Interaction design blurs boundaries separating digital technology, art

By By Zhou Liyun / 06-21-2016 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Pictured here is the Eagle Nebula photographed using the Hubble Space Telescope. These pillar-like structures are columns of cool interstellar hydrogen gas and dust that are also incubators for new stars. Now, technology has broadened the content of art and created new forms of art that could not be accomplished using traditional means.


Defined as the practice of designing interactive digital products, environments, systems and services, the emerging trend known as interaction design is breaking down the boundaries between technology and art. This raises the question of whether a work created using digital technology should be considered art or a technological product. Furthermore, it prompts scholars to ask whether it is necessary or even meaningful to follow the traditional practice of making this distinction.


Boundaries blurred
Traditionally, technology is viewed as a means of transforming the world, and art is a representation of the real world. Technology follows a rational and controlled logic, while art follows a perceptual and pluralistic logic, making it easier to distinguish technological products from works of art when speaking of traditional art forms.

For instance, whether or not a person is standing still when looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has no bearing on the painting itself or the person’s understanding of it. However, art becomes more interactive as digital technology advances, and the audience’s capacity to understand and participate becomes an indispensable part of artistic creation.

John Cage’s 1952 silent piece Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds is a perfect example. Composed by the American experimental composer for any instrument or combination of instruments, the piece purports to consist of the sounds of the environment that listeners hear while it is performed.

Digital art no longer creates just an artificial object but an experience. In online games, virtual animation, three-dimensional films and other new art forms, moveable, wearable, implantable and automatic technologies have brought infinite possibilities to art creation.

Virtual, multimedia and network communications technologies have changed the content and forms of art. For example, nanometer photography under a high-power microscope and images provided by the Hubble Space Telescope are works of art in and of themselves that could not be accomplished using traditional means.

The development of digital art has extended the scope of space-time while shattering the boundaries between the virtual and real world. Moreover, it has created a new interactive experience that entails the transformation of aesthetic paradigms. Furthermore, audience participation and feedback have become integrated into performance, further blurring boundaries being the subject and the object. New types of interaction have appeared, including human-computer interaction and audience-artist interaction.

However, the impulse to draw a line between the two still exists. For common spectators, experience is a precondition of other aspects, and it is unnecessary to differentiate between technology and art. By contrast, professional practitioners pay more attention intentionally or unintentionally to the problem of differentiation. Technology experts or artists tend to distinguish a technological product from a work of art from the perspective of disciplines they are familiar with while regarding other features as background information, which is an inevitable result of specialized division.

Essence of interaction
The constrictions of material media hinder interaction in traditional art, while modern technology has provided conditions for broadening the content and forms of art. Digital text, pictures and sound can externalize the inner world of the mind and visualize human experience, making the act of expressing emotion more direct, convenient and involved. Technological development makes it possible to achieve interaction among humans, machines and technology. Thus comes into being a multi-subject that is being prescribed and created while at the same time is capable of creating and experiencing. As technological breakthroughs become more widely applied in art, the borders between technology and art are bound to fade away.

Therefore, it is necessary to take a new look at the boundaries between technology and art, and explore the essence of interaction design and thinking. In fact, there is no objective criterion for the partition. The decision on what constitutes a technological product or work of art depends on the association an individual has with the product, which is derived from individual perception and experience in different contexts.

Thus, the distinction should be dependent on the situation. Through human-computer interaction, technology and art can shape each other, generating new content and forms. By breaking boundaries between the virtual and real world, the individual and the public, and artist and audience, technology can create new interactive experiences and spaces. The process of interaction is perceptual and bilateral, giving rise to an open experience that varies according to each individual’s experience and the specific context.

Instead of leading to convergence, digital technology and art create a distinctive individual experience. Individual participation and experience will have different meanings depending on the context. Art in the digital era is more about a personalized experience, which nevertheless can be shared with the public.

This indicates that the core idea of interaction design is respecting “perception,” “experience,” “difference” and “action.” In essence, interaction design is a dynamic action, process and practice rather than a static object or work. Therefore, the meaning of an interactive product should be left open to interpretation and comprehended within different contexts.


Expectations, challenges
Cooperation should be strengthened between technology and art, but determining the extent of this relationship requires prudent consideration. From a philosophical perspective, discussing the boundaries of technology and art in interaction design necessitates reflecting upon basic concepts and probing into metaphysical, ethical and aesthetic questions.

Doubts over the boundaries and resulting challenges and transcending problems are the very source of creativity for interaction design. It is in line with the needs of the times to transcend disciplinary boundaries, create new art forms and realize new applications of digital technology. Human-computer interaction technology gives rise to new forms of art, and at the same time, these forms introduce challenges to human-computer interaction technology.

In addition, the development of digital technology and art gives new meaning to ethical and aesthetic concepts of goodness and beauty. The studies of design ethics and aesthetics should be incorporated into the practice of interaction design. In reality, there are always undefined concepts that provide opportunities for individual initiative and creativity.

In modern times, blurred boundaries between technology and art have brought diversified experience to people and opened a new channel between the world and the self. At the same time, however, we should maintain keen vigilance against risks from the misuse, invasion and overexpansion of technology. Technology constantly stirs up human desire, creates fantastic perception and experience, and unfolds an endless virtual space, which in turn traps people into an exhausting and inextricable pursuit of technology. Faced with the encroachment of technology on art, we should improve our aesthetic abilities in art creation while reflecting upon the logic of technology to keep a certain distance from technological control.

Zhou Liyun is a professor of philosophy from Shanghai University.