Interactivity is Affectivity

On: September 9, 2007
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here

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(cross posted on whateverbutton.com/blog)

Over the summer I wrote an essay called ‘Interactivity is Affectivity’ for the tutorial ‘Current themes in new media’. You may like to read the following teaser, or even click pdf for the pdf.

The report of the death of interactivity comes from Mark Andrejevic (2001). He calls the initial failure of the Big Brother television format in the United States a watershed moment in the passage from interactivity to what he terms, following Slavoj Zizek, interpassivity. During its first season, viewers voted off the show’s most interesting participants, the ones most likely to fight, seduce, connive and be generally entertaining. Understanding their tactical error, executives opted for an alternative format in the second season, whereby the Big Brother participants themselves did the voting, ensuring a maximum of drama inside the house. For Andrejevic, the story highlights the incompatibility of the democratizing potential of interactivity (“power-sharing”) with its imperative from the finance departments, i.e. to offload work to the consumer. Synthesis comes in the form of ‘interpassivity’, “the unobtrusive monitoring built into the digital TV that keeps track of [the audience]” so as to offer TiVo-like recommendations.
The narrative holds that, by default, real control will always elide consumers of interactivity, and represents a necessary critique of the so-called liberating potential of new technologies. It appears to me, though, that interactivity is an exceptional target. This is no doubt due to the simple fact that one hears about interactivity all the time – the term’s overwhelming presence in everything from entertainment and education to art and politics has long set in motion backlashes in each of these areas. As Andrejevic astutely argues, the equation of interactivity with user control and empowerment generally amounts to no more than an easy selling point with little substance. But to then conclude that this is the pacification of interactivity is, perhaps, to skip a step. If the selling point is fully rejected, as it should be, then why stick to the framework that pits interactivity against control at all? What is interactivity after empowerment?

More? pdf

2 Responses to “Interactivity is Affectivity”
  • October 1, 2008 at 2:56 am

    This is a great point: thanks for the feedback (interaction!). I’ve got mixed feelings about sticking with the framework, but if I were going to advocate it, the best answer I can come up with is the possibility of locating some unrealized remainder in the promise of shared control. That is, the strategy of pointing out the ways in which interactivity falls short (of the ‘promise’ of power sharing) is enabled, in part, by the framework itself. To put it in slightly different terms, there are good historical/social reasons for the appeal of the promise, and these can perhaps be drawn upon to motivate attempts to envision or implement forms of ‘interaction’ that amount to more than the active staging of one’s own passive submission.

  • October 1, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    Mark, thanks for stopping by and for the feedback! I think you’re right that there is more than enough reason to seek interactivity (or interactivities) that reinstate its appeal. And I think that part of this is to see both continuities in the various *new* interactivity narratives (e.g. peer production, or ‘collaborative creativity’ as it was termed this year at the Picnic conference) while challenging or complicating some of the basic premises on which the debates occur. The question of power should remain central, but perhaps can be approached in different ways. I think this, in retrospect, was the direction I wanted to take in the essay (making the last few lines of the introduction misleading).

    It’s definitely a subject I’ll return to – kind of hard to avoid around these parts – and I’ll keep your comments in mind!

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