Thanks to the hard work of Matthew Rubery and Leah Price, Further Reading: Oxford Twenty-first Century Approaches to Literature (Oxford UP) has just been published with an incredible line-up of people. I revisited and expanded on some ideas I wrote about in Reading Writing Interfaces via my piece “Interfaced” – a draft version of which appears below. I hope you enjoy reading it, especially as I experimented with writing in a more serious style than I normally do.
1. “What is a computer?”
In November 2017, Apple launched yet another advertisement for the iPad Pro in its never-ending campaign to vanquish not merely “the competition,” and not merely the computing industry’s sense of what’s possible, but computers as such – or, rather, our awareness of there being programmable computers at all. Shamelessly drawing from the prevailing belief that teenagers are the most valuable consumer demographic when it comes to tech, the commercial opens with a young person about thirteen or fourteen years old, gender indeterminate, sailing away from a New York City walk-up apartment on his or her fixie and into the free-wheeling world of urban teen hang-outs. From stoops to parks, sidewalks, vintage furniture stores, taco shops, coffeeshops, buses, and even tree branches , we see her (this vibrant young person who appears entirely “of” the modern world turns out to be a “she”) chatting with friends online, drawing hearts on the screen with a stylus, snapping social media appropriate “pics”, and creating mixed media art – all to the tune of electronic pop duo Louis The Child’s refrain of “where is it you want to go?” The advertisement is only sixty seconds long but already, forty-five seconds in, we know without a doubt that this pre-teen knows better than we do that with this device, not even noticeable as a device, you can go anywhere and do anything – precisely because it is as much a perfect extension of her as she is of the iPad.
The ad closes with the pre-teen lounging in her backyard, iPad resting on the grass as if it’s also as much a part of the natural world as flowers or trees, while she easily and unselfconsciously is immersed in what we can only assume is a magical land on the other side of the screen (since we’re never shown anything so banal as an operating system). With only seven seconds left, suddenly this world of teen magic is interrupted by a friendly neighbor in her forties or fifties who leans over the backyard fence and asks, “Whatcha doin’ on your computer?” The young woman responds not by explaining what she’s doing or what she’s seeing in the parallel world of digital magic but with what we are supposed to think is an unanswerable question: “What’s a computer?”
The message is clear: the iPad is itself a kōan – a Zen Buddhist riddle intended to bring us to enlightenment as it demonstrates the inadequacy, even pointlessness of logical reasoning in the face of both such a marvelous device and capitalism more broadly as well as the inadequacy of object categories as such. The iPad overcomes all boundaries that might keep you estranged from any place, person, thing, or experience. As the Austrian philosopher Günther Anders might say, Apple presents a world to us which is a fait accompli, where the commoditization of every last bit of world and experience has been both alienated and banalized to such a degree that everything appears as perfectly present, even as it is utterly absent. Writing in 1956, at the beginning of the era of television, eerily describing our contemporary world that is completely and invisibly saturated with digital devices, Anders urges us to understand:
The deception in question here consists…in the fact that we, despite living as we do in an estranged world, as consumers of films, radio and television…seem to be on friendly terms with everything and everybody: people, places, situations, events, even the most surprising, or precisely the most surprising, ones…This phenomenon of pseudo-familiarization…we call “banalization of the world”…because what is taking place here does not consist in our abandonment to the strange or the bizarre, but in the fact that we are supplied with strange people, things, events and situations as if they were totally familiar…when all the various and variously distant regions of the world are brought equally close to us, the world as such vanishes.
More than sixty years later, “the world as such” has vanished because it is now almost completely mediated by digital devices whose interfaces have been intentionally designed to disappear from our awareness; without an ability to see where one thing or person or experience ends and another begins, we are left in a state of constant estrangement. And while one might object that Apple products hardly represent the entirety of contemporary life, even advertisements for biologic medications such as Humira – designed to treat arthritis, Crohn’s disease, psoriasis, and other disorders – attempt to persuade viewers to buy their product via the representation of touchscreen interfaces superimposed over images of inflamed joints, superimposed one more time on top of another image of an underlying layer of interface. The dream, on its way to becoming reality, is for all the world to be an interface.
However, as I discuss in part three of this essay, the range of reading practices across media studies, along with literature and the arts, are uniquely positioned to do what Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) designers and Silicon Valley cannot or will not do. They are uniquely positioned to work with and against the grain of ubiquitous, nearly invisible interfaces; media studies and literature and the arts can reveal the ways in which these interfaces too often foreclose on our access to information, knowledge, and creativity, and they can also re-insert values such as accessibility, transparency, and configurability, if not into the design of interfaces themselves, then at least into our experience of these interfaces.
2. What is an interface?
“Interface” is, for better and for worse, a flexible term that crosses many disciplinary boundaries and has both technical and everyday usages. In computing, “interface” refers to any number of configurations of hardware and/or software that act as intermediaries between humans and computers. In Reading Writing Interfaces I settle on a more specific definition: interface is “a technology – whether it is a fascicle, a typewriter, a command line, or a GUI [Graphical User Interface] – that mediates between reader and the surface-level, human-authored writing, as well as, in the case of digital devices, the machine-based writing taking place below the gloss of the surface.” In this sense the interface is a threshold along the lines of Alexander Galloway’s articulation of interface as “the point of transition between different mediatic layers within any nested system.” Seeing the interface as a threshold rather than as a separation or a firm boundary highlights how it both grants and denies access to whatever lies on the other side, thereby hiding and revealing the operationality of underlying layers.
However, the colloquial usage of ‘interface’ especially common in corporate culture also reveals some important aspects of the concept that are, surprisingly, not apparent in its usage in computing. That is, “interface” can also refer to face-to-face communication – a usage that draws on the prefix “inter” (meaning between or shared) and “face”, whose Latin root “facies” refers to an individual’s face as well as surface or front. In this usage, one’s face or visage is seen as a kind of permeable boundary lying between one’s inner life and the outside world – a usage that also brings to light the fact that western culture has been struggling since Plato to overcome technology-related boundaries such as writing in order to have a more direct relationship between oneself and the outside world. As Plato laments in the later parts of The Phaedrus, writing is nothing more than an amusement and an external reminder (a copy of a copy) of the eternal forms one should already know in one’s soul. Thus, for Plato writing is a poor interface by which to both represent and access true wisdom and understanding.
While we can broaden and situate our contemporary understanding of interface by going back and reinterpreting Greek philosophical debates as being about something very much akin to an interface, the earliest use of the term “interface” was in nineteenth-century physics. As Peter Schaefer carefully delineates, “interface” has a longer history than the Oxford English Dictionary would lead us to believe. [FN] While the OED cites Irish physicist James Thomson Bottomley’s use of “interface” in 1882 as the earliest instance, in fact English brothers James and William (later Lord Kelvin) Thomson are responsible for coming up with the term in the 1870s in the context of thermodynamics. The first use of “interface” in print appears in “Notes and Queries – on Gases, Liquids, Fluids” by William Thomson, who credits his brother James for coming up with the term “interface” to describe the entity in James Clerk Maxwell’s thought experiment that became known as “Maxwell’s Demon.” [FN?]
Maxwell’s thought experiment was designed to help further our understanding of the second law of thermodynamics; his original scenario describes a closed chamber full of hot and cold gas molecules, a wall dividing the chamber in half, and a small doorway at the dividing line which is guarded by a so-called “demon” who quickly sorts hot molecules into one half of the chamber, leaving cold molecules on the other side. The point of the scenario is to demonstrate that if such a perfect sorting of molecules were possible, the second law of thermodynamics would be violated; thus, in order to maintain entropy in the chamber, the demon needs to allow molecules to pass to and from both sides of the chamber. For the Thomsons, the demon stationed at the opening is not so much malevolent as it is a mediating force they call an interface, making it clear that boundaries marked by such an interface must be permeable in order to allow energy to flow from one side of the interface to the other and back again. Thus, briefly returning to the example of the iPad that opens this essay, Thomson’s nineteenth-century musings about interfaces and energy flow illustrate that while twenty-first-century devices want us to believe that all boundaries have not simply been permeated but rather overcome altogether, the fact remains there is a real boundary between human and computer; obfuscating this fact risks losing all understanding of how the device is at least partly shaping and defining our access to knowledge, information, and our creative capacities. It is not just that interfaces are permeable – their permeability also needs to be visible in order for there to be a genuine interaction between human and computer.
That interfaces are part and parcel of media technologies in particular and, moreover, that they are by necessity permeable first appears in Marshall McLuhan’s seminal 1964 work Understanding Media, a work that inaugurated the field of media studies as we now know it. As Richard Cavell points out, the use of the term “interface” in Understanding Media is far from coincidental, as he was heavily influenced by the “new physics” during his time at Cambridge in the 1930s much more than he was influenced by the “new critics.” I will discuss McLuhan in greater detail in part three; for the moment, it’s clear in this field-defining book that for McLuhan, as well as for the Thomson brothers, an “interface” is a porous surface by which and through which humans and media engage in a never-ending process of translation and assimilation into the other’s terms. Such an understanding of interface becomes crucial when we find that in the mid-1980s “interface” leaves behind its connotations of permeability and co-constitution and instead starts to mean the attempt to only translate media into human terms.
Returning once more to the world of computing, the notion of interface as the separation of rather than threshold or permeable boundary between human and computer is most at issue in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). The latter is a field of study that fully emerged in the 1980s – more precisely in 1984 with the release of the Apple Macintosh – as the computer industry sought to move the computer away from its reputation as a niche device for tinkerers or homebrewers and toward something more akin to an everyday appliance. Apple’s Jeff Raskin and Steve Jobs both sought to create a hardware and software system for an “identical, easy-to-use, low-cost appliance computer,” which meant that rather than having the ability to configure the computer from the inside out, the goal was to create a computer that was hermetically sealed and only configurable to the extent that one could drop software in via a floppy disk, just as you might drop a piece of bread into a toaster. And of course, once the computer becomes an appliance, it also ceases to be programmable on the user side, and thereby it de facto ceases to be a computer – perfectly illustrated thirty four years later by the closing line of the iPad Pro commercial that disguises this fact with the question, “What is a computer?” Since the release of the Apple Macintosh in the mid-1980s, HCI designers have largely focused on giving users the impression that their interactions with the computer resemble, as closely as possible, interactions with another human via seemingly open-ended dialogue with some combination of a keyboard, screen, mouse, desktop, and, most recently, gesture and voice.
Certainly a disappearing interface can be tremendously useful – think of the expert pianist who can perform rapid scales up and down the keyboard without focusing on individual keys; or, think of the speed typist who never looks at the keyboard; or even think of my own writing of this essay which has been made possible by a combination of the keyboard-screen-mouse interface, my computer’s graphical user interface and the interface of Microsoft Word, which all recede from view so that I can concentrate on writing as a conceptual rather than technical activity. However, when interfaces disappear they do not cease to exist; rather, their power not just to shape but to determine our experience of the world means that we cannot perceive their determining power and thus we – as creators or makers of any kind – cannot ourselves intervene, understand, or intentionally shape what happens on the computer side of the interface. Even worse, in the case of the iPad, we are encouraged to not see the computer as a computer (originally designed to be programmable, not simply consumable).
3. How do you read a (writing) interface?
Now that the definitional pitfalls of “interface” have been navigated, we can move on to a more concrete methodology whereby a media studies approach is combined with literary practices as a way to systematically determine how one might go about analyzing an interface.
As I suggested in part two, a longer history of media studies might reconceive Plato’s notion of writing as an interface that determines how and what we know. But one of the earliest and most extensive accounts of how technology – not yet termed “media” and not yet understood as that which we access via interfaces – structures our perceptions of the world and, therefore, the function and structure of art is Walter Benjamin’s 1936 “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin lays the conceptual groundwork for analyzing interfaces in a way that does not merely describe their surface qualities or their obvious functionalities but that looks at the ways in which any given piece of technology (and, by extension, any given interface) is historically and materially determined, which thereby determines our perceptions and ideas about art. Importantly for Benjamin, changes in technology, which lead to changes in the function of art, ultimately lead to changes in politics. In the case of the mechanical reproduction of moving images in the cinema, there is a potential for either collective or communitarian experience of the moving images or for their manipulation by fascists.
Thus, if we try to unfold the iPad Pro’s meaning and significance in the context of Benjamin’s insights, we might account for them in terms of: how the iPad is only the most recent iteration of late capitalism’s version of the hermetically sealed, blackboxed Apple Macintosh and in terms of how it’s designed to be utterly mobile and seamlessly integrated into every aspect of our everyday lives – the result of which is art that we can only consume via what’s presented to us on the screen and a politics that tends toward consumption and disempowerment. However, this analysis, with its reliance on broad generalities about the device itself and about what constitutes art and politics, fails to account for the aesthetically and politically experimental poems and works of art created for the iPad, such as those by Jason Lewis and Jörg Piringer, that demonstrate how the device and its multitouch interface can still be turned into a complex means to experience visual and/or procedurally based poetry.
As Benjamin himself points out, while technical reproducibility can still be used for fascism’s aestheticizing tendencies (as well as for war), it also opens up the possibility for “authenticity” and aura to be unseated as technical reproducibility creates the possibility for every viewer to be an expert or even, in contemporary terms, a “maker.”
Benjamin’s work allows us to bring historical and material circumstances to bear on the art and therefore politics produced by any given piece of technology and thus, again, any interface to that technology. Returning to McLuhan’s Understanding Media, we can see how he provides us with more conceptual tools for a thoroughgoing analysis of the ways in which technology (now reconfigured as “media”) is both a message we can read as well as an extension of ourselves as users. The potential for McLuhan’s work to help us read interfaces is implied in two phrases from Understanding Media that have turned into decontextualized slogans: 1) the medium is the message and 2) media are the extensions of man. Reading these two phrases independently of each other has led many critics to dismiss McLuhan either as anthropocentric or as a technological determinist. The reality is more complex: McLuhan was trying to make clear the ways in which there is a never-ending circuit between human users and media such that there is a constant shaping and determining of each by the other. Along the lines of Benjamin, media “alter sense ratios or patterns of perception” at the same time as media allow us to extend ourselves – we extend, for example, our legs through automobiles or our nervous systems through global communication networks.
However, even while media have a message we can read, as long as we are enmeshed in this circuit in which humans and media shape and determine each other, McLuhan’s work implies that we are always to some extent sleep-walking through our media saturated lives, unable to ever completely extricate ourselves from the circuit to clearly read the message of media. The only exit route from this somnambulism is through art. Thus, as I point out in Reading Writing Interfaces, in the case of concrete poetry from the 1960s and 1970s that was created by working with and against the affordances of typewriters, poets were not simply using typewriters to demonstrate how form is an extension of content, but rather foregrounding or probing into the nature of the circuit between human and medium. As McLuhan writes in Culture Is Our Business: “Poets and artists live on frontiers. They have no feedback, only feedforward. They have no identities. They are probes.” One of the most compelling literary examples of writers – clearly under the spell of McLuhan – acting as probes is Steve McCaffery’s two-part, largescale work of typewriter art and/or poetry titled “Carnival.” Constructed over a nearly ten-year period, McCaffery’s work performs the material workings of the typewriter as a medium, performatively playing with and against the typewriter as a device for turning the page into a homogenous grid.
However, given that McLuhan was writing in the waning age of radio and at the beginning of the age of television, how can we hope to read the message of media via artists in our contemporary moment that is, once again, defined by a deliberate assault on our ability to perceive the presence of blackboxed digital media and their interfaces? Despite Apple’s marketing and seductive advertisements, we can still point to that iPad Pro, sitting over there, and we can still point to its interface even though we will never have access to what lies on the other side of that impermeable boundary. But how do we read and account for interfaces such as those mediating virtual reality? How do we read interfaces that may not yet be invisible but that are being pushed far outside our line of vision and touch?
Writing right at the moment at which the Apple Macintosh came into being, Friedrich Kittler declares that “Understanding media – despite McLuhan’s title – remains an impossibility precisely because the dominant information technologies of the day control all understanding and its illusions.” For Kittler, not even artists acting as probes can penetrate the representations of a medium’s message produced and projected by the medium itself. However, he offers us a slightly different exit route from the world of illusions than McLuhan, asserting that “blueprints and diagrams, regardless of whether they control printing presses or mainframe computers, may yield historical traces of the unknown called the body…What counts are not the messages or the content with which they equip so-called souls for the duration of a technological era, but rather…their circuits, the very schematism of perceptibility.” In other words, humans are no longer part of a circuit of meaning between human and medium but rather the direction of determination is now one-way – from medium directly to human; and the only way to understand the nature of the determination is to look at old media so we can read their ghostly presence into contemporary media. Moreover, if we want to read a medium’s interface, we cannot simply look at its surface functioning, and we cannot simply postulate about the extent to which it shapes and determines us; we must methodically undertake an archaeological study of the material layers underpinning the interface. Thus, while Kittler might say we cannot read the iPad at all, we can read its distant ancestor, the typewriter and the typewritten, to get a sense of the iPad’s functioning.
At this point, we reach a kind of dead-end in terms of media studies’ ability to give us tools to read interfaces. Even the historian’s uncovering of prior media can never quite account for digital media which, again, “control all understanding and its illusions.” So then what are we left with? I would argue that even without the ability for us to get behind the blackboxed layers of slick interfaces and to document each point at which a program or an algorithm or a procedure has been initiated, writers and artists who are actually using these devices, playing with and against the affordances of hardware and software, still have the ability to act as probes. As creative users, they can and do reveal the ways in which these interfaces too often lack permeability and so foreclose on our ability to understand how they’re determining access to information, knowledge and creativity; moreover, artists and writers can also re-insert values (or replace the values of HCI or Silicon Valley), if not into the design of interfaces themselves then into our experience of these interfaces.
Virtual Reality (VR) systems offer a difficult but revealing example of what such work looks like in the twenty-first century. That said, the problem with accounting for the interface of VR is twofold: for one, the interface that dominates most of the creator’s waking hours is entirely different from that of the user – no one designs a VR environment in Unity (the cross-platform game engine used to develop 2D and 3D video games) ever does so with a headset on. The second problem is that, on the user side, the interface has been displaced, moved to the side, outside of their vision and touch, at the same time as the user is now meant to believe they’re inside the interface – as their head is no longer in front of a screen but instead it is immersed within an environment delimited by the headset and dominated by a screen. There is still a screen (even though it’s now inside a headset) and there is still a keyboard and mouse (the user still has to have a PC to use a device such as Oculus Rift), but all these key components of the Keyboard-Screen-Mouse interface have been physically separated and then added on to with hand-controllers. The way in which the interface for VR users has been physically removed to the peripheries of the room in which the user is stationed is significant. If an interface is, again, a permeable boundary between human and computer, any change in either side of the boundary or the boundary itself is bound to have a profound effect on the human. In the case of VR, the physical changes in the location alone are enough to fundamentally change the user’s experience. They are now standing up and mobile to an unprecedented degree at the same time as this mobility has nothing to do with exploring the affordances of the interfaces – the mobility is entirely in the service of exploring what is usually a pre-determined, carefully controlled virtual environment.
While the fundamental problem with VR, as I describe it above, is that users are becoming even more estranged, even more alienated from whatever lies behind the glossy digital interface, however, writers and artists are taking on the challenge of making the interface visible. Illya Szilak and Cyril Tsiboulski, for example, are creating a work of immersive cinema for the Occulus Rift called “Queerskins” – an interactive drama about the material, everyday lives of LGBTQI people which allows the reader/user to create the main character. As Szilak puts it, “You can expand your conception of who is worthy of love and forgiveness and respect. This work allows YOU to create the main character. Who was he, what was his life? Was he worthy? Maybe you will hate that he is religious or maybe you will hate that he has sex with men, wherever you come from, you will construct him a different way.”
In an interview, Szilak made it clear that certain pieces of software – such as Depthkit – used in the creation of the piece allowed them to place actors in a computer-generated imagery (CGI) environment giving users the sense of being completely immersed in a fictional universe; however, the software’s inherent flaws also disrupt the user’s sense of being transported (for example, the 360 degree video shakes because it was shot from a car and some of the footage has, as Szilak calls it, “flare around the edges”). Thus, Szilak and Tsiboulski have chosen to make some of these software flaws part of the aesthetic of “Queerskins” – a decision that perpetually reminds the user that they are indeed being transported but that the transportation is happening by means of particular media and interfaces. When I asked Szilak directly about the extent to which she and her collaborator want their reader/user to be aware of the VR interface, she responded, “We had to wrestle with whether to let the user get up and walk because this would certainly disrupt the cohesiveness of the experience (the user might need some prompting and direction and will need to be led back physically to the seat) but, in the end, we decided the agency and sense of freedom this afforded (a refuge of sorts) was worth it.” Thus, “Queerskins” not only moves away from computing’s usual foreclosure on access to information and creativity by making the flaws, or the seams, of the software visible and by allowing the reader/user to help create a character, but they are also, as a result, opening up the possibility for greater accessibility to and transparency about the underlying workings of VR along with the possibility of configurability.
In other words, as Benjamin teaches us, there is a politics imbedded in a medium like VR – a politics that may be used for empowerment or disempowerment by way of the creators’ deliberate choices about the nature of user interaction. Further, as McLuhan and Kittler teach us, while the choices available to creators are determined by the medium itself, the role of the creator in the twenty-first century may very well be one of perpetually revealing what is concealed by both medium and interface. The seemingly unanswerable question posed by the iPad Pro advertisement, “What is a computer?” may now have an answer.
Fuller, Matthew. Behind the Blip: Essays on the Culture of Software (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2003).
Galloway, Alexander. The Interface Effect (Malden, MA and Cambridge: Polity, 2012).
—. “The Unworkable Interface,” New Literary History 39:4 (Autumn 2008): 931-955.
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Moggridge, Bill. Designing Interactions (Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2007).
Murray, Janet. Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).
Plato. Plato’s Phaedrus. Cambridge University Press, 1952.
Schaefer, Peter. “Interface: History of a Concept, 1868-1888.” from The Long History of New Media: Technology, Historiography, and Contextualizing Newness. Ed. David W. Park. Lang Publishers, 2011. 163-175.
Schneiderman, Ben and Catherine Plaisant, Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction, 5th ed.(Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2010).
“What is Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)?” Accessed 20 January 2018.
 Anders, Günther. “The obsolescence of man, vol I , part 2: The world as phantom and as matrix: philosophical considerations on radio and television.” Translator unknown. Accessed 15 January 2018.
 Emerson, Lori. Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. University of Minnesota Press, 2018.
 Ibid x.
 Cavell, Richard. “McLuhan, Turing, and the Question of Determinism.” from Traffic: Media as Infrastructures and Cultural Practices. Eds. Marion Nässer-Lather and Christoph Neubert. Brill Rodopi, 2015. 149-159.
 Quoted in Emerson 80.
 Walter, Benjamin. “The Work of Art in its Age of Technical Reproducibility,” trans. Harry Zohn. Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt. Schocken Books, 1968. 217-251.
 Ibid 241-242.
 McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. MIT University Press, 1994.
 Ibid 18.
 McLuhan, Marshall. Culture is Our Business. McGraw-Hill, 1970. 44.
 McCaffery, Steve. Carnival. Coach House Books, 1975.
 Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford University Press, 2006. xl.
 Ibid xli
 Emerson, Lori. “What and Where is the Interface in Virtual Reality? An Interview with Illya Szilak on Queerskins.” Accessed 1 August 2018.