Writing Machines, per the title of Katherine Hayles’ 2002 book, are the inscription technologies — the implements and tools — that produce literary texts. This nomenclature at first seems a bit off. These machines (Hayles refers to printing presses and computers, for instance) don’t write. They represent and inscribe the writings of human beings, but they do not create ex nihilo.
This apparent misnomer, however, actually reveals the thesis of Hayles’ book: the technologies by which and through which we apprehend writings are integral to, and perhaps constitutive of the meanings those writings manifest. In fact, we cannot speak of writing, Hayles argues, without referring to the machines that support its being and facilitate its appearance in the world.
This provocative thesis runs counter to prevailing opinion, on the street and in the academy. Hayles observes there has traditionally been “a sharp line between representations and the technologies producing them… literary studies has generally been content to treat fictional and narrative worlds as if they were entirely products of the imagination” (19). I believe she would agree that writing machines are effectively invisible to most readers — few might begin to recognize the profound ways in which their experience of meaning is shaped by the media through which they apprehend.
“There is no reality independent of mediation,” Hayles remarks (110). She calls this the “crisis characteristic” of postmodernism. Generally, postmodernism might regard mediation as pure subjectivity — the mediation of consciousness through forms as space and time. In Writing Machines, however, Hayles goes some distance towards arguing that the notion of pure subjectivity is inadequate to account for the real ways in which our contemporary experience is mediated. New technotexts, she claims, actually suggest that “the appropriate model for subjectivity is a communication circuit rather than discrete individualism…narration remediation rather than representation, and…reading and writing inscription technology fused with consciousness rather than a mind conveying its thoughts directly to the reader” (130). In other words, apprehension of a representation of any sort of communication in a direct, one-to-one manner is not really possible. Meanings change, accrete, morph and refract as they pass through inscription technologies and become fodder for us. Regarding the locus of meaning, “Consciousness alone is no longer the relevant frame but rather consciousness fused with the technologies of inscription” (117).
The arguments Hayles builds through her analysis (or inhabitation) of such technotexts as Mark Danielewski’s bestselling House of Leaves are developed within the confines of literary theory, but seem to burst forth into the realm of contemporary epistemology. For, aren’t these remediated transactions characteristic of everyday experience in the western world? Indeed, Hayles says, “…the materiality of inscription thoroughly interpenetrates the represented world. Even when technology does not appear as a theme, it is woven into the fictional world through the processes that produce the literary work as material artifact” (130). A great deal of our existence is comprised of encounters with the represented world. To what extent does the ground Hayles traverses in Writing Machines offer insight into contemporary consciousness writ large?
Lev Manovich, in The Language of New Media, charts the concurrent development of modern media and computers. In the 1890s, he notes, when the still image was put in motion, people all over the world “found it irresistible” (23). Manovich speculates that “the increasingly dense information environment outside the theater” overwhelmed the consciousnesses of people living in that era — the occasional retreat into a dark theater was a therapeutic respite for many.
In Windows and Mirrors: Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency, Diane Gromala and Jay David Bolter describe the multiplicity of media forms that constitute experience for us in today’s world (66). They propose that reflective, mediated interfaces provide the most sensible, responsible, and desirable response to multiplicity. We do not need to “look through the experience to a world beyond, but rather…right at the surface.”
People crucially need help dealing with, processing, and thriving in the environment of information overload that is modern life. Contemporary design theorists and cultural critics offer insight not only into the modern condition but also into the possibilities design might offer for helping make sense of the world and finding ways to prosper in it. Increasingly, design thinkers are working to find ways to situate people in the center of design — thinking closely about context and the locus of meaning. Through a careful positioning of the individual participant/user in a designed situation, the anxiety-inducing conditions of modernity can be tempered into manageable, sensible, meaningful experience. This is the task of design in the present age.
John Thackara, in his book In The Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, recounts an article from Britain’s The Guardian: a patient with a personality disorder was having great difficulty understanding his diagnosis, even with the assistance of his family doctor and the local health team. Soon he discovered, to his relief, that the Internet provided him a vastly helpful source of personal advice and information. “It’s very difficult to explain the sense of relief…Yes, I had a serious mental health difficulty, but…I soon realised millions of people over the world were struggling…Suddenly I didn’t feel quite so alone” (120).
This anecdote captures the transformation of one individual from anguished and overwhelmed to calm, cool, and contextualized. The community this man located and to which he connected through his dealings on the Web helped him sort through an out-of-control emotional reality and find a situated way of being.
There is a profound tension between modernity’s complex, multi-layered experience and the most pervasive forms of mediation, which seem to imply that truth needs no mediation at all. This latter idea is what Bolter and Gromala refer to as the Myth of Transparency (49) — the idea that synthetic experience should steer as close to original experience as possible. Bolter and Gromala argue that purely transparent design experiences do little to help us make sense of multiplicity.
Stemming from longheld painterly traditions emphasizing realism (which have percolated through the history of design), the Myth of Transparency is employed too frequently by designers to buttress the common assumption that interfaces should remain essentially invisible to a user. The “desktop” metaphor employed by the standard Graphical User Interface is design’s “prime expression” of this desire for transparency, Bolter and Gromala say (41). "The task of the GUI is to convince the user that the computer is her desktop" (44). A user “thinks she is opening a folder by clicking on it, but her clicks are really launching a series of computer instructions to fetch binary data from memory or the disk, convert that data into a graphic form, and display it on the screen as the "contents" of the folder" (43).
Further, in the standard GUI, information is accessed through windows, which encourage a “looking-through” the interface into the realm of truth beyond. The problem with windows is that they do little to further a looker’s sense of where she stands in relation to the world she encounters. Rather than placing the individual at the center of experience, windows remove people from the heart of being by fixing their positions as onlookers, capable only of receiving fixed, established truths from afar.
Bolter and Gromala offer a counter paradigm of design as mirror. They contend that design can reflect a user’s needs and wants — indeed selves — in all their complexity (74). Bolter and Gromala show that total transparency is not only impossible to achieve (hence the myth), but undesirable and problematic as well. New mediums, in particular digital interfaces, reflect whether we want them to or not. We should embrace this condition and design interfaces that call us into active relationships with information, recognizing that meaning is created and the world becomes real in the moment of experience and engagement. "Digital interfaces…reflect the user in context…the most compelling interfaces will make the user aware of her contexts and, in the process, redefine (them)" (27). This is, in Thackara’s term, recognizing the flow — the stream of complexity in which we may either sink or swim. Design should aspire to provide us with rafts and paddles, showing us where we are and equipping us to survive the whitewater.
I don't think we're yet working with a clear understanding of the term "interface." (This proves a bit of a problem, considering "interface" is precisely what we're supposed to be investigating this semester.) Of course, within some specified parameters we should be considering and debating what the notion entails, but we need a firm place to start.
The results of our first project revealed a great deal of variance in impressions — asked to identify an interface, class members pointed to everything from simple tools (eating utensils) to unfiltered environments (parks) as examples. Though there is a sense in which one might call any object of consciousness an "interface" between mind and reality, I don't believe it does us any good to consider "everything" to be interface.
Denise says interface: "refers to the point at which two systems, subjects or organizations meet and interact." She also describes interface as a "condition of contact" between two objects or systems (a somewhat vague indicator — taken from the language of the physical sciences — which probably led to some of our initial "interface-is-everything" confusion).
I know Denise would like our investigations to roam expansively, but I believe we need to set some parameters. Well into our second project, some of us seem to be working with an untenable impression of the concept, in my opinion. Too simple, too inclusive — if the objects and systems we're investigating don’t reveal a consistent position in this regard, we're thwarting our own best intentions.
I want to propose the outlines of a workable, inclusive definition of interface — by way, partially, of considering what interface is NOT. I do have a positive formulation of the notion in mind, but I believe it will be clearer if I get a couple of things out of the way.
1. Interface is not a tool or implement.
A tool, in the simple sense, is an object used to transfer force from one body to another. It has a limited and mechanical function. A fork is a tool for eating; a hammer is a tool for banging. Though a tool lives in the space between a human and the world, its function and possibility is limited by design to yield a particular outcome. (The word "tool" is often used as shorthand for more complex systems — I am referring here to tools as simple physical implements or extensions.) Its orientation is outward — there is nothing about a tool (per se) that indicates the dialogue of between-ness that interface implies.
2. Interface is not a simple mechanism.
We interact daily with a slew of simple machines, from doors with knobs to toothbrushes to coffee grinders. This is where the terrain gets a little muddy, but I believe these simple mechanisms shouldn't qualify as interfaces. Their possibilities of use are limited to particular ends, just as are tools. One may be tempted to say, "I interface with the door by means of its knob," or "I interface with the room through the door." While grammatically correct, perhaps, these propositions do not bolster the sense of "interface" we intend in our design investigations. The outcome of one's interaction with a doorknob can only lead to one result: the door opening (or not). The knob, therefore, is a tool, which is not an interface. The door itself is also more like a tool — it closes off or opens paths through which we may travel, but its function as a barrier or affordance is a direct, unalterable outcome of its design.
The case of the coffee grinder is a bit less clear, but I believe it plays out the same way. The grinder grinds. That is all. "But," one might say, "I can turn a knob and press a button to use it — I can even set a timer and have it grind for me before I wake in the morning." Sure, the grinder could have options, a basic range of functionality. The grinder might have an interface, in fact. But the grinder itself is not an interface. It’s a tool.
3. Interface is not a one-way street.
Even some more complex mechanisms do not qualify as interfaces. Take the gauge or meter, for instance. In its essential functionality, it provides data. It may read pressures or volumes. It may be built from gears and pistons; it may work electronically. It may even have a computerized display. But I do not think the gauge is an interface. No matter how complex of a mechanism it may be, it exists and works to be read. It has one fixed orientation. It only provides information. It faces — it does not interface.
Another example: the telephone. The wired phone is a relatively recent, relatively complex tool. It works to connect two (or more) people via electronic signals that translate, transmit, and manifest audio artifacts. But, essentially, this is all it does. The handset and line functions in a prescribed way — a predetermined manner etched indelibly in its design. Even though the telephone is a miracle of modern technology, it is not an interface, per se. It fits more easily in the class of tool (and interface is not a tool).
Of course, a gauge or a telephone may allow variable input through a number of affordances. A gauge might have some input capacity that allows feedback into the situation being monitored. A rotary phone has a dial with ten numbers that can be spun in any sequence. A touch-tone phone has even more keys. A modern cellular phone may offer everything from traditional phone functionality to internet browsing, GPS, and video. These additional affordances highlight the difference between interfaces and tools. Tools can have interfaces. But tools themselves are not interfaces.
* * * * *
What, then, might approximate a positive formulation of this elusive thing? Here’s my shot at it:
Interface is an object or system, existing between two or more things other than itself, which contains within it the possibility of a change in the conditions of contact between the other things.
Let me try to unpack this a little.
First, since an interface exists between two or more other things, it must in a sense be passed through by those other things in order to afford the change in conditions of contact I believe are requisite to its being. Its being is supported by its facilitation of responsive interaction. It is, in a sense, a membrane. But it is not passive — it facilitates a certain kind of change as it is passed-through.
This in-between state implies that each of the objects associated with an interface is able, in some way, to affect the dynamic of the relationship built around and supported by the interface. This affect-ability does not imply a volitional consciousness on each side, however. It simply means that the information an object, thing, or person receives through an interface on one side is related to the state of being of that which is on the other side. I’ll say more about this.
Consider, for instance, a user of a computerized catalog in process of searching an archive for a particular book. The interface here is the catalog, designed to function in between the user and the archive — two things that are not interfaces, per se. What passes through the interface from the user’s side is the manifestation of her intent: computer code specifying search terms. On the side of the archive, there is no conscious mind or intent, to be sure, but there is a huge collection of data that will be mined, reconfigured, and sorted by the interface in order to show something particular to the user. The search input results in a particular bit of data being passed from the archive through the membrane of the interface to the user. If it is the bit of data the user wanted, she is done searching. Thus the interface has supported on one side a change in condition of the user (aspirant to searcher to satisfied finder) and on the other side a change in condition of the data (which was sorted and read, made legible in a particular way by the interface).
It is easy to see how an interface can facilitate a change in the conditions of contact of a volitional, conscious user. It is not as clear what we mean by a "change in the conditions of contact" when we consider non-conscious objects, systems or data on the other side. I think I can explain this, however.
Things appear to us in limited ways. The shape of our human consciousness (which is particularly situated in certain spatial and temporal relationships) restricts our perspectives on the matters and structures of the reality that surrounds us. We can only apprehend certain views of our reality — a reality comprised by these objects of consciousness — at any given moment. Other views might be given in time, or with a shift in perspective. But other views still are inaccessible without technological assistance, and some views are permanently cordoned off. In terms of our awareness, things are limited to what they appear to be. So, it is precisely the revealing of new vantages on the objects of consciousness through an interface that heralds a change in condition of those objects for us. Interface affords us new experiences of a new world that could not exist without it — this is why we may speak of a "change in the conditions of contact" of that which we apprehend through an interface. We see things differently through an interface because they are, in fact, made different by the interface.
The interface contains within itself the possibility of a change in the conditions of contact of those things which pass through it.
* * * * *
Interface is a bit of a slippery notion, but I believe it points clearly to a certain kind of thing in a certain kind of scenario. When we call something an interface, we’re speaking not only to the thing itself but also to its relationships with the other stuff it exists between. It’s important for us to understand the complexity of the notion in order that we can target our investigations with informed intent. The dynamic manifest around and through an interface is ripe for interrogation, and I think we should start here.