Interactive turn?

In Ken Burn’s documentary The Vietnam War, James Willbanks deadpans a striking insight : “The problem with the war, as it often is, are the metrics. It is a situation where if you can’t count what is important, you make what you can count important.”

Of course, any person who has had mid-managerial responsibilities will recognize the truth of this quote. In any complex organization quantification is so important that, for a variety of good and bad reasons, anything that resists or defies quantification is taken as less real than things that are readily quantified.

To the degree control is imposed from a distance, quantitative considerations will predominate.


In my experience, Willbanks’s principle pertains just as much to qualitative explication. If we can’t talk about what is important, we make what we can talk about important.

We see it in how consumers make purchasing decisions, especially when they are thinking about a purchase at a distance, out of contact with the thing under consideration. When we directly encounter a designed thing and interact with it, we experience it differently, know it differently and think about it in different terms than when we look at pictures of it, read about it and compare specifications. As with management it is a matter of proximity. Distance abstracts, and what tends to get abstracted out most are precisely the unique je ne sais quoi qualities that belong to the best design. I believe the fetishization of digital devices — the obsessive looking at, reading about and spec-comparison of objects — over the direct perceiving of, trying out of, interaction with them has corrupted marketing and caused companies to abandon designing wonderful experiences, and instead to create photogenic eye-candy with impressive specifications.

We also see it in our relationships with people. Whether we like them or dislike them, people we interact with every day, are experienced differently from people we know only distantly. As we distance ourselves, spatially or relationally, we know them more and more abstractly, and they become more identical to others of their identity. We know a person we meet, or better, are close to. We only know stereotypes of identities we read about, talk about and look at from a distance. The more we only read about people or events, or present ourselves to be read about or looked at, instead of participating in real relationships with real people the less we know them — and about the diversity of human nature in general. We lose our feel for humanity outside our narrow circle.

The same goes for situations. If we only know other places, other conditions, or other types of situations by reading about them, instead of at immersing in them and participating in them we gain a strange kind of abstracted account of what does go on, or what we imagine (based on what we’ve experienced) what probably must be going on there. We have no sense at all what it is like to be there, which is not primarily what can be said about it, especially by others we are most inclined to interact with, namely people who have similar experiences and use the same abstractions we habitually use. Reading too much news and directly experiencing too few of the realities the news reports on or opines about, mis-trains our feel for human events. Conversely, participating in events on the rough ground of reality in the fog of unfolding events, forming our own understanding of what is happening, and then reading how others interpret and abstract them can restore some reality to our sense of truth.

These are some reasons I’ve come to prefer an epistemologies of direct interaction over epistemologies of sensing from a distance, or worse, epistemologies of talking-about. I guess I’m advocating an interactive turn.


In philosophy, if our beliefs can be stated clearly and argued cogently, we tend to take them for true, regardless of whether these beliefs link up with real actions and experiences. And conversely, when clear speech and cogent argument is difficult, we will sometimes abandon more tacit intuitions of truth or ignore problems we feel, but cannot pose. If we cannot explicate it, prove it or defend it, we prefer to ignore its possibility.

I have a suspicion that a strong drive to explicate an explicable world accounts for much of the aversion to metaphysics and its fixation on language we find in certain strains of contemporary philosophy. “What we cannot speak about we must consign to silence.” Must? According to…?

And I think the ignoring of these tacit intuitions (rather than accepting them as real and attempting to articulate them) has reduced philosophy to formalism and argument and made philosophy abandon its social purpose — making the not-yet-conceivable conceivable — and expanding our intellectual repertoires so we can talk about what is most important for us to share: those apprehensions we cannot yet comprehend. When we limit ourselves to speaking clearly about things we can speak clearly about, and we prohibit speech in places where “here I do not know how to move around”, we doom philosophy to irrelevance and humanity to philistine constriction.

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