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Space Through New Media From the first inquiries on the essence of space to the interactivity in the era of New Media.

By Riccardo Torresi


Committee in charge Prof. Thomas Noller Mr. Steffen Klaue Printed in Berlin | Germany | 2015 BTK Berliner Technische Kunsthochschule



Contents Introduction


Structure of the work an intensions


Personal influences


From empirical to rational space


Plato and Aristotle




From spatial perception to social space

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3. New Media

and Interactivity


Manovich and the definition of New Media


General tendencies of New Media


What New Media is not


Rethinking Interactivity


New Media, Technology and Space Space in Social Networks


Space in Virtual Reality


New Media Art and space






List of abbreviations


Image credits


Literature references


Web resources



“ Schematically speaking, each society offers up its own peculiar space, as it were, as an ‘object ‘ for analysis and overall theoretical explication. ”

Henri Lefebvre

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Structure of the work and Intensions The primary interest of this work is to define a theoretical framework and a review of literature concerning the concept of space and New Media, considering the evolution of philosophical and sociological theories developed through history. In particular, this research wants to investigate the subtle influences that New Media have on our perception and understanding of physical space, focusing on the concept of Interaction. On the selection of the path to follow to fulfil this goal, I decided to start from the definition of Absolute Space, considering the philosophers, scientists and thinkers that based their theories on metaphysical and epistemological assumptions more than rational ideas. Due to this, the first notion of space offered here comes from the research of the first classical philosophers and arrives to the Kantian discussion on space and time. In the second part of my research, I treat the argument of the subjective perception of the space, presenting the theory of Merleau Ponty on his Phenomenology of perception. The following theory of Lefebvre was chosen because of its relevant influence on the recent



discussion about the social feature of space.

With this theoretical framework I will arrive to the definition of New Media offered by Lev Manovich and I will present the changes in technology that led to the development of the new forms of media of nowadays society. In this part the main focus will be on the characterization of the term Interaction and the last goal will be to describe three different examples of spaces related to the change operated by new media. With this dissertation I aspire to offer the reader a deep understanding on the interrelationship of transformations in media and technology, and the concept of space through a reviewed notion of Interactivity. The theoretical path described in this work will form the basis of an interactive art installation and the last scope of this research would be the relative analysis of the influence that this would have on the audience.

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Personal Influences and Resources In the selection of the resources that I decided to include in my research about space I was affected by the cultural and historical factors of the society in where I live. The theories the formed the basis of my theoretical framework are related to the western way of thinking of the European society; In this way I want to take the distances from affirming that this essay represent an objective analysis on the matter of space. My formation as a student of a scientific high school institute first, and as student in architecture and media design recently, drove me in the selection of the arguments presented in this work. As a son of an architect and a science teacher, the first notion on the concept of space that I had was related to the world of geometry and physics. The first mental image that I developed in my mind on the idea of space was probably a blank Euclidian field marked with the x ,y, z axis on the side. Recurring this learning process of my personal experience I decided to start here treating the argument of absolute space, a



concept derived from the theories of the classic philosophers.

The analysis of this first section was driven by the guidance of the book ‘Space from Zeno to Einstain’ by Nick Hugget and by some personal reflections on the arguments treated in the ‘Timaeus’ by Plato and the ‘Physics’ by Aristotle. In the second part I offer a commentary of the text ‘Phenomenology of Perception’ by Maurice MerleauPonty. The study of this work was perceived with the help of research studies from other scholars and personal considerations about some experiments cited in the book itself. This section also includes the analysis of the theory about social space described by Lefebvre in his well-known essay ‘The Production of Space’. The book ‘The Language of New Media’ by Lev Manovich was the main reference for my research in the field of new media and his reflections on virtual and navigable space drove me on a more specific analysis of the concept of interactivity and its changes in relation to the computer society. The other main resource for this part was the book ‘Paradoxes of Interactivity’ ( Uwe Seifert, Jin Hyun Kim, Anthony Moore eds. ) in which the authors offer a rich definition of the term in relationship with virtual space, human body and new media. While studying architecture and urbanism I developed a personal idea of space that includes both the social aspect and the subjective perspective of the matter.

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The following studies on media theory that I sustained during the last years drove me to consider the technological question and the concept of new media into my idea of space. This is why I decided to follow the theories of Merleau-Ponty and Lefebvre and prove their validity in the ambit of new media. In this way, in the last section of the work I describe three concepts of space derived from the precedent sociological and phenomenological analysis and affected by the technological change.





Plato and Aristotle Before talking about space in the new media society, and the related idea of interactivity, I decided to treat the argument of space considering the metaphysical and epistemological view of the classic Greek philosophers, due to their relevance on the western philosophy and science development. The first theory that I want to present is the one by Plato, who lived in the ancient Greece between the III and IV centuries BCE. He makes a distinction between knowledge, which is driven by experience and is certain; and mere opinion, which is assumed by reason and is not certain. With his famous allegory of the cave, he wants to compare the figure of the philosopher with the prisoner kept in a cave, chained to the wall all of his life, facing a blank wall. The prisoner watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind him, and begin to designate names to these shadows. Such prisoner would mistake appearance for reality. He would think the shadows were real things; he would know nothing of the real causes of the shadows. When released from the cave he would understand that those shadows don’t constitute reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality. The condition of the released prisoner is similar to the philosopher’s role in society, that is to understand the true knowledge behind what we intend as reality.



Considering this approach I want introduce here one very influential work that used this theoretical framework to sustain the idea of the existence of a pure and absolute space, the Timaeus. With this book Plato wants to have recourse on earlier and contemporary philosophers of his time, bringing their ideas in a consistent discussion on the formation of the universe. The text is organized in form of dialogue, in which Timaeus outlines to Socrates and Critias his theory about the creation of all elements of the world, from physical elements to some features of the human’s mind. The first important aspect that we have to consider here is that at the base of Plato’s philosophy is the idea that the physical world is a copy of an ideal world of perfect “forms”. To learn about the physical world we can use the experience but to know about the world of forms we must rely on pure reason. Into this dichotomy Plato introduce a third entity: space, which “exists always and cannot be destroyed. It provides a location for all things that come into being”. 1 In this view, space can be understood as a “container” of all physical objects but also as “pure matter”, capable of carrying copies of forms without having a particular form itself: “[…] an invisible and characterless sort of thing, one that receives all things and shares in a most perplexing way in what is intelligible, a thing extremely difficult to comprehend […]” 2


1 Plato , Timaeus. trasl. by M.L. Gill and P.Ryan, in Readings the Ancient Greek Philosophy. 1995 (52b) 2 Plato, op.cit. (51a-b)

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Such a consideration requires a metaphysical analysis of the matter, because space is intended to have both physical and immaterial qualities. Without going too much into this branch of philosophy, I want to point out the three interesting aspects of space that Plato raised in this work: the metaphysical question of what is space; the epistemological question of how can we learn about space; and the physical question of in what way do space and matter interact. These three main problems are the ones that every author included here deals with and constitute the first questions and inputs of following theories that I will discuss later in this work. The second view I want to describe is the one of another classic philosopher contemporary to Plato, Aristole. His work spanned the fields of philosophy, science and aesthetics and I consider his questions about space very important for the theoretical path that I m following here. More specifically, his epistemological method is at the base of the first scientific approach: he believed that our comprehension of the basic principles behind our experience was a sufficient justification alone. Before describing his vision contained in the Physics I should give an overview of Aristotle’s cosmology of the universe described in On the Heavens. In this book Aristotle see the universe as finite sphere composed of the element earth and surrounded sequentially by the elements water, air, fire and ether. Every element moves to their appropriate place and exactly this notion of place is what is described in the Physics. In this work Aristotle considers four theories about place: place is either “the shape, or the matter,



or some sort of extension between the extremities, or the extremities “. 3 First of all we have to consider three initial common beliefs: a place can be separated from the objects it contains; places don’t have places – “if everything that exists has a place, place too will have a place, and so on ad infinitum “ 4 -; the difference between the four directions ( up and down, left and right ) is absolute. Applying his dialectic method to the matter we will se how Aristotle is led to reject the first three theories about place to embrace the last one. Considering the shape, he demonstrates that place cannot be shape because the surface of an object can’t be separated from it and this is incompatible with the first consideration. For the same reason e refutes the idea that place is matter. With “extension between the extremities” of an object he consider the object’s volume, that is not the matter enclosed, but something independent from the object. After a series of reflections he demonstrates that this notion of place is not compatible with the second common sense assumption presented earlier. Unlike space, which is a volume co-existent with a body, place is “the boundary of the containing body at which it is in contact with the contained body”. 5 Aristotle rejects the definition of space as the void: in his view empty space is an impossibility.


3 Aristotle , Physics. trasl. by R. P. Hardie and R. K. Gaye (1984), p.356 4 Aristotle, op.cit. p.358 5 Aristotle, op.cit. p.360

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The nature of place, and space, that comes out from the reading of the Physics is finally the one that see these two entities as features of material objects and not something matter-independent. This notion of space can be assumed as an answer to the physical question we considered earlier. The issue of space’ s independence from matter, that Aristotle refused, will feature prominently in later readings presented in this work.



Kant After the first approach on the concept of space, that consider the experience as a main source for our knowledge, I want to present now the perspective of the philosophers and thinkers that contradict this assumption, considering the reason as the common ground of our understanding of the matter. In this way I want to describe the point of view of Immanuel Kant in his ‘Critique of pure reason’. Due to the complexity of the concepts he explains, and to his peculiar form of writing, I will use here many direct references to the text, to help me in the discussion of the argument. Before talking about this book, we should introduce the author giving a brief sketch on his general stance on space. Kant lived from 1724-1804 and proposed many of the most influential theories and ideas in Western philosophy since Aristotle. In comparison with the classic Greek philosophers, we can collocate his view in between empirical and rationalist approaches. He claims that necessary aspects of our mind structure the information we get by experience. In particular, every experience of the physical and tangible world can be divided in two different factors: sensations of things, and the framework in which these sensations are organized. Every sensation and perception is organized spatially: everything appear to us as located in different places in space; so the notion of space can be assumed as this framework in which all the experiences of the physical world occur.

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From this assumption Kant derives two conclusions: First, space is required for us to have experiences and it doesn’t come from experience, as theorized by Aristotle, but is provided, in advance, to us. Second, since space is provided before our experiences, our experiences will always be spatial and our knowledge of space will be sure. Here is interesting to include also his view on Absolute space described in the 1768 essay ‘Concerning the Ultimate Foundation of the Differentiation of the Regions in Space’, where he claims that “[…] is clear that the determinations of space are not consequences of the situations of the parts of matter relative to each other; rather are the latter consequences of the former. It is also clear that in the constitution of bodies, differences, and real differences at that, can be found; and these differences are connected purely with absolute and original space, for it is only through it that the relation of physical things is possible. It is also clear that since absolute space is not an object of external sensation, but rather a fundamental concept, which makes all these sensations possible in the first place, we can only perceive through the relation to the other bodies that which, in the form of a body, purely concerns its relation to pure space.” 6 This theorization of an absolute space is an attempt to refute a Leibnizian-relationist account of space, strictly related to material objects. Kant, here, considers the notion of pure space as a structure that is inde-

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Immanuel Kant , 'Concerning the Ultimate Foundation of the Differentiation of the Regions in Space'. Kant: Selected Precritical Writings and Correspondence with Beck (p. 43) edited by G.B. Kerford and D.E. Walford, p.43



pendent from external senses but also as something that presuppose all sensations. To make clear this assert we have to examine some aspects of ‘Critique of pure reason’. First of all Kant makes two distinctions, the first one is about knowledge. He distinguishes two kinds of knowledge: the a posteriori and the a priori. The first one is derived from direct experience and can be defined as purely empirical and contingent. It includes specific knowledge and general laws, and can be gathered from personal experience or scientific analysis. In this definition of a posteriori we can find all the possible forms of knowledge (and mental processes) that have the ultimate justifications on accounts of experiences that somebody has had in the past. All other knowledge, independent of experience and all impressions of senses, is a priori. The second distinction he makes is between analytic and synthetic judgments: “Analytic judgements (affirmative) are therefore those in which the connection of the predicate with the subject is thought through identity; those in which this connection is thought without identity should be entitled synthetic. “ 7 Using this subject-predicate form, he defines the analytic statement as something that doesn’t tell anything new about the subject but only makes explicit an aspect of it; all the others nondefinitional statements about the subject are defined as synthetic. According to Kant all analytic statements are a priori and all a


7 Immanuel Kant, 'Critique of Pure Reason' translated by N.K. Smith 1969, p.42

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posteriori statements are synthetic. We will see soon that he includes, also, the combination a priori - synthetic and how the discourse about space will converge exactly on this last position. After these important distinctions that form the base of his thought Kant introduce the concept of intuition as a mode of knowledge directly related to the objects, “that take place only in so far as the object is given to us” 8. When we have this empirical (or sensible) intuition of the world an appearance take form in our mind, Kant analyses this appearance in two parts: first, there are our sensations we have from the objects; second, there is the way in which these appearances are organized. When, finally, Kant present the concept of space in this text he distinguish 4 connotations: “ 1- Space is not an empirical concept which has been derived from outer experiences.[…] The representation of space cannot, therefore, be empirically obtained from the relations of outer appearance. On the contrary, this outer experience is itself possible at all only through that representation.” 9 With this assert he denied the first empirical connotation of space presented in this dissertation, in particular he claims that the experience of space is possible only through its representation. “ 2- Space is a necessary a priori representation, which underlies all outer intuitions” 10. In other words, space is a condition of the possibility of appear and must be regarded as something that is required in advance in order to have experience at all. The Aristotelian point of view, that relate space as a feature of material ob-

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9 10

op. cit. p.46 op. cit. p.47 Immanuel Kant, op. cit. p.48



jects, is here inverted: space is somehow a matter independent identity that is perceivable through its representation by our senses. “3*- The apodeictic certainty of all geometrical positions, and the possibility of their a priori construction, is grounded in this a priori necessity of space. Were this representation of space a concept acquired a posteriori, and derived from outer experience in general, the first principles of mathematical determination would be nothing but perceptions.” […] “For kindred reasons, geometrical propositions, that, for instance, in a triangle two sides together are greater than the third, can never be derived from the general concepts of line and triangle, but only from intuition, and is indeed a priori, with apodeictic certainty.” 11 As mentioned by Nick Hugget 12, in the passage considered here there’s a cryptic connotation of Kant’s view on space. With this section (and with following specifications about geometry 13) Kant accept Euclidean geometry as a necessarily condition of space. It follows that the definitions and axioms established by the Greek mathematician are a priori truths. On the other side we can consider axioms as predicates that add new information about the basic elements included in them. For example following the Euclidean definition of straight line as “a line, which


*This section appear only in the first edition of the Critique (1781), all the other sections cited here follows the revised second edition (1787), p.52 11 Immanuel Kant , 'Critique of Pure Reason' translated by N.K. Smith 1969, p.49 12 Nick Huggett , Space from Zeno to Einstein: Classic Readings with a Contemporary Commentary, Mit Press (1999) 13 See the paragraph “The Transcendental Exposition of the Concept of Space”, op. cit. p.50

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lies evenly with the points on itself” 14, we add new aspects to the definition of points that are, on the other way, pure intuitions and a priori statements. We can consequently say that Euclidean geometry can be considered as a system of synthetic and a priori truths, a condition which “is itself a synthetic combination of intuitions”, as Kant mention in the same text. This form of knowledge is both necessary and purely original and is what Kant attempt to explain in this work. “4- Space is represented as an infinite given magnitude. Now every concept must be thought as a representation which is combined in an infinite number of different possible representations (as their common character), and which therefore contains these under itself; but no concept, as such, can be thought as containing an infinite number of representations in itself”15 This consideration recall the view on absolute space presented before; space can be seen as an infinite collection of its representations that, on the other hand, cannot be called concept but a primordial intuition. We can finally summarize Kant’s perspective on the definition of space with two last conclusions: He believes that space is not something that we can learn from experience, but is something that presupposes the experience. This notion can define the feature of an absolute space that precedes our sensations and justify or, better, contextualize our experience and represent a transcendental ideality.

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Euclide , Elements. trasl. by Heath, Thomas L. (1956) , book I, def.IV 15 Immanuel Kant , 'Critique of Pure Reason' translated by N.K. Smith 1969, p.51




In the Transcendental Aesthetic, Kant tries to demonstrate that space is not a concept of relations among things in general, but rather a pure perception, through the claim that we cannot imagine anything but one universal space. Any theorization that presupposes the existence of many spaces is only a confusion of place with space. These discrete spaces will turn out to be spatially related and so parts of the universal space. In specific, space “is nothing but the form of all appearances of outer sense. It is the subjective condition of sensibility, under which alone outer intuition is possible for us” 16. With this consideration Kant brings into question the subject that perceive the space through his senses, saying that space is a condition, that is personal, and can be related to everyone’s form of receptivity. The subject’s sensibility, in other words, is a necessary condition of the spatial connotation in which we perceive the objects outside us. Every experience involves these sensations produced by the objects, and so we never have a direct access to the real nature of things but only to their spatial organization in our mind. These last conclusions represent a good connection to the second part of the book, in which I consider the theories that see the space as a personal result of our perceptions.


16 Immanuel Kant , 'Critique of Pure Reason' translated by N.K. Smith 1969, p.51

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MerleauPonty Once we arrived to include the subject and his perceptions in our reflection, we can now describe the process of perceiving the space through the body. In this way, is important to consider here the opinion of a philosopher that took this concept as one of his main interests for his entire career: Maurice Merleau-Ponty. At the core of his philosophy is a supported argument for the fundamental role perception plays in understanding the reality. More in general, his view is included in the historical and philosophical movement of Phenomenology, which can be defined as the study of “conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view�.17 In his major work Phenomenology of perception, Merleau-Ponty performs a phenomenological analysis of human perception. His purpose is to study the "precognitive" basis of human existence. In this work, he starts exactly from the definition of phenomenology, and refers his arguments to the Kantian point of view we discuss earlier. In particular the connection he use here is the concept of perception, treated more in specific by Kant in The Refutation of Idealism. In this text the author showed that the outer perception of things presupposes the inner perception. But

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Smith, David Woodruff, "Phenomenology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),



this inner perception can be possible only through our senses, contained in our body that is, subsequently, at the origin of any signification. As Merleau-Ponty says: “[…] our body is the very origin of any expression as it provides a place for significations.18 By inhabiting space, we create a personal interpretation of space, which is based on our capacity to perceive it and on our body. The experience of body is a source of expression of space, more in specific, is a medium for the perception of the space. Thus, Descartes’ cogito ("I think, therefore I am") does not account for how consciousness is influenced by the spatiality of a person’s own body. Bodily experience is a cryptic mode of existence, because the idea of the body cannot be separated from the experience of the body, and because mind and body cannot be separated as we saw in the Kantian distinction of subject and object. The mind and body each have their own essence, and the perceptions of the body effects what is perceived by the mind. In ‘Phenomenology of Perception’, Merleau-Ponty says that space is not the real or logical place in which we find the things, but the framework in which the position of thing is possible. This point of view is very similar to the Kantian one in which we found the concept of space as a transcendental condition of things. But even if prior to me, space existed only in relation to a perceiving subject. When I observe the front of a


18 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘Phenomenology of Perception’, Transl. by Colin Smith (1962), p.183

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car, I’m able to suppose its dimensions and the position of the side-doors even if I’m not able to observe them directly. By separating the car from its “horizon” (the street, the gardens etc), the car looks as if it emerges from a flat and bi-dimensional texture to become tri-dimensional. The car ‘materializes’ due to a special synthesis between what the eye is capable to see and what the eye is capable to suppose, geometrically, behind the front. If I turn around the car, the front, the side-doors, disappear progressively and the back of the car suddenly ‘appears’. But the car I see is always the car observed from one or another precise point of view. Like Kant, Merleau-Ponty has also managed to avoid the classical concept of depth (based on the geometrical relations between distance, width and apparent surface) to introduce the notion of a ‘changing point of view’, which allows a virtual body to evaluate a viewed and not a measured width. As we said earlier, according to Merleau-Ponty, space does not exist alone, but in relation to the subject and to the conscience’s phenomenal field. From this point of view, the body does not move because there’s an empty space. The body is inside the space just as the content inside the container. It creates a spatial framework with the perception of perceivable things. If I walk in an empty room without having a general perception of all the possible perspectives that I create passing through my path, I would not be capable to evaluate those perspectives as different aspects of the same reality. This synthesis can be possible only because of the presence of a subject within a situation in which he moves through the space. If I change the perspective, the object’s perception also changes. Is interesting to consider, now, some examples that the



author uses to justify his assertions. In the famous example of a woman with a big hat passing through a slightly low doorway, the woman includes her hat within the boundary lines of her movement. The hat becomes definitely a part of her inner bodily scheme. The subject reshapes his form to incorporate the external objects achieved as a proper part. This last consideration is even more relevant if we consider another example used in the book: the one of a blind man's stick. When a blind man learns the skill of perceiving the world through the stick, the stick has seized to exist for him as a stick, and has become part of his body. In this way, the body has acquired an ability to adapt and expand itself through external devices. In consideration to the technological development of nowadays, the conclusion just enounced is particularly valuable. Just thinking about all the different devices used in everyday life, as well as the biomechanical apparatuses or prosthesis used in medicine, can drive us on taking the dynamical improvements of technology more and more into the question of body perception. In this same view is the example of the act of typing on a keyboard, that is not “to know the place of each letter among the keys, nor even to have acquired a conditioned reflex for each one, which is set in motion by the letter as it comes before our eye.” 19 This is possible because of our habit, which is not a form of knowledge or an involuntary action. In this case in particular, the movements of the typewriter are governed by an “intention”, but is not the intention that place the keys as “objective locations. As he affirms on his conclusions on this example:

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Murice Merleau-Ponty op. cit. p.166

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“It is literally true that the subject who learns to type incorporates the key-bank space into his bodily space.”20 Through skill acquisition and tool use, we thus change our bodily space, and consequently our way of being in the world. Metaphorically, we could say that by learning new skills and using technology we change the world we live in, or at least the perception we have of it. More in specific, the external medium or mechanical apparatus (as in the example just considered) can drive us to a different subjective spatial configuration in our mind, that is to say, to a different perception of the reality around us. We will investigate more this aspect in consideration to the theories of other philosophers and thinkers in the last part of the book. Let’s, now, bring into the question the notion of interaction, a concept that will be at the center of this dissertation, together with the concept of space, for now on. Merleau-Ponty doesn’t directly talk about this concept but we can extrapolate some important reflections from his first considerations on perception and action. We can collocate the action at the origin of an interaction; in this way, an interaction presupposes an action. Let’s use for now this internal condition of the notion of interaction as valuable starting point for our discussion on the topic. A more exhaustive and complete definition of this concept will be offered in the last part of the essay. In Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology there is no perception without action; perception requires action. In their explanation of this aspect

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Murice Merleau-Ponty op. cit. p.167



of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, Varela et al. (1991) 21 refer to two relevant psychological experiments. The first one, considered here, is a research done by Bach y Rita (1972), one of the pioneers of the sensory substitution practice. In this experiment, a video camera was connected to a matrix of vibrating stimulation points placed on the skin of a blind user, in such a way, that the image kept by the camera was mapped directly onto that area of the skin. It was found that it was only when the users were allowed to move the camera with their body they were able to learn how to "see" with the device, and not in the case that the camera was fixed or moved by someone else. This experiment supports the view that perception requires action. It is only through this action that objects appear to us as immediately existing in the external world. In case of a subject seen in a space this action can be seen more in general as a physical interaction of the subject’s body with the surrounding space. Varela et al. next refer to a research by Held and Hein (1963), in which two different groups of cats were raised with a controlled exposition to light. The first group wasn’t able to move around while the second one was kept free. The two groups of cats were submitted to the same sense conditions and, when they were released after a couple of weeks, the group that was immobilized bumped into things as if they were blind. As Varela assert, this study “supports the enactive view that objects are not seen by the visual extraction of fea-


21 Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., and Rosch, E. ‘The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience’. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (1991)

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tures, but rather by the visual guidance of action.” 22 Self-actuated movement is necessary in order to develop the normal visual perception with depth. The importance of action, or spatial interaction in this case, is fundamental to acquire a visual perspective and orientation, and to obtain the subjective spatial framework described by Merleau-Ponty. An interesting reflection on the same experiment is also provided by Alessandro Colarossi, this time to sustain the limitation of perspectives for an artificial intelligence. He asserts that the perspectives of a perfect emulation of human consciousness by artificial intelligence are severely limited by two main reasons: “The first reason is that artificial intelligence, if we mean the intelligence of an advanced computer simulation, does not possess the faculties needed for constructive interaction” 23 In the experiment this constructive interaction is the feature that allow the cats to perceive the physical reality without being disoriented. And, as Colarossi notices, without the physical and embodied contact with the environment, the cat cannot develop proper responses to external stimuli. “The second reason why artificial intelligence will never achieve consciousness is that it cannot replicate perception; And it does not and will not have the capacity for replicating this without a body that encompasses inner subjective experience” 24

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Varela, op.cit. p.175 Alessandro Colarossi, Focusing On The Brain, Ignoring the Body , on Philosophy Now magazine Issue 97, July/August 2013 24 Alessandro Colarossi, op.cit. 23



As Merleau-Ponty also asserts perception is always embodied, and, in this case, computer coding and programming cannot emulate the actual human body as personification of perception. The two considerations on the nature of perception and action are important to see how the two concepts are interrelated and linked the one to the other. To Merleau-Ponty there is little difference between action and perception. Both of them represent fundamental phases of the subjective spatial configuration, but the action precedes and presupposes the perception. On the next paragraph we will see how, with a different connotations, these two concepts recur on other theories about space.

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Lefebvre The concept of Interaction is more relevant in the philosophy of the French sociologist Henry Lefebvre, which considered this notion as an important aspect of his theoretical framework used to describe the space. Lefebvre, as Merlau-Ponty, was active during the 20th century and his diverse contributions to socio-spatial and urban theory have inspired considerable commentary in recent years. His philosophical view is influenced by the Marxist theories of societal conflict and production; and in his prolific career he wrote many important essays on the topic of space. The main resource I consider here is his book ‘The Production of Space’. At the very beginning of this text Lefebvre offers a brief excursus on the epistemological theories and the scientific approach to space: “The scientific attitude, understood as the application of 'epistemological' thinking to acquired knowledge, is assumed to be 'structurally' linked to the spatial sphere. This connection, presumed to be self- evident from the point of view of scientific discourse, is never conceptualized”. 25 The epistemological thought, as we also saw at the beginning of this dissertation, discerns the status of space from the status of subject. This absolute conception of space is informal and objective and can be

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Henry Lefebvre : “The Production of Space” Donald Nicholson-Smith, 1991 p.4



seen as pure abstraction not related to personal perception. Theories of this kind, in Lefebvre’s perspective, can offer an explanation of what exist in space, or even generate a discourse about this topic, but they can t offer a concrete response of the knowledge of space. He sustains that the concept of space is strictly linked with the concepts of time and energy and if we consider these three concepts alone then we have an empty abstraction. In Lefebvre, space can be classified with three parts, which are physical, mental and social, these parts are collocated in opposition to each other, with the mental sphere on one side and the social and physical sphere on the other. The physical space is the one provided by nature, and is where we find the resources of the human productive activities. The mental space is a product of theoretical practice, and is the one investigated by philosophers and mathematicians. The social space is defined, then, as the site for reconciliation between the physical and the mental, concrete and abstract spheres. The analysis of the social aspect of space will be the central point of the book together with the notion of production that is clearly affected by the theories of Marx, Hegel and Nietzsche. The first consideration that Lefebvre makes is that “(Social) space is a (social) product.” 26 Production is seen as system of social relations, peculiar of different kind of societies. This assertion prefigures two different implications: “The first implication is that (physical) natural space is

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op.cit. p.26

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disappearing.” 27 Assumed as the origin and the prime resource of production, nature is affected by the process of production itself but is still the background of the picture. In particular, nature, taken in its initial condition of pure entity, is considered to be an empty space. This primal essence of natural and empty space is destroyed and converted into a social product by the factors of the productive system. “A second implication is that every society — and hence every mode of production with its sub variants (i.e. all those societies which exemplify the general concept - produces a space, its own space.” 28 This second implication is very relevant; in particular we can notice that physical spaces are built within a complex dialectic relationship with the societies that inhabit them. Space also needs to be understood in the context of the mode of production of a particular epoch. This consideration brigs him to consider, later in the book, some examples of urban development throughout history. From the Greek acropolis, seen as a unification of villages upon the hilltop, to the functional and productive space adopted by the Romans. The rise of the medieval town (founded on commerce) is seen as turning point where the Cathedrals “assert an inversion of space as compared with previous religious structures”.29 The subsequent Renaissance town, constitute a harmonious dualism with its territory and “an

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28 29

op.cit. p.30 op.cit. p.31 op.cit. p.256



organic mediation between earth and heaven”.30 The following shift in mode of production from the feudal system to the industrial revolution led to the “space of the dominant mode of production, and hence the space of capitalism, governed by the bourgeoisie”. 31 More in general, the notion of social space contain the social relations of reproduction 32, seen as relations between the sexes and between age groups, and relations of production, defined as the division of labour and its hierarchical organization as well as the relations between the elements of a certain society. These just cited relations of reproduction and production make the concept of space something impossible to analyse objectively, as an entire quantity. The scientific point of view is consequently refused due the space’s characteristic of being produced. In his view, Lefebvre takes in consideration a conceptual triad that represent a recurring theme in the book, and that he introduced to emphasize the human perception as an important aspect of the production of space. This conceptual triad is composed by three levels: The spatial practice, that refers to the production and reproduction of spatial relations between objects and products. In particular, in this circumstance, Lefebvre takes, also, in consideration the body of the members of society and affirm:

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op.cit. p.271 op.cit. p.360 32 In the essay Lefebvre offer a further distinction of reproduction due to the advent of capitalsm. He consider three different interrelated levels: biological reproduction (the family); (2) the reproduction of labor power (the working class per se); and (3) the reproduction of the social relations of production 31

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“Considered overall, social practice presupposes the use of the body: the use of the hands, members and sensory organs, and the gestures of work as of activity unrelated to work. This is the realm of the perceived (the practical basis of the perception of the outside world, to put it in psychology's terms)”. 33 The spatial practice, in other words, is aimed to perceive the spatial field through the sensory organs of the subject (espace perçu). The representation of space, which is the dominant space in every society and refers to the conceived space (espace conçu). Proper to this level is the scientific debate on space, the way architects, planners and other technicians think about space. The third level he underlines is the representational space, which is the lived space (espace vécu) of the inhabitants and users that aim to describe it subjectively, emphasizing their individual factors. “This is the dominated — and hence passively experienced — space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate. It overlays physical space, making symbolic use of its objects.” 34 In the system so composed we see a correspondence between these three moments of social space (spatial practice, representation of space and representational space) with the bodily triad of perceived–conceived– lived.

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Henry Lefebvre : “The Production of Space” Donald Nicholson-Smith, 1991 p.40 op.cit. p.39




The features that each one of these three levels have in a specific time condition, is an essential element on the definition of the spatial connotation of that society in that precise historical moment. Once explained the importance of these three levels of Lefebvre’ s approach on the concept of space, let’s now evaluate the importance of the notion of interaction in his theory. First of all, we can link the concept of interaction, with the field of spatial practice that represent, as we already said, the ambit of social production obtained through a “dialectical interaction” between the members of a society.

Table 1: Lefebvre triad’s relations

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Lefebvre also talks about interaction when he treats the argument of the body in relation with the concept of energy. If we consider the body in the Cartesian configuration, as a two-sided machine, with one side run by massive supply of energy (from alimentary and metabolic sources) and the other one run by minute energies (sense data), then the body is the subject of two way of interaction: one internal and one external. The internal one is represented by the interactions between the two parts of this bipartite structure. The external one is produced by the interaction of the body with other bodies in the space. But, according to Lefebvre, the body, as juxtaposition of subject and object, cannot tolerate such conceptual division, and can be liberated through a production of space. In Lefebvre’s theory, the body assumes the form of a triad: perceived–conceived–lived. The introduction of a third term into the equation already destabilizes any notions of Cartesian duality. The body so described, in its tripartite form, is the ambit of interconnection between these three aspects of its configuration. “That the lived, conceived and perceived realms should be interconnected, so that the 'subject', the individual member of a given social group, may move from one to another without confusion — so much is a logical necessity.” 35 The notion of interaction comes out when Lefebvre considers the relations between the body, the space and the language. If we speak of a room, or a park, or a square we all have in mind a first general connotation of these spaces, that correspond to a “specific use of that space and, hence to a spatial practice that they

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op.cit. p.40



express and constitute” 36. The words room, park and square are codes created by us to express these spatial conformations of a place. The aim of Lefebvre is to research the dialectical character of these codes more than their formal aspect. In particular, when we consider codes in their relation to the subject and to the space they describe, they “will be seen as part of a practical relationship, as part of an interaction between 'subjects' and their space and surroundings.” 37 In this way, if we have a word signifying a spatial configuration, that means that there was an interaction between a subject-inhabitant of the space and the space coded. The spatial code so generated is something very dynamic, in terms of its mental configuration in the subjects of a society. It is affected by the society itself and by the personal interpretations that each member has of it. This form of interaction is hard to imagine as we defined it, could seem more a proper perception that a subject has of the space, hence, in the first analysis, it doesn’t presuppose the presence of another subject to interact with. But if we consider the subject as member of a society, and the code generated as the result of a social production, this last consideration will vanish. In fact the notion of interaction is implicit in Lefebvre’s concept of social production, as the relations between the parts of a society, organized within a hierarchy and aimed to distinguish specific social functions in the process of production. In this case, the process of space production presupposes the social interaction between each member of a society and is affected by the composition of the society itself.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 36 37

op.cit. p.16 op.cit. p.18

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In conclusion, for Lefebvre space cannot be reduced merely to a location or to the mental field of perception, it represents a multiplicity of sociomaterial concerns. Space is a physical location of an action and the social possibility for engaging this action. It is simultaneously a means of production as land and the social product of the interactions of its inhabitants, seen as members of a specific productive system.



Summary In the first part of this dissertation, I started describing some theories that treated the space with different perspectives. First, the epistemological approach derived the absolute entity of space from the experience of things. Then, once the identity of the subject and the body presence was considered in the discussion, space became a product of the sensorial perception. Considering the subject as a part in the social system led the discussion to the social aspect of space, a field that recognized the interactions of the social members as the starting point for the space production. With the next two sections I want to drive the discussion on the definition of New Media and on their effects on the concept of space. In parallel I will consider the notion of interaction as a fundamental element of discussion about the topic of space, analyzing its aspects on the field of New Media and new technologies. The first part is mostly based on literature review and analysis; while with the second one I will apply the theoretical framework described to underline two main aspects of space coming from its relation with new media.

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Manovich and the Definition of New Media The popular term of New Media is not easy to define due to its dependency to technology and its dynamic change. A generally popular aspect of new media is its link with computer technology, which is used for the creation, distribution, consumption and storage of its data content. The rapid development of new systems of information, together with the new accessibility to this information derived by the Internet, changed our perspective to see the media. A complete and elaborate definition of new media is offered in Lev Manovich’ s book ‘The Language of New Media’. In this chapter I will illustrate the theoretical framework he used to treat the argument and some interesting considerations and causes of reflections that his view can offer to the concept of space. In the first part of the text Manovich points out that many principles of new media can already be found in cinema and employ film and photography theory as a means of analysing new media 38. The relations between new medias and older forms of media bring him to consider some important effects produced by new

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Lev Manovich, ‘The Language of New Media’, The MIT Press, 2001, p.10



medias. In particular he argues that the computerization of culture operated by the new forms of media “not only leads to the emergence of new cultural forms such as computer games or virtual worlds; it redefines existing ones such as photography and cinema� 39. In this way, the development of new media change the way of how we consider older forms of media, and for this and other reasons is allowed to talk about media revolution to describe the changes operated by current forms of media on society and human behaviour. We can find the origins of this revolution in some important key points that overturned the history of technology of the last centuries. The development of the first programmable computer and the transistor, after the Second World War, formed the basis of the technological improvements that will lead to the development of new media. As Lev Manovich sustains, a big turning point is represented by digitalization. The transformation of data into digital code and the programmability of these data sheets into electronic systems represent the core of nowadays information technologies. Machine-readable codes and information were already conceptualized by the mathematician Charles Babbage in the early 1800 but is with the first digital computers, developed between 1948 and 1949, that the data became a digital expression. Digital computers use binary code and Boolean logic to store and process information allowing one machine to perform many different tasks. Treating the argument of digitalization, Manovich focuses on the important aspect of the numerical representation of the data codes used in computers:

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op.cit, p.9

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“Numerical representation turns media into computer data thus making it programmable. And this indeed radically changes the nature of media.” 40 But digitalization not only represents a shift in the nature of media and technology, as Rückriem et al. sustain: “Digitalization is an irreversible process- a complex systemic change of economic-social, politicalinstitutional and cultural-mental-ideological dimension” 41 Thus digitalization (and numerical representation), as key-factors of the general shift in media’s composition, constitute a radical change in nowadays society and the term new media revolution acquires a fundamental relevance. But the new media revolution can be understood completely if we consider the impact on culture and society generated by the printing press in the fourteen century and photography in the nineteenth century. According to Manovich the new media revolution is more relevant and profound than the previous ones and a big part of its effects is still to come. The introduction of the printing press, as well as the introduction of photography, affected only one type of cultural communication (the distribution of media in the first case and the still image in the second one) but, dissimilarly: “[…] the computer media revolution affects all stages of communication, including acquisition, manipulating, storage and distribution; it also affects all types of

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op.cit, p.52 Rückriem, G., Ang-Stein, C. & Erdmann,J.W., 2010. ‘Understanding Media Revolution –How digitalization is to be considered’. p. 85




media - text, still images, moving images, sound, and spatial constructions.” 42 The introduction of computed programming, hypertext and Internet radically changed some aspects of our society, but we should not mix the new media with the technology developments that presuppose them. Is important to specify here that, as Rückreim et al. assert in ‘Understanding Media Revolution’, media “mediates processes but does not produce them.” 43, and that “the only processor is man himself” 44. Hence, neither technology, nor media can contribute to this radical change without the essential role of the man himself. We can find a similar concept in the already described phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, as the medium contained in the notion of body: “The body is our general medium for having a world.”45 In his view, is through the body that we can access the world, and such a condition presupposes a mediation operated by the body on the reality. The perceptions that we have of the world, and the related conceived image we create in our mind, is a consequence of this embodiment mediation. More recently, Mark B. N. Hansen updated this argument for the digital age, arguing that the new "embodied" status of perception corresponds directly to the digital revolution: a digitized image is not a fixed representation of reality, but is defined by its complete flexibility and accessibility. It is not just that the in-

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op.cit, p.19 op.cit p. 81 44 op.cit. p. 86 45 Murice Merleau-Ponty ‘Phenomenology of Perception’, Transl. by Colin Smith (1962), p.169 43

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teractivity of the medium turns viewers into users; the image itself has become the body's process of perceiving it. 46 The work of Crary, Virilio, Mitchell, and others, on the other hand, has directed attention to the power of manipulation inherent in new visualization technologies and the tendency of digital imaging to dissociate the viewer from an embodied, haptic sense of physical location and being-there. But these lasts theories need a more complete clarification on the notion of new media and the technological development behind it to be understood.

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Mark B. Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media, The MIT Press, 2004



General Tendencies of New Media In general, the definition of new media presupposes the notion of media, a concept that is a very popular argument of discussion in philosophy, communication theory, and sociology. Manovich points out five key differences between old and new media that should be considered as general tendencies more than absolute laws in the new media analysis:

1 - Numerical representation As already shown treating the argument of digitalization, the numerical representation constitutes a crucial aspect in the new media composition. In particular, new medias are composed of digital code and this has two key consequences: firstly, a new media object can be described formally, using a mathematical function and, secondly, is programmable. Here, Manovich introduces an interesting example about the structure of new media (seen in its two aspects of sampling and quantification), arguing that new media derive the discrete levels in their composition from the industrial revolution system of production:

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“Not surprisingly, modern media follows the logic of the factory, not only in terms of division of labour as witnessed in Hollywood film studios, animation studios or television production, but also on the level of material organization. […] (they) also followed the factory logic in that once a new “model” (a film, a photograph, an audio recording) was introduced, numerous identical media copies would be produced from this master. ” 47 This consideration represent a solid link with the view of Lefebvre; both of the authors consider the capitalistic connotation of the productive process (seen as organization of labour) as an effective aspect of their theories. In Lefebvre, as already seen in the previous part, that system affected the relations between the members of the society and the consequent production of space. In Manovich it reflect the organization of the new media structure and language.

2 – Modularity Defined as fractal structure of new media, this property allow media elements to have the same structure in different scales: “Media elements, be it images, sounds, shapes, or behaviors, are represented as collections of discrete samples (pixels, polygons, voxels, characters, scripts). These elements are assembled into larger-scale objects but they continue to maintain their separate identity. The objects themselves can be combined into even larger

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Lev Manovich, ‘The Language of New Media’, The MIT Press, 2001, pp.29-30



objects - again, without losing their independence”.48 An example of this particular aspect is the structure of an HTML document: with a configuration of separate objects (GiFs, JPGs, media clips) and an exemption of text, the user can create a media object that can be subsequently stored on a network (a group of media objects). The modular structure of new media is also analogue to the structure of computer programming in the fact that every single part of a media object (or a computer program) can be accessed and modified without affecting the overall structure of the object.

3 – Automation The numerical and modular features of new media objects “allow the automation of many operation involved in media creation, manipulation, and access”. 49 An example of this property is the automatic photo adjustment to remove noise or contrast in software like Photoshop. Manovich distinguish here two levels of media automation: a low level and a high level. All the recent researches on artificial intelligence (AI), as well as the many different approaches used by game designers to emulate human intelligence and behaviours in the game industry, can be seen as proper examples of a high level of media automation. Manovich points out that, since there are so many different kinds of data stored, by the end of the twentieth century the problems was no longer the creation of a new media object, but its organization and storage. “Thus the automation

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op.cit. p.30 op.cit. p.32

53 !

of media access became the next logical stage of the process”50.

4 – Variability Another consequence of the two first principles is the new media’ s variability, defined as the property of assuming many different configurations. Compared to the hold media product, that presupposed a human creator that manually collect the different elements in a certain composition or sequence, the new media object normally consists in many versions, often automatically assembled by a computer. Once again we can find an analogy with the logic of industrial production, this time in its post-industrial connotation: “The logic of new media thus corresponds to the postindustrial logic of "production on demand" and "just in time" delivery which themselves were made possible by the use of computers and computer networks in all stages of manufacturing and distribution”.51 The logic of old media can be associated with the industrial mass society, where everyone was supposed to enjoy the same goods; while in post-industrial society, every citizen can have his own customized lifestyle. Thus the principle of variability exemplifies how changes in media technology are correlated to a more general social change. To use an example, when a user accesses a web site, the server immediately assembles a customized web

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op.cit. p.35 op.cit. p.36



page created in response to the user’s input. Manovich propose seven cases of the variability principle: (a) the media database, (b) the separation between data and interface in a way that different interfaces can be used to access the same data, (c) automatic customization according to the user’s information, (d) menu based interactivity 52, (e) hypermedia 53, (f) periodic updates and (g) scalability.

5 – Transcoding In Manovich’s view, cultural transcoding represents the most effective consequence of the computerization of media. In one way the computer data still have the same structural organization as the human world (text files consist in sentences, virtual spaces are defined with the same Cartesian coordinates, and so on) from another way it s also follows the established conventions of the computer organization data (lists, records, arrays). Due to new media’s strong link with the computer logic (in creation, distribution and language) and its emulation of human culture features in its structure, Manovich is driven to assert that the computer layer affect the cultural layer. In conclusion he affirm that: “In summary, the computer layer and media-culture layer influence each other. To use another concept from


52 Also called branching-type interactivity. The term refers to programs in which all the possible objects, which the user can visit, form a branching tree structure. (see op.cit. p.38) 53 In hypermedia, the multimedia elements making a document are connected through hyperlinks. Thus the elements and the structure are independent of each other -rather than hardwired together, as in traditional media. E.g. world wide web (see op.cit. p.38)

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new media, we can say that they are being composited together. The result of this composite is the new computer culture: a blend of human and computer meanings, of traditional ways human culture modelled the world and computer’s own means of represent it.�54 The computer culture is then the consequence of this mixture between the computerization and the media culture. In one way the new media can be seen as the digitalization of the old media, and many aspects of new media can be understood with the comparison with old forms of media. But this approach can't address the most fundamental new quality of new media, which has no historical precedent — programmability.

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op.cit. p.47



What New Media is not After describing the main features of new media, Manovich wants to take the distance from other aspects that are normally linked to the notion of new media but that can be also found in older media technologies. In particular he consider two important features: digitalization and interactivity. His perspective on the second one of these two topics will be a useful connection with the last part of the work.

Digitalization As Castells observes in ‘The Rise of the Network Society’, digitalization is one of the defining characteristics of the contemporary era, where new media and technology assume a fundamental role in the society’s connotation. In this way, the change in media can be seen as a consequence of the digitalization, which is a essential feature of nowadays culture. But new media is often confused with digitalized media. Following this current, Verhulst defined new media as “old media that have been transformed through their reconfiguration into devices capable of managing digital signals”.55


55 Verhulst, S., About Scarcities and Intermediaries: the Regulatory Paradigm Shift of Digital Content Reviewed. In L. A. Lie-

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But, even if digitalization is an essential quality of new media, according to Manovich, we should not assume that every digitalized media represent a new media. If we consider that every digital representation consist of a limited number of samples, then we can find this aspect in cinema as well. From its origin cinema was based in sampling of time in the form of still frames. But cinema is not the only example, one of the earliest and widely used digitization system is Morse code used in telegraph, developed already in the first half of nineteen century. More recently, the rise of digital media “has entailed a reconsideration of what a medium is, because the digital computer can reproduce or simulate all other known media�. 56 Due to their digital nature, all digital media share the same digital code, this common aspect allow different type of media to be visualized in a single device. But, again, this feature is not peculiar exclusively of new media. We can find a combination of different kinds of media in cinema: a movie composition can be obtained through the combination of still images, text, sound and moving images. A common belief related to digitalization is that the digital copy of analogue representation inevitably involves loss of information. From a logical point of view this assertion is correct: a digital copy cannot contain more information than the analogue object from which it has been copied. Even if we consider the most accurate scanner, it will never obtain a digital representation that is more precise than the physical object copied. But the more important question is, as Manovich

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! vrouw & S. Livingstone (Eds.), The Handbook of New Media, London, 2002, pp. 432–447. 56 Jensen, K. B. Definitive and Sensitizing Conceptualizations of Mediatization.Communication Theory, 2013 p.212



points out, how much information in an image can be useful to the viewer.57

Interactivity In the path I decide to follow, the concept of interactivity is a fundamental aspect that affects the space connotation. As we saw in Lefebvre, the interaction between the members of a society presupposes the production of space. Interactivity is a condition that is strictly connected to the new media culture but, like digitalization, is a process that can be already found in previous forms of media and is the prerogative of the general act of communication. Talking about interactivity, Manovich, points out that this concept is implicit in the notion of computer based media and modern human computer interaction (HCI) is by definition interactive. In this way, to call a computer media interactive is meaningless; it’s just underlying a basic property of computers. More difficult is to talk about the user experience that the computer media presuppose. In treating the argument, Manovich refers to some examples in the art field. More in general, he sustains that all art is interactive, in a way that the user is asked to fill the missing information contained in the art piece. In theatre and painting, for example the viewer’s attention is driven to some different parts of the composition where he has to interpret and reconstruct in his personal way the message shown. But,


57 Lev Manovich, ‘The Language of New Media’, The MIT Press, 2001, p.53

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even if the viewer plays an active role in this process, talking about interactivity seems, for several reasons, inappropriate. Interactivity always presupposes dialectic communication between one or more subjects or, in the ambit of new media, one subject and an artefact or even between one or more artefacts. The process of conceiving and elaborating that a spectator is asked to do while receiving an artistic input contained in an art piece is not something comparable to a communication process. Hence, it represents more the bodily act of perception and interpretation described by MerleauPonty in the previous part. The process of HCI, as well as the social interaction in ambit of new media, is a topic that needs a more detailed definition of the concept of interaction. With the next paragraph I will try to delineate some peculiar aspects of interactivity together with the social implications that it presupposes in the new media culture.



Rethinking Interactivity To understand how new media and the related computer technology affected our idea of space, is essential to understand first how they changed the way we interact and the way we perceive the space. Human computer interaction as well as the interactive environments offered by the Internet and the social media are some common examples of new ways of interact in the new media society. In general, as already defined in the previous part, interaction refers back to the concept of action and, in social sciences, action is presupposed to depend on an active human subject intentionally acting upon an object or another subject. Following Kant’s definition, human action is characterised by its moral autonomy from external forces and laws. Humans have the capacity to give themselves the rules of action that may become the general principles for other humans too. Due to their incapacity to have intentions, objects have been always excluded from the concept of interaction so defined. Another way to define interaction refers to the idea of effect, as it is concerned in natural sciences. Both of the two definitions presuppose the idea of agents, in the first one, considered as human factors, in the second one considered as biological or chemical entities. As Seifert points out considering the coevolution of humans and machines, with the advent of computer

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technology and social robotics the situation has considerably changed. 58 Now machines are attributed an active role in their relation with humans, becoming subjects of action and agents. It is now allowed to talk about humans interacting with computers. But, in some cases, is also allowed to talk about computers interacting with other computers. Thus, in nowadays society, the interactivity assumes a multiplicity of forms: humans interact with humans, they interact with machines, machines interact with other machines and humans interact with humans via machines. As noticed by Seifert, “The use of ‘interactivity’ suggests that the difference between human and machines evaporate. This is the main paradox associated with ‘interactivity” 59 . In this way, considering humanmachine combines as integrated system is essential to analyse the ambit of human-computer interaction (HCI). To fully understand this extended notion of interaction, is fundamental a further clarification on the notion of ‘agent’. As Rammert asserts, agents are particular computer programs, “They are written with the intention that software agents can execute actions like human agents. […] They coordinate the cooperation themselves and communicate the result of their activities to the human user.”60

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Seifert U. The coevolution of humans and machines – a paradox of interactivity inside Paradoxes of Interactivity, Seifert U., Jin Hyun Kim, Antony Moore (eds.) (Transcript), Bielefeld 2008 p.10 59 op.cit. p.10 60 Rammert W., Where the action is – distributed agency between humans, machines and programs inside Paradoxes of Interactivity, Seifert U., Jin Hyun Kim, Antony Moore (eds.) (Transcript), Bielefeld 2008 p.69



In a sociological sense agents are persons who act in the name of another person by the authority from him. Agent-oriented programming systems are more and more used to drive complex media structures, thus the sociological aspect is becoming a feature proper of computers other than social systems. In considering the level of agency of a determinate apparatus Rammert distinguish five different levels of agency each corresponding to a certain performance of the technical elements involved. The diagram below show this scale associated with some examples of these systems from different technological domains.





Instruments completely moved from outside

Hammer; Punching cards


Apparatus with one aspect of self-acting

Machine tool; Record player


Systems with feedback loops

Adaptive heating system


Systems with selfactivating programs

Car stabilisation; Help agent


Distributed and selfcoordinating systems

Mobile robots

Table 2: Level of agency for technical objects (Rammert 2008)

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As the author asserts, from the first three levels of agency described in the diagram we cannot gain any new insights: for a system it is completely sufficient to use the mechanical vocabulary of operation and determined movements to manage these sort of inquiries.61 Differently, “When the parts of a technical system, however, can behave not only in the prefixed way, but more flexibly, when the interaction with other parts or the interaction with the environment changes the behaviour and even more to change their pre-given frame of action, then only then make sense to use the vocabulary of agency and interaction in the world of objects.�62 This conclusion leads us to include the interaction between machines in our discourse about interactivity. An additional distinction in terms of inter-agency should be considered here, a clarification that brings Rammert to define three different definitions: Interaction: defined as the interpersonal relation between human actors, also called inter-subjectivity. Due to its connection with communication and the social sciences, this notion excludes technical objects, seen as neutral elements from the outside society. Intra-activity: confined to the relations between objects, it constitutes the material of inter-objectivity as defined by Latour and Rammert 63. This is the case of high levels of agency between the units of an apparatus, or of distributed or multi-agent systems like

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op.cit. p.67 op.cit. pp.69-70 63 Latour, B., On interobjectivity - Mind, Culture and Activity 3 pp.228-245 , 1996 ; op.cit. p.71 62



open networks with case based learning. Interactivity: this is the term reserved for the crossrelations between people and objects. It comprehends the semantic field of interfaces, HCI and sociotechnical systems. This distinction defines a more complete definition of interaction, which considers the level of agency of the interagents and the modality of the relation between them. Therefore, It should not be seen as a hierarchy with the interaction between human subjects as the vertex. As the author specify, the level of human agency is not necessarily always higher than the agency of machines and programs. Sometimes humans act without intentions in their interactions, following the routine. For example, a woman in a call centre follows already planned schemes when she explains the offers available. But humans can switch from subconscious or a routine to the next higher level of agency when a problem arises or something is different from what expected. When machines are in action they can hide a higher level of agency than the one we associate to them. The answering machine of a call centre can drive you to the solution of your problems while analysing your user profile and check the details of your payments. In general machines are programmed to reach a certain level of agency while human actors can switch from low levels to high levels of agency. But in this connotation the distinction in term of actions between human agents and machine seems to vanish. In this way, an additional distinction on the level of agency can be formulated according to the

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three levels of action defined by Giddens64 and cited by Rammert in the essay. These three levels correspond to causality, contingency and intentionality. Causality refers to an efficient behaviour that produces a certain effect and the subjects in question can be either humans or machines. Contingency means the capacity to choose between options acting in different ways. When the circumstances of the action change then the action has to be adjusted consequently. When technology reaches this level of agency, then the instrumentality is replaced by the relations of interactivity. Intentionality refers to the level of the reflexive and meaningful action normally ascribed to human actors only. This tripartite scheme illustrates well the connotation of the action considered in the interactions between humans, intra-activity between machines and interactivity between humans and machines. From a definition that included only human actors we lead to another one that consider the intra-activities between machines almost on the same level (in terms of agency) of the interactions between humans. Without going further into the details, we can already see how bringing new media and computer technology into the discourse about interaction radically change the parameters in question.

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In his book The constitution of Society: outline of the theory of structuration Giddens distinguish three levels of action: a first one where is produced a difference of state, a second one where a difference of options is possible and a third one where actors can give an explanation for their action if asked.



Summary In defining the connotation of space in this dissertation, we found, at first, two main directions: one concerned the absolute connotation of space, and refers to the view of the classic philosophers; the other one is related to the inhabitant of the space, and refers to his personal and social affinity. In the case of MerleauPonty space exist in relation to the subject’s perceptions and to his conscience’s phenomenal field. Lefebvre, on the other way, points out the social connotation of space, that is defined as the result of the social relations of its inhabitants, seen as members of the productive system proper to the society they appertain. Thus, in the first case, the fundamental role in the space’s definition is represented by the senses of a subject, conceived as proper of a body. While, in the second case, this role is held by the interactions between the members of a society. In the next part I will consider three examples of spaces generated by new medias and its sub categories, giving a critical description considering what has been already pointed out in the precedent sections and taking into account the two theorizations of Lefebvre and Mrleau-Ponty.

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Space in Social Networks The radical change in terms of interactions just described affected, consequently, the connotation of space in many ways. In this paragraph I will consider the case of social networks and I will illustrate how Lefebvre’s triad of social space can be extended also to this kind of cybernetic spaces. As pointed out by Wiley et al., “the increasing complexity of social relations, mobility and mediated connectivity in late modernity requires a new approach to the study of social space.” 65 The extent and complexity of the interactions that can be established between a community of users in a network, as well as the dynamicity of the technological improvements proper of new media make the configuration of social space as something not easy to describe. The reflections contained in this paragraph aspire to analyze the ambit of telecommunication leaving aside the spatiality related to physical and visual representations. The interactivity offered by computers and the telematic communication provided by the WWW generates social and virtual spaces where the synchronous

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Packer J. , Crofts Wiley S. B. (Editors) ‘Communication Matters: Materialist Approaches to Media, Mobility and Networks’ Routledge, 2011 p.185



communication between spatially separated persons is possible. The social space in virtual communities, the chat rooms of social networks, the real time video communication systems represent some examples of this kind. Before talking about their spatial connotation we should present some important considerations proper of the communication technique introduced by new media. A fundamental aspect of the network communication and the computer language is that, with computers, script becomes the medium of synchronicity 66. Normally, as Kr채mer asserts, text disrupts communication: the process of writing and reading disengage the fluidity of a conversation because the participants are not simultaneously involved in the communication. With telematic communication the process acquires synchronicity and we can obtain a condition where a real time communication between people in different locations is fluent and continuous. In one way, this process of interacting through script communication assumes functions that are proper of the face-to-face conversation but, on the other way, prefigure the possibility of anonymisation and depersonification to the user. In the of-line world we already have a chosen name when we are born that will became an attribute of our personality, while on a social network, we are able to choose the name that we want, associated to a description of ourselves that is arbitrary made by us. Considering this condition of the web user, Kr채mer makes a distinction between the person, which is associated to the off-line world and the persona that is the personification in the on-line world. As in theatre, the persona has the features of the character the actor is playing but with some differ-

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op.cit. p.35, see also Bolter 1997; Sandbothe 1997

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ences: “An actor is indeed responsible for good or bad acting, however, not for whether he plays the part of good or bad character. But even so, a real participant in on-line communication stays in connection with his artificial identity in such a way that his responsibility for what he does in communicating, even in the web, is not suspended in principle.” 67 In this way there’s a strong connection to the on-line world and the off-line world: the cases of users recriminated for their on-line behaviour is a clear example of this condition. Therefore, in web communication the acting part of the dialectic discourse between two figures is missing to favourite a mere argumentative rationality without any sorts of personal expressivity. Talking about interaction rituals in web communication, Collins noticed that “they lack most of the ingredients that make human interaction rituals successful: bodily presence is important because so many of the channels of micro-coordination happen bodily, in the quick interplay of voice rhythms and tones, emotional expressions, gestures, and more intense moments, bodily touch.” 68 The emotional content in web messaging is limited to the mere text content, leaving aside all the other sensorial elements included in face to face conversation. An example in this way can be the so-called emoticons: standardized emotional icons created with the intent of represent stereotypical humans expressions. The interpretation of a text message is also different

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op.cit. p.37 Collins R., ‘Interaction rituals and the new electronic media’ The sociological eye (web archive)




and lead to a wider group of possibilities than the interpretation of a face-to-face conversation, hence, the possibility of misunderstanding are higher and more frequent. Taking into the account the spaces created through a communication process so described we can now make some considerations. Apart from the spatial dimension proper of their content, these spaces come into existence exclusively to satisfy a precise purpose that is the intent of communicating with one or more users. Hence, they are mainly functional and rational spaces with a very basic visual connotation, normally limited to a blank space that can be filled up with media objects and a side reserved to the personal profile and chat (e.g. Facebook). Secondly, they don’t have a physical connotation and they don’t lead to generate any physicality. As Krämer asserts, these spaces represent a virtualization of social spaces through computer-mediated communication 69 . Thus, their main spatiality is included in the communication content derived from the interactions between one or more users. In this regard these spaces have a similar connotation to the social space described by Lefebvre, but there are several aspects that should be considered. S. Gotved offers an interesting reflection, in this way, extending the Lefebvre’s triad for social space to the ambit of new media’s social reality. Starting from the triangle of social reality developed by Boudreau and


69 Krämer S. ‘Does the body disappear? – a comment on computer generated spaces’ inside ‘Paradoxes of Interactivity’, Seifert U., Jin Hyun Kim, Antony Moore (eds.) (Transcript), Bielefeld 2008 p.35

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Newman 70, the author translated the three levels of social space into: re-construction, visibility and practice. Re-construction correspond to Lefebvre’s representation of space and is related to all kinds of virtual elements that are used with the intention of recreate a mental image of physical reality or well known social places. In particular, in on-line communication it refers to metaphors, objects, keywords, movements, and images that attempt to create a sensed spatiality through discourse on space71. Re-construction aims to achieve the feeling of three dimensions behind the screen, giving the idea of moving trough an extended space to the user.

Spatial Practice

Representation of Space

Representational Space




Table 3: Space’s dimensions from Lefebvre’s theory to Gotved’s interpreta- tion (Gotved 2006)

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Boudreau, F.A. and W.M. Newman ‘Understanding Social Life’. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company. 1993 71 Gotved S. ‘Time and space in cyber social reality New Media & Society’ 2006 SAGE p.479



Visibility refers to Lefebvre’s spatial practice and is associated with the notion of interface and the community’s shared space on the screen. Visibility can be the videogame world’s geography, the threads of the newsgroup, or the frame around the chat 72. It is defined mainly by the software and to a lower degree by the hardware and represents the ontological part of the on-line communication. Practice corresponds to representational space in Lefebvre and refers to the epistemological interpretations related to the interactions between the users. It is the central part of on-line communities because it comprehends friendships and interpersonal relations that represent the core of the user’s continued interest. In the triad so defined, the imaginations and representations of online space are the basis of the communication processes of making sense of the non-physical reality. These mental processes of space’s reconstruction and social interpretation are included in the interface, where the actual representation of a given space is visible, and where the structural limitations inherent in the ontology of the interface are perceived 73. The three dimensions form the peculiar on-line spatiality proper of the persona involved in the telematic communication. In one hand this triad connects the person to other kinds of spatial experience, in the other, it dissociates him as something extraneous from the spatial reality of the of-line world that he inhabit.

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op.cit. p.479 op.cit. p.481

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While in the theory of Lefebvre the production of space was an act of interactions between physical persons in the ambit of a certain society, in the case of social networks this way of production is the result of a combination of interactivities, intra-activities and interactions. As demonstrate in this chapter Lefebvre’s triad of social space can be applied to the realm of cyber social reality but we should specify that the research conducted here is not aimed to perceive a new definition of social space. The materialist approach on which Lefebvre based his theory focus on the social relations of production, the means by which human begins transform nature and reproduce their survival as a species, which they do collectively and in particular spatial arrangements 74 . His theorization aims to research the social relations that produced a determinate physical space. In our case, the spaces in analysis are pure subjective representations and interpretations of these particular physical spaces produced by the of-line society. Hence, the physical space of the off-line world is essential to understand and constitute the on-line spatiality. We cannot produce the virtual spatiality without having the initial intent of communicate by a subject on the physical world and without having a clear representation of this physical world in our mind.

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Packer J. , Crofts Wiley S. B. (Editors) Communication Matters: Materialist Approaches to Media, Mobility and Networks Routledge, 2011 p.184



This mental representation corresponds to a conceptualization of lived experience of space that we develop after inhabiting the of-line world. In describing this subjective aspect of social space Wiley at al. consider three essential elements: sense of place, sense of territory, and sense of space. Sense of place comprehend all the characteristics that a subject associate with a place, in this sense this component is fundamentally relational so that my experience of this place is defined in relation to other places, whose positive or negative differences make this place distinctive and meaningfull.75 Sense of territory is defined as the container of past, current and future activities in which a subject locates his own places and/or the places of others. Sense of space refers to the meanings, affects and expectations on which a subject relays to understand all the places that he knows. Mobile telecommunications as well as mediated connectivity networks offered by the WWW are systems that bring on the same social community individuals that appertain to different cultures and with different social relations. As Wiley at al. pointed out: each person practices and experiences space differently and, most significantly, may be articulated to different conceived spaces. For example the subjective interpretation of a space described in a telematics conversation assumes different connotations to a user situated in

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op.cit. p.190

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China than another one in Europe. But in the network society they represent the same role as users. Hence, the subjective aspect of social space in the ambit of new media is a necessary key point to consider in the analysis just described. A further research on this theoretical definition will be an interesting aspect to consider in future analyses.



Space in Virtual Reality After considering an example of social space in the ambit of new media, represented by social networks and telecommunication systems, I will pass to analyse the ambit of virtual reality and it’s spatial connotation. While in the first case I linked the discussion to the thought of Lefebvre, considering the social aspect as the main feature of that space; in this paragraph I will associate the realm of virtual reality to the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, seeing the perception field as the most effective in the connotation of this other space. As we saw earlier, both of the two spaces in analysis derive from a profound change in the notion of interaction and refers to the digitalization and computerization relative to the diffusion of new media. Considering the triad enounced earlier (interaction/intra-activity/interactivity), while in social space the aspect of interaction was more effective, in case of virtual reality the two other notions of interactivity and intra-activity are more relevant. Virtual reality can be seen as the last stage of a technological process that is leading to nullifying the barriers of the screen, in this way, is interesting to illus-

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trate Manovich’s considerations on screen’s genealogy and, in particular, his perspective on the role that space have in its definition. As he asserts: the visual culture of the modern period is characterized by “the existence of another virtual space, another three dimensional world enclosed by a frame and situated inside our normal space. The frame separates two different spaces that somehow coexist” 76. One is the space of our body; the other one is defined as the space of representation, which normally has a different scale but similar connotations. In describing this aspect of representational media he considers, once again, the parallel with similar forms during history, such as paintings and photography (called classical screens), the movie screen (called dynamic screen) and the modern computer display. All of them are systems of representation and emulation of the physical space. Some specific considerations have to be done regarding the aspect of illusion in the ambit of the cinema screen. While the classical screen is seen as a part of the real space, the movie screen presupposes the viewer’s identification in the representation of space. The set up of a cinema hall is thought exactly to perceive this illusion. “In cinema viewing, the viewer is asked to merge completely with the screen’s space. In television viewing (as it was practiced in the twentieth century), the screen is smaller, lights are on, conversation between viewers is allowed, and the act of viewing is often integrated with

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op.cit. p.95



other daily activities” 77. In cinema, the viewer is able to take a journey in different spaces without leaving his seat and the spectator is asked to identify with the camera eye. Hence the spatial impression is relative to the immobility of the spectator: if the viewer constantly moves this illusion would vanish. Even if the aim is to identify with the screen’s space, there are few technical elements that still vanish this illusion. One of them is the distance of field that the viewer perceives looking at the cinema screen, another one is the spatial limit and the difference in scale that the rectangular projection surface has. In early flight simulators, predecessors of modern VR systems, screens displayed visuals placed around the participant, showing what might be seen out the windows of an airplane cockpit. This set up was enough realistic for vehicle’s simulators and any other “out of the window” situations but was not enough realistic to render the impression of being in a virtual environment (VE). The primary modes of embodied expressions in VE are representations of the virtual world computed with camera lenses situated in the approximate locations of each eye. Most of these systems consist in a head mounted display (HMD) with a tracking unit attached on the top; the resulting data is used to determine the


77 Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, The MIT Press, 2001, p.96

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direction of the user’s view so the system can compute the correct visual scene to visualize. A recent example of this kind is the Oculus Rift, a HMD created with the intention of being suitable both for game developers and consumers. Other then the resolution of the screen, a very effecting characteristic of HMD is the field of view, defined as the amount of the forward facing world we can see with our head held still 78. In real life it subtends an angle between 160 and 208 degrees, with 140° for each eye and an overlap between 60 and 120 degrees79. The field of view of HMD, such as the Oculus Rift, is around 90 degrees but is still enough to give a realistic emulation of the human one. In particular, the aspect of peripheral vision included in this device, is extremely important to our kinaesthetic understanding of our position in space, hence it affects the quality of virtual immersion provided by the HMD. Differently from games on computers, where the movements and the interactions are expressed through pressing buttons or moving the mouse, in VR the intent is to recreate the mental model we have of the self that inhabits the physical world, but in a virtual form within virtual space. In this sense the navigation offered correspond to physical movements of the head and the resulting interactivity is more realistic.

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Morie J.F., ‘Ontological implications of Being in immersive virtual environments’, Published in SPIE Proceedings Vol. 6804 , 2008 79 R. S. Kalawsky, ‘The Science of Virtual Reality and Virtual Environments: A Technical, Scientific and Engineering Reference on Virtual Environments’, Addison-Wesley, Wokingham, England, UK, 1993: p.50



Considering again the screen genealogy Manovich assert that with VR: “[...] we can say that the two spaces – the real, physical space and the virtual, simulated space – coincide. The virtual space, previously confined to a painting or a movie screen, now completely encompasses the real space. Frontality, rectangular surface, difference in scale are gone. The screen has vanished” 80.

But even if the head movements are tracked and transfigured in the VE, and the impression of the screen disappear, the representation of the body in the virtual space is still missing or in some cases is visualized in crude representations called avatars. These virtualizations are normally not realistic in the sense that they don’t respond to physical movements of our body, hence the impression of a static body is quite disconcerting with the VE offered. In fact, as Turner at al. has pointed out, a common feature that all the virtual reality environments have is that: virtual environments continue to be spaces where bodies are excluded 81. The risk of this kind of VE, so connoted, is to be essentially spectacular rather then liveable or inhabitable.

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op.cit. p.97 Turner, S., Turner, P., Carroll. F., O'Neill, S., Benyon, D., McCall, R., & Smyth, M. ‘Re-creating the Botanics: towards a sense of place in virtual environments’. The 3rd UK Environmental Psychology Conference, June 2003, Aberdeen, UK. 81

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As Floridi points out, the key to the production of presence in a remote virtual environment is the possibility of agency and being observable there 82. The concept of presence is a very discussed argument between scientist, philosophers and researchers on VR, there are many discordant opinions and it is hard to privilege one view instead of another. Witmer and Singer assert that: “Presence is defined as the subjective experience of being in one place or environment, even when one is physically situated in another” 83. The concept of presence so defined is based around the idea that a person is ‘displaced’ from one place to another, i.e. from a real world to a virtual world. An interesting interpretation is also given by Slater, which notice that: “One can be present but not involved. One can be involved but not present.” 84 A good example on this way can be the reality of a TV show where someone can be present but not involved, contrarily the viewer watching the TV show at home is involved and not present in it. From another angle presence, as defined by scholar Kwan Ming Lee, is “the psychological state in which

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Floridi, L. ‘The Philosophy of Presence: From Epistemic Failure to Successful Observability’. Presence: Special Issue on Legal, Ethical and Policy Issues associated with Wearable Computers, Virtual Environments and Computer Mediated Reality. MIT Press, 2004 83 Witmer, B.G. & Singer, M.J., ‘Masuring presence in virtual environments: A presence questionnaire’. Presence, 7(3), 1998 p. 225. 84 Slater, M. (2003). A Note on Presence Terminology, Presence Connect, 3/melslaterJan27200391557/melslaterJan27200391557.html.



the virtuality of experience is unnoticed.” same way Lombard and Ditton propose that:


On the

“Presence is defined as the perceptual illusion of nonmediation[...] an illusion of non-mediation occurs when a person fails to perceive or acknowledge the existence of a medium in his/her communication environment and responds as he/she would if the medium were not there.” 86 These two last asserts take in consideration the important role of the medium as the provider of the condition of presence. If this medium is not perceived or noticed then you have the impression of being present in a certain place. Hence, In the case of VR, presence is given by the transparency of the virtual reality system that produces the VE. If this happen then we experience only the VE. Differently, if this condition is not realized we can assert that the experience obtained is closer to what Manovich define as simulation: “The alternative tradition of which VR is part can be found whenever the scale of representation is the same as the scale of human world so that the two spaces are continuous. This is the tradition of simulation rather than that of representation bound to a screen. The simulation tradition aims to blend virtual and physical


85 K. M. Lee, ‘Presence, explicated’. Communication Theory, 14: 27-50, 2004 86 Lombard, M. & Ditton, T. (1997). ‘At the Heart of It All: The Concept of Presence’. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication

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spaces rather than to separate them.” 87 With the development of technologically advanced devices that include body-tracking systems, such as Virtuix Omni, the body is translated into the virtual reality experienced. Virtuix Omni is a virtual reality ring designed to be used in combination with a head mounted display, such as the Oculus Rift. The omnidirectional treadmill, which features 40 capacitive sensors in its base, tracks your every step and moves your character inside a game in the same way. The body being tracked, together with the use of 3D visuals, calls several body systems into play, which respond similarly to how they would moving in the space of the normal world. In this way, the user’s body acquires a virtual and interactive connotation and gain its role in the virtual scenario. Even if we may not have all the sensory cues in VR yet that real life affords, this embodiment enhances the perception of the ones that are available, making them all the more compelling. In describing the sensorial perception and the illusion of presence proper of VR, J.F. Morie introduces the concept of sensorial redundancy. The illusion of being in motion, or simply being in another space, is related to the perceptions received from the receptors that provide the brain with a certain information. This information is supplemented and reinforced by other sensory systems that act as redun-

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Lev Manovich, ‘The Language of New Media’, The MIT Press, 2001, p.112



dant factors to make us believe in the illusion we experience.88 In a VE this mechanism works in the same way: when the tracking captured by the motion sensors is combined with the visual and auditory cues provided by the HMD, then the amount of data coming form different sensorial receptors is powerful enough to convince us we are present in another space. Our senses, together with our bodily perceptions are embedded in the VE and the role of the body become essential to achieve this spatial condition.

fig.1 A 90 years old lady trying the Oculus Rift


88 E. I. Knudsen, & M. S. Brainard, ‘Creating a uified representation of visual and auditory space in the brain’. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 18, 19-43. 1995. Cited in Morie J.F., Ontological implications of Being in immersive virtual environments

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Once recognized the active function of the body in the VR displays of the recent generation, and, consequently, in the VE experienced, we can take back into our discourse about space the theories of MerleauPonty described in the precedent part. As we mentioned earlier, Merleau-Ponty sustains that the idea of space is based on our perceptions and must be grounded in the lived experience, which is, in turn, grounded in the body. Hence, the VE so described have all the connotations to be considered a proper space. In fact, the physical body simultaneously remains in the real space of the outside world, even as it also inhabits the virtual world within the simulation. In one way, this condition can be read as something that is not included in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological discourse, in fact he asserts: “To be a body, is to be tied to a certain world. Our body is not primarily in space: it is of it.” 89 Thus, a body cannot exist at the same time within the world of the everyday reality and apart from it. With VR we appertain to more than one world, then the unity of the body is separated into two embodiments: one physical and one virtual. The relations that subtend these two forms of the body are not equals and reversible: the virtual body presupposes the physical body for its existence, while the

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M. Merleau-Ponty, ‘The Structure of Behavior’ translated by Alden L. Fisher, originally published 1942 in French as La Structure de Comportement. Duquesne University Press. Pittsburgh, 2002



physical body doesn’t need the virtual one to be constituted. Hence, there is no virtual user without a physical user that experiences the VE. A condition similar to what we assert regarding the social space of new medias. On the other way, Merleau-Ponty analyzes a similar circumstance when he treats the notion of virtual body in relation to the concept of spatial orientation. In this sense he considers two exceptional cases. The first one involves a study by Stratton on retinal inversion. By putting prismatic lenses on a subject, the whole world appears unreal and upside down but after some days, the world steadily becomes more real and the body progressively adjusts itself to this condition. When the glasses are removed, objects are no longer inverted, but appear strange even to our “normal” vision. The second one is an experiment by Wertheimer, where a subject sees the room he occupies only as reflected by a mirror tilted forty-five degrees to the vertical. In the mirror, the room’s walls seem slanted, people moving in the room seem to lean to one side or another, and objects fall obliquely. Surprisingly, within half-an-hour the visual spectacle becomes vertical. Merlau-Ponty considers these examples as explanatory cases for the existence of a virtual body, related to the existence of certain spatial levels proper of the condition in which the subject is exposed. The relations between the two entities of the body assume a connotation that is very similar to the one pointed out in VR:

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“This virtual body ousts the real one to such an extent that the subject no longer has the feeling of being in the world where he actually is, and that instead of his real legs and arms, he feels that he has the legs and arms he would need to walk and act in the reflected room: he inhabits the spectacle.” 90 Of course, there are a few differences between these experiments and the case of VR. First of all, the two experiments considered by Merleau-Ponty represent spatial alterations in terms of visual orientation rather than experiencing another reality. The connotation of what we perceive as reality remain the same, what change it’ s just the orientation of it. Secondly, the alteration operated produces an initial disorientation and sense of confusion that reveal the presence of the agent responsible of this alteration. Hence, the medium is clearly perceivable and not unnoticed as in VR. Therefore, in the two experiments the alteration is effective only in one sensorial perception while in VR is involved the combination of two or more. But, as Merleau-Ponty asserts considering a possible empiricist inquiry on the example cited: “[…] there is nothing, for a constituting mind, to distinguish the experience before from the experience after putting on the glasses, or even anything to make the visual experience of the ‘inverted’ body incompatible with the tactile experience of the ‘upright’ body, since it does not view the spectacle from anywhere” 91

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Murice Merleau-Ponty, ‘Phenomenology of Perception’, Transl. by Colin Smith (1962), p.291 op.cit. p.288




In this way, we must assume that the spatial orientation is given directly by the course of sensations themselves. But taken by themselves as sensations, upright and inverted have no meaning, and so have no direction to pass on to the passive subject. No content is oriented in itself. Thus, Merleau-Ponty refuses the epistemological instance of objectivity in consideration of a certain spatial composition. Even if the examples he considers are not exactly the case of VR, the conclusions that Merleau-Ponty does on the virtual body and on the spatial level can be applicable in our case. In particular he asserts that: “The constitution of a spatial level is simply one means of constituting an integrated world: my body is geared onto the world when my perception presents me with a spectacle as varied and as clearly articulated as possible, and when my motor intentions, as they unfold, receive the responses they expect from the world. This maximum sharpness of perception and action points clearly to a perceptual ground, a basis of my life, a general setting in which my body can co-exist with the world.” 92 In this way, the spatial level correspond to the world proper of the subject, where he can act and perceive clearly as he would aspect. Therefore, this theorization also admits the existence of a plurality of spaces: “there are as many spaces as there are distinct spatial

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op.cit. p.292

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experiences” 93. But, as already discussed, the concept of space presupposes the notion of body so if we admit the existence of more then one space, we have to subsequently accept the existence of more then one parallel bodies as subjects of perception. This brings the question of VR again into de discourse. The physical body is the subject of one space level, while the virtual body is the subject of another one. These two spatial experiences coexist but they can be acquired only one at once. In fact, the subject can change levels to understand the space but he can’t conceive two or more different space levels at the same time. In particular: “The possession of a body implies the ability to change levels and to ‘understand’ space, just as the possession of a voice implies the ability to change key” 94. The distinction between spatial level and space is very similar to the condition we already discussed in VR. In specific, the spatial level presupposes the space for its existence, as the virtual space implies the existence of the physical space. But, as in VR, once the body experience the spatial level (in our case the VE), then this spatial level becomes suddenly a space. Even if Merleau-Ponty refuses the empirical point of view on the question of space, when he admit the existence of spatial levels related to a certain space then he admit that there is a certain hierarchy, in particular he points out that: “the constitution of a level always

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op.cit. p.340 op.cit. pp.292-293



presupposes another given level, that space always precedes itself� 95. But Merleau-Ponty explicitly rejects this way of understanding the essence of space saying that we should never come to understand the space by withdrawing into a worldless perception 96. Hence, he excludes a perspective that tries to describe space by assuming a position that excludes perceptions. He makes a clear distinction between the thinking subject and the subject of perception. The first one corresponds to an empirical way to see the matter of space, the second one to the phenomenological one. In conclusion, if we assume Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological way of describing the spatial connotation of VE, then the virtual space represented has to be considered as a proper space. There are no distinctions we can observe that tell us which one is the real one.

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op.cit. p.293 op.cit. p.293

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New Media Art and Space The intersection of new media, technology and contemporary art generates a new branch of art, generally called new media art. As pointed out by Bolognini “what new media artists have in common is a selfreferential relationship with the new technologies, the result of finding oneself inside an epoch-making transformation determined by technological development.” 97 There are many opinions on what should be linked with this new branch of art, some common aspects are the use of computer, mobile devices, internet, software, code, computer games, streaming, GPS and robotics. Even if cinema or television is not considered as a new media, video and sound installations and screen projections are usually included in new media art, maybe confusing the term with media art. In general, we can relate the distinction between the two with the already described distinction between media and new media but in most of the literature that treats this topic the two terms are used interchangeably. An interesting distinction is offered by Tribe and Jena:

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Bolognini M., ‘Postdigitale’ , Rome: Carocci Editore, 2008



“We locate New Media art as a subset of two broader categories: Art and Technology and Media art. Art and Technology refers to practices, such as Electronic art, Robotic art, and Genomic art, that involve technologies which are new but not necessarily media-related. Media art includes Video art, Transmission art, and Experimental Film - art forms that incorporate media technologies, which by the 1990s were no longer new. New Media art is thus the intersection of these two domains.” 98 In describing the genealogy of new media art Druckrey 99 underlines three phases: The phase of ambiguity that can be linked to the period between the 60’s and the 80’s and represent a sort of experimentation where the new technologies were applied to artworks with the intention of experiment and test out new techniques without having a clear understanding of the processes involved. One important event that we can collocate in this phase is the Art and Technology program organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1968. This program was intended to put high technology corporations and their research staff in contact with the artists. In this way artists like Robert Irwing and James Turrel had the opportunity of working on projects that would have been impossible for them to realize on

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Tribe M. and Jena R., New Media Art, Taschen/Brown, 2006 Druckrey T., Media Art Undone conference presentation, 2007 99

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their own in either conceptual and technical terms. In this period the electronic telecommunication, particularly radio and television, still had the main role in the art installations produced. The phase of proliferation in which new media art became popular and mainstream and where the main important art festivals became populated of new media installations. In this period, that comprehends the 80’s and 90’s, advances in computer software and rapid prototyping technology provided artists with tools to digitally encode and produce three-dimensional objects. The role of the computer became fundamental in the artworks produced and the interactivity was the experimental feature to research. The third phase is named as the Phase of ubiquity and is related to the period of the last two decades. According to Duckrey, due to the diffusion of computer technology in the every day life and the spread of the Internet in the society, new media art installations became to be understood more clearly in their meaning and in their technological experimentation. New media art became more accessible and the new media artist acquired a less specific role. The main focus in this period is the new media in its forms of connectivity and open source programming. A common feature of new media art is that it often involves the interaction between artist and observer or between observers and the artwork, which responds to them. As Grau asserts:



“Media artists represent a new type of artist, who not only sounds out the aesthetic potential of advanced methods of creating images and formulates new options of perception and artistic positions in this media revolution, but also specifically researches innovative forms of interaction and interface design, thus contributing to the development of the medium in key areas, both as artists and as scientists.” 100 In this sense, the figure of the artist in media art is more related to the one of the scientist and its extensions of computer programmer and media coder. In taking media art into the discourse I want to consider some of its productions that feature space and interactivity as main characteristics. In this way, is interesting to describe the subcategory of new media interactive installations. Normally these art installations involve the audience acting on the work of art or the piece responding to users' activity. Interactive installations appeared mostly in the 1980s and became a genre during the 1990s, when artists became particularly interested in using the participation of the audiences to activate and reveal the meaning of the installation. In general they consist in a device or sensor that takes data from the audience and transmits them to a computer based apparatus that react according to them.


100 Grau O., ‘Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion’, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003,

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Web-based interactive installations use the Internet as the main resource or medium for the operating system while mobile-based installations use the mobile communication as a data source or transfer. In body-based interactive installations usually the data content is provided by a sensor that measures a specified parameter (like distance, temperature or sound) and transfer the information obtained to a computer software that process it through code based programming. The subsequent result is transmitted to a mechanical apparatus or a visual device that express these parameters on different forms. The composition of the code and the set up of the installation constitute the main characteristic that differentiates the resulting art form. An example of the first kind of web-based installations is the collaborative work of Ken Goldberg and the robotics lab at UC Berkeley called Telegarden (1995). This project used a web-based interface to enable remote participants from around the world to become a part of a virtual community that collectively controlled a robotic device to seed and maintain a living garden. This kind of electronic media art have also been used to interrogate and actively fight corporate hegemony, pollution, gender discrimination and the proliferation of surveillance and control systems. Beatriz DaCosta’s Pigeon Blog (2006) can be taken as an example of this kind. In this work the artist used miniature air pollution sensors, GPS units and transmitters attached to homing pigeons to evaluate and map local air quality, that was then visualized in the project website.



An example of mobile-based installation can be Yolland Harris’s satellite sounders presented in Sun Run Sun (2008). The work consist in gumstick-sized, GPSenabled instruments which generate live electronic music compositions based on the changing latitude and longitude coordinates of the player roving the earth and on the characteristics of a varying array of satellites orbits. In the examples of web-based and mobile-based installation art just considered the role of the space is a primary condition that affect the result obtained. Position’s coordinates or atmospheric data relative of a certain place are the main parameters of the final outcome of the artwork.

fig.2 Ken Goldberg, Telegarden (1995)

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All the considerations about the first category of the new social spaces described earlier can be also applied to the virtual communities of users that are part of the project, with the difference that the main intent is not communicate but join the art proposal suggested by the artist. It’s true that in many cases the communication aspect is avoided (like in the last example) but most of these web-based art manifestations provide the users the possibility of interact and communicate with each others with the intention of spread the message of the artwork. In fact the majority of these projects associate a social network web interface to the project website. In this way they can be assumed also as communication spaces that use the art message as a common ground for the users discussion. The category of body-based interactive installations is the one that consider as main aspects to discover and implement the physical connotation of the space in which the installation is placed and the body presence and movements. In this sense, the interaction consists in most of the cases in embodied actions or movements that are subsequently transfigured in processed parameters by a computer-based system. In this kind of installations the viewer assumes the generative role of the artwork variance and composition. An example of this kind is Space(Im)Balance by Christain Moeller. In this installation, presented to the 1992 Ars Electronica, a physical building with a virtual interior is responsive to different states of equilibrium. In the central part of the room the floor tilts like a seesaw under the weight of the visitor. The virtual space projected on the screens in front and behind the



viewer adjusts itself according to this movements to give the impression of continuity with the physical space of the room. A work that goes in the same direction is Ulrike Gabriel’s Breath (1992) where a series of sensors detect the speed, depth and regularity of the viewer’s breaths. Measurements of shifts in the lungs and abdomen are fed into a computer program that compares and combines the previous and current values. The result is projected on a screen as a grid of polygons that grow and change according to the visitor’s breath. A similar research forms the core of Char Davies’s Osmose (1995). In this installation the artist uses a VR head mounted display to let people moving around a VE by inhaling or exhaling deeply. The virtual space consists of a dozen distinct world-spaces that immerse the participant in several archetypical realms of nature. Another work that uses the body movements as substantial parameters is Mappe per Affetti Erranti (2008) realized by an Italian collective of artists for Casa Paganini theatre. The main concept of the installation is the navigation in a physical orchestral space. The voice of a polyphonic music piece is associated to each area of a theatre stage. By the gestures and the movements of the body the performers are able to play different instruments with different tonal levels according to the area of the stage they move to. Different parameters, such as loudness, density or amount of reverberation are associated to ach to certain movements of the body extensions.

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fig.3 Char Davies, Osmose (1995)

Human presence is a parameter largely used also in kinetic installations, the work Nemore (2010) by the creative collective ‘Fishing for compliments’ is a good example of an interactive art installation that physically react to human presence and movements. The artwork consists in a grid of 36 flexible carbon poles that respond to the visitor. Each pole emits a distinct sound, from which a chord arises, fluctuating in resonance with the movement of the sticks. This multitude of singular actors generates a complex system, which



leads the visitor to perceive Nemore as one organism rather than as a gathering of separate entities. A similar example is Swarm wall, a kinetic installation by media-artist Michael Theodore on display in the CU Art Museum in 2012. The artpiece assumes the features of a wall composed of 70 identical controllers that are locally networked with their neighbours creating a swarm behaviour when they detect the visitor movement. The inspiration of this work was taken by the natural comportment of animals and translated in a series of movements, lights and sounds.

fig.4 Fishing for Compliments, Nemore (2010)

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These last examples of body-based installations can lead us to some important considerations. The first two cases, in specific, represent two virtual illusions that respond to body movements. In one way, we can assume these examples as visual representations of virtual spaces and include them in the Manovich’s category of simulation. A further valuable comparison can be done between these interactive representations and the early flight simulators described earlier. But the main distinction between these artworks and the virtual representations treated before is in their meaning. VR systems, as well as simulation environment are created with the intention of simulate existing human scenarios with the main purpose of being spectacular and realistic. Differently, in the interactive installations considered, the main goal is to discover a specific aspect proper of the human’s body. In the first case the artist wanted to give a representation to the essential act of breathing, revealing the rhythm of an embodied process that is often unnoticed. In the second example the artist’s intention was to research the body condition of equilibrium giving a spatial illusion that responded to the body balance. Even if the purpose of VR is not the same, VE are often used for art installations, this is the case of the third work mentioned. In this example VR is used as a medium to envision the same human condition of breathing, obviously the result is different than in the previous project.



The third project of Mappe per Affetti Erranti represents a special circumstance. In this case the physical space is converted in an interactive music instrument that makes the body movements and gestures a part of the composition obtained. The main distinction from the other examples is the social aspect included in the project. For playing the music piece properly the performers have to move in an active and collaborative way to express all the voices of the song correctly. Thus, if we consider the triad defined earlier, these work involve interactions between the players other than intra-actions end interactivities between human actors and the computer-based system. With the last two examples the human body acquires an essential role in the physical connotation of the space. The experience involves not only the visual sense (as in the first three cases) or the earing sense (as in the fourth), but all the five senses of the human body. The viewer is not immerse in a virtual or augmented environment but is confronted with a physical and real one that react in a real and physical way. Space maintains its physicality in the first condition of data caption and in the last one of kinetic alteration. Other then comprehend all the three aspects of interactivity, interaction and intra-activity this kind of installations involve all the five senses of the human perception. The medium of the message expressed is contained in the message itself differently than in VR for example where the transparency of the medium is the most essential feature for giving the impression of presence.

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The role of the body is essential both in the perception and in the alteration of the physical connotation of the space. In this way, the field of interactive kinetic installations, as well as interactive robotic systems represent an interesting ground for further studies on the topic of space. The ambition to obtain such a spatial condition, that respond physically to the viewers presence and movements, will represent the core of the practical part of this research.



Conclusions In defining the concept of space in this work I tried to create a conceptual framework that described different theories in history, for then consider the role of new media and its substantial change. The metaphysical and epistemological thought of Plato and Aristotle, treated in the beginning, discerns the status of space from the status of subject. Plato considers space as an absolute entity that transcends the physical world but contains all the physical objects. Aristotle, on the other hand, defines space as the limit of the surrounding object towards what is surrounded and focus on the notion of place. In his view space is a feature of material objects and not something matterindependent. The perspective of Immanuel Kant includes the role of the subject and his perceptions on the discourse. In his theorization space is not a property of things in themselves nor it represent them in their relation to one another. As we saw earlier, the subjective condition of sensibility is necessary to constitute the form of space. Starting from this assumption the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty relates the concept of space to the notion of body. As already specified, in his theory, space

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exists only in relation to a perceiving subject, hence it becomes a personal interpretation of the information we receive from our senses. The overview offered in this work lead to the concept of social space proper to Henri Lefebvre. His theoretical research is based on the idea that space is a social product and that every society produce its own space. This argument implies the shift of the space’s analysis from the subjective perception to the processes of its production. The definition of new media, in the central part of this essay, opened up a wide range of causes of reflections. For what concerned the theoretical framework that I decided to follow, was essential to analyse more specifically the notion of interactivity, an aspect extremely affected by the change operated by new media. As demonstrate, the role of the computer is assuming more and more relevance in the discourse on interactivity and, consequently, the way humans interact with machines is becoming a very significant aspect of nowadays society. The radical change represented by the computer, together with the social transition operated by new media and the Internet, generate new forms of spaces that could never be imagined before. In describing two examples of this kind, I decided to embrace the approaches of Merleau-Ponty and Lefebvre, assuming the social aspect and the phenomenological one as the main characteristics of my personal idea of space. The aim of this dissertation was to research these two



features in the ambit of new media and technology and to give a general overview on the concept of space in relation to the human body and its interactions. As demonstrate, the social aspect of space can be found in the field of social networks, while the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty can be applied to underline some important aspects of the virtual environments proper to VR. Both of the theories have their value in the discourse about new media and space but the new role assigned to interactivity is a precondition that has to be considered before everything else in the research so defined. The field of new media art, and its subcategory of interactive installations described at the end of this work, represent an interesting ambit where to investigate and prove the concepts about space treated in the first part. Much remains to be worked out, theoretically and methodologically, in defining a general concept of space in the new media society. I hope that the initial conceptual elements and reflections proposed here can provide a useful framework for future analyses on the topic.

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List of abbreviations e.g.

Latin: exempli gratia; for example

Latin: et alia; and others




Head Mounted Display


Latin: opere citato; the work cited






Visual Environment


Virtual Reality


World Wide Web

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Image credits Cover /25oldpcs/IBM_PC_01_full.jpg audience-with-3d-glasses.jpg

Table 1

Diagram created by the author

Table 2

Rammert W., Where the action is – distributed agency between humans, machines and programs inside Paradoxes of Interactivity, Seifert U., Jin Hyun Kim, Antony Moore (eds.) (Transcript), Bielefeld 2008 p.69

Table 3

Diagram created by the author

fig.1 8kpf0ru10e83png/original.png

fig.2 g-images/telegarden-600dpi-2.jpg



fig.3 mObjet=4000

fig.4 /wp-content/uploads/2010/10/ fishing05.jpg

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Svanæs D. Understanding Interactivity cite_note-13





This work is for my Parents, Fabrizio and Monica, who have made my studies possible and for those who have believed in me. I thank all my friends and classmates that have helped me during this Master. Working with you was a pleasure and an honour. A great thank goes to my girlfriend Ida for the patience and the support during the creative process of this research. Thank to my cousin to have introduced me to Berlin and my brother for being a frequent visitor.

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Space through new media  

From the first inquiries on the essence of space to the interactivity in the era of New Media. Riccardo Torresi MASTER DESIGN / MEDIA SP...

Space through new media  

From the first inquiries on the essence of space to the interactivity in the era of New Media. Riccardo Torresi MASTER DESIGN / MEDIA SP...