Interactivity: MoMA vs. Crawford

Crawford suggests that the heart of interactivity is a conversation between two beings, wherein both speak, think, and listen. This is obviously an approximation when we are talking about objects. Even the most advanced AI isn’t really “thinking,” but rather generating a response based on instructions that were programmed into it. The essence of the conversation is really the transfer of information and the generation of a reaction to it.

MoMA’s Talk to Me exhibit employs a much broader definition of interactivity. I was surprised to see a number of non-digital objects in the exhibit, all of which were considered “interactive” by virtue of their serving an additional purpose outside of their most obvious use. One such item is Check Mate, a chess set with pieces that double as dildos. This certainly prompts a new type of user input, and most certainly elicits a reaction, but the exchange is more about usage than a continuing conversation. I suppose it could alter the interaction of the individuals playing chess, but that makes it more of a facilitator of interaction than something that is interactive.

Some of the digital objects also operate as facilitators of interaction. One such device is the Prayer Companion, a screen that displays world news and the entreaties of ordinary people to a community of secluded nuns. The Prayer Companion relays information, and the nuns react to it by praying, but there is no continued exchange between them. In this case, it is even hard to argue that the device facilitates interaction (except maybe in the discussion between the nuns or between the nuns and God); it just facilitates action.

Devices for Mindless Communication behave in almost the opposite manner, helping to avoid or shorten the time-wasting interactions between people. These devices provide canned responses to common conversation starters, either by telling the wearer what to do or by displaying a written response on behalf of the wearer. They receive information and relay a response to it, but their relationship with the user is passive. The responses are really intended for another person, not the user.

The other thing I find interesting about the previous two items is that their interaction is mostly non-physical. The Devices for Mindless Communication are physical only in that they are worn; there is no button pressing or menu scrolling. The Prayer Companion’s only physical demand is that the nuns look at the screen.