Interactivity - a Matter of Give and Take

By Senecal, Michel | UNESCO Courier, February 1995 | Go to article overview

Interactivity - a Matter of Give and Take


Senecal, Michel, UNESCO Courier


A democratic communication system is inconceivable without fair exchange, plurality of viewpoints, direct contact between transmitters and receivers, decentralization and respect for privacy and freedom of expression.

With each new wave of development in media technology, hopes are raised that communication in society will be rendered more democratic. Unscrupulous operators invariably step forth to promote technical equipment that they claim will lead directly to fundamental social change. The word interactive crops up again and again whenever businessmen and politicians talk about the electronic information superhighways of the future. Such metaphors propagate a new technical and cultural myth, that of a "communication society" on a global scale.

Readiness to label all kinds of media technology as "interactive" - without the term ever being precisely defined - suggests that the word is being used less to describe these technologies than to make them commercially attractive. However, there is not necessarily any correlation between the degree of interactivity possessed by a piece of technical equipment and the level of democracy attained by the media. When a system is described as "universal, bidirectional and interactive", we should ask ourselves who is going to use it and with whom, and what will be communicated?

Moreover, the fact that a system is universal does not necessarily mean that it is interactive. It may enable the suppliers of a service to deliver directly to subscribers the information and goods they ask for, but it does not mean that the system's promoters have equipped it with the technical facilities (interface, bandwidth, etc.) for communication between users. In cable distribution interactivity has so far been limited to a new way of choosing goods and services, but one in which the vertical exchange of data received and transmitted has remained inegalitarian.

If a communication system is to be used democratically, it must meet a number of other conditions as well as being interactive. These conditions are: immediate and complete reciprocity in all exchanges; plurality of viewpoints; the establishment of direct relations between partners free both to transmit and receive messages; decentralization of information circuits; respect for freedom of expression and for privacy.

A challenge to civil society

New technical developments must be appraised critically, taking into account the needs, interests and values of users.

Regardless of the technological background of any communications project, what matters most is its accessibility. Only this can make multiple exchanges possible, placing each user, as often as he or she so wishes, in the position of a supplier Of information to the network.

No communication system can be considered genuinely democratic if it causes exclusion, either because of its inaccessibility or because of the images of society it creates. If its architecture is closed and vertical, it may operate exclusively to the benefit of a few authorized suppliers.

Will the coming "information superhighways" simply renew existing methods of delivery and distribution of goods of all kinds: catalogue retail sales, pay-per-view, electronic entertainment, banking services, video games, lotteries and so on? The new networks - such as teleshopping via cable TV - will resemble electronic home distribution centres over which absolute control will be exercised by certain private interests. …

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