Think Again: "Interactive"

May 9, 2014 | By Kenneth Chu, Director & Editor

What does it really mean to be “interactive” today?

As a term so popular and overused in the past decade of media, the meaning of “interactive” has arguably settled into a very weak state. Mention of the word during conference calls and weekly meetings might trigger our brain to immediately think of “interactive” as something like this:

The ability of an online viewer-user to click a button, or swipe a screen, and in return, receive some form of content (insofar as the occasional ad).

While that which the popular word triggers might technically be true, it is incomplete. It sputters out. It resembles a very weak form of what is ultimately a potent word worth reinvigorating for future creators and consumers of interactive objects or experiences.

Let us think again on what interactivity is, and perhaps, capable of being.

If you have a dictionary handy, then grab it, follow along, and unearth for yourself the root meanings of “inter-” and “active.”

If you really want to come along for the ride, then listen to this as you read.

Turn the pages to “inter–”

“Inter-” implies “between” or “within a group” and essentially establishes a relationship between a viewer-user and others. By nature, it is not alone.

But if we dig deeper still, we soon discover something more abstract, provocative, and Latin in origin: “in” and “terra,” as “in the Earth or ground.” What a curious quality, isn’t it?

With “inter-,” there is an inherent relationship to the physical world, one that is naturally ours to unlock and bestow upon our objects, experiences, and words.

And now look up “active”

“Active” is such a word that means an engagement of action, characterized by “energetic work.” It also elicits the power of “quick motion,” and again, stretching itself as far as physical motion.

These are all straightforward, and to reinforce our understanding, it might also be helpful to know what active is not. Its main antonym is “lazy,” and so another way to be active is, in the very least, to not be lazy.

So keep asking yourself.

We arrive at “interactive,” a word rooted in forces so encompassing and universal — human relationships and energetic effort — that they seem capable of making, quite literally, our world go round. And yet, we’ve found ourselves with an “interactive” that evokes not much more than a finger clicking and tapping while in a sedentary, supine position.

A higher form of what it means to be interactive exists, and we can guide our interactive efforts to be at their best by perhaps not proclaiming another definition in vain, but to remind ourselves of the questions that got us here:

What is the nature of the relationships being formed? Between what or whom?

Does this relationship inspire me to explore myself, others, and even the physical world around me?

Or does it allow me to be lazy just a little while longer?

Any examples, please?

As a digitally-based example, Google Maps is wonderfully interactive. Users can input any location on the globe and we find ourselves in a multi-faceted relationship with the world, almost as if it could say to us:

You can drive, walk, or cycle across me, and here’s the quickest path.

You can explore all of my terrains, and as if you were a bird flying above.

And remember that time Arcade Fire and I took over your hometown?

In a general sense, one example of a supremely interactive object is a bicycle. There is a direct relationship between the bicycle, cyclist, and physical world. By simply getting on top of the seat, moving our legs repeatedly, and steering steadily — our input so to speak — there is a tremendous quality of multi-faceted outputs in return.

A bicycle can be a practical means of transportation.

A bicycle can be a thrilling way to explore our environment.

A bicycle can be a benefit to our overall health.

Beyond the pure efficiency of each interaction, they come together to collectively grow and evolve the cyclist. All in sync, the cyclist is in a new location in the world, a fresh frame of mind personally, and with elevated fitness albeit marginally.

This ultimate ability to grow and evolve, rather than to be caught in a mindless cycle, is what finely separates the addictive tap, tap, tapping of our days wasting away and the symphonic effect of interactivity (insofar as the occasional ad).

What is most “interactive” to you?

Google Maps and a bicycle are almost too obvious examples, but paramount nonetheless. It would be more interesting to read all of your examples, let them mix, and see what new thoughts might spark.

So, think again. What are the most “interactive” examples in your life?