Interactivity

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The Fallacies and Fortunes of 'Interactivity' in
Communication Theory

David Holmes
Communications and Media, Monash University
David.Holmes@arts.monash.edu.au

The term ‘Interactivity’ persists as both a buzzword and a fraught concept within communication theory. For 1950s information theorists (e.g. Shannon and Weaver, 1949) interactivity denoted two way communication between either humans, animals or machines, but today it has become exclusively hardwired to the telecommunications and computing sectors. The use and misuse of the term in ‘new media age’ discourses is problematised in this paper by showing that traditional media can enable interactivity – whilst exploring accounts that new media do not, in themselves, guarantee interactivity. The limitations of the concept of interactivity becomes apparent the more it is empiricised or made exclusively reducible to one or other technical medium. This in turn underpins the historicism of second media age thinkers, for whom interactivity becomes synonymous with the ‘interactive society’. (Castells, Van Dijk)

Interactivity has almost turned into a dull buzzword. The term is so inflated now that one begins to suspect that there is much less to it than some people want to make it appear. No company would fail to claim that it is keen on feedback. No leader would fail to praise the arrival of a new communication era. Apparently

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interactivity has hardly any threatening meaning for the elites. (Schultz, 2000: 205 )

‘Interactivity’ has recently appeared as both a buzzword and a fraught concept within communication theory. For 1950s information theorists (e.g. Shannon and Weaver, 1949) interactivity denoted two way communication between either humans, animals or machines, but today it has become exclusively hardwired to the telecommunications and computing sectors. In information theory, the content of communication is separated from the means of communication, and the aim of communication is to control the reproduction of a ‘message’ in any medium or means of communication. Today, the term interactivity is reserved for only communication events which are electronically extended in space and time.

The term ‘interactivity’ has been rapidly conscripted into the discourses of a ‘new media age’. Interactivity is central to a cluster of terms that preoccupy the study of cyberculture. Around it are assembled so many of the binary terms of new media theorising



active/passive,

one-way/two

way,

linear/nonlinear,

synchronous/asynchonous, mediated/face-to-face, etc.

The strongest proponents of the importance of interactivity are the ‘second media age’ theorists (Gilder, 1994; Poster, 1995; Rheingold, 1994) who bestow it with emancipatory meanings in contrast to the one-way architecture of first media age, ‘broadcast’ media. Traditional media of newspapers, radio, television and cinema are viewed as repressive, controlling, subordinating and an attack on individuality itself. New media, in contrast, are seen to place the control of meaning-making back into the hands of the individual to the extent that they enable interactivity. Indeed, for Poster, interactivity is elevated to the status of a ‘mechanism’ of modern media:

Subject constitution in the second media age occurs through the mechanism of interactivity. ... interactivity has become, by dint of the advertising campaigns of telecommunication corporations, desirable as an end in itself, so that its usage can

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float and be applied in countless contexts having little to do with telecommunications. Yet the phenomena of communicating at a distance through one’s computer, of sending and receiving digitally encoded messages, of being ‘interactive’, has been the most popular application of the Internet. Far more than making purchases or obtaining information electronically, communicating by computer claims the intense interest of countless thousands. (Poster, 1995, 33).

Manuel...
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