Review – Interface Culture: An Investigation of How the Modern Interface Influences Our Society by Anne Tropeano
The computer interface is the software that translates digital information into a symbolic system we can understand. Steven Johnson’s Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate traces the evolution of interface design and explores its broad cultural and social impacts on our lives. We also learn the limitations of the current interface and catch a glimpse of its future directions. Building his argument with analogies to literature and art, Johnson renders a startling vision that situates interface design as the foremost technological innovation shaping our cognition and our interaction with one another.
Interface Culture has three central claims: (1) modern interface design has broad creative, cultural, and social impacts on human communication; (2) the visual metaphors used in interface design are as important as the functions they signify; and (3) a new type of criticism must emerge to fully grasp the societal effects of the interface. Johnson supports these claims by probing five aspects of the interface: the desktop, windows, links, text, and intelligent agents.
Interface Culture speaks to two audiences — the general computer user and the expert programmer. Johnson provides a history of interface design that is useful to both, and asks us to survey the cultural consequences of the design choices made by those in the industry. Because Johnson focuses on the social impact of technology, he doesn’t alienate the general user with esoteric terminology. However, techies won’t be bored; Johnson distinguishes design work as some of the most important computer development to date. He contextualizes these technologies with cultural analogies to the Dickens novel, the invention of the automobile, and Gothic architecture. He elevates the interface to an art, and, in so doing, provokes programmers to think in new ways.
Broad creative, social, and cultural impact. Johnson argues throughoutInterface Culture that interface design impacts our society in both minor and momentous ways. For example, the significance of the first modern interface, invented by Doug Engelbart in 1968, is that it represented the computer for the first time as a spatial environment. Engelbart invented the window, significantly changing our cognition; information space was transformed from an abstract idea (in the days of the C prompt) into a landscape. In addition, Engelbart affords us representation in this landscape in the form of a cursor that is controlled by a mouse. The mouse provides us with the illusion of direct manipulation; instead of telling the computer to perform an action, we appear to do it ourselves (e.g., open a file). With windows and direct manipulation, Johnson regards Engelbart gave us what Johnson regards as “the first machine worth living in” (p. 25).
Secondly, Alan Kay gave Engelbart’s spatial environment the most effective metaphor to date: the desktop. Our cognition of information space was altered again; the landscape now had an illusion of depth enacted by overlapping windows. Macintosh enriched Kay’s initial metaphor by adding “personality and playfulness” (p. 49), manifested in windows that zoomed open, charming icons, and an appealing graphic design. This desktop metaphor had a vast social impact: the once cryptic command line was replaced by a metaphor far less intimidating, which, in turn, made the computer more appealing to a widespread demographic. The personal computer revolution ensued, and our lives began their irrevocable shift into the desktop landscape.
The import of visual metaphors. Because the interface is the filter through which we view information space, Johnson reasons that its visual illusions are as important as the functions they signify. We cannot understand raw digital data; it is translated through the metaphors imagined by interface designers. Currently, the architectural metaphor shapes our concept of the Internet. The Palace site, for example, added a spatial element to the textual chat room genre by providing visitors a three-dimensional “visual presence” that floats through a palace setting. The architectural metaphor is pushed one step further by the video game Quake where users build their own three-dimensional environments and share them with others. For Johnson, the lens of the architectural metaphor influences how virtual communities are built as much as the building itself. Users see a graphical representation of themselves interacting in a particular scene; certainly, even if the same information were transmitted, the encounter would differ if, say, it were experienced in a redwood forest as opposed to an urban downtown.
Secondly, Johnson argues that windows are not spatially organized but instead provide us with only the beginnings of such an illusion. Users still generally think of files in textual terms; “we pretend that we’re remembering ‘where’ we put the file, but what we’re remembering is the name of the folder that contains it” (p. 78). In contrast, Apple’s Planet X imagines the data as a galaxy where the documents and folders float around planets. The user therefore relies on remembering the spatial location of a file. Johnson states: “At a few, enthralling moments, I found myself thinking … its back there somewhere, up and to the left a little, about two or three planets deep” (p. 80). Applying a more spatial metaphor would exercise our “innate capacity for visual memory” (p. 76), possibly making us more efficient users.
Johnson also asserts that the role of text in our current interface has been sorely ignored due to our preoccupation with graphics. To indicate the possibilities, Johnson notes Apple’s V-Twin software, which achieved a creative breakthrough by using text to organize our data by meaning. V-Twin uses text pattern recognition programs to statistically detect linguistic attributes, such as word choice frequency (i.e., how many times specific words — unique to the document analyzed — are used). We enter in textual criteria into V-Twin, then the software creates a View folder that contains files matching our stipulations. In this case, the perception of organization, the function signified, is altered by the metaphorical shift from an illusion of location to an illusion of meaning. Each metaphor has benefits, and these benefits emerge precisely because of the metaphor’s design.
A new type of criticism. Johnson calls for a new type of criticism that can only spring from a raised consciousness regarding interface design. The interface affects many aspects of our lives; therefore, this new type of criticism must extend beyond the realm of interface design to explore legal and ethical issues. For example, web frames, which carve up windows into separate units (usually separated by a scroll bar), have sparked a struggle for intellectual property rights. A frame within a web site can point directly to another site without asking permission:
If I show you a copy of Newsweek through my personal window, is that like selling a tape of the World Series without the ‘express written consent of Major League Baseball’? Or is it like inviting friends over to watch a ball game from an apartment that happens to overlook Comiskey Park? (p. 96)
Furthermore, the ethics by which companies conduct business must be explicitly defined. Johnson points out an egregious ethics violation that went unnoticed by the general public. The Wall Street Journal struck a deal with Microsoft to waive the Journal’s annual web site fee if users accessed it with Microsoft Explorer. This pact clearly violated their journalistic integrity, as the Journalclaimed to be objectively covering the browser war between Microsoft and Netscape. Without new type of criticism to explore such unfamiliar territory, Johnson believes we will not be able to adequately resolve issues that threaten honesty, integrity, and fair play.
This new type of criticism will also benefit in the evaluation of intelligent agents. Intelligent agents are programs designed to partially mimic human intelligence by anticipating our needs. For example, traveling agents, which represent us in dealing with other agents, are dispatched from the user’s computer on a mission (such as to purchase the lowest priced airline tickets). The significance of operating the traveling agent stems from the forfeiture of our authority that is required for the computer to make decisions on our behalf. Because agents cannot distinguish our subjective tastes, they could return volumes of information that, in fact, do not meet our tastes or requests. For instance, “you might be a huge Dickens fan, but that doesn’t make you a lover of Victorian serial novels written by men” (p. 193). In addition, corporations will design their own traveling agents, causing advertising to “transform into the art of controlling agents” (p. 183). As a result, we will receive scores of “push” media — information sent to us by agents that anticipate our need before we ask for it. Johnson concludes that these agents are “an excuse for poor interface design” (p. 191); instead, we should be focusing on “better ways to pull” (p. 191) information. Johnson warns that if we don’t begin this dialogue, we are bound for junk mail purgatory.
Interface Culture’s principal strength is the originality of Johnson’s decision to investigate interface design in the context of our larger culture. Computers have permeated every aspect of our daily lives; they have changed our workplace, the way we bank, the way we teach, and how we converse with our loved ones. Like architecture, “each design decision echoes and amplifies a set of values” (p. 44) and because “there is no such thing as digital information without filters” (p. 38), we must analyze interface design in a larger sociological framework.
The web is particularly significant because it has created new relationships between individuals and businesses. We currently appear to be judging the web by the same standards as print: freedom of speech protects our rights to place any idea in the public domain. However, the difference is becoming increasingly clear — the web is a virtual world with virtual communities. Therefore, “how we choose to imagine these new online communities is obviously a matter of great social and political significance” (p. 19). What we read in a newspaper may greatly affect us, but we are not experiencing it directly. In contrast, as technology becomes increasingly more realistic and the experience more authentic, how will we handle sites that, say, offer a virtual experience of raping and torturing a woman or molesting a child? If it looks like a crime, and feels like a crime, is it a crime? Will we legislate criminal laws for the web, establish Internet policing agencies? Johnson does not bring the discussion to this point; yet, it is appropriate as his most compelling argument is our need to awaken an awareness while these technologies are still in their infancy, so that we may make better informed decisions regarding their development and implementation.
Another strength of the piece is Johnson’s foresight of a more effective interface. He has a remarkable grasp of the limitations of the current interface, and provides us with a sense of vision. For example, Johnson resurrects Vannevar Bush’s Memex machine, a hybrid microfilm computer developed in the forties. Johnson praises its radical method of categorizing information; Bush regarded information as valuable not because of the group it belonged to, but because of “the connections it had to other data” (p. 119). In contrast to our current method of bookmarking singular sites without tracking the thought process that leads us to those sites, the Memex allowed users to build their own trails of interest, which were retained in the machine’s memory. Johnson encourages us to adopt these benefits of the Memex, to use the web “as a way of seeing new relationships, connecting things that might have otherwise been kept separate” (p. 123).
Johnson also dares us to be more creative with our links, possibly integrating hypertext as active parts of a sentence. Johnson probes Suck web site, which approached links quite differently from the typical homepage: instead of providing a link as an addendum that leaves the site’s message essentially intact, the Sucksters use links to withhold information from the reader. The links, integrated into the sentence structure, provide important context to the web site’s message; without them, the article reads differently. Therefore, the links are “like modifiers, like punctuation – something hardwired into the sentence itself…the links [are] a way of cracking the code of the sentences; the more you [know] about the site on the other end of the link, the more meaningful the sentence [becomes]” (p. 134-5). Johnson is intrigued by Suck’s links, and explores how such a decidedly nonlinear narrative would impact us. Because Suck’s web site is quite tedious, Johnson is not suggesting that it be used as a model for a new type of literacy but instead uses it to prompt us to think in new, creative ways.
A third strength of the Interface Culture is its style. Johnson is extremely engaging and provocative; he constructs his arguments with an effective blend of technical explanations, historical narratives, and cultural analogies. For example, he captivates us with the possibilities of the social agent, a feedback-driven intelligent agent that searches for patterns in the behaviors, tastes, etc. of the thousands of people who have run the agent. For instance, Firefly, a web site that recommends albums based on musical taste, has the user rank a certain number of albums, then compares that profile to thousands of others in its database. Firefly presents the user with a list of albums based on people who expressed similar tastes. Most importantly, though, users rank the albums recommended, “plugging information right back into the database, and allowing the agent to evaluate the success of its picks” (p. 197).
Johnson presents an exhilarating vision of how social agents could produce a democratic, chaotic revolution of music culture if they were allowed to direct radio and music television programming. Currently, corporations make the decisions as to who gets seen and heard; however, if social agents were employed, corporations would no longer decide who would get airplay as popularity would be determined by “a collective bottom-up process” (p. 199), with each individual listener deciding what s/he wanted to hear. The separation between mainstream and subculture would probably disappear, and our tastes would diversify. And, just maybe, talent and song quality — instead of physical attributes — would play a larger role in the success of a recording artist.
The weakness of Interface Culture is that some of the analogies and examples Johnson uses do not fully support his points. For example, Johnson draws an analogy between the Dickens’ novel and the hypertext links of the web. The Dickens novel is known for connecting the lives of his characters across social and economic barriers, making sense of the new unclear social roles wrought by the vast changes of the Industrial Revolution. “Where Dickens’ narrative links stitched together the torn fabric of industrial society, today’s hypertext links attempt the same with information. The imaginative crisis that faces us today is the crisis that comes from having too much information at our fingertips, the near-impossible task of contemplating a colossal web of interconnected computers” (p. 116). The purpose of an analogy is to clarify one thing by drawing out its similarities to another; however, this analogy creates confusion because it feels forced. The analogy to Dickens springs more from Johnson’s goal to equate the interface with high art rather than to illuminate the role of hypertext.
In addition, Interface Culture’s main audience is the educated computer user who is not necessarily an expert. Because his audience is so varied, Johnson’s frequent references to pop culture, art, and literature will probably be understood by each reader only in part. Nonetheless, whether the reader may miss the connection he is making, or Johnson may miss the mark, his analogies and examples are extremely thought provoking and fun to read. Furthermore, his central claims remain intact and he accomplishes his overall goal right from the outset, forcing us to think in new ways if we are to follow his journey.
Johnson’s words present an interesting fusion of ideas explored by literacy theorists Walter J. Ong, Eric Havelock, and David Olson. First, as Ong states, “print both reinforces and transforms of the effects of writing on thought and expression”. Interface Culture particularly extends the idea transformation (not reinforcement) to the medium of the computer. At various points in his piece, Johnson connects interface design to changes in cognition, such as when he describes the effects of Engelbart’s spatial landscape and Kay’s desktop metaphor. The connection to Ong is most explicitly made when Johnson posits that learning to compose on keyboard has affected the way we conceive our sentences:
The older procedure [writing with pen and paper] imposed a kind of upward ceiling on the sentence’s complexity: you had to be able to hold the entire sequence of words in your head, which meant that the mind naturally gravitated to simpler, more direct syntax… The word processor allowed me to zoom in on smaller clusters of words and build out from there… The computer had not only made it easier for me to write; it had also changed the very substance of what I was writing, and in that sense, I suspect, it had an enormous effect on my thinking as well (p. 143-145).
Furthermore, Johnson’s primary point is not how the computer has changed our cognition, but how the lens of the interface transforms the way we experience the information sphere, and subsequently the way we think and express ourselves.
Johnson also supports Havelock’s idea that “literacy when it came did not create a culture; it transmuted one which it inherited”. This sentiment runs throughInterface Culture: Johnson is interested in the medium’s effects on our culture as they “trickle down into the broad cross section of everyday life, altering our storytelling appetites, our sense of physical space, our taste in music, the design of our cities” (p. 213). Furthermore, Johnson views the invention of the interface similarly to the way Havelock views the invention of the alphabet. Havelock recognizes the alphabet as a symbolic system that makes literacy accessible to a widespread demographic. Unlike logographs and syllabaries, Havelock contends that the alphabet has a small number of components (i.e., letters) that can be combined to represent sounds “with relative accuracy3”; therefore, the alphabetic system creates “the possibility of a popular literacy4” because it can be learned more easily by the majority. Likewise, Johnson asserts that the modern interface transformed the specialized C prompt into an accessible metaphor the majority finds comprehensible; the interface established the foundation for the computer literacy revolution we are currently experiencing.
Johnson postulates that the metaphoric illusions filtering our experience of information space not only imply a specific mindset, but help to create it. In other words, our value system as a people and the design of interface are interrelational, shaping one another as they evolve. This argument strongly echoes Olson’s theory that writing systems “provide a model for language and thought5”. Olson believes the first people to use writing were not consciously trying to transcribe language and its structures (letters, words, phonemes, etc.); instead, the act of seeing the visual symbols provided an awareness of linguistic structure. Although interface designers are consciously trying to translate digital data, the possibilities are so vast that the interface is essentially providing us with a model for communication; its visual presence allows us to scrutinize it, uncover its components, change its syntax and grammar, and propel it in new directions. In addition, Johnson recognizes the interface as what Olson calls an “illusion of a full model6”; the interface creates blind spots to effectively translate the indecipherable world of raw digital data. However, the difference is that where Olson points this out as a drawback of the alphabet, Johnson sees the blind spots as a necessity for filtering the overload of available information.
Interface Culture, in Johnson’s own words, “is a preliminary survey of the field, a glimpse of the new medium in its formative years as it gropes uneasily for new ways to represent information” (p. 215). But more than this, Johnson’s book is a concentrated effort to raise our collective consciousness, to enlighten us to the enormity and pervasiveness of the impact that interface design decisions have on our culture. Certainly programmers and expert power users benefit from Johnson’s piece, but more importantly, the average, nonexpert user is empowered by Johnson’s grasp of interface design and his vision of its limitless possibilities. Whatever our background and level of computer expertise, Johnson engages our imagination and kindles our creativity. Interface Culture is a read that transforms us from passive users to active investigators, shifting our idle stares to inquisitive wonder.
1. Ong, Walter J. Orality & Literacy. Routledge, 1982.
2. Havelock, Eric. “The Coming of Literate Communication to Western Culture.” Perspectives on Literacy. Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, Mike Rose (Ed). Southern Illinois University Press, 1988. 127-134.
3. Olson, David. “What Writing Represents: A Revisionist History of Writing.” The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading. Cambridge University Press, 1994. 65-90.