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Interface as the Key Category of Computer Culture

Presentation at Interface Explorer Symposium, Vienna, 2001

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 interface.

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 20th 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 19th 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 objects.

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 15th century Italian painters could only conceive of painting in a very particular way – quite different from, say, 16th 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 20th-century institution of fiction films, they can be already found in panoramas, magic lantern slides, theater and other 19th-century cultural forms; Similarly, since the middle of the 20th 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 and index.

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

Content type
Projects Non Stop Future
World-Information Institute
Interface Explorer
Public Netbase
Date 2001
Location Vienna


semiotics technology dystopia Mac Myst Whorf-Sapir hypothesis convergence cultural language fetishism MacOS cinema DVD CD-ROM printed word Xerox Star GUI Graphical User Interface RAM QuickTime movie human-computer interface HCI VRML Palm Pilot Apple Lisa cell phone video games LCD Los Angeles Tokyo Ridley Scott Apple Mariko Mori Blade Runner Mathew Barney Broderbund Karl Marx Lev Manovich
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