Interfaced to the World: For a New Design Space

Elisa Giaccardi
Fondazione Fitzcarraldo


When I discovered the Internet in 1994, I was more charmed and taken up with the possibility of creatively playing and interacting with other people, than by the extraordinary amount of interlinked information to which I had access. Today, years later, what still charms and captivates me in the development of the Internet and ubiquitous computing is not the chance to get everything when and where needed, but the chance we have to design relational and interactional systems which interface with our everyday environment and inhabit the world.

Interaction design, which determines how people interact using computers and communications and the quality of users' experience with communication services, is the current methodology and practice used to design and integrate the objects and systems through which we interact with the world and produce our environment. As leading figures in the field of interaction design like John Thackara and Gillian Crampton Smith state, ‘this is an issue of profound economic and cultural importance’ [14].

Thus, the main challenge that innovation poses seems to be the definition of a new lifestyle that is sustainable both in a social and an environmental way. Since such an issue affects the discussion of the relational conditions of the enactment of the world we inhabit, in this paper I will argue that the challenge confronting interaction design is that of providing everyone with collaborative means to define new relations with the world.


In the near future, computing will be ‘anywhere,’ ‘everywhere’ and ‘within’ [1; 9], it will be mobile, ubiquitous and embedded (in everyday tools and implements, in our very body) [1; 13].

Ubiquitous computing was first defined by Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC in 1988. The term addresses the idea of a world in which computing is embedded into the environment so imperceptibly that it integrates seamlessly with everyday life. According to Weiser, we are living in the era of personal computing, but the next era is the era of ubiquitous computing, also called by Weiser the ‘age of calm technology’ [22], an age in which technology recedes into the background of our lives.

The integration of computing power and network connectivity in many common devices has already started [1; 13]. Considering the current scientific and technological acceleration, it seems inevitable that most products and materials of everyday use (from appliances to fabrics), and of our everyday environments (from home to public spaces for work and entertainment) will deal with computing, network connections and artificial intelligence or artificial life forms.

But this process will lead networked computing beyond the technologies required to support mere distributed computer applications. It will entail a re-negotiation of the boundaries and limits we recognize as natural. We will live interfaced to a world in which the borderline between the artificial and the natural, between the perception of the self and the other will be negotiable and changeable.

To what degree will we be able to manage and give shape to such a future? Will we be able to reimagine ourselves – in a creative and responsible way – for the new worlds and ways of being that technology offers us? These are the issues that as researcher and designer I feel compelled to answer.

To answer these questions is not an issue of technology policies, directed toward determining which technologies should be used and in which way. To answer these questions is an issue of advanced design, dealing with the processes through which we produce the world we inhabit. To say that advanced methods of design deal with the processes through which we produce the world we inhabit is to say that they deal with creativity. Thus, to answer the above questions is an issue of poiesis, a term derived from the Greek verb poiêin for ‘to generate, to create, to produce, to build’ and whose meaning expresses both the enactive capability and the ethical responsibility for every act of creation and therefore of civilization.

Relational Embodiment

In the field of cognitive sciences there is a corpus of studies that can be traced back to several disciplines and that originates from a dissatisfaction with previous paradigms.* One approach this area of research has led to is called the enactive approach.

The enactive approach was first defined by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch in their book The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, published in 1991 [16]. It represents an alternative hypothesis both to cognitivism and connectionism, questioning cognition as a representation of a symbolic processing. The name ‘enactive’ has been proposed to emphasize the growing conviction that cognition is not the representation of a pre-given world by a pre-given mind but rather the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs. On a philosophical level, the enactive approach questions the objectivism/subjectivism assumption about the way the world is, what we are, and how we come to know the world.

According to the enactive approach we produce our world and our consciousness – that is to say the way in which we perceive ourselves and the outer environment – through our experience. In Human Consciousness: From Intersubjectivity to Interbeing, Evan Thompson argues:

[T]he mind does not internally represent an independent external world, but rather it enacts a meaningful world through embodied action. To say that cognition is embodied means that it depends upon the perceptual and motor capacities of our bodies, and is intertwined with the environment [15, p.2].

This belonging, this life made up of embodied actions is the ground of our cognition. Scientific studies and research that refer to the enactive approach work to demonstrate that cognition is an embodied action that has no ultimate foundation or ground beyond its physical, biological and cultural history.

In the future history of relational embodiment, interaction design will be of vital importance, because it will increasingly deal with the conditions of our experience and relations with things and beings.

Towards a ‘Science of Interbeing’

Within the enactive approach some scientists and philosophers, like Evan Thompson, have turned their attention to the topics of empathy and intersubjectivity. Focusing on these topics, they aim to develop a greater understanding of the basic level of experience and what is perceived and identified as ‘other.’ Human beings are physically and biologically coupled with the environment, but by means of their body, actions and feelings they are also coupled with other creatures. It is this kind of coupling that allows consciousness to emerge and human beings to exist as individuals.

Comparing and integrating the methodologies of cognitive science, phenomenology, and the world's wisdom traditions (particularly Buddhism), these studies aim to understand the nature of intersubjectivity and empathy and to give birth to a science of relations, or more exactly to a ‘science of interbeing‘ [15], that later on will hopefully give rise to new epistemological foundations and to alternative and more sustainable models for science and technology. The end is daringly but rigorously to bridge the gap between mind and body, rationality and feelings, subject and object, with a view to the development of non-egocentric forms of consciousness.

For a New Design Space

From what standpoint should we approach an interaction design capable of generating relational and interactional systems allowing and leading to a creative and responsible way of life?

Through my research I have developed a number of hypotheses, principles still waiting to be proved, that claim a relational paradigm in interaction design.

In order to develop a new enactive and ethical paradigm of interaction based on relational embodiment and interbeing, what I call the design space should be characterized by a particular notion of place: a structural matrix representing the physical, biological and cultural worlds where identity has its origin.

I outlined my working hypothesis for the development of such a design space in a paper [6], in which I grounded the scheme of this development on the core logic of the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945) [10].

According to Nishida, self and world are mutually revealed and ontologically constituted. The embodiment and the creative interaction from which subject and object co-originate constitute a system of experiential interrelations; a place of dynamic identities and entities where everything is active and interactive. Nishida observes that the dynamically tensional structure of this place where subject and object, self and other co-originate is experienced at three different levels: the physical world (which to him is the causal matrix of interacting forces), the biological world and finally the human (historical and existential) world.

The adoption and development of Nishida's structural matrix can lead one to think of different and interacting ‘places’ of interactivity, that will be mediated by ubiquitous computing. Nishida's philosophy – especially in the final years of his career – thematises the issue of embodiment and the relation of intersubjectivity at multidimensional and transformational levels, that are in my opinion particularly valuable for the development of a paradigm of interaction based on relational embodiment and interbeing.

In this paper I will avoid entering into the complex and theoretical details of this work in progress, but try to ‘clothe’ it in a case study. Therefore, in the following section I will examine a new media art project called Interwall and attempt to highlight how the artists have been able to convey a ‘poiesis’ of experience, capable of generating relational processes, interactional agencies and creative events that lead the artwork to exist and be produced according to various and spontaneous intersubjective processes.

In the world of new media art, Interwall seems to embed a paradigm of interaction based on relational embodiment and interbeing, precisely through a design space characterized by dynamic ‘places’ of interactivity.


Since 1992, the Japanese artists Toshihiro Anzai and Rieko Nakamura have worked via email to elaborate, design and test different methods of carrying out the collaborative artistic process they call ‘Renga creation.’ They have translated the ancient Japanese collaborative poetic form Renga into the realm of visual arts. Toshihiro Anzai explains:

I named this method ‘Renga’ (linked pictures) after the collective poetry style ‘Renga’ (linked poems). Each member of the group, called ‘Renju’ (linked members) will append a phrase in turn. ‘Ren’ means link and ‘Ga’ means poem in this case. There is another kanji (Chinese character) which is pronounced ‘Ga’ but means ‘picture.’ Simply put, I coined the word ‘Renga’ (linked pictures) by replacing the kanji for ‘poem’ with the kanji for ‘picture’ [2].

Renga creation is based on the concept of ‘embrace.’ It is neither a monologue nor the result of a single and unnatural personality virtually made up of isolated individualities. Renga creation is ‘dialogue.’ To work jointly with a Renju is a different manner of working if compared to work done alone, suggests Anzai. The artist has to start from a different standpoint, because ‘you can't create anything trying to separate yourself from others’ [2]. According to Anzai, the ancient form of Japanese poetry called Renga was the formal establishment of the natural interaction between an individual and his or her community before the emergence of the contemporary perception of the self as a tool rather than an always changing landscape.

Interwall (2000), Anzai and Nakamura's latest project, has been developed by Information and Mathematical Science Laboratory, Inc., ANCL, Inc. and Maki Nakayama. Unfortunately, at the moment, much of the material relating to the Interwall project is written only in Japanese. Therefore, the present description of the project is based on the information kindly provided by Rieko Nakamura and Maki Nakayama by email. However, on the basis of the information provided and the images published on the web site, a description and a preliminary analysis of Interwall are possible.

Interwall is a development of The Wall project (1998) and allows activities of Renga creation on wireless networks making use of little notebooks. Compared to The Wall system, Interwall seems much more flexible and mobile. The Wall system allows the creation of a linked image on a virtual cylindrical surface. This picture is a joint image produced by the creative processes that link the participants one to another and are reflected by the resulting image. Making use of a client/server system, The Wall allows this image to be created on a virtual cylindrical surface that takes shape on the Net, becoming more and more stratified like the bark of a tree. This happens as many creators scattered among different geographical points collaborate over the Internet. **

According to Anzai and Nakamura, a ‘conversation by sentences’ is generated by moving on to successive layers, everyone adding something in a different and previously interlocked field of the wall. This is a different concept from what they call ‘idle chattering,’ the ‘momentary dialogue of words’ that you can come across while visiting related systems such as networked whiteboard or concurrent drawing applications, where everyone can draw at the same time. Anzai and Nakamura consider this ‘conversation by sentences’ a keystone in the organization and production of worthy and meaningful sessions. As a result, we can clearly read the transformations that link together time, user and image in the wall structure.

Interwall extends The Wall by making use of a distributed network technology called Ad Hoc Network Computing Library (ANCL) developed by Takayuki Saito and Toshihiro Ashino. When a user and his portable computer enter the range of action of another user and her portable computer, Interwall creates a shared virtual place (the Wall) that enables the users to collaborate spontaneously. Every portable computer running the ANCL software (such a computer is called a node) continually searches for and connects to other nodes. This causes the spontaneous formation of clusters of nodes and the creation of shared virtual places. This is shown in figure 1.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Interwall does not need pre-configuration of servers or pre-registration of users, and the contents of the Wall do not have to be prepared in advance. This is characteristic for ad-hoc type applications, and in fact ANCL incorporates many of the ideas known from ad-hoc computing, such as automatic data replication, messaging facilities and mutual exclusion mechanisms. Interwall uses Sun Microsystems' Java language which makes it highly portable across different types of computing devices.

Figure 2 comes from the Interwall web site. This photograph was taken during a session organized and coordinated by the artists at Oguchi-dai Elementary School and documented by the photographers Tatsuya Yusa and Yoshiko Ooga. On that occasion, children were provided with notebooks and ‘mobile bags’ supplied with touch-screens and digital devices that allowed them to draw or to record images and sounds from the environment and easily put them onto the virtual space they dynamically shared through the Interwall system. I chose this picture and drew a circular line on it, because – at a micro and social level – it shows the dynamic of spontaneous connection and collaboration that the Interwall system enables.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Figure 3 comes from the ANCL web site and shows how the system configures clusters of nodes for spontaneous connection and collaboration. It also exemplifies how the system generates relational processes and interactional agencies according to various spontaneous intersubjective and empathic processes.

Figure 2
Figure 3

In figure 4, I have merged two different pictures in a montage: the first is another photograph coming from the Interwall web site and referring to the Oguchi-dai Elementary School session; the second is a picture I excerpted from the book Estetica del Vuoto [12, p.51]. The blue lines I have drawn show – at a macro and theoretical level – the dynamic of spontaneous connection and collaboration that the Interwall system offers. The montage is meant to represent the Interwall ‘clusters of nodes’ as ‘places of interactivity’ made up of interactional agencies and creative events. It represents the proximity between the virtual, the natural and the social environment that ubiquitous computing will make increasingly fluid. The high degree of portability offered by the Java language allows Interwall to realise a sort of Nishidian multidimensionality.

Figure 4
Figure 4


The main challenge for innovation is to define a sustainable lifestyle, and interaction design – because of its increasing role in shaping the society and the environment of the future – should confront such a challenge with advanced and poietic methods of design. Furthermore, these methods of design deal with enactive capability and ethical responsibility. This enactive capability is grounded in the reality of human relational embodiment, and interaction design will increasingly deal with the conditions of human experience and relations with things and beings. For this reason, the ethical responsibility of interaction design implies an ethics of interbeing, because, as the philosophy of Nishida Kitaro indicates, human beings are relationally embodied in the world through processes of intersubjective and empathic negotiation. This paper has addressed the question of the standpoint from which we should approach an interaction design able to generate systems that allow and lead to a creative and responsible way of life, and some hypotheses have been mentioned and motivated.

Interwall is an example that supports the hypothesis mentioned throughout the paper, an imaginative illustration of an interaction design capable of generating and negotiating spontaneous systems by means of which we could prefigure shared and creative horizons.


All information concerning the artistic projects of Toshihiro Anzai and Rieko Nakamura comes from the web sites,, and from personal exchange of emails. Interwall originated under the concept of the Renga project by Rieko Nakamura and Toshihiro Anzai, and has been developed by Information and Mathematical Science Laboratory, Inc., ANCL, Inc. and Maki Nakayama.

All the photographs published in this paper come from the Interwall web site. The black and white picture used for Figure 3 comes from the book Estetica del Vuoto [12, p.51]. Blue graphics and montage are mine.

I would like to thank Rieko Nakamura and Maki Nakayama for their courtesy.

Additional Japanese translation was kindly provided by Satoe Ideguchi.


I refer to the main established paradigms of cognition called ‘cognitivism’ and ‘connectionism.’ Simplifying, ‘cognitivism’ is based on the hypothesis that cognition is the manipulation of symbols, which represent features of the world or represent the world as being in a certain way. This approach establishes that the study of cognition as mental representation is independent from the domains of neurobiology on one side and sociology and anthropology on the other. The cognitivist orthodoxy was challenged by the connectionist approach in the late seventies. Revitalizing ideas from the pre-cognitivist era of cybernetics, ‘connectionism’ is based on the hypothesis that mental processes occur through the emergence of global patterns of activity in a network of neural or neural-like components. The idea of emergent phenomena – higher-level phenomena that arise through the interaction of lower-level elements according to so-called learning rules – is fundamental.

More information on The Wall is available in Japanese at Diagrams of the system design and cylindrical virtual wall may be of interest to those unable to render or read Japanese text.


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About the Author

Elisa Giaccardi is a Ph.D. student at CAiiA-STAR (CaiiA is the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts, at the University of Wales College, Newport, and STAR is the centre for Science, Technology and Art Research, in the School of Computing, University of Plymouth). She is also New Media Program Manager at Fondazione Fitzcarraldo in Torino, Italy. Her recent work focuses on the convergence between interaction design and cultural planning. Elisa Giaccardi can be contacted via email at: or

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