Ana Raus

Graduate Student, Technology and society studies
Maastricht University

e-Humanities Group internship: September and October 2011

Ana is doing a research masters degree at Maastricht University, called CAST (Cultures of Art, Science and Technology). She is spending the second part of her internship at Oxford university, focussing on visualisation.
These findings are a result of a two-month research internship with the e-Humanities Group during September and October 2011.
Interactivity and its discontents
by Ana-Maria Raus

Part of the newspeak of the digital wave, the concept of ‘interactivity’ bundles together enthusiasm and uneasiness. The enthusiasm around interactivity comes from its association with computers and digital technologies. The so-called “digital revolution” brings hope of renewed opportunities for cultural creation and participation, better tools for inter and intra-textuality, a heightened interaction with the world, and increased aesthetic experiences. However, even if it is a fashionable phenomenon, interactivity is difficult to address because it is a composite concept, tying together a number of approaches, theories, practices, and technologies. A multi-level approach is therefore needed, one that captures three key elements: the historical roots of interactivity in theories of human-to-human interaction (a), the technological underpinnings of interactivity (b), and the way interactivity is experienced by the users of digital technologies (c). Pre-computer theories of interaction are spread across different fields, but all focus on how two or more elements are actively engaged in a mutual process of information exchange, where information can be used to designate molecules, chemical substances, algorithms, statistical variables, or people. From sociology,  Goffman’s (1959) approach to interaction as performance is relevant here, because it can be transposed to interactivity as enabled by digital media. With regards to the medium, digital technologies are the common denominator in contemporary discourses around interactivity. The interactivity of computer-mediated communication increases proportionally with the power of the user to modify the digital environment. This is where not only the technology itself becomes important for interactivity, but also the users. Users can perform and experience interactivity in different ways, ranging from navigation, to participation, conversation,  or collaboration (Dixon, 2007).
Concepts like interactivity, with their strong connection to digital technologies, challenge our older ideas of interaction and communication. In the same way, newer developments in academia challenge the way research is being done and (re)presented, as it is the case with enhancing academic publications. Creating enhanced publications (EPs) is a recent initiative supported by the SURFfoundation, where one of the 13 projects is developed by the eHumanities Group. EPs start from a traditional publication, to which research datasets, videos, details about authors, or post-publication data can be added. To analyse the EPs, the three approaches used to address interactivity (interaction, technology, user-experience) offer a multi-perspectival view into the practices around EPs, and highlight some of the challenges EPs could encounter. Although at the experimental stage, there are still questions to be answered with regards to who is the audience of EPs; how can we control the quality of the online material, as opposed to the traditional and immutable print-on-paper; or how can the mix of media in an EP be valued and evaluated. Issues of consistency and translatability across disciplines can also be observed, as well as the social interaction that underpins the construction of EPs, together with the institutional dynamic. Addressing these issues could add to a wider debate on future trends in scholarly communication, as well as the publishing world at large, where app-books on tablets, augmented articles on smartphones, and book-computer hybrids are proliferating.