New life for old buzzwords

'Interactive Excellence' argues for new standards to make sense of the media onslaught.

Published August 17, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

| "Interactivity" is probably the single most abused word in today's digital-culture vocabulary. For years, high-tech promoters have been peddling all manner of junk by plastering the label "interactive" on a product and proclaiming its superiority -- simply because users could click on a button or two or "choose their own path."

When buzzwords receive this level of overexposure, it's usually time to put them out to pasture. The Internet's success ought to have made clear to everyone that "interactivity" is not something contained within a software program -- no matter how many branching choices it provides -- but rather something that happens between human beings, who may or may not depend on technological tools to make it happen.

Edwin Schlossberg is one writer who isn't yet ready to toss "interactivity" into the trash. In fact, he's built an entire new book around the concept. In "Interactive Excellence: Defining and Developing New Standards for the Twenty-First Century," Schlossberg talks about interactivity in the broadest sense -- as a concept that relates not only to computers but to all media, live performances, museums and public exhibits. To Schlossberg, studying interactivity means studying how members of an audience relate to a work that's presented to them -- and how they relate to one another. A true interactive design, to him, is one that "involves the audience in a compositional or collaborative experience."

Schlossberg himself is a designer who has apparently spent most of his career building innovative museum spaces, like the Brooklyn Children's Museum (which he describes as the "first interactive museum," though its 1970 founding would seem to postdate the 1969 creation of San Francisco's famed Exploratorium). The perspective he brings to his subject is refreshingly free of digital utopianism; the world Schlossberg writes about is one in which computers and the Internet aren't some vast transformative revolution but rather an interesting new development on the margins of everyday people's lives.

Aside from that, alas, there is almost nothing to recommend about "Interactive Excellence." The book is one of the slim, 100-page volumes in Ballantine's Library of Contemporary Thought series -- an attempt to revive the old pamphleteering tradition and get provocative ideas into circulation with a minimum of publishing-industry fuss. For the model to work, of course, each broadside ought to cut like a knife. "Interactive Excellence" is more like a rusted pickax -- blunt and heavy and dull.

Schlossberg's chief argument seems to be that we need to broaden our standards for excellence to include a scale for judging the quality of interactivity ... but wait: Even by attempting to summarize his argument I'm falling into the same weasel-word vocabulary that fills "Interactive Excellence." The book is a grim succession of sentences like, "Without a method to properly evaluate excellence, our huge and growing population cannot learn or develop effectively, because learning occurs only when conversations, ideals, and goals have a shared and understandable framework."

"Excellence" is fine and dandy, as is "great art" -- but just try getting people to agree on what these words mean. Exploring that might make a great theme for the kind of interactive public exhibit Schlossberg specializes in; instead, he struggles with abstractions and emerges with vaguely utilitarian prescriptions. The really good stuff in art, he maintains, can be distinguished from the dreck -- like John Philip Sousa, Andrew Lloyd Webber and LeRoy Neiman -- because the latter "are sold to the audience and do not contain contentious, disturbing, or serious problems, or any suggestion of the need for solutions ... They do not point to any new ideas or new ways to deal with old ideas." Schlossberg's own canon of excellence seems to run the gamut from universally agreed upon choices like Shakespeare to highly questionable selections like "The Graduate" -- which only goes to show that, once you get past the abstractions, excellence is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.

At the heart of "Interactive Excellence" lies a well-meaning but clumsy effort to grapple with how to gauge quality and sort through vast volumes of human expression in the era of interactivity. The issue is real -- but sorting it out will take philosophers with better rhetorical skills and deeper imaginations than Schlossberg can muster.

And though Schlossberg's willingness to free the concept of interactivity from its technological ghetto is welcome, by the end of his book it's quite clear that the author hasn't even begun to consider just how the Net can change the relationship between artist and audience. In "Interactive Excellence," discussions of computer technology and the Internet are confined to a series of "also's" (as in, "Computers can also assist in bringing the tools for goal-oriented learning to a large audience"). He seems either unaware of or uninterested in the level of engagement with technology displayed in more valuable studies in this field, like Janet Murray's "Hamlet on the Holodeck."

"Interactive Excellence" leaves so many terms undefined and so many questions unanswered that, by the time you reach the end of the book, you may want to do a little interacting with the author yourself. Too bad there's no e-mail address or Web-based discussion -- the Library of Contemporary Thought's Web site is a pure sales tool. If you're going to preach about excellence in interactivity, it helps to practice it.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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