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Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create & Communicate

Author: Steven Johnson
Publisher: New York: Basic Books, 1997
Review Published: July 2001

 REVIEW 1: Jonathan Alexander

Interface Culture offers a highly readable and often engaging analysis of the development of contemporary micro-computing, with numerous stories about inventors (Vannevar Bush), innovators (Alan Kay), and entrepreneurs (Steve Jobs) who have bequeathed us the machines many of us are beginning to take for granted in our daily communicating and creating. Taking the following assumption for granted -- "The infosphere is now a part of our 'real life'" (29) -- Steven Johnson writes passionately and at times movingly about the potential impact of these new communications technologies on our society and even our individual lives. To show this impact, Johnson proposes what he calls a "new type of criticism," which basically allows him to "think about the elements of modern interface design as though they were the cultural equivalents of a Dickens novel, a Welles film, a Rem Koolhass building -- in other words, as works possessing great creative and social import, and having longer-term historical significance than just the latest product review in the high-tech trades" (9).

In particular, Johnson focuses on the "interface," or that which makes "the teeming, invisible world of zeros and ones sensible to us. There are few creative acts in modern life more significant than this one, and few with such broad social consequences" (17). At times, Johnson is even poetic in his narration and discussion of how such innovations, seemingly simple and even simplistic, are truly amazing. For instance, he spends an entire chapter talking about the development of the "desktop" interface, suggesting that "No longer a lifeless, arcane intersection point between user and microprocessor, it was now an autonomous entity, a work of culture as much as technology" (50). And he's rather convincing on this point; after all, the desktop was frequently decried as an interface design when it first appeared, but its usability and durability arguably have had a cultural impact that merits discussion.

While much of the evidence offered to support such claims is largely anecdotal, it resonates with many users' experiences. For instance, talking about moving from writing on paper to writing with a word processor, Johnson argues that "it took a fully realized graphic interface to make me feel comfortable enough to use one for honest-to-God writing" (141). I know that I for one can heartily agree. In another example, Johnson unpacks an interesting and informed discussion of how an interface innovation, Web frames, has sparked important and difficult debates about intellectual property and copyright -- a debate that is probably only just beginning. In this way, Interface Culture provides us with a sense of the social impact of technology on our lives by offering us glimpses into the world of micro- and personal computing -- its history, its false starts, its mistakes, and its dreams.

For Johnson, such examples also show us that the emergence of computer technology and interface design constitutes a "paradigm shift" in our culture's information processing that is comparable to former paradigm shifts in communication -- such as those represented by Charles Dickens's innovations in the novel as an art form. For instance, Johnson argues at one point, "Where Dickens's narrative links [in his novels] stitched together the torn fabric of industrial society, today's hypertext links attempt the same with information" (116). In many ways, Interface Culture is full of such backward glances -- and they tempt Johnson to see sweeping changes and speak in the language of "revolution" and techno-hype:

    The digital revolution will surely transform stock markets and library research and credit profiles, as the pundits on the business pages have been predicting for years. But it also promises to transform our experience of the world, just as the Industrial Revolution transformed the experiences of nineteenth-century Westerners. This book is in part an attempt to imagine the nature of this new experience, to sketch out its properties in advance (40).

As attractive as they can be, I am leery of such grand statements, if only because history has its own hindsight -- a vision to which we are not yet privy. More to the point, Johnson never really makes good on demonstrating that computers, their interfaces, and the digital revolution in general have been as transformative as the Industrial Revolution. He offers no systematic critique, and his analogy about the Industrial Revolution seems more rhetorical than substantiated. Indeed, it often seems throughout Interface Culture as though Johnson is trying to convince us through the use of analogy, suggesting that some surface similarities between contemporary computer communication platforms and historically significant innovations in communication mean that current interface designs really are revolutionary.

The problem with arguing through analogies, however, is that similarities don't reproduce the context in which an innovation actually becomes an innovation -- something truly transformative. In fact, one could argue that another of Johnson's theses -- that we cannot even imagine the uses to which technology will be put -- undermines the entire project of suggesting that our current technologies are transformative; for, by Johnson's own logic, we cannot envision how our current technology will be used -- or if it will be used -- in the transformative ways he suggests.

A few other "silences" in this book are worth mentioning. First, there is really next to no discussion in Interface Culture of the continuing -- and increasing -- technological "divide" between those of us who have access to and use computers on a daily basis and those who don't. Indeed, the transformative impact of such technology on our society may ultimately arise not out of the machinery and programming, but out of the economic and social divisions aggravated by uneven access. Second, we are looking at this book, written in 1997, after the collapse (or at least the "slow down") of the digital economy, so it's hard to get "hyped up" about the transformative possibilities of computer technology; a critique from our current vantage point would be useful. And finally, at times Interface Culture will seem just generally out-of-date -- a problem only bound to increase with time, technological advancement, and shifting economics. For instance, the chapter on "Agents" could use some updated discussion of "cookies" which are exactly the kind of digitally automated "agents" that Johnson fears. And his discussion of digital "junk mail" could be revised to think about the problem of email "spam." But these are minor annoyances, and another edition could easily remedy them.

With that said, though, Interface Culture is still a highly recommendable book for a number of reasons. First, it provides an excellent introduction to thinking critically about the potential impact of computer technologies on how we communicate and create meaning. And while Johnson can really only speculate about such potential, his discussion provides a good entrance point to tackling the work of others thinking along similar, but more scholarly lines -- such as George Landow, who in Hypertext 2.0 makes similar claims and analogies but unpacks them with a tad more theoretical musing. Second, Johnson does a masterful job of discussing his compelling secondary thesis; throughout his book, Johnson argues that some of the most inventive uses for interface technology evolved and developed beyond the imaginations of the technologies' original creators; as he puts it, "We'd do well to remember . . . that the history of computing abounds with interface enhancements that sprouted new uses once they left the R&D lab" (89) and that ". . . technohistory is littered with unintended consequences and limited fields of vision" (208). While this is not necessarily a strikingly original thesis, Johnson's narratives in support of it are nonetheless compelling and convincing. We see perhaps the most striking example of this in what has been done with Vannevar Bush's original idea for the Memex machine, which was supposed to be largely an information retrieval system with the potential to connect bits of information to other bits; the Memex's contemporary manifestation, the World Wide Web, does this -- and much, much more. As another example, Johnson discusses how hypertext was often simply envisioned as a tool for easily linking statements to sources, but he then provides a wonderful discussion of Suck, a Webzine that has used hypertext in truly innovative ways to create dense webs of innuendo and inflection. Because of such examples, Interface Culture is perhaps most valuable for its "micro" histories and glimpses into how creative people have used computer interfaces in unexpected and inventive ways.

Drawing near to the conclusion, one senses that Johnson knows that his book has ultimately made more claims than it can deliver, and he offers a more qualified thesis: "We will come to think of interface design as a kind of art form -- perhaps the art form of the next century" (213). While he still tends to make the grandiose gesture in such speculative pronouncements, Johnson has demonstrated to us throughout Interface Culture that interface design can and perhaps should be looked at profitably as an "art form," and one that bears resemblance, in both its innovations and its applications, to earlier art forms. And, given the high degree of readability through which this discussion occurs, Interface Culture remains a useful, pleasurable read.

Jonathan Alexander:
Jonathan Alexander is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, where he teaches writing with computers, cyberpunk literature, and lesbian and gay studies. Jonathan is also guest editor of a special edition of The International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, entitled "Queer Webs: LGBT Lives on the Internet," which will be appearing in early 2002 (Vol. 7, Nos. 2 & 3).  <jamma@fuse.net>

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