Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Interface Avant-garde and Media

Steven Johnson recently pointed to a review of his book Interface Culture (a groundbreaking text and still a frequent reference for my own writing). In his review, William Blaze, questions the existence of an interface avant-garde subculture that Johnson discussed in his work. Blaze claims that there seems to be a microculture(s) but nothing that could constitute a subcuIture. I have to leave the distinction of microculture and subculture up to the cultural critics simply because I don’t understand it, but I do understand what constitutes avant-garde and I think a lot of innovation in interface design and art has already happened. I think part of the reason for a lack of awareness of this fact however, is do to a general misunderstanding of what constitutes interface design and what defines media.

Blaze says,

The one group that has emerged is the information architect/interaction/experience designer, a set that seemingly seeks obscurity through a constant renaming process. There is no question though this is a subculture, and they tend to focus on a space Johnson quite accurately brought to the for, text as interface. But as an “interface subculture” I find them rather lacking.

He couldn’t be more right about the constant state of flux of names in this particular design field. Just to add to the information architect/interaction/experience designer pile, I’ve also heard of interaction designers, virtual architects and interface architects. Many people aren’t seeing what I see due to this very over-atomized or over-categorized concept of media and interface. Let me briefly deconstruct the way I see the world of media and then I’ll try to give some good examples of where I think the interface avant-garde are in operation.

The first concept that needs clarification in my mind is media. I’ve heard the internet referred to as a medium, as well as the computer. I don’t think either of these categorizations are quite correct. Media was originally defined by Marshall McLuhan in his book Understanding Media quite simply and elegantly as “extensions of man”. For example, audio-video is an extension of your vision and hearing. Audio is merely an extension of your hearing. The television, quicktime, windows media players, iPods and computer monitors are all mechanisms for the delivery and manipulation of media. This is why I think that referring to the internet or the computer as a medium is a mistake. The truth is, you can’t sense anything about the Internet. It’s really just a delivery mechanism for information that becomes media once it is formatted in a way in which you can perceive it. The web is a medium and in fact can be referred to as multimedia because of it use of various media such as text, video, and sound.

If you begin with the notion that media are merely extensions of human senses then you can begin to see where interface comes into play — generally speaking interfaces allow for the manipulation of media. Interaction with media is most often an extension of the tactile and visual senses through a graphic user interface (GUI) and this particular interface is the direct manipulation of perceived objects in the visual and tactile media. Looked at in this fashion, the concept of the interface is not at all limited to a graphic user interface. As I have argued before, I believe that bots are re-establishing an old kind of interface, one that I refer to as the Language User Interface (LUI). After all, McLuhan defined speech as humanity’s earliest medium. A speech-based interface for the maniuplation of any medium would seem a natural occurrence and in fact I would say that though the language was somewhat obscured, the command-line interface was the first interface (for computers, at least). Generally speaking then, there are media, they can be combined in presentation, contained within one another and there are various interfaces for their manipulation.

It’s interesting to note that interfaces generally have to compensate for the loss of one medium or another. When all the media of reality are present in a virtual form, the interface is in its most “natural” or a transparent state. I dream of an interface that is basically my office. You walk into your office, dawn a pair of gloves and pair of glasses and a headset (for sound and voice) and sit down to your desk. When the computer boots, the documents you were working appear where you left them, in the room, on the desk or wherever. When you speak with someone, they appear in the room with you and you appear to them in their room. Of course, because we’re dealing with an interface and not reality there’s other kinds of magic that can occur. You don’t have to get up from your desk to get a reference; you gesture at the symbolic bookmark you’ve left behind once before and the reference comes to your hands. A web page link would fetch a document for you and if you needed to fill out a form, you would simply fill it out. Plus, of course, there’s the addition of the LUI so that if you couldn’t remember where you put something, you ask your bot or agent “Where is the blog entry I wrote on the interface avant-garde?” I could go on and on but what I’m merely trying to point out is that the interface is as wide a concept as media — in many ways it is media’s parallel — and the GUI, the LUI and other interface types are all facets of a single concept.

With this picture in mind, take a look at the art world. The true avant-garde of interfaces (as oppopsed to the avant-garde of media) would not be doing new things with the GUI. In avant-garde-speak the GUI is “tired”. I would argue that chatbot creators and the makers of bots such as SmarterChild are re-inventing the LUI and making it English language based. Now instead of some obscure command like grep *.mov / you can type something more like “Where are all my movie files?” or in the case of SmarterChild, “I want to see the movie The Life Aquatic.” Since it likely already knows your zip code (or you can tell it different in your query) it fetches the listings of the movie at the nearest time at the nearest theater. But as I said, this is a re-invention of an interface type — it’s not really new.

And there’s also a lot happening in the video game industry in this regard. The joystick isn’t a new tool for interface manipulation, but the combination of the joystick with the headset is. There is no doubt that going online and playing with, while talking to, friends is a new kind of experience. I can always tell because when my friends see me do it they seem baffled. “You’re talking to the game?” “No, I’m talking to Mike, my friend in Atlanta.” This statement is usually followed by a long “oooooooh.” And then they watch, generally engrossed by the fact that the other players on the screen aren’t just a bunch of programs but people from all over the country participating in a virtual place. Friends of mine who have had no interest whatsoever in video games or violence have wanted to try Halo 2 out.

So the LUI is really the re-invention of or a smarter version of the command-line. Online games like Halo are combining old interfaces into a new experience. I would call this avant-garde but I could see where others might not. Some would say that if there is an avant-garde of the interface, they have to be doing something entirely different. So if this is the definition of avant-garde then perhaps the canvas of the interface avant-garde has pretty much been used up. So far every human sense has been translated into media (even smell) and as far as I understand the concept of the interface, almost all media (except for the olfactory-based media) have tools for interaction at this point. An olfactory interface would be avant-garde but I do not know of one. Beyond that, all interface development will necessarily be some combination of existing interfaces.

This state of affairs in the “art of the interface” makes sense when one looks at a parallel situation one medium in particular: the visual. Johnson also posits in his book that the engineer and artist are closer together than they have been in the past. I think this is only due to the fact that the interaction with media was new. The tactile medium was coming into existence. Once, we would have considered an artist as both artist and engineer. They would have had to manufacture the canvas and they would have had to make their own brushes and paints. Over time, however, the “trade” of making brushes and paints was commoditized and the visual artist was left to consider only the manipulation of the media itself. I’m over-generalizing here of course, there are all kinds of anomalies but there is a general trend that shows that serious invention and modern art, the total disregard of representing reality and dimension, didn’t happen until long after the engineering of materials had generally faded into the background. To be sure, to manufacture one’s own brushes and paint is still an art but it’s not really avant-garde. In the same way, the avant-garde of modern art lies in the media but maybe not in the interface or maybe not in the interface for too much longer.

Eventually the interface should just go away. In the fictional virtual operating system I mentioned above the interface is almost non-existent. In the world of the Matrix, the interface is non-existent — or rather, totally transparent. I’ve always considered that the goal of the interface designer should be to make it transparent. For that to occur, the interface avant-garde may have come and gone and just hardly anyone noticed. Douglas Engelbart was the interface avant-garde. And as is typical with the avant-garde they only become so after the fact. From here on out, the interface and its manipulation will largely be relegated to the engineers dealing with the hardware, while the artists start to play with the new matrices of interactive media available to them through their primary tool, the code.

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