Much of What We Call Interactive Really Isn't

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 13 June 1998

I HAD an unsettling experience at a basketball game a while ago. My New York Knicks, though playing with injuries, had finally caught up with the Toronto Raptors. It was one of those magic moments in sports where a sudden burst of enthusiasm by the home team had enabled 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 speakers. The revitalized crowd clapped and shouted along. Then, the giant scoreboard displayed the image of a digital decibel meter, which 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 colour.

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 a decibel meter.

As a temporary motivational device, the fake meter certainly worked. The arena did get loud, and fans cheered the team on to a higher score. But even though I’m sure most of the people will never know the difference, we were had.

The apparent technological experience – one that wouldn’t have been very difficult to implement – was in fact a 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 played with a Tamagotchi virtual pet. I watched as he symbolically fed, played with and disciplined the tiny digital creature displayed on the little liquid crystal screen.

Surely this was interactive, at least in comparison with the prerecorded decibel meter. But was it? Who or what was the child really interacting with? A series of cues, 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 other, human interaction. 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 certain schools because of the obsessive-compulsive qualities they bring out in students. Children whose teachers enforce these rules have even paid friends to take care of their Tamagotchis during class.

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. We would not have been interacting with the device itself. Rather, we would have been 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 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, E-mails, graphics and chat dialogue.

When I go on line to engage in human interaction, I log off energized. When I search data bases or shop in on-line 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-ins 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 that if they had used a real decibel meter, the outcome would have been different.

Douglas Rushkoff is a New York-based social theorist and the author of several books, including Media Virus! Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture and Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace, a bestselling portrait of 1990s cyberculture. His first novel, Ecstasy Club, was published by HarperCollins last summer.