Reading Notes: Johnson’s Interface Culture

Johnson, Steven. 1997. Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way we Create and Communicate. Basic Books.

[NB These are notes to self, they become pretty ungrammatical towards the end!]

This interesting and erudite book starts from the position that the collision of technology and culture is nothing new, but that with the increased pace of technological change the collision has become more obvious. That is, new media have always intersected with cultural change but major innovations have lasted for millenia (cave painting), centuries (printing) or decades (television). As media technology change begins to happen within the span of one lifetime the relationship with culture becomes more obvious. An important point here is that the invention of the technology is itself a creative cultural act; engineers have always been artists and vice versa. Thus, the modern science/art of interface design and its relationship to culture is the topic of the book. Obviously, this is a very technologically led (even determined?) point of view, but well put nonetheless.

The story begins with the 1968 demonstration of the first graphical user interface, complete with mouse and cursor, by Doug Englebart. This was the first creation of an information space on a computer, with the various now familiar spatial metaphors of desktops and trash cans. Paradoxically, it moves the user further away from the data processing (with a whole extra layer of code) while making the user feel in much more direct control. “the tactile immediacy of the illusion made it seem as though the information was now closer at hand, rather than farther away. You felt as though you were doing something directly with your data, rather than telling the computer to do it for you’ (21) No more typing esoteric codes to, say, delete a file, just drag it to the trash can. “That informationscape was both a technological advance and a work of profound creativity. It changed the way we use our machines, but it also changed the way we imagine them. For centuries, Western culture had fantasized about its technology in prosthetic terms, as a supplement to the body… but the bitmapped datasphere he [Englebart] unleashed on the world in 1968 was the first major break from the machine-as-prothesis worldview. For the first time, a machine was imagined not as an attachment to our bodies, but as an environment, a space to be explored. Your could project yourself into this world, lose your bearlings, stumble across things… Not since the Renaissance artisans hit upon the mathematics of painted perspective has technology so dramatically transformed the spatial imagination.” (24-5)

Johnson then shifts to talk about mass media and the unending rise of what he variously calls metamedia, metaforms or the parasite forms. What he means is the culture of celebrity and the enormous amout of programming and magazines that feed off other media. This, he argues, is ‘more than just standard issue postmodernism’ but argues rather that the mass media has become naturalized, a thing in itself rather than something that must speak to the ‘real’. (29) Thus its as natural to comment on the media as it is to comment on the weather. But, the form this commentry takes is of a particular type and performs a particular type. “What unites the diverse strains of this emergent species is a shared belief in the need for information filters – data making sense of other data. The parasite forms thrive in situations twhere the available information greatly exceeds our capacity to process it… They feed on surplus information, on the bewildering sensory overload of the contemporary mediasphere.” (32)

And this is where it all gets interesting, because Johnson contrasts the metamedia forms of today with the narrative structure of the Victorian novel. “Where the novel ushered its readers through the crowds and assembly lines of industrial life, the metaforms process and contextualize the byzantine new reality of information overload… The old-style narratives acculturated their audience to the industral age by building elaborate structures of casue and effect, connecting the increasingly atomized public spaces of the new cities, linking working-class orphans to withered aristocrats to idle speculators to colonial scavan ers. These narrative webs – dense and meticulously interwoven – were a way of restoring a sense of connection, of unity, to a culture that had transformed itself utterly in the space of fifty years. The novel was a response to the question: “What connects all these bewildering new social realities?” And that answer was phrased in the form of a story. The parasite forms, on the other hand, are a response to the question: “What does all this information mean? Which sources are the most reliable ones? How does this information relate to my own particular worldview?” The response arrives as a kind of hybrid, a mix of metaphor, footnote, translation and parody. It is a measure of the newness of the form that we lack a single word to describe it.” (33) Johnson, of course, and emphatically, draws the line between high culture and low – “Anyone who thinks MTV is the Shakespeare of our time would probably do well to have the cable cut off for a few months , just to get some perspective on it all” (34) and argues that the poor quality of the metaforms results from the fact that “they are taking on a symbolic task that exceeds the capacity of their medium.” He slips into a cultural criticism of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the character of Satan, to argue that when a new form comes about, the old forms strain to adapt themselves to the new, “a glimpse of the future shrouded in the worn, restrictive garments of the past, like a Cubist body rigged together with corsets and lace. They are the ghosts of technologies to come.” (34) Or, alternatively – “at transition points, some messages may evolve faster than their medium. And in doing so, they anticipate another medium, one that is still in embryo” (35) The point of all this, is that the low culture metaforms on the TV don’t work well, because they are essentially trying to do something that is suited for the digital world, and it is through an exploration of ‘interface culture’ – operating in a zone between medium and message, and between producer and consumer – that we can see what the metaform is becoming.

The following chapters dig into the details of various technological features, including their history as well as their relationship to culture:

– the desktop as a metaphor, bringing in ideas about the importance of creating space and how interface designers sometimes overplay the metaphor, accidentally bringing in the limitations of the real desktop. The spatial stuff brings in discussion of the computer as a technology that brings people together through the internet. But design of spaces affects the degree to which community is built. Text remaining the most useful medium of community building.

– Interesting new wrinkle in multiplayer shoot ’em up game, Quake, where players can design their own spaces to wage battles. These are then exchanged and bartered so that exchange starts to use space as the content, not the context, of exchange.

– windows the point being that you can multitask, by having many applications running and flicking between windows to move to different tasks. (elsewhere Turkle (Life on the Screen, 1997) talks about the way some early internet users took on many identities in MUDDs and flicked repeatedly between them, finding no difficulty in slipping between rather diverse made up identities). The windows also relate to our method of filing and again, text is shown to be important since our process of finding files is dependent on the way we’ve categorised (rather than, say, making use of our visual memories). Talking about potential improvements and innovations leads him to frames on websites, whereby you can show content from somebody else’s site. There is some interesting material on legal battles around news aggregator sites that sold advertising space alongside frames of ‘stolen’ content from major news corporations. “Over the next decade, this stiching together of different news and opinion sources will slowly become a type of journalism in its own right, a new form of reporting that synthesizes and digests the great mass of information disseminated online every day.” (104). There m ght be something relevant here about information overload, and the ‘information cocoon’.

– links weakness of the ‘surfing’ metaphor (given that it is supposed to be a comparison to channel surfing) highlights importance of hyperlinks that you use on the web to switch between resources. The hyperlinks are, for Johnson as many others, the key feature of the web. But, he points out that no major innovations in web scripting have touched the functions of hyperlinks. Yet, the basic technology has been used in multiple ways. Creation of hypertext was always meant to revolutionise story-telling, leading to nonlinear narrative where the reader can jump around in the larger text to choose their own pathway. However, its more creatively and usefully used at the level of syntax, more like the way we use adjectives and adverbs. Rather than explain all the nuances of a point you’re making you can just point to where that is done elsewhere, leading to denser prose.

– text starts with word processing, and the way the user interface shifts the way we actually write (and how it was only the desktop metaphor that brought about on screen writing, instead of transcription). Long digression about tendency to misunderstand new technologies. Note on how ingrained text is with icon based interface. Then he gets onto the interesting stuff which is about the potential for high level processing of the textual content of documents in order to say something about their content, style and so on. Great story of how it was worked out which parts Shakespeare played in his plays, by noting the effect of the memorized vocabulary of the part played on the play he was writing at the same time. Recognition of patterns in texts particularly useful for comparing different works and suggesting similarities and differences, so you get the potential for ‘find docs like this’ commands for finding and organising files, and saving search criteria permanently as ‘view’ folders, whose content changes as documents are created, deleted and modified.

– agents working against the trend of the user interface – which made the user smarter and gave them more direct feeling manipulation of their information – agents instead make manipulation less direct, and makes the computer smarter. Three types – personal (sits on your harddrive doing routine tasks for you); travelling (goes over the net coming back when there’s info to report); social (communicates with other agents). Technical differences in agent communication requiring and enabling ‘push’ media rather than ‘pull’ media, which means more agents guessing your info needs and fulfilling them before you’ve specifically asked. Gets onto Firefly programme for matching musical tastes using data of lots of other users (they liked x and y, you like x, you might like y), pattern matching again.

– infinity imagined summing up with the claim that the biggest innovation of the digital age is ‘information space’ created through interface design, and that that innovation will have significant effects on art forms, in fact, he describes interface design as if it is to be the dominant art form of the coming period. Difficult to perceive it this way because we don’t yet have a relevant language to describe it in “For the most part, our evaluative criteria reduce to the bottomdollar question: is it easy to use or not?… Its not that our interfaces are lacking in imaginative depth or complexity; its just that we don’t have the critical vocabulary to deal with them in anything but the most rudimentary forms” (217) So, there are some key oppositions/conflicts to be worked out through improvements in interface design that will have profound impacts: – spatial depth vs psychological depth – society vs the individual – mainstream vs avant-garde – one interface or many – metaphor vs simulation – fragmentation vs synthesis