Pia Kolwe 1 Jan 1999


The current overuse of the word 'interactivity' indicates both a confusion about its meaning and a desire to exploit the specific capacities of digital media. Indirectly, it also refers to the invention of a different kind of space that does not seem easily to go with the spatiality we are used to.

Three-dimensional space consists of objects, distances, directions and places, and its smallest element is the point. As an abstraction, the point is an impossible thing, but it works well in the geometric construction of our physical space. Digital space consists of data, loading times, connections and programs, generated from rows of binary digits. The point only has three possible directions to expand in, but if there are enough 0's and 1's, a lot of different things can happen between them.

Digital media are said to be multidimensional because they connect to more possibilities than a point, from its static position in the dimensional grid, can ever dream of. Extra dimensions tumble out of the heavens to materialise, but as they hit the ground the multiplicity folds up into the two dimensions of the computer screen. 10,000-dimensional web in heaven and net on earth, a loose translation of one Chinese expression for the Internet, quite accurately describes how the surface at least visually flattens what otherwise would be a somewhat confusing multitude. The Internet certainly is not a space, but neither is heaven a place. Space has become a metaphor for digital environments that is supposed to supply a sense of orientation for coping with data and programs as we do objects and places, but how far does it carry?

Getting lost in unfamiliar surroundings can be countered with different strategies: we can try to change them according to a scheme that imposes a familiar pattern, like paving roads through a jungle, or we can adopt a new pattern that corresponds to the given situation, learning to take advantage of the specificities. Both usually converge, though it takes time before some of the cultural baggage can be disposed of. Books do not need to be read front to back as one would listen to a story; tv channels can be zapped, as the broadcast is not a necessary unit; Web pages are not read but looked at.

Metaphorical space creates the virtual in the most exact sense of the word: that which has not (yet) been realised. With an imaginary focus on certain parts, the image of a place can be extended from the merely visual to recall other information associated with those parts. The house around the corner can connect to knowledge about the inhabitants, to the recollection of events or to the memory of changes that have taken place there over time. Memory becoming spatial corresponds to the ancient 'art of memory,' a technique of constructing associations between places and images that was used to effectively boost one's memory's capacity to structure information according to a strict order. While this mnemonic technique was based on an imaginary walk through memory space, its digital counterpart, the clickable map, no longer depends on the linear continuity of one-after-another, but it does still need a 'virtual' structure.

Hyperlinked images and texts turn into associative maps, connecting certain parts to related documents. Associations (remember Freud) used to be mostly unconscious, possibly contradictory, and above all individual. Connections established through hyperlinks need to follow a certain logic if they are not to be perceived as random. If the power of ancient memory techniques lies in their individual use of images selected because they were striking, though possibly meaningless to others, the associations laid out between digitised documents are intended for public use.

The virtual space of mnemotechnics, which not coincidentally have often been described as a kind of inner writing, is very different from the actual virtual space accessible via modem. If there is any correspondence between mnemotechnical link-images and hyperlinks, it lies in their connectivity, but instead of going further down a line of reasoning, hyperlinks tend to displace the centre of attention to another place altogether. The context that is generated through this jumpy succession resembles not so much a story as a playful experience, which could include contradictions and intuitive rather than rational choices.

Because other functions can be added to the two-dimensional display on the computer screen, hyperlinked data offer the possibility of writing the complex relatedness of information in new ways. Hypertext, including images and sound, creates a spatiality that relates only on one level to the printed page, the photograph or the film. In contrast to the fixed space of a story, a cube or a dictionary, most of the possibilities of digital media remain potential, in the heaven of dead options. To structure information based on physical places, even imaginary ones, implicitly privileges static space as a basis for orientation. In contrast to the closed space of a story, interactivity depends on a space in between that regulates possible actions and manages to let the user participate. Computer games do not answer a need for intellectual participation in the same way a novel does, but they trigger curiosity and a sense of competition that leaves out 'suspension of disbelief,' because actions are real, even if the environment is not. The accessibility of information defies the sense of space that is attached to objects in actual space. New dimensions, which cannot be added to geometrical space's three dimensions, emerge from in between: between stories, lines, computers, people. The abundant use of real-world models transferred to the digital as information landscapes, virtual palaces or clickable maps necessarily carries along a prestructured perspective dependent on the author's point-of-view.

As colour and sound in contemporary movies are integral parts of what we consider a film, not just additions, so do digital environments offer a multiplicity of relations that cannot be fully explored by sticking to old models. Even the good old desktop metaphor for the home computer reaches its limit at the menu bar.

A digital building that needs to retain the space metaphor would break it by allowing the user to be in two 'rooms' at once or push 'walls' around; at the same time, it would be genuinely boring if it really took three minutes to climb some stairs. Spatial models transferred to the virtual raise expectations that are rooted in the experience of physical space. No virtual building will ever satisfy more than initial curiosity if it does not offer something more than a reproduction.

Now that everyone is busy creating personal or corporate information spaces on the World Wide Web, it seems that thousands of virtual buildings and digital cities are materialising which are very often tied to 3-d space and thereby the laws of physical space. Time usually exists only as a parallel to distance, as chronology.

To acknowledge the digital environments' fragmentary and potential character which allows for parallel possibilities, admits contradictions and jumbles chronological orders, with time-as-speed becoming a constitutive factor, is to question the three-dimensional spatiality that has dominated human perception since the invention of perspective and point of view. Digital space does not exist as static and solid, because it depends on actualisations that the user initiates. Here as in time-based media in general, the experience of space is a generative process, and with electronic ubiquity 3-d space dissolves into a web of time-spaces. Maps are remnants of geography; a 'digigraphy' would have to provide as many maps as there are users. With earth lost in the fluidity of digital information, to surf the Web is to play hide-and-seek with your centre of attention, which, after all, is a really interactive game.