Sunday, August 20, 2006

Johnson, Interface Culture

Johnson, Steve Berlin. Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Communicate. San Francisco: Harper Edge, 1997.

Johnson's Interface Culture is a masterful, easy-to-read mix of history and simplified interface theory. He leads with an acknowledgement that his project mingles "technical explanations, historical narratives, and cultural analogies" (9). In the introduction, "Bitmapping," Johnson recounts Doug Engelbart's 1968 demonstration of an interface: a three-dimensional screen on information space. Interfaces ultimately make digital code (sequences of zeros and ones) comprehensible. Filtering is inevitably part of this process. Furthermore, according to Johnson, Engelbart's significant contribution was the notion of "direct manipulation" (20). Direct manipulation introduces a degree of control over the information environment. Users are able to modify the information using QWERTY keyboards and the mouse (21). Engelbart's contribution was to frame as possible the realm of information space, out of which a language emerged for the instruments and processes related to information space: "cyberspace, surfing, navigating, webs, desktops, windows, dragging, dropping, point-and-clicking" (24). Johnson ends the first chapter by accounting for the different tie between medium and message (the interface's variation on broadcast media).

Johnson's middle chapters each account for an aspect of the interface: desktop, windows, links, text, agent.

Desktop (42): follows the logic of the pile. Desktop is a metaphor for the interface. Other attempts failed because the metaphors ran too close to simulation (metaphor/simulation are dichotomies in the final chapter). Steven Jobs coined the desktop metaphor and profited mightily. The desktop evolved into an icon-laden scene with some permanent additions: trash can, etc. "Instead of being a medium for shut-ins and introverts, the digital computer turns out to be the first major technology of the twentieth century that brings strangers closer together, rather than pushing them farther apart" (64). Rem: The Palace, chess matches, first-person shooters (72).

Windows: Johnson defines the two epochs in the history of interface design as "pre-windows and post-Windows" (76). The appeal of Windows is the ability it offers the user to switch between open apps, particular because there is a premium on display space (81). "Of all the basic building-block metaphors in the rhetoric of interface, the window has evolved the least over the past twenty years" (85). Johnson included an interesting discussion of Darwin's exaptation: "novel, unexpected applications of these new traits" (91), counterpart to adaptations. Frames are exaptations, according to Johnson. End: overview of battled for the browser market, with WSJ promoting IE. "The browser is a metaform, a mediator, a filter" (102).

Links: The fourth chapter is an overview of hypertext. Begins with the insufficiency of the surfing metaphor for web-based activity. It was ported, problematically, from channel-surfing to describe activity on the web. The difference, "A Web surfer clicks on a link because she's interested" (109). Johnson reads hypertext tendencies through Dickens, Vennevar Bush's Memex with "trails of interest" (116), and the stylized linking practices at Suck, where rather than an "extended reading" set of links, they used links with individual words to introduce variability and surprise--an excess of word-level paths (emph units of discourse, rel. page and Trimbur).

Text: Here, Johnson accounts for the tension between word and image in the GUI. He says the image triumphs, but the word is still vital both for content and command. The word processor, Johnson writes, has changed writing: "But for me, the most intriguing side effect of the word processor lies in the changed relationship between a sentence in its conceptual form and its physical tranlation onto the page or the screen" (143). He details how he has learned to write differently with a computer--a common process that seems to be described in such detail only rarely. In the last half of the chapter, he accounts for Don Foster's semantic forensics (153) with Shakespeare and the exciting possibilities for a computational-semantic wherewithal in searching and associative apps (View, V-Twin).

Agents: Johnson explores the accumulative intelligence of "intelligent agents": digital personalities (human-machine hybrids) that aggregate tendencies and report in return on probable preferences. Intelligent-agent technology has taken off since Johnson wrote in 1997. His examples range from Ask Jeeves (the knowing butler) to Firefly (196) to Telescript (a remote-programming model). But a number of other recent examples--Amazon, Netflix, HSS--extend this set of issues. "We will migrate from the stultifying but stable system of mass media to themore anarchic realm of cultural feedback loops" (199). With intelligent agents we find increasing "indirect manipulation" (anticipatory intelligences based upon habit). Johnson also gets at the problem of gaming the database (baiting the agent, we might say).

Final chapter: "Infinity Imagined." Johnson identifies a series of interface dichotomies: Spatial Depth vs. Psychological Depth (217), Society vs. the Individual (221), Mainstream vs. the Avant-garde (224), One interface or Many (227), Metaphor vs. Simulation (231), Fragmentation vs. Synthesis (235): "What, then , are the blind spts of our own age? We have already encountered a few: the tyranny of image over the text, the limitations of the desktop metaphor, the potential chaos of intelligent agents. But there is a more fundamental--and for that reason more difficult to perceive--blind spot in the high-tech imagination, and it has to do with the general region of experience that the interface is felt to occupy" (212). (Also, Myst, Sonic the Hedgehog)

Terms: "memory palaces" (12), symbolic systems (15), "direct manipulation" (20), "platform agnostic" (100), "links of association" (112), "DOS complex" (150), "logophobia" (150), "word inventory" (154), high-information words (162), "semantic interface" (171), "design orthodoxy" (223), "conceptual turbulence" (238)

"In Englebart's day, of course, computers weren't terribly skilled in the art of representation: the lingua franca of modern computing had been a bewildering, obscure mix of binary code and abbreviated commands, data loaded in clumsily with punch cards, and output to typewritten pages" (13).

"But here's the rub: these new organisms [in the larger cultural ecology] don't tell stories. They riff, annotate, dismantle, dissect, sample" (26).

"We are fixated with the image not because we have lost faith in reality, but because images now have an enormous impact on reality, to the extent that the older image-reality opposition doesn't really work anymore" (30). ^This is an intriguing claim. When did this happen?

"There's something thrilling about that new open-endedness [of hypertext], but also something profoundly lonely" (126).

"The graphic interface revolution has changed all that: we now intuitively understand that visual metaphors--all those blinking icons and desktop patterns and pull-down menus--have an important, and cognitive function" (149).

"In these climates, all manner of metaforms appear: condensers, satirists, interpreters, samplers, translators" (32).

Related sources:
Bush, Vennevar. "As We May Think." Atlantic Monthly. 1954.
Dolnick, Edward. "The Ghost's Vocabulary." Atlantic Monthly. Oct. 1991.
Foster, Donald W. Author Unknown. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.
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