Reading & Writing
Interact Me / Web text
First published on the website Design Observer in May of 2015.

Everything we absorb is mediated by the nature of its delivery but what are we absorbing and why?

The promotional video released last year for the 2015 IKEA catalogue – the bookbook – is an amusing satire which targets the zealousness of claims made in favour of digital technology and the notion of interactivity. It does so by presenting a printed catalogue – in a presentation style of Apple – as a novel interactive form of communication. It's amusing because, like all humour, what makes us smile is recognition. And there are at least two things we may recognise. The first is that it is worth questioning our understanding of what interactivity involves (and where its value begins), and the second is the idea that 'interactivity' is somehow the child of digital technology.

Dominant political and economic ideology – worldwide – is a constant challenge to the collective project which is society. Within this ideology the cult of personal satisfaction reigns supreme regardless of collective needs. Contemporary forms of communication are judged according to the extent to which they are able to facilitate individual input. The capacity to engage is assessed according to the degree of personalisation possible. In this context, older communication forms, such as a printed book, are understood to be linear and 'one-directional' and thus out of step with the demands of modernity. Lost in this assessment is a regard for the silent act of reading, a remarkable process that takes place inside our heads converting abstract symbols into something we can understand, adding our own sense of meaning and relevance in the process. It is an activity in which we do not need to move in order to engage, nor do things around us need to move. Yet it is not a static or passive activity, intellectually or emotionally.

From a personal point of view, the reason I am happy to read a book that has been written in a particular order and sequence is because I'm interested in what others have to say. Just as I'm happy to watch a film which presents someone else's vision of the world. It may or may not resonate with my personal experience but that's not a problem because my identity is not compromised by the knowledge or perspective of others, it is only compromised by the power that others can exercise over my ability to participate in decisions that affect my life, the community in which I live, and the one I share globally. What often seems like an obsession to direct all social engagement towards personal interest and desire, placing oneself at the centre of the world, also seems like an example of keeping one's eye on the wrong ball – an intoxication with the idea of choice, overlooking what is offered as choice in the first place.

When we are told for example, that the challenge of contemporary communication is for information to be delivered in ways that are interactive and that involve personal engagement, I want to know what information are we talking about. Whilst there is every reason to encourage the creation of communication interfaces that help us to be informed, no amount of interactive technology will give us access to information that is secret. That particular endeavour will only be fulfilled as the result of courageous investigative journalism, from initiatives such as Wikileaks and people such as Edward Snowden. It is unlikely to come from political leadership or corporate management. Or from graphic designers.

The ability to input, to customise, to tailor to ones needs is undoubtedly a significant component of a culture that aims to be democratic, but delivery systems are not in themselves alternatives to value systems. They do not make decisions for us however interactive they may seem. Choice is not an substitute for criteria. And interaction is more than multiple options.

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© Andrew Howard. Available from: www.studioandrewhoward.com