Response 2: The Art of Interactive Design & The Jump to Universality

The Art of Interactive Design:

The author’s definition of interactivity as “a cyclic process in which two actors alternatively listen, think, and speak” makes the definition much more accessible than the dry affair with inputs, processing, output. It also provides some intuitive explanation for why there have to be multiple degrees of interactivity – the more parts of the interactivity formula a device is missing, the lower its degree; if a device misses all of them, it is not interactive at all! The distinction the author makes between interactions and mere reactions (to books, dance, movies, performance arts) is important to weed out some definitions of interactivity that are too broad, which is great!

However, it is when the author tries to convince the reader that interactivity design is different from UI design that the author stops being as convincing. On one hand, he seems the UI designers to come on the one interactivity design boat with him by accepting the necessity of a paradigm shift in their thinking. On the other hand, he bashes the field of UI for being too narrow in focus since unlike the field of interactivity design it does not consider the thinking part of interactivity. Without an example to illuminate where the two designers would differ, however, I find it very difficult to accept that distinction, and discard UI design for interactivity design! It seems too vacuous for me.

The Jump to Universality:

The author’s thesis is that universality, when it happens, tends to be a wonderful accident whose potential is not realized until much later, leaving historians of science tearing at their hair and asking “why would you not make the obvious step towards abstraction.” Well, the author’s answer is that hindsight is always 20/20, and for much of history, universal solutions were not valued merely for their universality – the opposite, in fact. Thinkers were trying to solve a particular problem, for example, how to write foreign names, and just happened upon the universal solution – alphabet. Then they ignore the potential for universality and keep using the system in the narrow ways they designed it for. While frustrating, the author shows that this only makes sense – it was not until the age of Enlightment that universal solutions came to be valued for being universal and/or having potential for big unforeseen benefits; before that, parochial problems were solved with parochial solutions, because the world itself was parochial!

The concept of levels of universality is illustrated with number systems. The simplest number system are tally marks (one line for one object). An evolution is to group the tally marks into groups (e.g. groups of five). Further evolution is the old Roman number system that uses specific symbols for different numbers of objects (1,5,10,50,100,500,1000). This system is not universal because it necessarily involves a highest symbol, whatever its value – a universal number system can express any number. That is the positional number system of “Arabic” numerals that we use today. It is remarkable that a positional system was invented in Babylon some 2500 years before it resurfaced elsewhere, but the Babylonians were content to use it for astronomy calculations and nothing else. Clearly, they did not realize the universal potential.

The author then goes on to argue the same thing about the printing press, computers (based on gears and levers, hydraulic pipes, relays, and finally microprocessors), and – controversially – the DNA, whose potential for universality was finally realized with Adelman’s computer. What unites these is that all jumps to universality are digital (because of the need for error correction) and that their potential was underutilized for the longest time.

The same could be said about the Internet and WWW, that were used by a narrow group of people for a narrow set of applications for about 30 years, before the technology exploded to what it is today – including social media, search engines, the wiki, none of which was imagined by the creators of the Internet. They were just trying to connect some computers together, after all.

This makes one wonder – what other technologies have the potential for universality right now, potential that is being underutilized? What useless thing with narrow applications will turn out the Next Big Thing? One thing seems to be for sure, it is something we would never think about!

1 thought on “Response 2: The Art of Interactive Design & The Jump to Universality”

  1. Wish you had brought up the point about UI versus interactive design in class, would’ve been good to discuss.

Comments are closed.