Topic-Specific Discussion of Interface in The Language of New Media

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.”

Art and Interface

See page 227 in The Language of New Media

“Historically, the artist made a unique work within a particular medium.  Therefore, the interface and the work were the same; in other words, the level of an interface did not exist.  With new media, the content of the work and the interface are separated.”

The larger context for this claim relates to an application of Manovich’s Principle of Variability: a particular new media object can be viewed in many different ways.  As Manovich observes, new media make it possible to “create different interfaces to the same material.”  This is, however, more of a linguistic illusion resulting from the terms of Manovich’s reductionist analysis than it is an observation about how new media function (either as cultural traditions or as computer programs).

Manovich is here using the word “interface” in an expansive sense, wherein text and cinema, for example, are understood as “interfaces” to shared bodies of cultural knowledge and traditions.  It is somewhat unclear what, exactly, it might mean for Manovich to suggest that a new media object exists in multiple mediums in a way that is substantively distinct from traditional cultural productions.  A CD-ROM, for example, won’t fit into a radio; and while the audio contained on a CD-ROM can be played back over the radio, a painting can just as readily be reproduced in a book.  And while it is true that a particular image might be retrieved from a DVD Player as readily as from a web browser — thus providing an example of multiple interfaces to the same work — it is still unclear how this is substantively distinct from how one might appreciate the literary content of a traditional drama either on stage or in print.

The history of art is filled with countless variations on the themes of the creation myth of Judaism, the narrative of Christ, Greek folk heroes, and the like.  And while these mythologies are not themselves the creations of a single artist, distinct artworks which portray these myths are different “interfaces” to specific cultural productions.

Moreover, an artist who makes use of allegory and symbolism provides an audience multiple ways of “interfacing” with a given artwork.  Iconography and symbolism are frequently used in religious or philosophical art to indicate a transcendent reality distinct from the material world of the senses.  Likewise, allegory is used to implicate general truths distinct from the particular facts of a given narrative.  In a given painting, we may find symbolic uses of color, gesture, geometric composition strategies, and culturally significant objects used to generate different sorts of meaning.  One might appreciate the aesthetics of a painting’s colors or forms in a way quite distinct from what those colors and forms are being used to say about historical, philosophical, or mythological ideas.

It might be illustrative here to mention Dante’s notion of a “polysemous” artwork — that is, an artwork “endowed with many meanings.”  A polysemous artwork involves four distinct types of meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical.  One literary statement might be at once appreciated for the economy and the skill of its construction, for the useful information it conveys, for the transcendent truths which it indicates, and for the moral teachings the statement imply.  A given reader need not be aware of each of these levels of meaning, nor be attentive to each to appreciate the others. Here we have a Mediaeval formulation of what multiple “interfaces” to a single artwork can look like.

Painting is more than pigments on canvas, just as a book is more than “a rectangular page containing one or more columns of text, illustrations or other graphics… pages that follow each other sequentially, a table of contents, and an index” (see page 71).  A book is also a cultural tradition; the obstacles an author (such as James Joyce) must overcome while trying to get a book published confer upon the book a type of authority.  That perception of authority contributes to how a reader might cognitively orient his- or herself to the text.  As more people read texts online, more people come to the realization that there is something emotionally satisfying about holding a bound book in their hands while they read — something quite apart from the content of the text, or what is required of one attempting to “interface” with the text.

While it may be argued at this point that what new media brings to art is the ability to make these multiple modes of “interfacing” somehow more explicit than what is found in traditional art forms, there is little reason to attribute this change to anything about how new media is structured.  The ability to “interface” with a work of art in multiple ways existed before the development of new media, and social practices designed to foreground this multiplicity likewise existed before the development of new media (the museum being an obvious example).  And while it may then be suggested that new media places this multiplicity “within” the artwork in a way distinct from that found in traditional media, Manovich’s argument would seem to preclude this line of reasoning, as he suggests that there is a distinct way in which “the content of the work and the interface are separated” in new media.

Moreover, the best interfaces are those which are most transparent: if, when a person sits at a computer, he or she spends too much time trying to figure out how to operate the computer, the interface is not a useful tool for getting actual work done.  Successful interfaces rely on common cultural signifiers, the consistent implementation of functional components, and a degree of unobtrusiveness.  If an industrial designer tries to be too innovative with the design of a light switch or a doorknob, users will become frustrated when they can’t figure out how to make it work.  And while there may be an aesthetic argument for new media artists addressing the conventions of the interface itself — of directly addressing the complexity of multiple interface possibilities — to identify this possibility as somehow inherent to new media practice misses the point of what an interface actually does.