The illusion of immediacy
Immediacy is a concept that is often not easy to grasp. Most people think of immediacy as something related to what is happening around them when, in fact, the main factor of immediacy is that they are actively involved. Immediacy is considered to be the direct and instant involvement with something. Being involved with something means that you are also participating and possibly affecting the behavior of your experience. I believe the detail of being involved with is crucial as it distinguishes immediacy from any “spectator sport” where you would be merely watching and not interacting with the situation. Immediacy provides a sense of integration with the situation you’re experiencing, making you feel that time stops. The only thing you are doing is absorbing the experience without any contextual boundaries.
The idea of immediacy isn’t something recent that has been created by our society. One of the greatest classical philosophers, Plato, explored the notion of immediacy in his studies of how humans perceive and interact with reality. To Plato, immediacy is the ultimate purity of the experience where nothing is mediating the interaction between the actor and the object. Aristotle, another Greek philosopher, acknowledges that immediacy is the absence of a medium but identifies it as something impossible to achieve. It’s only in comparison to other media that you can say that a particular medium provides immediacy. Thus, you can see immediacy as a gradient where you compare different media and how close to reality each one can put you. Take, for instance, the experience of watching a band playing music at an outdoor concert. Being there and watching it with your naked eyes is probably the closest you can get to immediacy. The simple fact of wearing sunglasses will alter your perception of reality and move you farther away from immediacy. Watching it live from your home without being there will put you even farther away from the experience. How can you make sure that the feeling of immediacy is not disturbed by this gradient? Read on to find more.
If you look carefully, the origin of the word immediacy reveals how it was first intended to be used. The word comes from the Latin immediatus. You can decompose it into in, which means “not, opposite of, without,” and mediatus, which means “in the middle.” From this etymology, it’s easy to see that immediacy literally means “without anything in the middle.” Can you think of something that is often in the middle or in between two things? The concept of interface comes to mind as it is precisely what lies between two things, or entities. An interface is the common boundary of two entities. One of those entities is the actor commanding the interaction with reality, and the other entity is the subject that is being interacted with.
The more you focus on the interface, the more it becomes visible. Try blurring the interface, and you’ll realize that it’s not that important.
To provide immediacy, you must then let go of any interaction points or reduce them to the bare minimum. I find it rather interesting that this notion is also embedded in one of the principles of good design by Dieter Rams. What Rams described as “Good design is as little design as possible” making sure “products are not burdened with non-essentials” is, in my opinion, a search for immediacy. The more you add to the interface design, the farther away you are from immediacy because you’re adding non-essential elements to the experience. In other words, the more you focus on the interface, the more it becomes visible. Try blurring the interface, and you’ll realize that it’s not that important.
How can you get rid of the one thing that lets an actor interact with an object? Can an experience exist without an interface? Try thinking about the interface as a lens that lets you perceive an experience. The more your eye focus on the lens, the more it becomes apparent, and the less you see what’s beyond it. The more your eye focus on the experience, the less you see the lens. In other words, try blurring the interface, and you’ll realize that it’s not that important. Another option is to make the lens part of the experience. If an experience also includes the interface, then it’s as if the interface didn’t exist. Adding things to the experience is what designers do to create the illusion of immediacy. They extend the experience, so it also includes the interface. When done well, it creates the illusion that there’s nothing between you and the experience because the interface becomes a part of it.
The illusion of immediacy can be identified in many experiences close to us, from the very analog and physical, to the digital that is not palpable. In the digital space, take the example of music. Music has been evolving since probably humans exist. What is interesting, in my opinion, is that the experience you have from music has also been mutating. If, in the beginning, you would experience the sound of music, mostly by being close to the performer, over the years that experience has become more and more detached. I believe the tipping point of music has been when sound recording was made possible by the late 1800s. The ability to record sound, especially voice, has created a remarkable opportunity for music to be experienced in a disconnection with its performance. Music can now be experienced almost at any time, with or without the presence of musicians. Did sound recording make music experience less immediate? Probably, and I think what happened was that other elements have been added to the experience, bringing back the once enjoyed immediacy. The experience of listening to music turned into the experience of operating a device that would produce sound and listening to music. Thus, the illusion here lies in adding diverse elements to the experience so that what has initially been lost—in this case, the presence of musicians—can be superseded by a new component—the sound recording device. Things become even more apparent when we transpose music’s mutation and all its related experiences into the digital realm. Suddenly, the possibilities are tenfold, and the number of available experiences explodes. I find more interesting, though, that the focus of all the experiences has become in the added components and not in the listening itself. It’s interesting but not surprising. If you think about it, listening to music hasn’t changed a lot, so there’s not a lot that can be manipulated there. On the other hand, the opportunity for illusion is most evident in the interfaces that are used to listen to music. That’s why the focus is now on the interfaces.
A good example that illustrates how the interface is taking over the analog space experience is messages. Humans are hardwired to expect others to communicate using messages. Even though most of our communication is non-verbal, messages take up the most substantial part of how we humans convey meaning. I find it interesting that the experience of messaging someone got mixed up with the interface being used in the analog world. I still remember what it felt like to use the old postal service for communicating with people that were far away. I used to live thousands of miles away from some of my family members, and I wrote them letters. A reply was never expected, but I would always feel excited about it when I received reply letters. It meant that my letter had reached them, they had read it, understood it, wrote a reply, and sent it through the same channel. That round trip sometimes used to take months and can be considered the interface to the experience of exchanging messages. Making the interface a part of the experience creates the illusion of immediacy, making you feel that you perceive an immediate experience.
Humans crave immediacy because it provides instant gratification and a sense of being part of the experience.
Why do we humans crave immediacy? I believe humans crave immediacy because it provides instant gratification and a sense of being part of the experience. The desire for instant gratification is often associated with difficulty coping with uncertainty, coming from a lack of future perspectives. To understand why that happens, let’s think about basic human needs like the need to breathe, eat, or drink. We basically act on the pleasure principle, which is a mechanism that protects us from pain, suffering, and eventual death. By following the pleasure principle, we simply follow our feelings and act in what we think is the best for us, without delay. The more a situation is uncertain, the more we engage in following the pleasure principle to guarantee at all costs that we will survive. In the digital world that we’re all living in now, it’s clear that the more information changes, the more we want to keep up with those changes. All we’re doing, without even realizing, is feeding on instant gratification.
Immediacy is the direct and instant involvement with an experience. Human beings love immediacy because they get instant gratification whenever they’re participating in an experience. The opportunity to offer you more chances to experiment instant gratification is essentially what the illusion of immediacy explores. However, more often than not, it’s not possible to participate in an experience that is not mediated. Adding the interface, or the medium, to the experience creates an illusion that makes you feel instant gratification and satiates you momentarily. This technique is what I call the illusion of immediacy.