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  • "A Medium in Embryo"
    An e-mail exchange between Steven Johnson and Harvey Blume

  • See excerpts from Steven Johnson's Interface Culture:

    "There's a funny thing about the fusion of technology and culture...."

    "It becomes more and more difficult to imagine the dataspace at our fingertips..."

    "Hypertext, in fact, suggests a whole new grammar of possibilities..."

    "Information-space is the great symbolic accomplishment of our era...."

    "'User-hostile' may sound like an odd goal for interface design..."

    "Cathedrals, remember, were 'infinity imagined'..."

    "Our interfaces are stories..."

  • Join the discussion in the Digital Culture forum of Post & Riposte.

    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
  • God, Man, and the

    Most of us take the computer interface for granted. But for Steven Johnson it is a defining metaphor of our times -- and a summons to the metaphysical

    by Harvey Blume

    October 9, 1997

    When I think about the gap between raw information and its numinous life on the screen -- something I try to avoid doing, because it is a dark and difficult thought, more than a little like contemplating the age of the universe -- the whole sensation has a strangely religious feel to it.
    --Steven Johnson, Interface Culture
    As Steven Johnson conceives it, the unnerving gap between "raw information and its numinous life on the screen" is the setting for the interface, the evolving medium through which computer users control their machines. In Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate, Johnson, a founding editor of the influential Webzine FEED, expands on the practical and metaphorical ramifications of the computer interface as no one before him has ever, to my knowledge, thought to do. For Johnson, the interface is not just a convenience -- a way to copy files, launch programs, or nudge a machine through the eye of a modem out into cyberspace. It is an art form, a window on culture, history, and technology. If you are Steven Johnson, the interface is the source of a recurrent invitation to fear and trembling, your muezzin summoning you to prayer.

    Interface CultureThe question, obviously, is whether a computer interface can live up to such exalted claims. If you can see heaven in a grain of sand, does that mean you will necessarily also find it in the Graphic User Interface (GUI) that is common, in one form or another, to the Macintosh, Windows, and the World Wide Web? Programmers know the GUI as an illusion, the product of operating-system routines meshing so smoothly that the user is never exposed to the sight of icons, menus, windows, and the rest dissolving into the inherently aimless binary digits out of which they are composed. Even so, some programmers are provoked now and again to wonder if the universe isn't built along similar lines, propagating itself at a high-enough refresh rate so that humans don't detect the Supreme Hacker behind trillions of lines of (mostly) bug-free Cosmic Code.

    Prospective readers of Interface Culture should be assured: the book does not presuppose, and may very well fail to trigger, religious illumination. The computer interface may never rate -- as Johnson suggests it will -- with "the novel or the cathedral" as a means of joining heaven, earth, and society. But whether or not the GUI and its descendants are, in fact, evolving toward a significance that will belie their digital origins, Interface Culture remains a rewarding read -- stimulating, iconoclastic, and strikingly original.

    "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."
    --Steven Johnson, from his e-mail exchange with Harvey Blume.

    Johnson's first chapters hinge on speed, a defining element of both microprocessors and contemporary culture. Johnson stresses that the very speed with which media mutate in our day calls attention to them: "We can grasp the way different media shape our habits of thought because we can see the progression, the change from one form to another." While it might once have been plausible to think of language (a medium if ever there was one), or even writing, as natural and eternal, we can't pretend the same about radio, television, and the World Wide Web. Rate of change brings media out of the shadows. It propels Gutenberg toward the likes of Marshall McLuhan and, by extension, language toward the likes of Noam Chomsky.

    Johnson takes the interface as seriously as Walter Benjamin took the movies (whose twenty-four frames a second he compared to "a surgical operation" performed on time) and as seriously as McLuhan took the whole of what he termed the "electrically configured world." For Johnson the computer interface affords a privileged outlook on prior media. Basing his thinking on the fact that art and technology are inseparable in interface design, Johnson asserts that they were never truly distinct in the first place. "When James Joyce published Ulysses in 1922 and revolutionized all of our expectations about how books should work, was he so different from Gutenberg himself?" His answer: "Joyce was a highly skilled technician, tinkering around with a book-machine, making it do things it had never done before."

    The tendency in discussions of art and technology is to assume basic difference and to crawl cautiously toward common ground, all the while ducking heavy fire from both sides. It is refreshing to encounter someone who starts with the assumption that art and technology are similar, even identical, and writes off difference as nothing but artifact, distortion that set in and assumed the appearance of solidity during bygone periods of slow change. Johnson concludes his comparison of Joyce with Gutenberg by stressing, "They were both artists. They were both engineers. Only the four hundred years that separated them kept their shared condition from view."

    Johnson's style is to cut against the grain of received wisdom, and in that spirit he makes what may be the book's most original point. It is a given in discussions of contemporary literature that while the novel may be in trouble, narrative itself is indestructible, resurrecting itself constantly in the form of memoirs, journalism, even weather reports. Not so, according to Johnson. Narrative may once have supplied the connective tissue for a rapidly changing society -- Dickens, for example, joined "working class orphans to withered aristocrats to idle speculators to colonial scavengers" within the novelistic frame. But today's overriding question is no longer, "What connects all these bewildering new social realities?" It is, instead, "What does all this information mean?"

    Johnson proposes total opposition, complete incommensurability, between narrative and information, and, in so doing, again follows in the footsteps of Benjamin, who characterized information as "menacing" to storytelling in all its forms, and McLuhan, who believed "the story line" to be a relic of print culture soon to be jettisoned by electronic media. Johnson's angle is that information overload renders narrative moot, which is why other forms -- meta-forms, as he refers to them -- are breaking out all over. These meta-forms -- the nested, ironic, self-referential forms, media communing with itself -- are decried with varying degrees of fatalism (and self-reference) by everyone from David Foster Wallace to Jean Baudrillard. Johnson, in an act of intellectual jujitsu, embraces just these "parasitic" forms, arguing that they are inevitable stages in the evolution of the interface and interface culture.

    "There's a funny thing about the fusion of technology and culture. It has been a part of human experience since that first cave painter..."
    --Steven Johnson, from Interface Culture. See the rest of this and other excerpts.

    Johnson notes that television narrative has stagnated, whereas "televised 'riffing' -- television commenting on television" has come into its own. He cites shows ranging from Beavis and Butthead to "anything on the E Channel" to prove that meta-forms "are evolving at a much faster clip than their storytelling competitors." He welcomes "TV shows and video installations devoted 'exclusively' to reading the media," arguing that it is precisely by their self-involvement, their sifting publicly through their own data and their own processes, that such meta-forms reveal their ultimate purpose. Once they have left analog trappings behind -- Johnson calls them "digital forms trapped in an analog medium" -- they will emerge as information filters capable of negotiating between the inane and the necessary, the superfluous and the significant. It is a filter, for example, that can bridge the gap between the inscrutable zeros and ones of computer memory and the letters of the alphabet, a filter that configures "raw information" into "numinous life on the screen." A filter, in short, is an embryonic interface, and an interface is a highly developed filter or set of filters.

    If there's a weakness to this exhilarating book, it doesn't have to do with the writing style, which is bracing, inventive, and highly resistant to the penchant for cyberjargon and neologism that are the bane of so many volumes on new media. Nor does Interface Culture's weakness pertain to whether the computer interface turns out, as predicted, to be the master filter of the future. It has more to do with the fact that Johnson seems to lack any sense of what might be lost if, in fact, he's right.

    In his meditations on cinema Walter Benjamin noted the loss of aura associated with original works of art. (True, he missed the fact that the aura had already grown to enfold cinema as well.) McLuhan, in his less well-publicized moments, mourned what electronic immediacy might do to literacy. Does Johnson feel anything similar? Do we lose nothing, and only gain, if, for example, meta-forms bring narrative to its knees, scavenging it for parts, no doubt, while simultaneously starving our primal need for stories? It would be unique, indeed, if the next medium left nothing broken in its wake. By his silence Johnson implies that's exactly what will happen if and when the interface assumes its place as World Processor.

    Interface Culture shows Johnson to be an astute critic already. He might be an even better one if his pulse rate and the rate of technological change were a little less perfectly attuned. An interface designer has to be right on time, but our best critics would do well to be just a little out of phase.

    Go to A Medium in Embryo:
    An e-mail exchange between Steven Johnson and Harvey Blume

    See excerpts from Steven Johnson's Interface Culture.

    Join the discussion in the Digital Culture forum of Post & Riposte.

    More on Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound

    At a critical point in his life, Harvey Blume chose English over C and therefore writes reviews, criticism, and even the occasional book rather than computer programs. The co-author of
    Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo (St. Martins), he writes about art, literature, and new media.

    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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