Interactive documentary – what does it mean and why does it matter?

Having just convened our fourth i-Docs symposium, it feels like an opportune moment to reflect on what is meant by ‘interactive documentary’ and why we at i-Docs have always seen it as a way of framing a set of possibilities, as opposed to being a specific medium, genre or platform. This seems prescient in light of the ‘immersive turn’ with interactive work starting to become more closely defined in response to it. At the heart of this is the current interest in emergent VR technology, a more specific medium or platform, within which more easily definable genres are likely to emerge. This is contributing to a rising interest in ‘experiential storytelling’ and ‘alternate realities’ and a potential re-framing of what is meant by interactivity.

Whilst this is all a natural development of the field, which is affording an opening up of new possibilities, our hope is that it won’t close things down either, by creating an overly rigid approach to the concept of interactivity. This would run counter to the spirit of i-Docs, whose purpose is to generate interdisciplinary exchange across academia and industry, platforms and genres.

The reframing and repositioning of the word ‘interactive’ as it relates to the new terms that are emerging is not unfamiliar territory to me, as in the 1990s something similar occurred with the term ‘interactive multimedia’. Working with the BBC Interactive Television unit and subsequently with the Multimedia Corporation, I witnessed a wider rush to pin down this new term and create a market for its outputs. As a result, what had been originally construed as an expansive term for a new set of possibilities suddenly became locked down and equated with CD-ROM delivery systems. I don’t think that ‘interactive multimedia’ ever recovered from this, as like the Titanic, it pretty much sank when CD-ROMs became defunct.

So, here is my plea for interactive documentary to not suffer the same fate and my argument for it’s use within i-Docs to continue to be an expansive and open-ended term, around which a series of conversations across disciplines and between theory and practice can be convened.

‘When I speak of poetry, I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality’ – Andrei Tarkovsky

TarkovskyThis quote is very relevant, as it offers a good way to frame the discussions that occurred at i-Docs 2016 around the Tools for Thought strand, particularly on Day 1. Referring back to my previous post on ‘The linear turn in i-docs’, this was in many ways a continuation of a dialogue around complexity and non-linear thinking, which I felt duty bound to re-ignite in response to the ‘linear turn’ and which now risks being buried again by the ‘immersive turn’. With this in mind, I would like to spend some time reflecting on why Ted Nelson’s idea that ‘everything is intertwingled’ continues to matter, on how interactive documentary as a concept can play into our understanding of complexity, and how as a set of possibilities for practice it can help us to explore multiple points of view in a genuinely transcultural and interdisciplinary way.

But first, what then is interactive documentary? As I explained in the Sage Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics, it is ‘a term used to describe the new possibilities for both the construction and representation of ‘reality’ brought about by the human–computer interface’. For a documentary to be interactive in this context, a physical action needs to take place between the human and the computer.

This physical action can include many different types of interactivity, such as mouse clicking through a website, tapping on a multi-touch tablet screen, activating censors in gallery installations, using a smartphone to call up locative media, and participating in a live performance.

As computers become ever more embedded into everyday life, the possibilities of interactive documentary continue to evolve, along with our understanding of these possibilities. Implicit to this, there also needs to be an acknowledgement that documentary is not just about filmmaking and that, although technology is key to the debates, ultimately it is people and not machines that should be at the centre of the design process.

In establishing the parameters for these new possibilities, Janet Murray’s description of the affordances of digital media in her seminal text ‘Inventing the Medium’, is a good place to start:

Everything made of electronic bits is potentially:

  • procedural (composed of executable rules)
  • participatory (inviting human action and manipulation of the represented world)
  • encyclopedic (containing very high capacity of information in multiple media formats)
  • and spatial (navigable as an information repository and/or a virtual place).

Once we start to drill into these affordances, it immediately becomes clear that there is a whole host of different ways in which they are being applied to documentary making and that different projects use some or all of them to a greater or lesser extent. For example the first category applies well to Sandra Gaudenzi’s Digital Me project, the second to Mandy Rose CollabDocs work, the third to my database narrative work, and the final category to many of the latest VR projects. Once we start to look at things in this way, then a term like ‘interactive documentary’ or indeed ‘open documentary’ starts to become one under which a whole host of emerging genres and platforms might sit.

Screenshot from 'Digital Me'

Screenshot from ‘Digital Me’

At this point, the term becomes more useful because it allows for exchange across and between platforms and genres, thus keeping the space open for a conversation around new possibilities for documentary. It was with this idea in mind that Sandra Gaudenzi and myself provided the following definition in our 2012 paper ‘Interactive documentary: setting the field’: ‘For us any project that starts with an intention to document the ‘real’ and that does so by using digital interactive technology can be considered an i-doc’.

Whilst this puts computers at the centre of operations, we did go on to stress that the way in which the technologies are used will always be framed by a whole host of other factors and that ultimately it is people and new forms of collaborative endeavour that should be at the centre of our thinking about interactive or open documentary. This very much aligned us with Mandy Rose, who was working on her CollabDocs research fellowship at the time, hence the joining of forces to create the evolving collaborative effort which underpins the spirit of i-Docs.

Additionally Janet Murray makes a useful distinction between interactivity and immersion, as two mutually reinforcing concepts. She suggests that interactivity is more about agency and that immersion, though harder to pin down, is more about presence. Her argument is that procedural and participatory affordances are linked to agency, that encyclopaedic and spatial affordances are linked to presence, and that the nature of interactive work will vary according to the interplay between these different aspects. This way of thinking is helpful because it allows for the established discipline of interaction design and the emerging discipline of immersive design to be seen as two sides of the same coin.

Whilst the current focus seems to be on immersion as opposed to interaction, keeping agency, and hence interactivity, very much in the frame is the core ethos which lies behind i-Docs. To justify this, we can turn to the great Douglas Adams, as quoted in an earlier post from Benjamin Huguet, who said in 1999 that we need to think about interactivity because ‘we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television’ and that before that ‘we didn’t need a special word for interactivity’ because ‘all entertainment was interactive’.

This brings us back to Ted Nelson’s idea that ‘everything is intertwingled’, a worldview which puts complexity at the centre of operations. His belief is that there are no subjects at all, that there is only all knowledge, since the cross-connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly. In light of this, his lifelong endeavour has been to create Xanadu, a digital repository scheme for world-wide electronic publishing that could change the world and the way we see, access, and connect information. In so doing, he wants us to engage head-on with the complexity of knowledge, the problem being that many of us are still locked in the disciplinary divisions of Enlightenment thinking and that it is hard to get away from binaries when trying to make sense of the world.

I often show my students Douglas Rushkoff’s ‘Program or be Programmed’ clip, in which he suggests that whenever a new communication medium comes along, we apply the skills we’ve learnt from previous media to our engagement with the new one. This creates a lag and means that most of us are always one step behind in terms of understanding of how this new tool might be used effectively alongside those that we already have. He argues that this is the problem that we are now encountering with computers, as many of us are still locked into using them in a way which is more framed by the written word than it is by the possibilities of code. This means that we are not empowered by the tools which are available to us and that we risk becoming passive as opposed to active citizens acted, upon as opposed to being able to act in our own right.

Florian Thalhofer’s i-Docs keynote took this a stage further, by suggesting that by the late twentieth century, the predominant mass medium had become film as opposed to the written word. For him, the essentially linear and sequential nature of film has led to an over-reliance on causal thinking – ie. because this has happened, that will happen – and has not set us up very well for confronting the complex problems of the twenty-first century.

His fear is that the dramatic structures that lie behind mainstream films, and the way in which the news is reported on TV, encourages us to see the world in terms of conflict and to ultimately entrench into the comfort of our own knowledge base, as opposed to making a genuine attempt to engage with complexity. In this sense, it is the pre-dominance of certain tropes, such as that of the hero’s journey, and the three or five act structure, that has become both the greatest strength and the greatest limitation of mainstream filmmaking.

In curating his keynote alongside Paolo Favero and my own talk on i-docs and transcultural understanding, the aim was to open up the debate to consider how interactive documentary practice can help us to interrogate the two way relationship between self and other. If we see these concepts as being less about opposites or binaries and more about intertwingled connections, then it might help us to find new ways to understand the world and our place within it.

This seems important in a time of increasing global, regional and local conflict between belief systems, as the capacity for computers for mapping and interrogating complexity and multiple points of view offers the potential to help us to understand that what we see as the ‘other’ is often a different lense through which we can look at the ‘self’. Documentary practice has a longstanding tradition of looking at how we can make ‘the strange familiar’ and ‘the familiar strange’, with interactive documentary in its many guises surely having a key role to play in helping us find the deeper structures or connections that lie beneath the surface of cultural difference.

So, to conclude, as a new medium VR offers genuinely fresh ways through which to experience and interpret the world, but it doesn’t necessarily hit all four of Janet Murrray’s categories for digital media and, even if it did, it wouldn’t be the only way. Let us not, therefore, in the excitement that currently surrounds it, forget the not so easily defined wider possibilities for interactive documentary that other platforms and approaches can afford. This is the raison d’être that lies behind the creation of the i-Docs community, as an open-ended space for debate and exchange across the full range of perspectives. Within this we are also keen to keep the borders between documentary, journalism and fictional storytelling open, and to consider how the digital rubs up against other forms of analogue media and face-to-face experience within a wider context of embodied interaction.

Judith Aston – March 2016