What is Interactivity?

A few thoughts on Bret Victor’s “The Future of Interaction Design”

Victor begins his invective against current trends in interaction design with a video produced by Microsoft that depicting various lonely souls swiping at paper-thin screens in a not-too-distant future. It makes for a good target and feels at home in Microsoft’s line of depressing videos about the current and could-be future state of technology. The characters in it seem so alienated and the overall mood so melancholy that I was actually surprised that the man at the subway station at 1:52 doesn’t just go ahead and step in front of the oncoming train. He really looks like he’s considering it:

Victor laments the lack of vision in this version of the future, and notes that the paradigm of the tablet, which has only recently become a reality, was in fact initiated by Alan Kay in 1968. The vision has not advanced significantly since then, and the tools that we use do not come close to leveraging our expressive capacity (although I do think that the glass smart phone does, ironically, enhance human capability: in this case it is the human capability to swipe ineffectually at a world that you are alienated from).

Chris Crawford describes interactivity as a kind of infinite loop of “listen, think, speak” between two actors. Victor, I think, would want to collapse that loop, make it entirely invisible to the actors. Victor has described his work almost as a cure for blindness, saying that good interactivity allows the user to “see what you’re doing” and “try ideas as you think of them”. This type of interaction, which seeks to enhance understanding, generate unexpected ideas, and aid in creativity, requires tools that are able to leverage a full range of sensory input and output. Not merely of the eyes, but also the ears, the hands, and ultimately the entire body.

How to Turn a Real Person into Something That Never Existed

In “On The Rights of Molotov Man”, Susan Meiselas describes how her journalistic photograph lost its historical context as it was appropriated and used by different groups for a variety of purposes.


The subject of the photo (the subject of any photo) is in fact a historical actor, a real person in space and time. In this case, his name is Pablo Arauz.


Over the years, the historical reality of the photograph is forgotten. Icon replaces photograph: we no longer know who this person is, where they are, what their political reality is, why they might be throwing a molotov cocktail.

This image, and other images that have experienced a similar evolution, are empty, or sliding, signifiers. They are symbols disconnected from meaning.

Through the long process of re-use, the image loses all connection to the meaning that it once referred to. It exists on it’s own, in a void. The image/sign is no longer connected to meaning/history/context.

In this way, a hammer and sickle can transform into a bourgeois coffee cup.


The work by Miesas is eventually appropriated by Joy Garnett, who reproduces the image in oil paint. But long before Molotov Man is appropriated by Joy, it has already become what we might call a “meme”:  A vehicle or tool for expression, rather than the worked production of expression.

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In the past this loss of signification might take decades or centuries.


It can now, through the magic and arbitrary nature of the internet, happen almost instantaneously.

Any image, at any moment can be removed from its historical reality, emptied of original meaning and transformed into pure symbol. It can even happen to you!

Note: if it does happen to you, you can hire a meme manager.

The question I am interested in, is what do we find when we successfully trace back from the anti-historical meme to its real-life original subject?

Here is Scumbag Steve.


Here is IRL Blake Boston pretending to be internet Scumbag Steve.

Blake is performing an image of himself in exchange for cash. It is as if Meiselas had gone back to Nicaragua only to find Pablo Arauz still throwing his molotov cocktail.

The process of de-signification is analogous to the process by which a natural resource is transformed into a commodity. Meaning is emptied away and the historical reality forgotten: “From the taste of wheat it is not possible to tell who produced it, a Russian serf, a French peasant or an English capitalist”. The wheat has a history but no one knows what it is.

Scumbag Steve has achieved commodity status; he has successfully decontextualized himself.

PhysComp 101

First class in Physical Computing we were tasked with coming up with a prototype for a fantastical device. Saki, Michelle and I decided to work on the concept of an “Infinite Container”.

Here’s our final invention, in all its glory.container1

As you can see we opted for a skeuomorphic Whole Foods paper grocery bag. The iPad mini duct-taped to the front of the device gives users access to the contents of the Infinite Container. Someone has decided to store a baby in this container, despite the unambiguous warning.

A button, ergonomically affixed to the bag handle, allows for convenient ingress and egress of objects via the object-capturing receptacle located discretely on the side of the device.

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