The archaeology of the interface

Darren Tofts applauds a new book demythologising interface history

Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate
Steven Johnson
New York, Harper Collins, 1997

In the emerging discipline of “interface criticism” there is an unfortunate tendency to de-historicise the relationship between people and information spaces. The idea, a la Borges, of the digital world coming into being five minutes ago, with no memory of a past, is a nonsense. In Interface Culture Steven Johnson has impressively treated this cultural amnesia and set the record straight, hopefully once and for all, on the history of the interface. There have been other studies of interface development and design, however Interface Culture is written with such verve and modest authority that it resounds as the most persuasive and engaging work on the subject to have appeared so far.

Interface Culture is thoroughly researched and fluently written. It covers all the familiar bases and offers a succinct account of what could be called the standard genealogy of the interface. This incorporates its founding moments and decisive breakthroughs, the usual suspects, such as Douglas Engelbart, Ivan Sutherland and Vannevar Bush, and their signature technologies, the graphic user interface, Sketchpad and the Memex, respectively. It also outlines the predominant conceptual models of interface design that can be traced back to the late 1960s and the pioneering work done by Engelbart and researchers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre. Johnson maps out the dramatic, transitional stages and trends within interface design, such as the shift from command lines to windows, desktop metaphors and the principle of direct manipulation which liberated the user from the need to remember esoteric strings of code. In its place the graphic user interface (GUI) offered a more intuitive, visual representation of different modes of operation—it revolutionised the way people conceived of information space by creating an illusion of information as something representable in comprehensible terms, and by allowing users to control the illusion by moving information around (cutting and pasting etc). Johnson also teases out the social and cultural assumptions behind such trends within interface design, quite rightly demonstrating that there is a lot more to the stages of the interface than technological determinism. Drawing on the work of Sherry Turkle, Johnson suggests that the shift from the “fixed position of the command line” to the “anarchic possibilities” of the windows environment traces the route of the subject in Western philosophy, from the breakdown of the unified Enlightenment self to the proliferation of multiple viewpoints, contingency and relativism; the state of being otherwise known as the postmodern condition.

This is not to say that Johnson touts a doctrinaire, postmodernist line, replete with clichés of non-linearity, indeterminacy and fin-de -everything. On the contrary, He is astute and cautious in his development of a critique of interface culture. He clearly has no truck with the cool, aphoristic posturings of the post-literate set, arguing that if a new way of writing is upon us it is not the offspring of cyberpunks or hackers. More specifically, he redresses the default theorising which relegates old media to the dustbin of linearity, and supplants it with the multiplicity of new media, such as hypertext. In the admonitory spirit of Ted Nelson, Johnson refreshingly advances that much web-based writing is “unapologetically linear” and one-dimensional, and is a far cry from the free-form, revolutionary poetics customarily associated with the web. Johnson denounces the theme of “disassociation” as it pertains to hypertext, and elegantly articulates how the navigation of information space is a synthetic, rather than fragmentary act, “a way of drawing connections between things, a way of forging semantic relationships”. In this he has consolidated the emerging field of interface philology, which recognises that the digital age is not a break with the past, but a continuation of it, a transitional moment in the evolutionary drama of the grammar and technology of language.

This is nowhere better illustrated than in the inventive historical links Johnson articulates (he describes Interface Culture as a “book of links”), connections between desktop metaphors and Gothic cathedrals, hypertext and the metropolitan novels of the 19th century. He develops a series of fascinating and at times disarming conceits, in which a remark from the poet Coleridge (“The principle of the Gothic architecture is infinity made imaginable”) becomes an heuristic device for conceptualising the way the interface structures and represents abstract information; or the tumultuous reception of modernist art works, such as Ulysses and The Rite of Spring, and the early responses to the GUI; or more significantly, that the identification of information space is as profound as the discovery of perspective in the visual lexicon of the Renaissance. It is not only that such parallels have the ring of rightness about them, as they are deftly woven by Johnson’s measured prose, but that they fit into a much larger perception of the residual effects of cultural change. While we may no longer live in a world in which the novel, as an art form, fulfils the needs it satisfied in the 19th century (as people grappled with the technological effects of the industrial revolution), its underlying structure, or logic, prevails in the interface, which “performs a comparable service”, namely, of providing intelligible maps of the “virtual cities of the twenty-first century”. The significance of this Johnson makes compellingly clear, observing that the “way we choose to organise our space says an enormous amount about the society we live in—perhaps more than any other component of our cultural habits”. For too long the interface has been delimited as a pointy-clicky way of working with information, when it is more profoundly and more fundamentally a semantic gestalt that has taken many guises over the centuries. The GUI is its most recent manifestation.

Interface Culture is a timely work that makes a vital contribution to current debates about interface design, information space, and the status of literacy in the age of the digital network. But even more than this, it is a wonderful archaeology of remembrance, a testament to the cultural memory of this thing called the interface.

RealTime issue #24 April-May 1998 pg. 22

© Darren Tofts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 1998