One demonstrable way new media has increased interactivity is by means of images: The once passive objects of perception have become “image-interfaces and image-instruments” through which one can exert control over and within digital or analog space (Manovich 183). New media has transformed those engaging the images into users as well as viewers. However, those who have the means to control the mediation of information and communication through new media technologies have refashioned the subjectivity of those users to their own ends, thereby turning them into objects of commerce. Lev Manovich presents a compelling model for this objectification, and he as well as Nicholas Gane and David Beer show how it can be used to control users profitably. Finally, Myron W. Krueger, in his essay “Responsive Environments,” illustrates the frightening potential for that control.
For Manovich, contemporary ideology functions in such a way as to “continuously and skillfully deconstructs itself”—in part, by revealing “its machinery”; because of its inherent self-critique, he calls this metarealism (208-209). This postmodern ideology does not offer its subjects consistency but instead places them in a position to know that she is being manipulated. Extending from this ideology is a practice within new media of oscillating between “illusion and its destruction,” between immersion and the opportunity to experience it as an “act of communication itself” (Manovich 209, 205). The oscillation between the roles of viewer and active participant in the explicit communication increases the degree of investment “in the illusion precisely because she is given control over it,” but it also creates a tension between perception and action (209). As one acts upon the illusion, the perception of it is compromised, creating a kind of uneven reality. “Illusion is subordinated to action,” and the user is inserted into the illusion (211).
Through this insertion, the user—as subject—is defined. Despite new media’s appearance of “being highly interactive,” they offer only a “limited number of preprogrammed options that in turn structure” the user’s engagement of the illusion, which is to say the development of their identities as subjects (Gane and Beer 92). New media’s “interactivity has come to be the dominant model of how objects can be used to produce subjects”; in this model, users are empowered to act through interactivity rather than being coerced to act according to explicitly prescribed expectations (94). Those who wish to create through new media are similarly constrained, as they must “utilize preassembled, standardized objects, characters, and behaviors readily provided by software manufactures” (Manovich 197). What is noteworthy is that the subject’s engagement of networked new media, as user or producer, creates data that is then commodified and used to inform future online and offline experience.
While users generally seem to accept this mediatisation as a fact of modern life and acknowledge that “creating a unique identity through a [fixed set of options] is meaningless,” often overlooked is the potential for “arbitrary, abstract and otherwise impossible relationships between action and result” when interacting with and through new media technologies (Manovich 209; Krueger 389). Digital space exists apart from the physical world and physical laws, putting the user at a disadvantage by forcing her to adapt to an entirely novel experience. When Krueger presented his participants with a maze, “no one questioned the inevitability of walking it,” and when the maze defied completion, the participants “moved to the realization that the maze was a vehicle for whimsy, playing with the concept of a maze and poking fun at their compulsion to walk it” and persisted in their engagement (Krueger 383, 384). Given this seeming compulsion to interact, the “arbitrary and variable” relationship between inputs and outputs is especially troubling (385).
Also troubling, particularly in light of the “proprietary feeling” Krueger’s participants felt toward their avatars, is the potential for behavioral conditioning (Krueger 385). Through the darkness present in Krueger’s VIDEOPLACE—or the ubiquity of the networked screen, users are isolated from their physical context so that they may be more fully present in digital space, making it a primary source of stimulation. Should a user refuse to interact via the networked screen, the screen can “focus on motions so small as to be unavoidable and respond to these and as time goes by encourage them, slowly expanding them into larger behavior” (389). As well, interactions in digital space can begin “mechanical and predictable” to foster gradual acceptance and trust on the part of the user and then be “expanded slowly beyond the original contract” (389).
Through the opportunity to exert control in, through, and upon an arbitrary, digital construct, users—as subjects—make themselves vulnerable to control on a most fundamental level to serve the needs of those who have the means to build these constructs and, with an ironic degree of self-awareness, “generously” objectify themselves to occupy an imagined “master position” of consciousness (Manovich 209).
Gane, Nicholas, and David Beer. New Media. Berg, 2012.
Krueger, Myron W. “Responsive Environments.” The New Media Reader, by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, MIT Press, 2010, pp. 379-389.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2002.