no.28 vol.7 summer 1998

Click on that!
Interface Culture: How new technology transforms the way we create and communicate
Steven Johnson
San Francisco: Harper Edge, 1997
reviewed by Max Bruinsma

It is amazing how persistent the idea of the Cathedral is. Certainly, as sturdy architectural structures, quite a few of them have survived for a milennium or so, and one can admire their builders for that; but that they would survive ages of changing views and transmuting perspectives on whatever there is between heaven and earth, is almost a miracle. Yet, even in our secular times, when one is in need of an all encompassing symbol for the collective enterprise that is human culture, one is bound to come up with the Cathedral. Joseph Beuys elaborately used it in his famous conversation with Yannis Kounellis, and now Steven Johnson has built a book around it.

A cathedral, we may recall, is both a building and an artwork; a perfect mix of function and metaphore. Moreover, a cathedral is not just an architectural artwork, it also provides a most nourishing habitat for other works of art, paintings, sculptures, music and literature, that cling to it like shells to a rock.

In his book, Steven Johnson argues that the Cathedral of the twentieth century is 'The Interface'. At first glance this seems to be quite a claim for an ephemeral choreography of bits, pixels and screens, but since Johnson, heralded by the Washington Post as "One of the Web's intellectual heavyweights", constructs a 264 page book on the idea, one is tempted to give it a second thought.

"The principle of the Gothic architecture," said Colderidge, "is infinity made imaginable." And Johnson adds: "The same could be said of the modern interface." This thought is triggered by the advent of the graphic user interface, the GUI, introduced to the 'the rest of us' when Apple launched its first Macintosh in 1984. To Johnson, the invention of the desktop metaphore as graphic instead of command based interface with the inconceivable intricacies of electronic dataprocessing is arguably "the single most important design decision of the past half century", and "as meaningful as the cathedrals of the Middle Ages."

He recounts a useful and amusing summary of the development history of this momentous innovation, and refreshes our memory about how it evolved from Doug Engelbart's conception of 'windows', via Alan Kay's idea of layering them in a virtual three-dimensional space and Steve Jobs' integrating them into the Macintosh 'desktop', to Bill Gates' ultimate victory with Windows'95. And he reminds us of the pejorative critique and the general misunderstanding the desktop had to suffer, before it became the standard human-computer interface. In hindsight, it is always funny to quote pontifications like this one, from Creative Computing in 1984: "Pointing at pictures can only last so long. Sooner or later you must stop pointing and selecting, and begin to think and type." Quod non. To Johnson these kinds of responses to a major innovation resemble the hostile reception Stravinsky's Rite of Spring  met with upon its premiere at the start of this century.

It is part of Johnson's rhetorics, that he comes up with similar equasions between great works of art and the modern interface, each time he wants us to realize the historic gravity of its impact on today's culture: Baudelaire's flaneur, who is drawn to "the kaleidoscope of consciousness" of late nineteenth century street life, is compared to the Web surfer who interfaces with the huddle on the virtual boulevards of cyberspace. Charles Dickens' frequent use of the phrase "links of association" underlines the literary potential of hyperlinks: "Where Dickens' narrative links stitched together the torn fabric of industrial society, today's hypertext links attempt the same with information." And James Joyce's 'open-endedness' is associated with the stream of consciousness that (ideally) governs a data travel on the World Wide Web.

All these examples and associations make sense; but do they sufficiently buttress Johnson's claim that the interface is the cathedral of our times? It depends on how you perceive a cathedral - as a design, a work of art, or a metaphore. The Cathedral, of course, is all three at the same time, although admitedly not all cathedrals are Chartres or Saint Denis. But are all interfaces design, artwork, and metaphore, simultaneously?

Principally, Johnson seems to argue precisely that, when he writes about "the fusion of art and technology that we call interface design." At the same time he is very critical of the uses that are currently made of this 'medium'. For instance when he critises recent interface designers of taking the desktop metaphore too literally, and reducing the idea of a graphic interface to the spatial associations connected to the 'desktop'. "The real  magic of graphic computers," Johnson observes, "derives from the fact that they are not  tied to the old analog world of objects". And he shows that even the most sophisticated 'virtual spaces', like the lushly decorated rooms of The Palace, an elaborate on-line 'chat' space, are not a guarantee for equally sophisticated conversation.

So what is the real magic? Essentially, it lies in the fact that, through the modern interface, you can conjure up any 'space' you like as a metaphore for your interaction with a computer - or any non-space for that matter. Whether it be in the guise of the "planets and satelites" of Apple's experimental HotSauce interface, or the "intelligent agents" that could evolve out of FireFly's combination of pattern recognition and feedback software, the interface will exert its magic on the ways we percieve and process information, and that will, ultimately, change the way we perceive the world. To illustrate this paradigmatic influence of the interface on culture at large, Johnson refers to another profound shift in our view of the world: interface design, he states, may have the same cultural import as the invention of central perspective had in its own time.

In a broadly cultural sense he just might be right here. Brunelleschi's and Alberti's technical innovation did help "produce what we now call the Renaissance". And similarly, one may say, the interface that put our dealings with the computer in a coherent and visually recognizable perspective, will help transform our culture. Johnson's book is quite rich in illustrations of how this transformation works, from the new associative instead of argumentative ways of 'trailing' through fathomless masses of data, to the trickling down of computer jargon into everyday speech, as in: "click on that!"  And he is at times quite sharp in criticising the current use of interfaces, for instance when he states that the common unilateral practice of hyperlinking is "a particularly mindless use of hypertext".

In these critiques of a "reality [that] is lagging behind" the portentous developments of technology, Johnson is both visionary and vague. He is 'zapping' between observations, anecdotes, history, decorative elaborations, analysis and speculations on things digital, in a way that is sometimes quite erratic. One gets lost from time to time. A statement made on page 149 is only followed directly on page 166, after lengthy excursions into associated, underlying and illustrating matters. Some of these elaborations and examples are needed to flesh the argumentative skeleton, but the message could be made perfectly clear in, say, two or three pages. There is a lot of redundancy in Johnson's writing. In essence what he is trying to tell us, is an article-size essay, a not so elaborate speculation about the digital world and the cultural importance of human-computer interfaces. Inserted into this essay are so manny 'links of association' that it extends to a 264 page book.

I'd love to see the CD-ROM, or better, the on-line version of this book. Secretly, but structurally, it is a hypertext, and the drawback of its present linear format as a book is that it reads as a sometimes vagarious bric à brac of thoughts that keep becoming detached from the main argument.

What was that again? The Cathedral. So, will we "come to think about interface design as [-] perhaps the artform of the next century"? I'd say: no. For the same reasons as we do not refer to central perspective as the artform of the Renaissance, because it is not an artform, but a tool. Okay, maybe more than a tool; a concept, a metaphore that helps - makes - us represent the world in a fundamentally different way. But just as it needed a Dickens to make culturally sense of 'links of association', it needs an 'author' to make sense of what is otherwise no more than blindly clicking on blue-ish words. . .

I think Steven Johnson is profoundly right in his assumption that interfaces can - and will - be hughely important instruments, or even media, in monumental artworks to come. But the 'work' has to be created - or at least assembled. By whom - interface designers? Here, the image of the cathedral might give us an indication; not so much as an artwork - which it is strictly speaking only from a post-eightteenth century perspective on the Middle Ages -, but as a product. Strangely enough, Johnson never touches on this aspect of his metaphore: rarely have there been erected structures of such collaborative scale and nature as cathedrals. They incorporate all the arts, crafts and sciences known to mankind at the time. In that sense, the Cathedral may be an apt metaphore for things cultural to come. 'The Interface', as tool and concept, facilitates and provokes collaboration in ways that are seriously at odds with our present notions of autonomous artistry and individual authorship. Posterity may very well cherish seminal twentyfirst century artworks that are as collective and anonymous as most of the medieval cathedrals.

max bruinsma