Forgotten questions about the internet, space and text

Interface Culture, Steven Johnson, 1997

Steven Johnson sets out to bridge the cultural differences between art and technology. His premise is that the computer interface is an art form, with similar functions today as the novel had in the 19th century: mediating between society and new technology, creating a sense of coherence in a time of upheaval.

Johnson addresses many questions that were popular with net-philosophers of his time but seem to have slipped off the radar screen more recently (unless I am much mistaken).
- How do we find our way around virtual information space?
- Does writing on a computer, for a blog or a website change the way we write? The way we organize our thoughts?
- How will pictures, videos, animations, text etc. combine to create a truly new medium?


Links mentioned in the book: FEED, Suck

Where the Victorian novel shaped our understanding of the new towns wrapped around the steel mill and the cotton gin, and fifties television served as an imaginative guide to the new suburban enclaves created by the automobile, the interface 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.

This may seem like a gross exaggeration, but Johnson puts this perception down to the fact that computers and the internet are relatively new, and their full potential has yet to be discovered. As he points out, the first radio and television shows were adaptations of theater productions. Similarly, Johnson sees the current internet landscape as souped up television rather than a truly independent medium; a PC functions mostly as a glorified typewriter, or file cabinet, or calculator.

As our machines are increasingly jacked into global networks of information, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine the dataspace at our fingertips, to picture all that complexity in our mind’s eye – the way city dwellers, in the sociologist Kevin Lunch’s phrase, “cognitively map” their real-world environs.

Representing all that information is going to require a new visual language, as complex and meaningful as the great metropolitan narratives of the nineteenth-century novel. We can already see the first stirrings of this new form in recent interface designs that have moved beyond the two-dimensional desktop metaphor into more immersive digital environments. … As the infosphere continues its exponential growth, the metaphors used to describe it will also grow in both scale and complexity.


Johnson looks at ‘bad’ TV and sees precursors of new forms better suited to the internet. He calls these forms ‘parasite forms’ – they riff, comment on, and parody traditional storytelling and culture, e.g. Zoo TV, the Daily Show, tabloid news shows, Beavis and Butthead.

The technological changes that ushered in merchant capitalism did away with the old, aristocratic morality plays and introduced a new, rougher form – the realis novel, with its orphans and scoundrels and wayward heroines. In the same way, the electric technologies of the twentieth century have done away with the old storytelling forms, or at least scaled them down to assembly-line repetition, while simultaneously unleashing a flock of new organisms into the larger cultural ecology.

But here’s the rub: these new organisms don’t tell stories. They riff, annotate, dismantle, dissect, sample. Everything they do refracts back onto som other “straight” media, on which they rely for their livelihood. They relate to their story-driven predecessors the way a movie review relates to a movie. …

There may not be a great deal of “quality programming” in this mix, but the sheer quantity of this new genre – the diversity of the species – is remarkable. All the evidence suggests that the metaforms are evolving at a much faster clip than their storytelling competitors. … while the sitcom has languished, the self-referential “commentary” show has come into its own. …

Most critics who have addressed the growth of the “meta” form have acted as though there were something abnormal, something malignant about it. … using the language of epidemics.

It’s worth stressing here that the shift from story-telling to commentary – from host organism to parasite – is more than just standard-issue postmodernism. [The shift happened] because the mass media is now a fundamental, irreversible component of … everyday life … The infosphere is now a part of out “real life” – which makes commenting on it as natural as commenting on the weather. …

Metaforms don’t fare well in the analog world of television … But the digital world is another story. That world is the home planet of information filters. The parasite forms are fringe benefit on analog TV, a flourish. In the digital world, they are a fact of life. There is no such thing as digital information without filters. …

These metaforms, these bitmappings will come to occupy nearly every facet of modern society: work, play, romance, family, high art, pop culture, politics. But the form itself will be the same, despite its many guises, laboring away in that strange new zone between medium and message. That zone is what we call the interface.

The desktop metaphor

When Apple launched the Mac and its graphical user interface, the ‘cartoon’ icons led people to believe that this wasn’t a serious, work-oriented tool. For proper work, the text-input interface was considered superior. It took a long time for people to understand that the desktop metaphor allowed users to find their way intuitively around a computer.

The first reviews of the Mac and its brethren testify to the conceptual limitations that come out of working under one paradigm and then struggling to adapt to another: There are invariably blind spots and omissions in these transition points, things that seem intuitive with hindsight but were almost impossible to grasp at the time.

Once people figured out that metaphors worked, however, they overdid it. Johnson cites Bob and Magic Cap as two examples of applications that took their metaphors too literally. Bob used a living room and Magic Cap an office as their metaphors and tried to create simulations of these environments that were as close to reality as possible. In the world according to Chairman Gates, programmers seemed fated to become interior decorators, scattering bric-a-brac and binary potpourri across computer monitors world wide.

The paradoxical thing about these hypermetaphors was that they weren’t metaphorical enough. In the Poetics, Aristotle defined metaphor as the act of “givint the thing a name that belongs to something else.” The crucial element in this formula is the difference that exists between “the thing” and the “something else.” … Metaphors create relations ships between things that are not directly equivalent. Metaphors based on complete identity are not metaphors at all.”

A programmed living room on your screen can never compete with your real living room. In fact, it’s boring, just more-of-the-same. It takes the metaphor to its literal extreme at the expense of exploring the new medium’s unique potential. A bad simulation will never match up to a good metaphor. (Could this be one of the reasons that video-phones and video-conferences were so slow to catch on?)

There’s something perverse in this total deference to user-friendly simulation, like building a word processor that faithfully reproduces a mechanical typewriter; complete with stuck keys and worn-out ribbons.

Good metaphors enhance the user experience. However, in 1997, as perhaps still today, for the most part, the social fabric of cyberspace is still stitched together by the gossamer thread of text. A graphical environment often diminishes the depth of the social experience. However when graphic environments become content (rather than context) – as in online or video gaming, the role of architecture suddenly shifts. The architecture of that virtual space doesn’t frame the conversation – it’s a central component of it.


The link is the first significant new form of punctuation to emerge in centuries, but it is only a hint of things to come. Hypertext, in fact suggests a whole new grammar of possibilities, a new way of writing and telling stories. But to make that new frontier accessible, we need more than one type of link. Microsoft and Netscape may be content with the simple, one-dimensional links of the Web’s current incarnation. But for the rest of us, it’s like trying to write a novel where the words are separated only by semicolons.

Johnson introduces Vannevar Bush’s idea of ‘trails.’ Essentially trails work the same way links do, linking information together based on meaning and context. However, trails are stable – they can be recalled and followed again. Instead of bookmarking a site, you can see all the other sites you called up in connection with a site to remind yourself of the meanings you found in them. (Today, that’s something we can only do mentally, building rough and ready maps of the internet in our heads.)


Johnson finds text the most drastically changed and most underrated aspect of the internet as a new medium.

Writing on a word processor is radically different than longhand. It allows trial-and-error while writing and constant editing as you write. Many early computer users missed the direct flow of thoughts from mind to pen, but fast-forward a decade or two, and I can’t imagine writing without a computer. Even jotting down a note with pen and paper feels strained, like a paraplegic suddenly granted the use of his liegs. I have to think about writing, think about it consciously as my hand scratches out the words on the page, think about the act itself. Earlier each sentence had to be worked out in your mind before you wrote it down.

In a world dominated by icons and visual metaphors, the role of text – letters and word, rather than images and animations – has come to seem like an afterthought, an obscure walk-on part in a grand Hollywood epic. Words, in this lopsided paradigm, are always inferior to images. Anyone who knows anything about the history of writing systems – specifically the shift from hieroglyphic-style pictograms to phonetic spelling – will sense something bizarre in this hierarchy.

This is a very important point, but not explored enough in the book. Maybe Johnson underestimates visuals because they were more likely silly animations in his day and he didn’t experience the same seamless interplay between text and video or pictures.

No comments: