materiality in language(s) of interaction

So Erik presented his notion that interaction design works with a ‘material without qualities’. By this he means that digital artifacts can take on so many different forms–and the forms possible are constantly shifting due to technological advances–that is very hard to pin down a set list of qualities to describe the medium, as say a sculptor could describe their stone. He makes this point more clear by suggesting that we think of bits as our material. Pondering this for a minute, I begin to realize that are an infinitum of possible physical forms and consequently qualities that bits can take on as they are presented to a user.

This fact, as pointed out by G. Smith, is one of the central challenges for interaction designers. In contrast to physical objects, which offer direct feedback when manipulated, “with computers… the distance between… keystrokes and screen image… and what’s happening inside the computer is usually much less direct. Our physical world and the computer’s virtual world seem miles apart.” In other words, the virtual world, the world made of bits, tends to have a lack of physicality at least in the sense that we are familiar with.

However, all digital artifacts have an aspect that doesn’t seem miles away and of which qualities can be quite easily pinned down: hardware used for display and input. While there are vast possibilities in this area too, for most part digital interaction to date has consisted of some basic elements of monitor, keyboard and mouse. It occurs to me now that there a lot of limitations in this configuration, and that by switching it up we might greatly reduce the percieved ‘distance’ between the physical and virtual world. G. Smith talks about the 4 dimensions of previous traditions that interaction design draws upon. I might argue that the 3-D, that is the language of traditional product design, has been the least utilized. With hardware advances this is changing a lot though, and the result is the introduction some much needed physicality to our overall language of interaction.

For example, camera based and multi-touch user input.(I’m sure you’ve all seen many example videos. I believe this one comes out of IU.)

Manovich takes an approach of digital materialism, focusing heavily on the physical conguration of user and hardware. When he was writing the dominant form was still monitor, mouse, keyboard. If we apply his analysis to these newer forms of interface hardware, how does our conception of the medium change?


  1. Tyler Pace

    I was going to raise this point in class, but our discussions took us elsewhere. G. Smiths comments concerning the distance between user and product in digital spaces seems to miss a step: breakdowns.

    When a website fails to load, I most certainly realize the nature of the computer, Internet and interactions I perform. In the case of breakdowns, I notice the failures of computers as much as the failure of a hammer (say the head breaks off) to drive a nail. In either event, I’m unfulfilled, upset, disappointed, etc. and the nature of the material (even if it has no qualities) is very apparent.

  2. jeffreybardzell

    I would argue that the very fact a website fails to load “a certain way” is evidence that it is a material with qualities. Or the fact that we are accustomed to interacting with it via certain paradigms (e.g., keyboard, mouse).


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