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  • A Medium in Embryo
    An E-Mail Exchange with Steven Johnson

    October 9, 1997

    To: Harvey Blume
    From: Steven Johnson
    Subject: Re: Interface Culture

    HB: The question of how culture and technology relate is one of the most difficult to answer. Walter Benjamin had a crack at it, writing, "The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form." I read that as meaning, "Art calls; technology answers." In Interface Culture you write that "at transition points, some messages may evolve faster than their medium. And in so doing, they anticipate another medium, one that is still in embryo." What are the differences between you and Benjamin with regard to new forms?

    Steven JohnsonSJ: It pleases me greatly that you've focused in on this particular quote, although I'm not sure I have a particularly satisfying answer to your question. One of the things that attracted me to the whole premise of Interface Culture was the opportunity to write about a medium in embryo, teetering on the brink of becoming a fully realized form but not all the way there yet. There's something intrinsically "newsworthy" about such a creature, but it also raises theoretical issues about how new forms come into being, issues that most cultural critics have ignored.

    I've thought for some time that we need a revolution in criticism that's not unlike the chaos/complexity revolution in the sciences -- a shift in focus toward the historical limit points that separate one genre from another or from other artistic movements. Surely there are discernible rules and patterns that can be detected in these transitions, in the same way that nonlinear math helped us understand the logic behind the seemingly chaotic transition between liquid and gas.
    Previously in Digital Culture:

    The Next Dimension by Ralph Lombreglia (July 1997)
    Even today's most sophisticated 3-D graphics lack a certain kind of depth -- that of artistic style. Now ThinkFish Productions moves beyond 3-D and the "virtual camera" into the realm of the "virtual artist."

    What Happened to Multimedia? by Ralph Lombreglia (June 1997)
    Is the golden age of multimedia already behind us? Michael Nash, who helped raise the art of the interactive CD-ROM to new levels, doesn't think so -- despite his feeling that today "most multimedia sucks."

    The Genie in the Machine by Ralph Lombreglia (April 1997)
    Interface visionary Kai Krause -- whose graphic-design tools combine the power of mathematics and computers with a childlike delight in sheer playfulness -- would bridge the divide between technology and art.

    For more, see the complete Digital Culture Index
    Benjamin probably did more thinking about this issue than anyone -- particularly in his unpublished Arcades project, which is completely obsessed with the overlap between old and new, with historical discontinuity. In a way, I wish I had worked out more of these theoretical issues before writing the book, but I guess that gives me something to do for the next one!

    HB: You suggest that the computer interface will be seen as "a kind of art form -- perhaps the art form of the next century." You see it as the gathering point for a new "digital avant-garde."

    SJ: As I mention near the end of the book, an interface avant-garde will probably have to announce itself by deliberately concocting difficult interfaces, "memory palaces" that cause you to lose your bearings. (That's basically what avant-gardes do, right? They mess with your expectations.)

    For an interface designer there's something particularly scandalous about this idea, given the long-standing dictate that our interfaces be user-friendly and intelligible. My hunch is that there are many of us out there who are comfortable enough with our existing interfaces to be really challenged by a new design, one that disorients more than comforts. (Actually, this is really what I think the Nintendo game Mario 64 is all about, but that's another story.)

    HB: What is it that really distinguishes an interface from a narrative? Isn't a narrative a kind of interface to the characters and forces it includes within it?

    SJ: It hadn't really occurred to me to think of the novel as a kind of interface to its "characters and forces," but there's something tantalizing in that idea. I do think our critical faculties regarding older forms like literature or architecture are bound to be heightened by doing some serious thinking about how computer interfaces work, maybe in the same way that Eisenstein's films help you make better sense of Cubist art. And yet I worry about losing some of the specificity of the interface as I describe it in the book. I don't simply want it to become another synonym for "medium."

    As for interfaces being stories themselves, I think most interfaces tend not to be terribly dependent on narrative. I mean, there's a cause-and-effect relationship expressed by the trash can (if you drag a file over it, the file will be deleted), but I don't think anyone could rightly call that a story, could they?

    HB: You counterpose meta-forms, or filters, that "serve as buffers, translators, tour guides" to "that old fuddy-duddy practice of storytelling." But people absolutely need stories. Don't you agree? If the new and sophisticated forms don't foster narrative, isn't it going to be left to the crudest of genres to tell our tales?

    SJ: I think of stories as "fuddy-duddy" in the same way that I think of cars as "fuddy-duddy" when compared to a Boeing 777. Just because they're less innovative technologically doesn't mean that we won't continue to rely on -- much less enjoy -- them in the years to come.

    Information filters are just the new kids on the block, which is not necessarily a death-blow to the old kids. It is, however, a reason to pay serious attention to the new forms' attributes and deficiencies on their own terms, and not judge them by the standards of the old order. Too often the meta-forms (whether on the TV or PC screen) have been criticized for their lack of storytelling skills. To me, that's a little like fulminating against the jumbo-jet for failing to fit into a parking space.

    HB: In your take on narrative you stand Walter Benjamin on his head. In "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov," Benjamin sees information as an acid that can dissolve storytelling in all its forms, from oral transmission to the novel -- and he was just worried about the effect of newspapers! It's as though Benjamin is saying, "The information red-tide is coming! The information red-tide is coming! We're screwed!" And Steven Johnson is saying, "The information red-tide is coming! The information red-tide is coming! Yummy!"

    SJ: I tried very hard not to say "Yummy!" anywhere in the book. (This can be quite a struggle for me.) I tried mostly to describe what I thought was happening in the culture without doing much editorializing. Most of these developments are by definition mixed blessings, which is another way of saying that we are in fact getting screwed -- only it's got a "yummy" sort of vibe.

    As for "The Storyteller," I'm flattered even to be mentioned in the same question as Benjamin, right-side up or not. "The Storyteller" -- and "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" -- are really the founding texts of the type of techno-criticism I talk about in the book. But I guess in my darkest moments I would say that our "need" for stories is a little like our "ear" for rhyme -- it gets less intense as our storage and retrieval devices grow more powerful. You used to have to encode wisdom in the form of a story because that was the most effective way to transmit it from generation to generation and from town to town. It was a mnemonic device as much as anything else. But after Gutenberg there were better ways to remember things. If that means the intensity of our need for stories has waned somewhat, is that so terrible?

    HB: Marshall McLuhan saw narrative as collapsing under the impact of electronic immediacy, the synesthetic all-at-once-ness of electronic culture. Your approach is in some ways more measured: meta-forms/filters evolve to protect us from the info-flood, to help keep us sane.

    SJ: Well, I do think that McLuhan -- and perhaps even more so, Sven Birkerts -- have it right about the decline of depth experience, and of the novel's duration, under the spell of electronic immediacy. Because of my (now-delayed) flirtation with an English Ph.D., I've spent more than a few months during which time I did nothing but read triple-decker novels from the nineteenth century. Each time I've immersed myself like that the experience is absolutely startling. It's as if the force of gravity around me has intensified, while the rest of the world hurtles on at its normal insane pace. I feel weighted, anchored, in a way that is almost impossible to describe to my friends still living on TV-time. And there's no question in my mind that this slower, intensified consciousness is wasting away, becoming less and less relevant. That, more than anything, may be the most insidious legacy of TV and film -- the sense that a successful story is one that you can consume in a single sitting.


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