Get Loud!

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 May 1999

had an unsettling experience at a basketball game this afternoon. My New York Knicks, though playing with injuries, had finally caught up with their Canadian opponents. It was one of those magic moments in sports where a sudden burst of enthusiasm by the home team had allowed them to overcome a tremendous deficit and take the lead. The visiting opponents called a “time out” to regroup, and the home crowd went wild.

As if initiated by a computer program, a medley of well-known “victory” tunes – pulled from dance and rock hits of previous years – began to play through the loudspeakers. The revitalized crowd clapped and shouted along. Then, the giant scoreboard displayed the image of a digital decibel meter, and urged us all to “get loud!”

Predictably, the fans cheered as the meter registered their increasing volume. The meter went up and up until it went off the scale and shattered into a blast of pixelated color. But, cynical nerd that I am, I noticed that the meter wasn’t really registering anything at all. It didn’t rise and fall with the volume of the crowd. In fact, it was exactly the same meter that had been displayed the week before at a similar moment in the game, and it registered exactly the same sequence of peaks and valleys before exploding. The crowd’s noise level had nothing at all to do with this prerecorded simulation of an interactive decibel meter.

As a temporary motivational device, the fake meter certainly worked. The arena did get loud, and cheered the team on to a higher score. But even though I’m sure most of us will never know the difference, we were “had.” The reality of the technological experience – one that wouldn’t have been very difficult to implement – was substituted for a crowd-pleasing simulation. To a techno-enthusiast like me, it was an insult.

I spent the rest of the game wondering just how many of our interactive experiences are truly interactive, and how many, like Madison Square Garden’s decibel meter, are simply “interactive style.”

It didn’t take long to find another example. In the seat next to me, a child (brought to the game by a father whose unfamiliarity with the boy suggested a weekend custody arrangement) played with a Tamagotchi “virtual pet.” I watched as he alternatively fed, played with, and “disciplined” the tiny digital creature.

Surely this is interactive – at least in comparison with the pre-recorded decibel meter. But is it? Who or what is the child really interacting with? A series of cues, pre-programmed to meet the child’s expectations. He feeds the pet, it smiles. He beats the pet, it cries.

The virtual pet, while simulating the training and rearing of a helpless space creature, is actually training its user. If you don’t feed the pet at regular intervals, it dies. The Tamagotchi and its many clones are training children to attend to technology at the expense of their human interactions. When they are adults, I’m sure they will be fully conditioned to upgrade their computers at the first warning from the operating system.

The poor child next to me missed some of the game’s most exciting plays while caring for his pet. The toys have been banned in most public schools because of the obsessive-compulsive qualities they bring out in students. Children whose teachers enforce these rules have even paid their classmates to take care of their Tamagotchis for them until the restricting class is over.

Interactivity does not mean interacting with a machine – however real it might feel. It means interacting with other human beings through machines. A real decibel meter on the scoreboard would have allowed the assembled fans to participate in a mass spectacle. Together, we could have worked to peg a volume meter. We would not have been interacting with the device itself; rather, we would be interacting with one another through the device. Instead, we were trained to cheer by a machine.

Likewise, the Internet is slowly evolving from a community medium to a content-driven interactive archive. From telephone to catalogue or, worse, advertisement. This is because it’s easier for businesses to sell us packaged content than to sell us to one another. But it’s also because we’ve bought the notion that our computers have brought us into an “Information Age,” and that we’re now in the realm of “bits” instead of “atoms.”

We’re not in an information age; we’re in an interactive one. It’s not bits we’re exchanging, but our very essence in the form of ideas, emails, graphics, and chat dialogue.

When I go online to engage in human interaction, I log off energized. When I search databases or shop in online malls, I leave the experience feeling drained and alone. This is because the former involves communicating with other living beings, while the latter concerns only machines and their information.

As web site builders attempt to make commercial sites more “interactive,” they are working to create simulations that drive and then meet our expectations. We are to reward them with purchases. Like a virtual pet, the sites click and whir, recognize our log-in, and cater to our stated needs more accurately than a human being ever could. And if human beings could live on data, bits, and consumption, this interactive-style Internet would truly be utopia.

I suggest that interaction with machines, however temporarily novel, will reveal itself as a poor substitute for using machines to interact with one another. We will tire of a “bit-only” Internet and, unless we engage in its living communities, we will instinctively reject its lifeless offerings.

The simulated noise meter fared no better. After a short burst of cheering, the crowd at the basketball game soon settled and the Knicks eventually lost. I’d like to think if they had used a real decibel meter, the outcome may have been different.