An Expansive Definition of the Interface

See page 72 in The Language of New Media

“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 offers its own grammar of actions, each comes with its own metaphors, each offers a particular physical interface.”

Treating the notion of “interface” both as noun and verb — as a cultural practice as well as a cultural product — certainly has advantages when it comes to a discussion of something so broad as “media.”  The objective here is to ground the conventions of new media in pre-existing forms, and to thereby establish the validity of Manovich’s attempt to interpret the emerging conventions of new media practices in terms of an existing body of criticism.  The danger of such expansive definitions, however, is that if a concept is defined too broadly, it becomes difficult to discern its proper applicability.  Such expansive definitions, therefore, must rely on a precise delineation of terminology if they are to be successful.  In this case, Manovich’s use of the term “interface” suffers in part from how the term is defined, and in part from how the term is applied.

While it may seem sensible to understand an interface in terms of a particular way of “organizing information, presenting it to the user, correlating space and time, and structuring human experience,” there is little about this list of features that uniquely signifies the notion of “interface.”  A narrative and a traffic sign both accomplish these goals.  And while there may be some novelty — and perhaps even some insight — in an expansive definition of the “interface” which suggests that traffic lights are a way of “interfacing” with a city, such an expansive definition becomes problematic when one considers that traffic lights were developed to manage the behavior of many people choosing to “interface” with cities by automobile.  By this understanding, then, “interfaces” are developed for “interfaces” to “interface” with “interfaces” — which not only reduces the term to absurdity, but provides few clues about the cultural practices that compel such developments.

While such an expansive definition may provide some insight when treated in a strictly metaphorical sense, a literal or material applications lead to undesirable consequences.  While a narrative clearly meets Manovich’s definition of an “interface,” it is worth noting that a narrative is not tied to any particular media form: narrative appears in fiction, poetry, cinema, drama, and ordinary conversation.  Thus, in terms of Manovich’s exposition of the “interface,” it is unclear why print and cinema should be more valuable to the discussion than narrative or traffic regulation.  And while it may be argued that print and cinema both refer to specific media types in virtue of their material instantiation, a book is every bit as material as a city; furthermore, such an appeal to the material instantiation of various media types provides no recourse here, since it is precisely the notion of a media types specific materiality that Manovich seeks to undermine in his discussion of new media.

In terms of how Manovich employs his expansive definition of the “interface,” the discussion suffers from serious ambiguities.  For example, when Manovich asserts that the printed word is an interface that has been historically tied to a particular kind of data, we must ask just what sort of data it is to which the printed word provides an “interface.”  If we understand this assertion to mean that the printed word has, historically, only been used to “interface” with text, we are left with something quite close to a tautology, which here provides little or no insight.  If we insist that print is a unique instance of text, we must admit that print is found in many places other than books — thus raising questions about Manovich’s discussion of the “page” as a fundamental interface metaphor.  If we examine how the printed word has been used historically, we can see quite clearly that print is not by any means bound to a particular type of data: poetry relates to feelings, an anthropological study conveys facts, a legal document describes laws, a geometrical treatise presents certain logical forms, and so on.

Likewise, cinema can be used to convey facts for the purpose of instruction, rhetoric for the purpose of indoctrination, propaganda for the purpose of persuasion, or abstract visual forms either to provide aesthetic pleasure or to illustrate certain critical theses.  Just what “data” is, and how the term ought to be applied, becomes as important here as what an “interface” is.

Manovich’s discussion of the “interface” here serves to foreground a perception that traditional media types are becoming unhinged from their material instantiation, and insofar as they are then incorporated into computer-mediated aesthetics, they become metaphorical as a result.  That is, print is no longer just print, but a signifier that becomes a source of raw material for the new media.  Although there may be some truth in this perception, to then suggest that such a trend finds either its apex or an initial catalyst in the new media is deeply problematic.  It is not a new development that printed words may be enjoyed either as a private experience between a reader and a book, or read aloud in a performance.  A book and a theatrical production each provide a distinct way of “interfacing” with the printed word.  In the case of print especially, letters themselves may also be appreciated on the basis of visual aesthetics, either in terms of a particular typographer’s skill, or in terms of the antiquarian quality of a rare historical artifact.  One can find an illuminated manuscript visually beautiful even if one can’t read Latin.

And as for the metaphorical value of print, we find in the Gospel of John the opening statement: “In the beginning was the Word.”  Even if we accept this particular phraseology as tied to the King James English, it provides a noteworthy corollary to the Shakespearean dictum that “all the world’s a stage.”

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