Since I’ve been posting bits and pieces here from or on my book project, Reading Writing Interfaces, I wanted to also post what I’ve been thinking through in the third chapter “From the Philosophy of the Open to the Ideology of the User-Friendly.” Below is the introductory section for the chapter in which I outline my interest in the shift from a philosophy of the open, flexible and extensible to the closed environment of the “user-friendly” Macintosh which continues to influence the shape of contemporary computing.
“Compared to the phosphorescent garbage heap of DOS – an intimidating jumble of letters and commands – the world one entered into when flicking on a Macintosh was a clean, well-lit room, populated by wry objects, yet none so jarring that it threatened one’s comforting sense of place. It welcomed your work.” (Levy 157)
In the Old Testament there was the first apple, the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which with one taste sent Adam, Eve, and all mankind into the great current of History. The second apple was Isaac Newton’s, the symbol of our entry into the age of modern science. The Apple Computers symbol was not chosen purely at random: it represents the third apple, the one that widens the paths of knowledge leading toward the future. (Gassée 10-11)
The third cut I make into the history of twentieth century reading/writing interfaces is the era of the personal computer that was preceded by Douglas Engelbart, Alan Kay, and Seymour Papert’s experiments with (especially educational) computing and interface design from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s and that began with expandable homebrew kits from the mid- to late-1970s, irrevocably transforming into so-called “user-friendly,” closed, work-stations with the release of the Apple Macintosh in late January 1984.
This chapter, then, concerns itself with two significant aspects of this roughly ten year period: first, the shift from seeing a user-friendly computer as a tool that encourages understanding, tinkering, and creativity to seeing a user-friendly computer in terms of an efficient work-station for productivity and task-management and the effect of this shift particularly on digital literary production. Second, tightly connected to the first, this chapter concerns itself with the rupture marked by the turn from computer systems based on the command-line interface to those based on “direct manipulation” interfaces that are iconic or graphical (GUI) – a turn driven by rhetoric that insisted the GUI, particularly that pioneered by the Apple Macintosh design team, was not just different from the command-line interface but it was naturally better, easier, friendlier. As I outline in the second section of this chapter, the Macintosh was, as Jean-Louis Gassée (who headed up its development after Steve Jobs’ departure in 1985) writes without any hint of irony, “the third apple,” after the first apple in the Old Testament and the second apple that was Isaac Newton’s, is “the one that widens the paths of knowledge leading toward the future.” (11)
Despite studies released since 1985 that clearly demonstrate GUIs are not necessarily better than command-line interfaces in terms of how easy they are to learn and to use, Apple – particularly under Jobs’ leadership – successfully created such a convincing aura of inevitable superiority around the Macintosh GUI that to this day the same “user-friendly” philosophy, paired with the no longer noticed closed architecture, fuels consumers’ religious zeal for Apple products. I should note that I have been an avid consumer of Apple products since I owned my first Macintosh Powerbook in 1995. However, what concerns me is that ‘user-friendly’ now takes the shape of keeping users steadfastly unaware and uninformed about how their computers, their reading/writing interfaces, work let alone how they shape and determine their access knowledge and their ability to produce knowledge. As Wendy Chun points out, it’s a system in which users are, on the one hand, given the ability to “map, to zoom in and out, to manipulate, and to act” but, she implies, the result is is a “seemingly sovereign individual” who is mostly an devoted consumer of ready-made software, ready-made information whose framing and underlying (filtering) mechanisms we are not privy to (8).
Thus, the trajectory of this argument culminates in chapter four, in which I make it clear that the logical conclusion of this shift to the ideology (if not the religion) of the user-friendly via the Graphical User Interface (GUI) is, first, expressed in contemporary multi-touch, gestural, and ubiquitous computing devices such as the iPad and the iPhone whose interfaces are touted as utterly invisible (and so their inner workings are de facto invisible as they are also inaccessible); and, second, this full realization of frictionless, interface-free computing born out of the mid-1980s is in turn critiqued by works of activist digital media poetics. From this perspective, it is, then, no coincidence at all that Apple had actually designed something like an iPhone in 1983; at the same time that Macintosh designers were hard at work, Hartmut Esslinger, the designer of the Apple IIc, built a white landline phone complete with a built-in, stylus-driven touch-screen. (“Apple’s First iPhone”). The Apple IIc was in fact a close relative of the Macintosh in terms of portability and lack of internal expansion slots which made them both closed systems; the IIc was also released in 1984, just three months after the Macintosh.
But while chronologically proceeding from the era of the typewriter, using a media archaeology methodology to understand this particular rupture in media history means that activist media poetics plays out quite differently in the 1980s as it was an era newly oriented toward the efficient completion of tasks over and beyond a creative use or mis-use of the computer. Arguably one reason for the heightened engagement in hacking type(writing) in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s is that the typewriter had become so ubiquitous in homes and offices that it had also become invisible to its users. It is precisely at the point at which a technology saturates a culture that writers and artists, whose craft is utterly informed by a sensitivity to their tools, begin to break apart that same technology to once again draw attention to the way in which it offers certain limits and possibilities to both thought and expression. There are indeed examples of digital media activist poems that also inherit an emphasis on making, doing, hacking but – once again – it seems to me that the vast majority of these works do not appear until both the personal computer and the user-friendly computer whose GUI is designed to keep the user passively consuming technology rather than actively producing it become practically ubiquitous.
As I discuss in the first section of this chapter, activist media poetics in this particular time period mostly takes the form of experimentation with digital tools that at the time were new to writers – an experimentation that, at least under the terms set by Mckenzie Wark’s Hacker Manifesto, certainly could be framed as hacking (Wark infamously writes that “Hackers create the possibility of new things entering the world”  and that “The slogan of the hacker class is not the workers of the world united, but the workings of the world untied” ). However, as I will discuss, work by Invisible Seattle, bpNichol, Paul Zelevansky, Geof Huth, and Robert Pinsky is not working to make the (in this case) command-line interface visible so much as it is openly playing with and tentatively testing the parameters of the personal computer as a still-new writing technology. This kind of open experimentation almost entirely disappeared once Apple Macintosh’s design innovations as well as their marketing made open computer architecture and the command-line interface obsolete and GUIs pervasive.
 Related to this shift from the homebrew kit to the user-friendly GUI-based personal computer is the initial attempt to make computers appear friendly to uncertain, first-time buyers by marketing them as sophisticated typewriters. For example, Don Lancaster’s declares in the TV Typewriter Cookbook that his 1973 TV Typewriter can “convert an ordinary Selectric office typewriter into a superb hard-copy printer” (218); and a 1979 advertisement in Byte magazine for the word processor AUTOTYPE (produced by Infinity Micro) – “a true processor of words – oddly includes images of text in the shape of arrows and trees which could easily be mistaken for typewriter-created concrete poetry. (“Autotype” 169)
 It’s worth noting that, despite Gassée’s hyperbolic rhetoric that I use to help demonstrate the ideological fervor of those working for Apple in the 1980s, his vision for Macintosh was quite different from Jobs’ in that Gassée helped shepherd onto the market three models of the Macintosh (the Mac Plus, Mac II, and Mac SE) that were all expandable instead of the first generation Macintosh which actively prevented users from opening up the computer by, as I describe in the body of this chapter, giving the user a small electrical shock if they did not adhere to the warnings. While these later models of the Macintosh included expansion slots which philosophically returned Apple to the era of Steve Wozniak’s Apple II (whose six expansion slots permitted a whole range of devices for display controllers, memory boards, hard disks etc.), it seems clear that the return of Jobs to Apple in 1997 meant – and still does mean – a return to keeping the inner workings of Apple computers and computing devices firmly closed off to users.
 For example, in 1985 John Whiteside et al wrote in “User Performance with Command, Menu, and Iconic Interfaces” that “interface style is not related to performance or preference (but careful design is)” and further they concluded, “the care with which an interface is crafted is more important than the style of interface chosen, at least for menu, command, and iconic systems.” (185, 190) Such studies have been repeated as recently as 2007 (see Chen et al).
 It is precisely out of a media archaeology impulse that I have created the Archeological Media Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder – a lab which houses most of the computers I discuss in this chapter, including the Apple II, Apple Lisa, and Apple Macintosh – precisely because their out-datedness very clearly communicates to us now the design ideologies behind both their hardware and software that delimits what can be written, what can be thought. The key to the lab’s success will be to avoid presenting these machines as novelty or kitsch and instead approach each of them as a productive field for understanding our computing past and present.
I recently ordered, with glee, Sifteo cubes in the hopes that I might be able to use them either in the classes I teach or perhaps add them to the Archeological Media Lab which, while largely invested in studying outdated computer hardware and software, is also broadly concerned with the study of interface design. As the Sifteo cube interface is equal parts touch-sensitive and motion-sensitive – for example, you choose menu options by pushing the cubes together or you can activate different parts of the games by shaking the cubes or placing them face down – they seemed like a necessary addition to the lab’s growing library of gadgets. (And of course, after many happy hours of compulsive playing and tinkering with the cubes at home, I was also looking for a legitimate excuse to bring the cubes into my classes.)
This, then, is a short review of Sifteo cubes and my own attempt to work out, for myself and for my colleagues (especially those involved in the Teaching with Technology Seminar sponsored by ASSETT), whether these cubes are might be a productive addition to an undergraduate class on digital media or even a literature class on electronic literature. But, I should be clear: this review is in the context of the classes I’m teaching right now that reflect my own (rather unconventional) research interests.
While more and more I’m becoming interested in old media, analog media, as well as the history of computing, one reason I’m housed in an English literature department is because of my interest in e-literature with an emphasis on digital poetry. By “digital poetry” I generally mean a work that is ‘digital born,’ a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer. Whether or not the text is “poetry” more often than not depends on what critical apparatus you decide to bring to the work—many of the digital works I’m interested could be classified as fiction or visual art as easily as they could be poetry; I’ve found that once text enters the digital, genre distinctions start to break down.
In the undergraduate course I teach on digital poetry, I’ve come up with four broad conceptual categories by which to help students think about digital poems: 1) digital poetry that brings us to the absolute limits of interpretation; 2) the historical underpinnings of digital poetry (including units on how Dada, Futurism, and Concrete Poetry have influenced digital poetry); 3) the lineage of computer-generated poetry that spans the 1950s to the present day – or, basically, the use of algorithms to generate text; 4) and reading/writing poetry interfaces from the 21st back to the early 20th century. In terms of the latter, I try to teach my students to see how digital poems draw our attention to their interface, usually through an interface that’s difficult to navigate that in turn helps make writing interfaces less transparent; in contrast to the rhetoric around every new multi-touch or gestural interface that touts how its interface “just disappears! it’s completely ‘natural’ and ‘intuitive’”, I try to get my students to think about what it means for an interface to be invisible or natural – just whose intuition is driving this interface? Also, and more importantly, I feel strongly that the more invisible an interface becomes the less access we have to making things outside of ready-made software and the less access we have to understanding what’s going on underneath the hood. As such, we also look at how these digital poems have been constructed—what software has been used or hacked to create these word objects? What can we learn from studying these works at the level of the code?
The second course I frequently teach is called “Introduction to Digital Media for Humanities” which serves as a humanities-based introduction to digital media structures such as the digital archive and reading/writing software that fundamentally affects what we ourselves are able to read/write; theories and methodologies for under-taking digital media scholarship in the humanities; and, finally, digital textualities ranging from text messaging, blogging, and games to digital fiction and poetry. Ideally, this course gives students the critical skills they need to understand and navigate a 21st century world in which digital media govern the storage, transmission and reception of a whole range of textual material.
Both classes have a distinct and recurring emphasis on doing and making a necessary adjunct to learning the course material; as such, at the end of the semester we have a “demo day” where students exhibit their own works of digital poetry or digital textuality they create in response to the texts we study in class. The point of this assignment is not to impress the class with technical skills – the point is to engage as fully as possible in thinking about how you create affects what you’ve created; in other words, to enact a kind of study or critique of software and how it shapes creative production through doing. This means too that I don’t need students to learn Flash or Actionscript as there are plenty of ways they can “hack” powerpoint or keynote or Prezi to create compelling digital texts.
To slowly move to a discussion of Sifteo cubes, the nature of the final project also means I’m always on the look-out for interesting, new tech to use for this assignment – but there are some restrictions: 1) the tech needs to be somewhat easily accessible (as students have only about 3 weeks to complete the assignment); 2) the tech needs to be free or cheap or easy for me to share with my students; 3) the tech needs to have a textual, ideally literary, potential so that students can learn about how language operates in a digital environment. I can usually find tech that satisfies two out of 3 of these requirements and, in this way, Sifteo cubes are no exception.
David Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi designed the cubes while they were graduate students at the MIT Media Lab, and they have since formed a company to produce Sifteo Cubes, games, and software. Inspired by classic games such as chess, checkers, and mah-jong, Sifteo Cubes are a hands-on interactive game system. You can turn cubes, shake them, press down on them, and connect them with each other. Each cube contains a tiny computer chip and is connected to other cubes, sensing their motion and position through a wireless network to the Sifteo application on a nearby computer. They come with desktop software that allows you to browse and play games, create your own with the Sifteo Creativity Kit, and find more in the Sifteo store. [An intriguing side-note: Sifteo cubes were recently featured in a MOMA exhibit called "Talk To Me" , featuring a number of cutting edge designs that attempt to reimagine the notion of 'interface.']
There are three games available at the moment that (arguably) include textual elements or just elements that are conceivably related to the two courses I outline above: LoopLoop, Wordplay, and Chroma Shuffle. All three games teach students individual components of what goes into creating a digital poem or even just net art. LoopLoop is about the art of the remix: so much of digital poetry/net art remixes from other sources – pulls from source texts, music, visuals to rearrange; instead of framing remix as plagiarism or laziness (“you didn’t make that yourself!”), this game consists of small music samples and beats you can layer and combine and so it demos how choosing/editing/curation is an art in itself. Wordplay is about the art of the combinatorial: many digital poems are based on the art of viewing language and words as material bits that can be re-combined to form new material bits; it’s another form of remix that takes place at the level of the letter rather than the sentence or the work of art/music as a whole. Chroma Shuffle is about the art of the game: many works of net art/digital poetry have been heavily influenced by games/gaming and as a result turns reading into playing/interacting which in turn requires an organized awareness of objects in the space – or spatial visualization.
Hopefully, given my description of these three Sifteo games, their appeal is obvious. However, there are a few drawbacks: aside from the price tag (a set of three cubes with the charger dock costs about $150 on Amazon.com which makes them prohibitively expensive for most students), they are fantastic to consume which is also the problem – they seem to strongly encourage a passive acceptance of the interface and they discourage users from thinking about how the cubes work and from creating outside of the ready-made environment. I haven’t yet thought of a way to “hack” the Sifteo Cubes to make them do things they might not have been intended to do – like make digital poems. There is indeed a software developers kit but it requires that you know the programming language C. There is also a Creativity Kit which does allow you to change some of what you might call the “vocabulary” of the games (the letters and words) but only allows limited changes to the grammar – the underlying structure – of the games.
All this said: despite the downsides I mention above, if there’s a way for an institution to provide access to Sifteo cubes without saddling students with an additional expense, my sense is that these cubes are still well worth experimenting with in the classroom. I can’t help but endorse any piece of technology that grabs students as much as these cubes and impels them to learn and create.