devices will give way to networked machines.

Broadcasting goes interactive

Interaction in the current broadcast model is limited to the choice between a number of non-stop streams of content. To extend choice, broadcasters have opted to increase the number of channels. This has inevitably led them to a chronic deficit of quality content as well as increasing difficulties maintaining economic viability.

It is interesting to note that those who have a vested interest in maintaining the predominance of the broadcast model tacitly pursue the logic of centralised broadcasting in plans for interactivity by privileging outgoing information from a limited number of central all-powerful broadcasters and restricting the capacity of the so-called "return channel" from individual users.

Trade in interaction

Commerce seeks to satisfy the growing individualisation of demand by an ever increasing choice of commodities and services. Yet such an evolution comes up against limitations in the World's resources. It is hoped that network-based interaction will contribute to sustainable development by shifting an increasing part of demand to immaterial goods and services and also by decreasing the energy necessary for the manufacture and distribution of material goods. At the same time, by enabling wide-ranging individual choice in a one-to-one dialogue with supplier/providers, interaction allows the satisfaction of personal needs and requirements. In so doing, the use of extensive interaction necessarily breaks with the mass market model and its associated forms of advertising.

The Internet model

It is here that the Internet experience proves particularly interesting. Not only does it permit individuals to go out and fetch discrete packages of content from amongst all those available on the network, but it also allows the person to plug into any number of "streams" of content. This elegantly solves the problem of providing an extremely wide range of individualised content, but it also creates other problems. For example, the Internet model shifts the role of combining content from the programme maker to the individual user. In so doing, it creates a need to enable individuals to find what it is they are looking for amongst the enormous mass of material available. There is a consequent shift from content to form in the work of the "new programmer" who, instead of stringing together content, provides devices for individuals to find, select and organise content for themselves. Seen from the broadcaster's point of view, such a change represents a radical shift in paradigm as well as the probable loss of control of a one-time monopoly.

Two-way communication

One of the outstanding characteristics of the Internet compared with the broadcast model is its resolutely two-way system that results in extreme decentralisation. Each and every user of the Internet is potentially also a content and service provider. This phenomenon will have a fundamental impact not only on publishing and services but also more generally on business practices and on democratic processes, provided those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo don't manage to curb its "two-wayness".

Life with an "attentive" helper

One of the major handicaps in the relationship between people and machines is the relative incapacity of the machine to learn from past experience and anticipate on individual users' needs and requirements. The machine needs to be able to distinguish patterns in use and to adjust its behaviour accordingly without necessarily having to receive explicit instructions about what to do. Should we succeed in implementing such a system, we will no doubt require re-enforced security to guarantee the machine's discretion. As in the case of tasks handed over to other tools, one wonders what impact this devolution would have on our lives and our way of thinking.

The "intelligent" community

To what extent does the network assist person-to-person interaction? Very little in fact! Current efforts are concentrated mainly on counteracting the handicaps of "distance" in collaboration by combining and extending existing interfaces like overhead projectors and whiteboards in such a way that people can share information displayed by such tools.

To further enhance person-to-person interaction, not only do machines have to apprehend and act on users' constantly changing needs and requirements, but they also have to comprehend collaborative processes and be able to extend them by providing something more substantial than a surrogate blackboard. It is probable that this will only happen if machines enable us to go beyond existing forms of collaboration in an unobtrusive, natural way.

The values at stake

So why get so excited about interaction? The enthusiastic support on the part of many people stems from the hope that the use of interactivity will make it easier to vehicle values not directly related to it. This is not so surprising. Interactivity, after all, is only a means to an end.

Values and motivations differ depending on whether they spring from commercial, political, scientific, religious, administrative, cultural or other interests. From the point of view of the individual, however, there are growing indications that a distinct set of values is at work. These values, centred as they are on the individual, are not necessarily altruistic but do underline the idea that the community is essential for the individual. They include:

  • Putting people first over technology and commerce.
  • Empowering the individual as opposed to devolving power to centralised, impersonal organisations.
  • Renewing hope in the possibility of a convivial way of life in which people enjoy rich exchange with others.
  • Improving the well-being of the individual both materially and spiritually.

The enthusiasm for the Internet on the part of many of its individual users has its roots in these values. The Internet represents a hope of increased exchange and collaboration, the possibility for each and every person to make his or her ideas globally available ... the formation of new "intelligent" communities ... increased solidarity ... a creative, exciting world ... Yet, if the Internet model more readily enables the satisfaction of such aspirations, the implementation of these "values" depends above all on an effort on the part of individual and the community that goes way beyond technological considerations. The major challenges in the Global Information Society are not technological but human!

Interactive '97

It is for this reason that it is important that INTERACTIVE '97 not only raise those questions pertinent to the role of the individual and the community in the Global Information Society (GIS) but also pave the way by hosting an experiment in network assisted large-scale person to person interaction. This could well be done by addressing key issues related to INTERACTIVE '97 as a primer to the event.

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey,
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Created: August 27th, 1996 - Last up-dated: August 27th, 1996