Selfe and Selfe, “The Politics of the Interface”

Selfe, Cindy,
and Richard J. Selfe, Jr. " The Politics of the Interface: Power
and Its Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones." CCC 45.4
(1994): 480-503.

Selfe and Selfe set out to establish the political dimensions of the computer
interface and to recommend practical action steps for teachers of English.
The adopt two prevailing metaphors: "mapping" from Denis Wood’s The
Power of Maps
(1992) and "contact zones" from Mary Louise Pratt’s
"Arts of the Contact Zones" (1991). After opening with a brief anecdote
representative of racism at the Mexican border, Selfe and Selfe correlate
computers and interfaces specifically to a kind of borderland infused with "the
effects of domination and colonialism" (2). To understand interfaces as
"complex political landscapes" (2), we must first recognize them as educational
spaces (ideologically imbued; as consequential in what they reveal as what they
conceal or fail to display) and then we must read them critically as maps of 1.)
capitalism and class privilege (desktop, white pointer hand, default
icons); 2.) discursive privilege (Standard English in spellchecker and
OSes, devaluation of linguistic diversity, ASCII limitations); 3.)
rationalism and lagocentric privilege
(hierarchical; formal, propositional
logic). The critique doesn’t seem to account for trends toward
customizable web browsers (this, evidence of the times in which it was written).
It also seems oriented toward single-user interface encounters that are
not networked beyond a hardware/infrastructural connotation of the term.
In answer to the third point of criticism, they recommend the figure of the
as one who makes do and re-shuffles materials following intuition
more than hierarchical schemes.

As for practical action steps, Selfe and Selfe contend that we must begin
with recognizing these borders (the design orientations and political
infused-ness of the interface) and also that we "need to teach students and
ourselves useful strategies of crossing–and demystifying–these borders" (10).
Specifically, they recommend 1.) becoming critics as well as users (never mere
users); 2.) contributing to technology design (especially for faculty who are
experts in computers and composition); and 3.) involving interfaces as texts
(subject to critique and revision) in the composition classroom. To a degree,
this becomes a critical reading project, but it’s not clear that students in
1994 would have had the means to create interfaces themselves (in other words,
there’s little here about designing interfaces as a composition project,
although designing culturally just icons is mentioned (13)).

I. Computers as Learning Environments: History and Motivation
II. Mapping the Interface of Computers as Educational Space
III. Interfaces as Maps of Capitalism and Class Privilege
IV. Interfaces as Maps of Discursive Privilege
V. Interfaces as Maps of Rationalism and Lagocentric Privilege
VI. What to Do?
VII. Becoming Technology Critics as Well as Technology Users
VIII. Contributing to Technology Design
IX. Re-Conceiving the Map of the Interface
X. Toward Critical Readings of Interfaces

"Indeed, from the work of computers and composition specialists, it is clear
that computers, like other complex technologies, are articulated in many ways
with a range of existing cultural forces and with a variety of projects in our
education system, projects that run the gamut from liberatory to oppressive"

"If we hope to get English composition teachers to recognize how our use of
computers achieves both great good and great evil–often at the same time, as
Joseph Weizenbaum points out–we have to educate them to be technology
as well as technology users" (3).

"In effect, interfaces are cultural maps of computer systems, and as Denis
Wood points out, such maps are never ideologically innocent or inert" (4).

"The interface does not, for example, represent the world in terms of a
kitchen counter top, a mechanics workbench, or a fast-food restaurant–each of
which would constitute the virtual world in different terms according to the
valued and orientations of, respectively, women in the home, skilled laborers,
or the rapidly increasing numbers of employees in the fast-food industry" (5).

Related sources:
de Certau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven
Randall. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.
Faigley, Lester. Fragments of Rationality. Pittsburgh: U of
Pittsburgh P, 1992.
Feenberg, Andrew. Critical Theory of Technology. New York: Oxford
UP, 1991.
Ohmann, Richard. "Literacy, Technology, Monopoly Capitalism." College
47 (1985): 675-689.
Virilio, Paul. Speed and Politics. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. New
York: Semiotext(e), 1987.
Wood, Denis. The Power of Maps. New York, NY: Guilford, 1992.