Johnson, Interface Culture

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

Johnson’s middle chapters each account for an aspect of the interface:
, 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
: "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"

"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"

"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.