In semiotic terms, the computer interface acts as a code which
carries cultural messages in a variety of media. When you use the
Internet, everything you access - texts, music, video, navigable
spaces - passes through the interface of the browser and then, in
its turn, the interface of the OS. In cultural communication, a
code is rarely simply a neutral transport mechanism; usually it
affects the messages transmitted with its help. It may make some
messages easy to conceive and render others unthinkable. A code
may also provide its own model of the world, its own logical system,
or ideology; subsequent cultural messages or whole languages created
using this code will be limited by this model, system or ideology.
Most modern cultural theories rely on these notions. For instance,
according to Whorf-Sapir hypothesis which enjoyed popularity in
the middle of the twentieth century, human thinking is determined
by the code of natural language; the speakers of different natural
languages perceive and think about world differently. Whorf-Sapir
hypothesis is an extreme expression of "non-transparency of
the code" idea; usually it is formulated in a less extreme
form. But then we think about the case of human-computer interface,
applying a "strong" version of this idea makes sense.
The interface shapes how the computer user conceives the computer
itself. It also determines how users think of any media object accessed
via a computer. Stripping different media of their original distinctions,
the interface imposes its own logic on them. Finally, by organizing
computer data in particular ways, the interface provides distinct
models of the world. For instance, a hierarchical file system assumes
that the world can be organized in a logical multi-level hierarchy.
In contrast, a hypertext model of the World Wide Web models the
world as a non-hierarchical system ruled by metonymy. In short,
far from being a transparent window into the data inside a computer,
the interface bring with it strong messages of its own.
As an example of how the interface imposes its own logic on media,
consider "cut and paste" operation, standard in all software
running under modern GUI. This operation renders insignificant the
traditional distinction between spatial and temporal media, since
the user can cut and paste parts of images, regions of space and
parts of a temporal composition in exactly the same way. It is also
"blind" to traditional distinctions in scale: the user
can cut and paste a single pixel, an image, a whole digital movie
in the same way. And last, this operation also renders insignificant
traditional distinctions between media: "cut and paste"
can be applied to texts, still and moving images, sounds and 3D
objects in the same way.
If human-computer interface become a key semiotic code of the information
society as well as its meta-tool, how does this affect the functioning
of cultural objects in general and art objects in particular? In
computer culture it becomes common to construct the number of different
interfaces to the same "content." For instance, the same
data can be represented as a 2D graph or as an interactive navigable
space. Or, a Web site may guide the user to different versions of
the site depending on the bandwidth of her Internet connection.
Given these examples, we may be tempted to think of a new media
artwork as also having two separate levels: content and interface.
Thus the old dichotomies content - form and content - medium can
be re-written as content - interface. But postulating such an opposition
assumes that artwork's content is independent of its medium (in
an art historical sense) or its code (in a semiotic sense). Situated
in some idealized medium-free realm, content is assumed to exist
before its material expression. These assumptions are correct in
the case of visualization of quantified data; they also apply to
classical art with its well-defined iconographic motives and representational
conventions. But just as modern thinkers, from Whorf to Derrida,
insisted on "non-transparency of a code" idea, modern
artists assumed that content and form can't be separated. In fact,
from the 1910s "abstraction" to the 1960s "process,"
artists keep inventing concepts and procedures to assure that they
can't paint some pre-existent content.
This leaves us with an interesting paradox. Many new media artworks
have what can be called "an informational dimension,"
the condition which they share with all new media objects. Their
experience includes retrieving, looking at and thinking about quantified
data. Therefore when we refer to such artworks we are justified
in separating the levels of content and interface. At the same time,
new media artworks have more traditional "experiential"
or aesthetic dimensions, which justifies their status as art rather
than as information design. These dimensions include a particular
configuration of space, time, and surface articulated in the work;
a particular sequence of user's activities over time to interact
with the work; a particular formal, material and phenomenological
user experience. And it is the work's interface that creates its
unique materiality and the unique user experience. To change the
interface even slightly is to dramatically change the work. From
this perspective, to think of an interface as a separate level,
as something that can be arbitrary varied is to eliminate the status
of a new media artwork as art.
There is another way to think about the difference between new
media design and new media art in relation to the content - interface
dichotomy. In contrast to design, in art the connection between
content and form (or, in the case of new media, content and interface)
is motivated. That is, the choice of a particular interface is motivated
by work's content to such degree that it can no longer be thought
of as a separate level. Content and interface merge into one entity,
and no longer can be taken apart.
[This essay is excerpted from the book "The Language of New
Media" (MIT Press, 2001).]