Interface as the Key Category of Computer
Presentation at InterfaceExplorer symposium
In 1984 the director of Blade Runner Ridley Scott was hired to
create a commercial which introduced Apple Computer's new Macintosh.
In retrospect, this event is full of historical significance. Released
within two years of each other, Blade Runner (1982) and Macintosh
computer (1984) defined the two aesthetics which, twenty years,
still rule contemporary culture. One was a futuristic dystopia which
combined futurism and decay, computer technology and fetishism,
retro-styling and urbanism, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Since Blade Runner
release, its techno-noir was replayed in countless films, computer
games, novels and other cultural objects. And while a number of
strong aesthetic systems have been articulated in the following
decades, both by individual artists (Mathew Barney, Mariko Mori)
and by commercial culture at large (the 1980s "post-modern"
pastiche, the 1990s techno-minimalism), none of them was able to
challenge the hold of Blade Runner on our vision of the future.
In contrast to the dark, decayed, "post-modern" vision
of Blade Runner, Graphical User Interface (GUI), popularized by
Macintosh, remained true to the modernist values of clarity and
functionality. The user's screen was ruled by strait lines and rectangular
windows which contained smaller rectangles of individual files arranged
in a grid. The computer communicated with the user via rectangular
boxes containing clean black type rendered again white background.
Subsequent versions of GUI added colors and made possible for users
to customize the appearance of many interface elements, thus somewhat
deluding the sterility and boldness of the original monochrome 1984
version. Yet its original aesthetic survived in the displays of
hand-held communicators such as Palm Pilot, cellular telephones,
car navigation systems and other consumer electronic products which
use small LCD displays comparable in quality to 1984 Macintosh screen.
Like Blade Runner, Macintosh's GUI articulated a vision of the
future, although a very different one. In this vision, the lines
between human and is technological creations (computers, androids)
are clearly drawn and decay is not tolerated. In computer, once
a file is created, it never disappears except when explicitly deleted
by the user. And even then deleted items can be usually recovered.
Thus if in "meatspace" we have to work to remember, in
cyberspace we have to work to forget. (Of course while they run,
OS and applications constantly create, write to and erase various
temporary files, as well as swap data between RAM and virtual memory
files on a hard drive, but most of this activity remains invisible
to the user.)
Also like Blade Runner, GUI vision also came to influence many
other areas of culture. This influence ranges from purely graphical
(for instance, use of GUI elements by print and TV designers) to
more conceptual. In the 1990s, as the Internet progressively grew
in popularity, the role of a digital computer shifted from being
a particular technology (a calculator, a symbol processor, an image
manipulator, etc.) to being a filter to all culture, a form through
which all kinds of cultural and artistic production is being mediated.
As a window of a Web browser comes to replace cinema and television
screen, a wall in art gallery, a library and a book, all at once,
the new situation manifest itself: all culture, past and present,
is being filtered through a computer, with its particular human-computer
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. For instance, 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 which
I will refer to together as "non-transparency of the code"
idea. 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.
The interface comes to play a crucial role in information society
yet in a another way. In this society, not only work and leisure
activities increasingly involve computer use, but they also converge
around the same interfaces. Both "work" applications (word
processors, spreadsheet programs, database programs) and "leisure"
applications (computer games, informational DVD) use the same tools
and metaphors of GUI. The best example of this convergence is a
Web browser employed both in the office and at home, both for work
and for play. In this respect information society is quite different
from industrial society, with its clear separation between the field
of work and the field of leisure. In the nineteenth century Karl
Marx imagined that a future communist state would overcome this
work-leisure divide as well as the highly specialized and piece-meal
character of modern work itself. Marx's ideal citizen would be cutting
wood in the morning, gardening in the afternoon and composing music
in the evening. Now a subject of information society is engaged
in even more activities during a typical day: inputting and analyzing
data, running simulations, searching the Internet, playing computer
games, watching streaming video, listening to music online, trading
stocks, and so on. Yet in performing all these different activities
the user in essence is always using the same few tools and commands:
a computer screen and a mouse; a Web browser; a search engine; cut,
paste, copy, delete and find commands.
The term human-computer interface (HCI) describes the ways in which
the user interacts with a computer. HCI includes physical input
and output devices such a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse. It also
consists of metaphors used to conceptualize the organization of
computer data. For instance, the Macintosh interface introduced
by Apple in 1984 uses the metaphor of files and folders arranged
on a desktop. Finally, HCI also includes ways of manipulating this
data, i.e. a grammar of meaningful actions which the user can perform
on it. The example of actions provided by modern HCI are copy, rename
and delete file; list the contents of a directory; start and stop
a computer program; set computer's date and time.
The term HCI was coined when computer was mostly used as a tool
for work. However, during the 1990s, the identity of computer has
changed. In the beginning of the decade, a computer was still largely
thought of as a simulation of a typewriter, a paintbrush or a drafting
ruler -- in other words, as a tool used to produce cultural content
which, once created, will be stored and distributed in its appropriate
media: printed page, film, photographic print, electronic recording.
By the end of the decade, as Internet use became commonplace, the
computer's public image was no longer that of tool but also that
a universal media machine, used not only to author, but also to
store, distribute and access all media.
As distribution of all forms of culture becomes computer-based,
we are increasingly "interfacing" to predominantly cultural
data: texts, photographs, films, music, virtual environments. In
short, we are no longer interfacing to a computer but to culture
encoded in digital form. I will use the term "cultural interfaces"
to describe human-computer-culture interface: the ways in which
computers present and allows us to interact with cultural data.
Cultural interfaces include the interfaces used by the designers
of Web sites, CD-ROM and DVD titles, multimedia encyclopedias, online
museums and magazines, computer games and other new media cultural
If you need to remind yourself what a typical cultural interface
looked in the second part of the 1990s, say 1997, go back in time
and click to a random Web page. You are likely to see something
which graphically resembles a magazine layout from the same decade.
The page is dominated by text: headlines, hyperlinks, blocks of
copy. Within this text are few media elements: graphics, photographs,
perhaps a QuickTime movie and a VRML scene. The page also includes
radio buttons and a pull-down menu which allows you to choose an
item from the list. Finally there is a search engine: type a word
or a phrase, hit the search button and the computer will scan through
a file or a database trying to match your entry.
For another example of a prototypical cultural interface of the
1990s, you may load (assuming it would still run on your computer)
the most well-known CD-ROM of the 1990s - Myst (Broderbund, 1993).
Its opening clearly recalls a movie: credits slowly scroll across
the screen, accompanied by a movie-like soundtrack to set the mood.
Next, the computer screen shows a book open in the middle, waiting
for your mouse click. Next, an element of a familiar Macintosh interface
makes an appearance, reminding you that along with being a new movie/book
hybrid, Myst is also a computer application: you can adjust sound
volume and graphics quality by selecting from a usual Macintosh-style
menu in the upper top part of the screen. Finally, you are taken
inside the game, where the interplay between the printed word and
cinema continue. A virtual camera frames images of an island which
dissolve between each other. At the same time, you keep encountering
books and letters, which take over the screen, providing with you
with clues on how to progress in the game.
Given that computer media is simply a set of characters and numbers
stored in a computer, there are numerous ways in which it could
be presented to a user. Yet, as it always happens with cultural
languages, only a few of these possibilities actually appear viable
in a given historical moment. Just as early fifteenth century Italian
painters could only conceive of painting in a very particular way
- quite different from, say, sixteenth century Dutch painters -
today's digital designers and artists use a small set of action
grammars and metaphors out of a much larger set of all possibilities.
Why do cultural interfaces - Web pages, CD-ROM titles, computer
games - look the way they do? Why do designers organize computer
data in certain ways and not in others? Why do they employ some
interface metaphors and not others?
My theory is that the language of cultural interfaces is largely
made up from the elements of other, already familiar cultural forms.
The three forms in particular play a key role in detereming the
cultural interfaces in the 1990s. The first form is cinema. The
second form is the printed word. The third form is a general-purpose
human-computer interface (HCI).
As it should become clear from the following, I use words "cinema"
and "printed word" as shortcuts. They stand not for particular
objects, such as a film or a novel, but rather for larger cultural
traditions (we can also use such words as cultural forms, mechanisms,
languages or media). "Cinema" thus includes mobile camera,
representation of space, editing techniques, narrative conventions,
activity of a spectator -- in short, different elements of cinematic
perception, language and reception. Their presence is not limited
to the twentieth-century institution of fiction films, they can
be already found in panoramas, magic lantern slides, theater and
other nineteenth-century cultural forms; similarly, since the middle
of the twentieth century, they are present not only in films but
also in television and video programs. In the case of the "printed
word" I am also referring to a set of conventions which have
developed over many centuries (some even before the invention of
print) and which today are shared by numerous forms of printed matter,
from magazines to instruction manuals: a rectangular page containing
one or more columns of text; illustrations or other graphics framed
by the text; pages which follow each sequentially; a table of contents
Modern human-computer interface has a much shorter history than
the printed word or cinema -- but it is still a history. Its principles
such as direct manipulation of objects on the screen, overlapping
windows, iconic representation, and dynamic menus were gradually
developed over a few decades, from the early 1950s to the early
1980s, when they finally appeared in commercial systems such as
Xerox Star (1981), the Apple Lisa (1982), and most importantly the
Apple Macintosh (1984). Since than, they have become an accepted
convention for operating a computer, and a cultural language in
their own right.
Cinema, the printed word and human-computer interface: each of
these traditions has developed its own unique ways of how information
is organized, how it is presented to the user, how space and time
are correlated with each other, how human experience is being structured
in the process of accessing information. Pages of text and a table
of contents; 3D spaces framed by a rectangular frame which can be
navigated using a mobile point of view; hierarchical menus, variables,
parameters, copy/paste and search/replace operations -- these and
other elements of these three traditions are shaping cultural interfaces
today. Cinema, the printed word and HCI: they are the three main
reservoirs of metaphors and strategies for organizing information
which feed cultural interfaces.
Bringing cinema, the printed word and HCI interface together and
treating them as occupying the same conceptual plane has an additional
advantage -- a theoretical bonus. It is only natural to think of
them as belonging to two different kind of cultural species, so
to speak. If HCI is a general purpose tool which can be used to
manipulate any kind of data, both the printed word and cinema are
less general. They offer ways to organize particular types of data:
text in the case of print, audio-visual narrative taking place in
a 3D space in the case of cinema. HCI is a system of controls to
operate a machine; the printed word and cinema are cultural traditions,
distinct ways to record human memory and human experience, mechanisms
for cultural and social exchange of information. Bringing HCI, the
printed word and cinema together allows us to see that the three
have more in common than we may anticipate at first. On the one
hand, being a part of our culture now for half a century, HCI already
represents a powerful cultural tradition, a cultural language offering
its own ways to represent human memory and human experience. This
language speaks in the form of discrete objects organized in hierarchies
(hierarchical file system), or as catalogs (databases), or as objects
linked together through hyperlinks (hypermedia). On the other hand,
we begin to see that the printed word and cinema also can be thought
of as interfaces, even though historically they have been tied to
particular kinds of data. Each has its own grammar of actions, each
comes with its own metaphors, each offers a particular physical
interface. A book or a magazine is a solid object consisting from
separate pages; the actions include going from page to page linearly,
marking individual pages and using table of contexts. In the case
of cinema, its physical interface is a particular architectural
arrangement of a movie theater; its metaphor is a window opening
up into a virtual 3D space.
Today, as media is being "liberated" from its traditional
physical storage media - paper, film, stone, glass, magnetic tape
- the elements of printed word interface and cinema interface, which
previously were hardwired to the content, become "liberated"
as well. A digital designer can freely mix pages and virtual cameras,
table of contents and screens, bookmarks and points of view. No
longer embedded within particular texts and films, these organizational
strategies are now free floating in our culture, available for use
in new contexts. In this respect, printed word and cinema have indeed
became interfaces -- rich sets of metaphors, ways of navigating
through content, ways of accessing and storing data. For a computer
user, both conceptually and psychologically, their elements exist
on the same plane as radio buttons, pull-down menus, command line
calls and other elements of standard human-computer interface.
[the text comes from The Language of New Media, MIT Press, 2001]