I first worked with the computer at the end of the sixties, though in those days I couldn't do much more than pose it some musico-mathematical questions and then work with what it gave back to me.

The first piece I made using a computer was called Ruthie's Piece (all watched over by machines of loving grace).

It took its title from a poem by Richard Brautigan that was about as romantic about computers as you can get. Here's the poem :

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

I would say that I also had a romantic attitude to the computer - that maybe there could be a way I could address it and it would address me back from its own position, not mine.

I think I still have that romantic attitude to the computer and how we can be with it.

Music and sound have been the main areas of my work, though in what I'm working on at the moment they are not necessarily intrinsic or primary media. I started out when a student in what was then, in the late sixties, called experimental avant-garde music - Cage, Stockhausen, that milieu, playing and composing, improvising.
I should declare an interest, at least a framework or background, of where I'm coming from in a lot of what I say. In my youth, even before I was a student, I'd come across the music and writings of John Cage and had been bowled over by them. I had that sense of 'this is it, this is how I'm seeing it' I found his philosophy of the author relinquishing control of the work immediately exciting and sympathetic. Later, as a student and after, I had the good fortune to meet and work with Cage. He was and remains a profound influence for me.
At that time I was trying to do things which involved the audience as participants; making installations; happenings. What I liked most was situations where I was not in control of what was happening, where the unpredictable was king, and the audience was part of that unpredictability: an installation with a juke box in it, or a piece where the audience eating food randomly set off relays of sound producing circuitry.
Well, I still like those situations, so it's not surprising I work in interactive media now.
Then and since then I've been a performer of free improvised music. That's an area of performance where, because you're absolutely Making It Up as You Go Along as you go along, you are profoundly aware of the audience and how they actively support your making. I think this history of mine makes me very aware of the position of the user in interactive work.

I would also say that when I give a talk I usually free improvise, make it up as I go along. With this one I can't do that, I've got to work from the score, which is strange for me.


The title of my presentation is "the author has left the room" why that title should become clearer as we go along. I want to look at the nature of interactivity, the implications it has for the making process, how we implement it, and some problems that come out of that. This talk will be mostly questions. I find I have a lot of questions and not much in the way of answers.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the term interactivity. All it means is that activity takes place between- , that both sides act, or move on in the course of the transaction from their original position; it also, in use, implies that this moving on is in response to the act of the other: there is reciprocity. Thus a cash machine is an interactive environment.
Problems arise, it seems, from beliefs we have about interactivity, from how it appears to us, both makers and users. This is most evident in what might be described as higher forms of non-linear making:- interactive art, certain levels of interactive design. In these, it typically appears, the user is a free agent, given choice; they maybe have the sense that their actions are crucial in the evolution of the encounter - that in some way they are involved in the act of creation, in the making of the work. Well, they are. But not perhaps in the way that it appears. My contention is that 'interactivity', as it is generally delivered, while appearing to offer a space where the user may subjectively act, actually constrains or denies it. That it is the interactive process itself that disempowers the user, rendering them little more than an extension of the work and a tool of the author; and that there is now a whole lexicon of given/learned user behaviours that are invisibly passive. And the continuing presence of the author, in a way that is particular to interactive work, is implicated in this.


I'd like make some comparisons between linear and non-linear work. In linear work the author says: it's finished, here it is, I know what it is for me, now you make what you will of it. And for the user it is exactly that, they have to make what they will of the work; perceive it as separate from them, other, an entity, and from that recreate it in their own subjectivity. Also, the author is present in the work. We all experience Rembrandt in one of his paintings, Beethoven in his music. They are present as identity and in fact this is as true of Cage as it is of Beethoven. This presence of the author as identity serves a necessary function in the work: it helps us resolve the identity of the work as other. By coming face to face, so to speak, with the author, we are put back upon ourselves; if it's working, we are put face to face with ourselves.

The sense of completed otherness in linear work helps us maintain our separate identity; this seems to be true of all linear work, including performance work, where the finishing takes place in our presence. I don't deny our involvement in the work: being buried in a book, lost in a picture, swept away by music or a film, I'm saying that this involvement is in our subjective re-creation of the work: we're buried, lost, swept away in our own inner world. In all this we retain our separateness from the work and our ownership of our subjective experience.

All this clarity of separate identity seems to get blurred in interactive work. It gets blurred because the user is actively participating in the work, is close to it, inside it even. I'd like to look at what are the benefits, and maybe deficits of that.


In, say, a commercial website, it's easy to analyse what's going on - the interface is usually pretty simplistic and the intentions of the author are, if not overt, easy to posit, even if from a paranoid political standpoint. While the user apparently has a lot of freedom of movement - to browse - in fact they are channelled along very narrow paths with very little freedom of choice - except of course to develop the desire to buy this or that.
I would say that this channelling is not something that is extrinsically implemented, but is an innate, structural function of the interactive interface itself, that is used either with or without awareness by the site's designers.
This is a pervasive issue, and a dissatisfaction that I imagine I share with a lot of the people in the room is that often, in fact typically, when I'm in an interactive environment or using a software application, I rapidly reach a position where I'm saying, 'I want to do this - why can't I?' If I'm using an application I'm not familiar with I might ring someone and they might say 'Oh you do this.' But they might also say 'I don't know if it's possible' or 'I've tried to do that myself' and so on. With the applications I use routinely, I'm continually getting to a point where I have to force, coerce, or trick the software into doing what I want, or just give up. Loads of people work on this issue - developing Director Xtras for example, writing new languages, and so on.

In the end it's a question of where the choice lies, who has it.


What is attractive about making interactive work is that it seems like a field of possibilities rather than a line of immutables. I believe I can set up a world which the user can explore as they will, where I don't know in what way they will do that. I give them the opportunity to make what they want out of the possibility inherent in the field.
I know that there are limitations to the field - these limitations are due to my creative decisions or inabilities. I also know that there are 'rules to the game', structural forces which are part of what I have made. These limitations and rules are overt at the outset, or will be discovered by the user as they make their way round the field. But within that, I believe that the user is a free agent, and so do they. All this seems good to me and is very much part of why I make this kind of work, and I guess it's the same for many people who do.

Interactivity presents itself as an open system, as one where the actuality of the work is in the interaction springing from the choices of the user, as one where there are a potential infinity of outcomes, and I think both makers and users believe in this appearance. But in fact, I think, the system is closed, the actuality of the work is enclosed in the choices of the maker, and a potential infinity of outcomes allows a very limited range of user experiences, because their choices are limited or illusory. How is this, given the intentions and beliefs of makers and users?
First, in creating, inevitably, a limited number of reactive behaviours or sequences of behaviours in the work, the author, instead of creating a field, creates a finite network of paths. These paths may be designed in such a way (random elements, for example) that the author cannot predict the outcome, but this unforseeableness is part of the result, not part of the process.
More crucially, no matter how much the user may seem to be acting out their own choices, in fact they are engaged in realising the choices the author has made, they are, to put it bluntly, the proxies or slaves or puppets of the author. And despite any richness of possible results, and no matter how satisfying those results may be to the user, that satisfaction is passive; the active subjectivity of the user is tied up in the process and therefore in the iteration of the limited range of the author's choices.

I accept that all this happens within the intended and recognised constraints of the work. I'm also saying that there is a deeper level of constraint that is invisible and unacknowledged, not believed in, if you like, but which can be experienced as an unlocated irritation or dissatisfaction by the user.


Beliefs and aspirations about interactive work centre on the user's involvement. As the user participates in the work, we believe that their closeness and activity heightens their experience, makes it more intimate, opens up their choice and creativity - their autonomy.

An author has intentions and desires and the will to communicate and therefore makes a communicative object: the work. The user gets what the maker gives and if the maker wants the user to have autonomy, then the maker has to give it. They have to ensure that happens, because it doesn't happen automatically. If the user has autonomy in the work, in a very real sense they become the maker. So the author has to give the making to the user, otherwise all that's happening is the user is doing a jigsaw puzzle, just putting the pieces into place.

I think that this is part of the idealism: that the author wants the user to become the maker

Something is being said. In linear work it's: here it is, I know what it has for me, now it's yours.
In interactive work the same is being said, and also: you are not going to experience the work as I made it, but as you make it.
For this to be so, the user must make it.

So we come to the relationship between the author and the user, as it is embodied, enacted, in the work. As I said before, in linear work, the work is presented to the user as finished, complete, and the presence of the author as identity clearly manifests that.
The user, in involving themselves with this clearly other thing, is able to retain their own otherness, their individual subjectivity.
With interactive work it goes all blurry. Because the user is actively involved in the actuation of the work, the boundary between the work and its author on the one hand, and the user and their subjectivity on the other, is dissolved. Like I said: I don't think this is a bad thing, it has wonderful potential. I'm saying it has consequences we should be aware of. Because otherwise we're all involved in a game of "The emperor's new clothes" where we agree that something is happening that isn't happening at all, the opposite is. Where instead of freeing up the user, we are imprisoning them.
If the mappings of the maker are fixed, the work is finished, and the user is performing that finishedness, while remaining unaware of it. The author is present, but their presence as identity is obscured (though of course they are identifiable - their signature is usually clear in all aspects of the work), it is obscured because they are present as activity, the activity that the user is busily engaged upon on their behalf, and this busyness and closeness prevents the user from seeing them.


It seems to me that it is the hidden finishedness of interactive work, the invisible closedness of the system, which causes problems. So how to solve the problems? Something that it clear is that, if that is what we want, ways need to be found to make interactive work which is what it purports to be, i.e. an open system. That doesn't necessarily mean that there are no constraints - they are inevitable and that can be fine: it just means that the user should be able to act freely within the visible constraints of the work.



I'd like to step sideways. To propose the paradigm of interactive work as language rather than text.

I think conversation is one of the most natural of human modes - in fact I think it's almost continuous. When we're on our own, a lot of our thinking is conducted as a conversation with ourselves. When we encounter the eyes and voice of an animal, we feel communication; even the way our cat walks away from us speaks volumes. And in those encounters with other sentient beings communication takes place, they read us, we read them.

When I use the word conversation here, I'm not thinking just about words, I'm thinking about images, gestures, sounds, whatever. When I use the word language I mean the totality of means of expression available.

So I'd like to propose interactivity as a conversation the user is having. And the question is: what is the user going to say, and with what or whom is the user having this conversation? I put it this way - as the user's conversation, because I want, for now, to take the initiative away from the author, or ask them to relinquish it. If the user is going to say anything of value to themselves and the other it has to be their utterance of their subjectivity, anything else is just them acting in a script of the author's. And who or what, that can reply to them, are they having the conversation with? Either themselves or the work, those are, in fact, the only possibilities.


I'd like to turn back to the author. The author has a language of their own that they use in making the work. But the question is, is there a language that user can speak with in the work? and if they do speak, who listens and responds? It seems to me that for the user to be autonomous, the author has to give them a language, not a text. I think this is true not just of individual works, but of interfaces and systems too. But what's happening at the moment is that people are writing languages and pre-setting what people can say in them, i.e. giving them text. So how do you write a language for someone else when you have no idea what someone else would say in it?


One possible strategy is to make the work so that it is capable of functioning intentionally, decisively and independently of the author; if one can do that. In fact, to make what is in some sense a sentient organism with the ability to be aware of other, interpret what other is doing, express itself and communicate. A rather difficult and long term task. I guess, because I've always been interested in how things work spatially, and because I think that at heart, underneath our civilisedness, we're all animists (hallo clouds, hallo sky, hallo cat), I'm want to explore "hallo room". Try to make an interactive architecture, where the interactivity is embedded in the actuality of the space. I want it to be ordinary space in an ordinary place but having this dimension that makes it utterly other. I think this could be magical, not in the sense of illusion, but in its original sense, of wonder and mystery.
In order that this could work in any meaningful way, the space would have to have an adequately detailed sensory system, the means to express itself: gesture, sound etc., and in between these, something capable of processing the input, making sense of it to itself, deciding how to react and having a language to express that reaction.
This is asking a lot. One has to start somewhere, so at the moment the effort is to have a wireless sensor network hooked up to a relational database, in a system that is autonomic (can reconfigure itself) and has some capacity to learn, that is, to discern patterns and consequences in the relationship between the incoming data streams, and reconfigure itself accordingly. This has some resemblance to a simple nervous system, with the learning capacity being analogous to 'experience' as opposed to 'instinct'. Since anything in the animal world resembling consciousness and consequently expression depends on structures built on top of such a basic nervous system, one has to hope that hard work might hurry up evolution in the machine world.
It is interesting to consider that if one were able to structure and program a machine system to act on its own initiative, a consequence is that you wouldn't be able to predict what it would do. When I was talking about it with someone who's involved in the project, he said "well, it could decide to do nothing".

So my solution is to set up the work so that the work is autonomous. I know that we design the components that make up that autonomy, but if that autonomy developed to the point of language, then there is no reason why that language would be human - after all, meat minds developed in meat bodies with meat senses and expression, so we can't expect machines to conform to our specs.

What sense could the autonomous 'work' have of what the user is and does? What response might it make to that? I couldn't possibly say. In this situation how can the user be a maker? Is there any making possible? All I can say is that we make and experience wonderful things every day, in conversation with ourselves, each other, and animals and the world.
How would the autonomous 'work' allow this to happen?
I have nothing but questions.


---------- Perhaps it always has been the desire of the author to have a conversation with the user, but it's never been possible, and what I'm saying is, it still isn't, and the author has to accept that. In the system that I'm envisaging, I can't have a conversation with the user, but a conversation can take place. It can only take place because I have made an autonomous object, so in a way it's through me; but I'm not a party to this conversation, the conversation is outside of me. I was there, I made it, but this is why I say the author has to have left the room, because if the author has left the room, the work and the user have the space to themselves, and they can have their dialogue.

If an author doesn't 'write' the language, where does it come from?
What kind of language?
How can the made organism use the language to say .what?

I can't show you what I'm working on, we'll have to wait a few years for that, but I'd like to show you this:

Here we are. Here is the other. It speaks.

What can we understand, what can we say in return?