Cooling Hot: redundancy and entropy in a critique of interactivity

Originally this text was spoken. At that time sections of text were interwoven with extracts from two interactive artworks. The reader is urged to seek out those works and to let them inform the text.

Brunswick Parking Lot, interactive version, on Erewhon, David Thomas and Two Pale Boys, Cooking Vinyl, London, 1997

Advent, Clive Gillman, Ellipsis, London, 1997

Section 1
... we find ... only the fragments of a mosaic we no longer know how to compose into a picture .... wholeness can only be inferred from its fragments.
Sean Cubitt 1

Computer Mediated Technologies (CMT) have created many opportunities for the Arts. Some of those opportunities have been about re-purposing or re-mediating existing practices. Elsewhere, emergent practices, which are significantly different to what has gone before, are evident. A growing body of CMT works contest traditional practices in that there is no single unique or master copy, in the way the roles of maker and consumer are reapportioned, in the ways digital media themselves, physically and extra-linguistically, differ from previous display technologies, and in the user's knowledge of what is missed or skipped 2. A particular feature of CMT arts practices is "new media" interactivity, sequences of textual, visual and aural display guided by human actions of varying complexity which create new variations or instances of the work which are unique to the occasion and result from the reflexitive selection of the user. Widening cultural and economic access to fast, reliable and responsive, local and networked systems means that such interactivity is now an increasingly important site of cultural activities.

To discuss interactive artworks, or for that matter any interactive artefact, is to discuss the experience of the viewer, reader, audience, user. That is, to engage with the moments of discourse holding both the work (in all its parts) and the viewer (in all her complexity) as they form meaning. Within that discourse, interactivity as a narrative device, the concern of this paper, is one of many imbricated sites where meaning is made.

Interactivity is not only, or simply, a way of accessing content or information, it is an integral element of a whole by which meaning is constructed, construed and continued. Interactivity is narrative, it forms stories from events. In their structure those stories contain and reflect cultural myths, broader understandings of the way the world is or can be. And particularly, interactivity contains and reflects our (cultural) relationship with information. If the medium is the message then CMT interactivity, as a narrative medium, is sufficiently different from what has gone before to carry a message about cultural change, about a shift in our relationship with information. 'Indeed some theorists argue that '.... (it) represents a shift in human consciousness comparable to the shift from orality to print.' (Michael Joyce3)

Section 2
(Information) ... a pattern rather than a presence, defined by the probability distribution of the coding elements composing the message. If information is pattern, then non-information should be the absence of pattern, that is, randomness
N. Katherine Hayles4

There are two key terms used here, Redundancy and Entropy. The origin of these terms is in process centred communications theory and early cybernetics. They are used here to inform an understanding of interactivity as narrative, and particularly the way in which meaning is formed. They are part of a vocabulary of critique that engages with interactive artworks and which serves to enable discussion and enquiry, to support understandings.

Redundancy is a term used to refer to viewers' experience of a sequence of events that is highly predictable, where options are closed, where there are rarely any surprises, where established convention is followed. It does not imply any value judgment about the worth, or lack of it, of the sequence or its component parts.

It would accurately describe a ritualised sequence of events, like a religious ceremony in which the order is (literally) pre-ordained and, because of that, takes on additional meaning.

It would accurately describe a visit to a library one uses regularly, whose layout does not change. Where books are rapidly replaced on shelves after being returned. Where books on computer graphics are on the fourth shelf on the third stack in the second aisle, where Japanese Poetry is by the window looking out on the maple tree.

It would accurately describe a telephone directory (used by people who have internalised the order of letters of the alphabet) where Smith, Aaron, is followed by Smith, Abel.

Entropy, on the other hand, refers to experiences of sequences which are unpredictable, where options are open and remain open, possibly appearing to be discontinuous or disconnected, in which surprise, the new and the novel are commonplace. Convention is challenged or established locally and newly, things are, or seem, chaotic, even to the point of being, or appearing to be, gratuitous 5.

It would accurately describe the experience of a ceremony you know nothing of, a wedding in another faith, say, or one's first encounter with a court of law.

It would accurately describe a visit to a supermarket, previously familiar but now rearranged. Where pastas occupy shelves previously taken by tinned fruits, instant coffee sits where flour was, flour is now where detergents used to be.

It would accurately describe the order of signs in an alphabet you have not encountered before.

Section 3
In spite or perhaps even because of the impersonality of the screen, the digital zone facilitates unprecedented levels of spontaneous affection, intimacy, and informality, exposing the extent to which older media ..... come complete with a welter of inhibitions, barriers and obstacles.....
Sadie Plant6

When considering the viewers' experience of an interactive artefact we can think of a domain defined by the opposition of redundancy and entropy. The discourse of particular artefacts, and instances of their interactivity, can be placed within this domain. Our reasons for doing this are not taxonomical: this is not a particularly good classification system as the location of any particular example within the domain is not fixed and, indeed changes as part of the discourse itself. The place any discourse occupies is at best a tendency towards the redundant, or a tendency towards the entropic, at any one moment within the history of the discourse that includes the work and its viewers.

These tendencies reside in the discourse which, in CMT interactivity as narrative, is significantly different, in many ways, to the interactivity as narrative present in other media. The emergent CMT media advantage branching narratives, multi-pathway narratives that have presence only as instances determined by reader's choices,. Espen J Aarseth7 suggests that these narrative practices are best described as "ergodic" ? pathways created from the reader's work of choosing from alternatives - rather than "non-linear", pointing out that from the reader's perspective all stories are linear. In this frame redundancy and entropy describe and distinguish the texture of the discourse, are qualities of the ergodic.

All discourse of interactive artefacts, when first encountered tends to the entropic. While the viewer may bring expectations of the form, its content and sequence, which they have derived from their previous experiences of similar pieces, from reviews and critiques, from what they have been told by friends and colleagues, their own experience is of something new, novel, surprising.

The discourse of many interactive artefacts, with repeated encounters, tends towards the redundant. If the form, content, sequence, etc. is inherently consistent and so becomes familiar, learned and known, the position of the discourse in the domain alters. This shifts the discourse to a tendency towards redundancy. Importantly, this can be seen as the consequence of a person mastering a system, of it becoming an "intuitive" discourse. This can hold a good deal of feelings of achievement, satisfaction and reward not only in the initial completion but also in subsequent engagements, and is equally true for databases, word-processors, CMT games and interactive artworks.

The discourse of some artefacts remain entropic. They may not have an inherent consistency, for instance aleatorial works which exploit randomness or chaotic complexity. Or they may generate, from their own internal rules, or from user actions, (themselves possibly redundant) a set of changing scenarios in which the work exists not as a unique object but only as a unique instance.

Indeed it is possible to envisage narratives which are entirely the outcome of sets of rules. The moments of discourse set the narrative running, not as a selection from ready made episodes or a recombination of pre-rendered fragments, but as a particular and unique outcome of the rules and any previous play. These narratives may be other than simulations where the rules themselves remain consistent and therefore outcomes have some element of predictability, redundancy. The sets of rules themselves may change, evolve, alter and so maintain an inherent unpredictability, entropy.

In general, interactive artefacts whose discourse is about information retrieval tend towards reduncancy (for reasons that are discussed shortly), while entertainment artefacts and artworks tend towards entropy.

Section 4

Information is a tool designed by human beings to make sense of a reality assumed to be both chaotic and orderly
Brenda Dervin 8

Information handling is about getting people and information together as effectively as possible. To create access to information organised in much the same way as the human mind works is the ideal. This would create a transparent interface to the information. Transparent because the sequence in which events occur would, of itself, be the most "natural" next step and it would, therefore, be redundant because self-evident. This is what Vannevar Bush9 meant by As we may think...

Such information systems tend to be (or at least aspire to be) redundant. They have clear and predictable cause and effect structures for each action, they rarely surprise, they employ metaphors that converge with users' existing knowledge and experiences to ensure effective and ready access to a content which is separate from the interface, they are highly ritualised in the way sequences flow.

Such redundancy ensures that the mechanic or the doctor, the service engineer or the shopper, get to the information they want not only as quickly as possible, but it also reassures them that once they are there the information is accurate and reliable. And, indeed, one would not want it otherwise. The redundancy of the intertactivity as narrative here carries the meaning of "authority", removes ambiguity, reaffirms trust, refers to information held somewhere 'outside' of the interaction, to a set of external certainties.

It is significant that information led interactivity is often concerned with interface. Of itself, this suggests a separation from the 'underlying' information of the way it is experienced.

When considered from an interface design viewpoint, both entertainment artefacts and interactive artworks are often problematised. Information is not immediately accessible, cause and effect relationships may not be immediately obvious, events may appear (and continue) to be, "gratuitous"5. There may be no clearly identifiable content, or information, beyond the thing itself.

Even the behaviour of the interface devices may be suddenly different, unpredictable, deliberately redefined, entropic, because achieving mastery is part of the fun. These works are firmly rooted in the act of interacting, in the pleasure of the discourse itself. They are not concerned with the retrieval of underlying information that has its own separate values and worth. Their discourse is self-contained, it shows reflexivity.

Part of the discourse is learning the rules by which the discourse works. Or can work. Rules which are rarely stated in clear, simple, explicit terms but which may be discovered (and modified ) through action and engagement.

Section 5
.... the computer spawns the electronic text, a volatile form that paradoxically returns the text to our heads while at the same time enmeshing it in an even more sophisticated apparatus
Florian Brody 10

The way Redundancy and Entropy have been used here relate to McLuhan's notions of hot and cool media. Hot media are high definition, well-defined, sharp, detailed, they provide a lot of sensation but little participation, the discourse is nearly complete in itself. Cool media are low-definition, low-resolution, providing a less complete experience that the viewer engages with, works with, to complete as part of the discourse.

While interactive (ergodic) narrative media would usually be thought of as cool, the domain of redundancy/entropy enables a closer critique of the interactivity itself.

Within CMT interactive (ergodic) narrative, redundancy is charateristic of a hot media. It makes interactivity a high resolution media experience ? it details the discourse which itself is contained by given meaning. The inevitability of the ritualised sequence limits interpretation, authorises, authenticates and refers content, valorises passivity.

Entropy is cool media characteristic. It encourages the viewer to engage in the creation of meaning from fragments, to interpret, contribute, invent, link. Entropy is/as discontinuity, reflexivity, relative truth, authority reframed from hierarchy. Entropy makes for low resolution media experience, it places demands and brings rewards with active engagement.

While all media, and all media artefacts, are initially cool (because new, novel, etc.), many, with repeated encounters move towards hot. The entropic becomes redundant with familiarity. Even so, some CMT artworks maintain the tendency of their discourse to the entropic ? these are the ones in which the reader, user, viewer creates and invents new instances of the work, not in their search for content or (disembodied) information but in the act of interacting, itself. This is interactivity as play. Not play as learning how to do this or that, but play with its own purpose which does not lie outside the act of play itself.

Section 6
........ more importantly, McLuhan saw such hot coals and cool winds regulating the temperature of the cultural environments they inform and in turn draw energy from: The 1930's, running on radio and motion pictures, were a hot age...... By the 1960's, television had cooled down the culture.......
Paul Levinson 11

Zeitgeist, reworked through media theory, has successive epochs embracing media which reflect their broader concerns, or which advantage the narrative of cultural myths that explain the world as it seems at the time. Contemporary interactive artworks and entertainments, with their entropic narratives exist in a broader cultural context, and are increasingly mainstream in their adoption and use. Their discourse of discontinuity, un-centred certainties and the user's active engagement in the creation of unique instances 'informs and draws energy from' (Levinson, above) the broader culture, reflects and promotes appreciation of discontinuity as a source of reassurance, and a wholly new understanding of what has come to be known as chaos. Chaos is not mere disorder - it is the deeper order within apparently random, nonlinear systems. Chaos is the character of discontinuity.
Douglas Rushkoff 12

Notes and References

1 Cubitt, Sean, Playing and not playing the game, essay included in critical commentary booklet accompanying Advent, Clive Gillman, Ellipsis, 1997, p. 12

2 Barthes uses the term tmesis to refer to skimming, or skipping over, parts of a text, to mean an awareness of the parts missed. The phrase can be used to describe the sense of options not taken, paths missed, in an interactive narrative.

3 Joyce, Michael, Of Two Minds: Hypertext, Pedagogy and Poetics, The University of Michigan Press, 1995, p. 20

4 Hayles, N. Katherine, How We Became Posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature and informatics, University of Chicago Press, London, 1999, p. 25

5 at their most entropic things may appear to be 'gratuitous'. This is a term used by Brenda Laurel (in Computers as Theatre, Addison Wesley, 1993) to describe incidents which 'have no causal relationship to the whole action... shed no light on why things have happened, or why they happened as they did.'. On first encounter a lot of things will appear gratuitous which later become causal.

6 Plant, Sadie, Zeros + Ones: digital women and the new technoculture, Fourth Estate, London, 1998, p. 143 - 144

7 see Aarseth, Espen J, Cybertext: Perspectives on ergodic literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997 for more details of this

8 Dervin, Brenda, Chaos, Order and Sense ?making: A Proposed Theory of Information Design, in Information Design, ed. Robert Jacobson, MIT Press, 1999, p.38

9 Bush, Vannevar, As We May Think, in Atlantic Monthly, 1945, and at

10 Brody, Florian, Interaction Design: State of the Art and Future Developments, in Multimedia Graphics, ed Willem Velthoven and Jorinde Seijdel, Thames and Hudson, 1996, p. ix

11 Levinson, Paul, Digital McLuhan, Routledge, 1999, p.106

12 Rushkoff, Douglas, Children of Chaos: surviving the world as we know it, Harper Collins, 1997, p.47