poems that GO SPRING ISSUE 2002
Reactive Media MEETS e-poetry PRINT

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.

M. Sapnar
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