Last week we had to turn in our first paper for Dick Buchanan’s design seminar course. The first four pages were to discuss the central features of each of the four modes of interaction we had studied. The next two pages were to discuss the relationship of form and matter in the four modes.

This was not to be an “academic” paper, Dick said. Reading it over again, I wish my paper was more conversational. I wish it was something that you, whoever you are, could read and understand. I don’t think I succeeded.

I assumed an understanding of the authors and the ideas. So it will likely confuse lay readers.

In general, I did not feel like I had enough space to fully develop the ideas of the four perspectives. So it became an editing task whereby I threw out a lot. However, I feel that as a result, I glossed over the main points.

That is not to say a good discussion given the constraints is not possible. Rather that it made it more difficult for me.

But, for what it’s worth, here is my paper, in its entirety.

Part 1: Four Perspectives on Interaction

In this essay, I will briefly discuss the central features of the four modes of interaction: entitative (first mode: person to person); existential (second mode: person to person); essentialist (third mode: person to environment); and ontological (fourth mode: person to cosmos). Through the comparison and contrasting of the four modes, we can see how each approaches interaction in different ways.

The entitative approach is about interface interaction. We have two entities that come into contact, and an encoding and decoding of data, or the transmission of information back and forth. Weaver offers an information processing system diagram that demonstrates the transmission of data.1 Two key features that come out of Weaver’s system are the presence of noise, and the need for redundancy. Noise is the disruption of the information that may affect its interpretation or delivery. Redundancy is repeating the transmitted message to overcome the effects of noise. Fiske believes redundancy is “absolutely vital,” for without it, communication does not take place.2 For designers, this means ensuring your message is clearly communicated given the presence of noise.

When talking about transmitting information, we are not talking about people. This is one of the key distinctions of the first mode. We are dealing with thing-to-thing interaction. Even Simon, who gives us Thinking Man, still relates cognition to an information processing system.3

Chunking is also a key term of the first mode. The idea of chunking is useful in consideration of how to structure data that it may be more easily accessible by grouping it into meaningful chunks.

Overall the first mode takes interaction and breaks it down to its parts, going from complex to simple. This mode of interaction tends to be bodies, their properties, and the impressions we have of them. A designer working from this perspective needs to understand the underlying mechanisms.

Quite different from the first mode, where people are things, the second mode defines humans as sentient beings and introduces the idea of assumptive world. This idea is strong with Barnlund, who suggests there is no meaning in the world, and implies that humankind cannot survive without meaning, so we create it.4 In this approach, we’re concerned with making meaning. When dealing with this mode, the designer must recognize the different assumptive worlds, and understand those differences, in order to find productive communication.

Goffman examines the meaning of facial engagements, and gives us a model for defining the whole of an interaction with initiation, maintenance, and leave-taking.5 This is an important distinction from Weaver, who only seems to care about the data. From knowing about facial engagements, we can begin to understand how to engineer an interaction.

Bergson continues with the idea of creating meaning of the world by suggesting that duration and motion are created by the mind, and that we break space up and measure it in order to communicate, and to promote social life.6 The promotion of social life is also theme for Barnlund.

Another important point is the role of emotion. Since we are dealing with people, emotion has an impact on the effectiveness of the communication in this mode.

The important aspect of the third mode of interaction is that the environment affects interaction. Contrary to the second mode, Dewey asserts that it is not an absurd world. He says there is content out there—the environment, which we may refer to as subject matter, which needs to be sorted out, because it pushes back.7

Also very different from the first two modes, in this mode, subject matter has meaning. As designers approaching a problem from this perspective, understanding the subject matter is essential as the environment plays a part in forming the experience.

Differing from Goffman’s initiation, maintenance, and leave-taking, Dewey defines the form of an interaction as inception, development, and fulfillment.8 From this perspective, the goal of the designer is fulfillment, or consummation, of the experience.

For Dewey, form and content are intimately connected, whereas Goffman barely mentions it. This mode is about shaping of form and understanding the content. Burke even suggests that matter doesn’t exist without being in form.9 This focus on the form is another difference from the previous modes, because in this mode we design by beginning with the whole, the form.

Perhaps most important to designers is Aristotle’s Poetics, which is about the discovery and invention of new forms. Again with Aristotle, form and matter are connected. Thus when you’re talking about the interaction, you are talking about the form.

For the fourth mode, Plato introduces the idea of self-motion—”the very essence and meaning of the soul”—and implies that love is the objective of interaction.10 For Plato, love is a sense of connectedness between everything, which suggests there is meaning in the world. This is how the fourth mode differs from the assumptive world of the second.

This perspective acknowledges a rational order to things, and that things are connected reasonably. The difficulty for the designer is finding that connection. The subject matter is important, and thus we need to understand it, and get to the principle of how things connect. But if we can find that connection, we can help people participate in the whole of the cosmos, and by doing so, can enable them to become self-moving. To do this, we must know the truth about the particulars and be able to define them. Plato states that we must divide things by type until they can no longer be divided.11

The four modes of interaction offer the designer a place to turn for help in approaching interaction design problems. Thus it is important to understand each in order to design for interaction.

Part 2: Relationship Between Form and Matter

Throughout the four modes of interaction, form and matter play different roles. The importance of their relationship changes depending on the perspective of the mode.

In the first mode, the form is the medium of the interaction, or the channel. The form allows for the transmission of data from sender to receiver. The matter in this case is the data being sent. However, the matter in this mode does not get much attention. Whether we are sending smoke signals or making a phone call, it does not matter whether the actual message is “help!” or “I love you.” What matters here is the transmission of information through the medium, or the form.

The second mode deals with the interaction between people. This communication between two people or parties is also the form. The clearest example of this form is Goffman’s initiation, maintenance, and leave-taking.12 Conversations, or facial engagements, represent the form of the interaction. Someone might initiate a conversation. There is then a period of maintenance: a reciprocal exchange of words. The conversation ends when the two parties take leave.

It is important to note that what initiates the conversation, how it is maintained, and the method of leave-taking are independent of the form of the conversation. Like the first mode, the content is not the focus.

Strikingly different from the first two modes, in the third mode, form and matter are inseparable. Form is everything. Dewey might say that the experience is the form. Burke defines form as the arousing and fulfillment of desire.13 And Dewey gives us a sequence of terms to describe the form: inception, development, and consummation. This differs from Goffman’s initiation, maintenance, and leave-taking due to the importance of the subject matter in the interaction.

In defining the individualization of forms, Burke states that such individualization “constitutes the bridge by which we move from a consideration of form to a consideration of subject matter.”14 We use the form to access the content.

We might also say that the relationship between subject matter and form is what makes the experience. In this mode, the designer must know about the subject matter, because the subject matter—the environment—pushes back. Unlike the second mode, the conversation is the subject matter.

Another distinction of this mode is that matter does not exist without being in form. Aristotle suggests the interaction of form and matter are always connected: “without action there can be no tragedy.”15 The shaping of form and the understanding of the content is what this mode is about.

The fourth mode of interaction is concerned with the whole in relationship to its parts. In this case, the matter is the parts. Through recognition of how the parts fit together, we develop the form: the connection to all the parts. Again, here, like the third mode, and contrasting with the first two modes, subject matter plays a larger role in understanding and designing for the interaction. We connect the parts to realize the nature of the whole. An example of this relationship is writing to thought, where writing is the subject matter—the parts—that when connected creates thought—the form.

The key differences between the modes of interaction are their dealing with the subject matter. In the first two, subject matter is not that important, whereas for the last two, the subject matter and the form have a close relationship.

  1. Warren Weaver, “The Mathematics of Communication,” in Basic Readings in Communication Theory, ed. C. David Mortensen (Harper & Row, 1979) 29.
  2. John Fiske, “Communication Theory,” 10.
  3. Herbert Simon, Models of Thought, Vol. 1. (Yale University Press, 1979), x.
  4. Dean C. Barnlund, “Communication: The Context of Change,” in Basic Readings in Communication Theory, 7.
  5. Erving Goffman, “Facial Engagements,” in Basic Readings in Communication Theory, 141.
  6. Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will.
  7. John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 11.
  8. John Dewey, Art as Experience, 35.
  9. Kenneth Burke, “The Nature of Form,” in Contemporary Rhetoric: A Conceptual Background with Readings ed. Ross Winterowd (New York: Harcourt College Publishing, 1975) 194.
  10. Plato, “Phaedrus,” in Selected Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 143.
  11. Plato, “Phaedrus,” 174.
  12. Erving Goffman, “Facial Engagements,” 141.
  13. Kenneth Burke, “The Nature of Form,” 184.
  14. Kenneth Burke, “The Nature of Form,” 195.
  15. Aristotle, “Poetics,” in Poetics and Rhetoric, trans. S. H. Butcher (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005) 19.