[ISEA95] Panel: Brian Massumi – Interface and active space: Human machine-design

Panel Statement

Panel: The Ideology of Interactivity


This paper will look at two visions of human-machine symbiosis. The first is Nicholas Negroponte’s dream of today’s computer interface evolving into a personalized digital environment (a sense-surround “butler”). The second is Greg Lynn’s introduction into the architectural design process of a multidimensional vectorial space that actively responds to input. The question will be whether the one-way transfer of properties is adequate to either of these symbiotic visions. Some ideas on a model of two-way transfer, or mutual becoming, are developed from the contrast between Negroponte’s data-based anthropomorphism and Lynn’s event-ful autonomization of the digital.


Early in the next millennium your left and right cuff links or earrings may communicate with each other by low-orbiting satellites and have more power than your PC. Have you ever wondered what your earrings would say to each other if they could have a confidential conversation? I have to confess I hadn’t. One of the endearing things about Nicholas Negroponte, who conjured up this image, is that he hasn’t either. What fascinates him, in ‘Being Digital’, is the possibility of the connection. Why bother with gossipy cuff links? Because they would connect. The titillation is less in the gadget itself, or in the goal of the gadgeting, than in the joy of connection. Negroponte is animated by a connection fetish that is refreshing in its lack of moralizing about what we should do in the future. Negroponte’s Media Lab is so busy manufacturing for us. For Negroponte, it is never really a question of goals or utility. ‘Being Digital’ is all about interface, for  interface’s sake. Why? Because the future, as Negroponte sees it, is information overload. The human body will be flooded with an impossible richness of information, to a degree far beyond the ability of its perceptual apparatus and nervous system to receive and sort. Delivery on demand is already passi before it has become a reality. In Negroponte’s future, information will be delivered in parallel, at all times, rather serially and on demand: ‘anything, anytime, anywhere”. All the world will be rolled up in data, its now digitized mass threatening to suffocate the unprotected body, swamped by a downpour of pure availability. The role of the interface is to filter the bombardment. “Personalization” is the watchword. The filtering interface Negroponte evokes would simulate human-to-human contact as much as possible, favoring voice command and integrating recognition capability for non-verbal cues. Each human body would surround itself in a custom-tailored double, a machine bubble composed of an intelligent network of “digital butlers” attuned to all the particularities of its “master’s” moods and movements. I will program myself into my “butlers.” The “butlers” will act for me. They will be my delegates in the  infosphere. They will brave the chaotic waters of availability to search, sort, select, and process for me. They will be intelligent, self-adapting, “learning and developing over time”.

  • Brian Massumi,  social theorist, writer and philosopher, Canada. He grows kumquats in Queensland. He is also the author of A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia and with Kenneth Dean of First and Last Emperors: The Absolute State and the Body of the Despot

Full text p.188-192