The Web is a dynamic, interactive, nonlinear, global, distributed,
digital media system-- just to use a few Internet-related
buzzwords. Aren't there enough adjectives to describe this
technology? Why insist on the significance of yet another?
This issue of Poems that Go focuses on "reactive"
media, text or images that responds in real time to the direct
actions of the viewer. Experimental graphics designer John
Maeda, who programmed computer images to react immediately
to viewer input, pioneered the computing method associated
with "reactive graphics." His 1995 work, "The
Reactive Square," was a book with accompanying floppy
disk (later editions included CD-ROM) for the Macintosh which
consisted of a graphical square that visually responded to
sound-- singing, shouting or talking to the image on the computer
screen yielded distinct visual responses (that is, as long
as viewers had a microphone plugged into their Mac).
Maeda's work was a precursor to Flash, Java and DHTML, which
have helped make the Web a reactive medium. By why is it necessary
to differentiate reactive media from interactive media? Is
the distinction really worth examining?
In his essay "Post
Media Aesthetics," Lev Manovich argues that when
used in relation to computer-based media, the concept of "interactivity"
is a tautology. He asserts:
"Modern human-computer interface (HCI) is by its very
definition interactive. In contrast to earlier interfaces
such as batch processing, modern HCI allows the user to
control the computer in real-time by manipulating information
displayed on the screen. Once an object is represented in
a computer, it automatically becomes interactive. Therefore,
to call computer media interactive is meaningless--it simply
means stating the most basic fact about computers."
In this way, the concept of interactivity by itself is too
broad to be useful. Instead, Manovich suggests that we need
categories that can describe how a cultural object organizes
data and structures user's experience of this data. The treatment
of time, space and the organization of material in question
becomes a much more helpful way to analyze interactive forms.
The discourse surrounding concepts of the "interactive"
in electronic media frequently centers on the idea of navigateable
space. In many CD-ROM and Web site experiences, the users
interaction relies on traversing a series of links, moving
through screens from one "page" or section to another.
Clicking on a hypertext link, for example, is an interaction
that requests a file from a server in another location. Depending
on connection speed, this form of interaction usually requires
at least a momentary delay, as the packets are delivered and
reassembled for display in the clients' browser.
In contrast, reactive work can be self-contained, existing
within a single space on the screen and changing (position,
size, velocity, speed, color, shape, pattern, etc.) in tandem
with the viewers' own movement or action.
Web-based reactive texts most often use the mouse as an input
for information. In some reactive works, the position of the
mouse may trigger changes in the text. In others, viewers
probe the surface of the interface and find that they can
"drag" or "throw" objects on the screen
by clicking down, moving the mouse, and releasing.
As Maeda has pointed out, the common thread to all reactive
graphic systems is the condition of time. But whereas time-based
motion graphics (the subject of PTG's
Summer 2002 issue) unfold over time without the input
of the user, reactive graphics concern the instantaneity of
response. This takes shape in real time and reflects significant
changes in the ways that viewers read, view and respond to
the work. How the text behaves and how instantly it responds
to the viewers actions become critical.