From the Philosophy of the Open to the Ideology of the User-Friendly

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.

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“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.[1]

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)[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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” [004] and that “The slogan of the hacker class is not the workers of the world united, but the workings of the world untied” [006]). 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.


[1] 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)

[2] 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.

[3] 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).

[4] 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.

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An Exhibit & Reading of E-literature at MLA 2012

I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to help organize – alongside Dene Grigar and Kathi Inman Berens – the first ever electronic literature exhibit and reading at the MLA Annual Convention in Seattle, WA January 5th through the 7th. The exhibit in particular, which is formally supported by the MLA, marks an important moment in the establishment of electronic literature – another pivotal point at which the field moves further into the center and away from the margins. I’m hoping it’s a moment marking the subtle shift from “electronic” or “digital” literature to just, well, literature.

From January 5th through the 7th at the Washington State Convention Center in Room 609, visitors will have the opportunity to view/read/interact with: e-literature from the Electronic Literature Collection Volumes One and Two; historically significant works such as those by bpNichol and those published by Eastgate; locative works such as Kate Armstrong’s “Ping;” formally experimental works such as David Jhave Johnson’s “softies;” multimodal narratives such as Christine Wilks’ “Underbelly;” literary games such as Ian Bogost’s “A Slow Year“; and mobile works such as Mark Amerika’s “Immobilité.” These are just some of many different modes of e-literature that will be on display. The complete list of works is available on the exhibit website.

Also, on Friday January 6th from 8pm to 10.30pm, there will be an MLA off-site reading of electronic literature at Richard Hugo House (1634 11th Ave  Seattle, WA 98122-2419). If you are in Seattle in early January, please make sure you stop by as it’s a rare treat indeed to have the opportunity to hear these extraordinarily innovative writers read together: Nick Montfort, Stephanie Strickland, Marjorie Luesebrink, Jim Andrews, Erin Costello and Aaron Angello, Mark Marino, Talan Memmott, John Cayley, Ian Bogost, Brian Kim Stefans, and Rob Wittig.

on “e-literature” as a field

By putting our MLA 2012 panel proposal online I was hoping to generate enthusiasm not only for the fact that panels on e-literature are becoming ever-more accepted at MLA but also for the various innovative approaches we all take to the notion of ‘interface’ and e-literature. However, Mark Bernstein recently posted on his website on our panel to point out that when I write “It is remarkable that in just ten years, since the publication of the first book on electronic literature (Loss Glazier’s Digital Poetics in 2001)…” that “this overlooks Jay David Bolter’s Writing Machines, George P. Landow’s Hypertext, Michael Joyce’s Of Two Minds, Silvio Gaggi’s From Text To Hypertext, Jane Yellowlees Douglas’s The End of Books, and I shudder to think what I’m forgetting. In other fields, it’s the Professors of English and the Librarians who play the role of dusty pedants. Sigh.” Sigh indeed.

But perhaps it’s worthwhile for me to spell out a bit more clearly and even vehemently here that of course books on computer-mediated literary works – especially those on hypertext – existed before Loss Glazier’s Digital Poetics. However, what did not exist until the founding of the Electronic Literature Organization in 1999 (thanks to Scott Rettberg, Robert Coover, and Jeff Ballowe) is a name, a concept, even a brand with which a remarkably diverse range of digital writing practices could identify: electronic literature. Moreover, it’s not simply that writers had something by which to bind them together and identify with but it’s also that increasingly e-literature became known as something of a coherent field with a wide, yet still bounded spectrum of means by which critics, teachers, students, scholars could talk about their work. In other words, e-literature became something much more than just hypertext, as valuable as that particular mode of writing may be.

That said, I do think there’s a lively discussion to be had about the potential drawbacks to institutionalization – about how e-literature is in in the unusual position of coming into being at the exact moment that critics, all of whom are contemporaneous to the writers themselves, are attempting to define and delineate the field. There must be something to the fact that we, critics, may be over-determining the field at the same time as we’re helping to support and give shape to it.

There you go – I’ve fulfilled my role as dusty pedant.

introducing the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media

It has been a great honor to have the opportunity to begin work on the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media (forthcoming 2014) with my co-editors Marie-Laure Ryan and Benjamin Robertson. Our rationale for this guide has been that the study of “digital media”—the cultural and artistic practices made possible by digital technology—has become one of the most vibrant areas of scholarly activity, and is rapidly turning into an established academic field, with many universities now offering it as a major. While a plethora of books have been published on the various cultural applications of digital technology, we still lack a systematic and comprehensive reference work to which teachers and students can quickly turn for reliable information on the key terms and concepts of the field. This book will, then, present an interdisciplinary panorama of the concepts, tools, and software that have allowed digital media to produce the most innovative intellectual, artistic and social practices of our time.

Especially thrilling is the list of contributors and entries these top-notch scholars have agreed to write. Below is a list of these contributors and their entries (although I should note that there may be a few changes between now and publication). Enjoy and look forward to the guide coming out sometime in 2014:

ENTRY CONTRIBUTOR
Algorithm Bethany Nowviskie
Alternate Reality Gaming Nicole Labitzke
Analogue vs. Digital Jake Buckley
Animation/Kineticism Brian Kim Stefans
Archive Katherine Harris
Artificial Intelligence David Elson
Artificial Life and Media Art Simon Penny
Artificial Life in Historical Context Simon Penny
Audio Culture Aaron Angello
Augmented Reality Jay David Bolter
Authoring Systems Judy Malloy
Avatars Bjarke Liboriussen
Biopoetry Eduardo Kac
Blogs Ruth Page
Cave John Cayley
Cell Phone Novel Larissa Hjorth
Chatterbots Ragnhild Tronstad
Cheats Julian Kücklich
Code Mark Marino
Code Aesthetics David Berry
Cognitive Implications of New Media Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay
Collaborative Narrative Scott Rettberg
Collective Intelligence John Duda
Combinatory and Automatic Text Generation Philippe Bootz and Christopher Funkhouser
Computational Linguistics Inderjeet Mani
Conceptual Writing Darren Wershler
Copyright Benjamin J. Robertson
Critical Digital Editions Claire Clivaz and David Hamidovic
Critical Theory David Golumbia
Cut Scenes Rune Klevjer
Cyberfeminism Kate Mondloch
Cybernetics Bernard Geoghegan and Benjamin Peters
Cyberpunk Lisa Swanstrom
Cyberspace Marie-Laure Ryan
Cyborg and Posthuman Raine Koskimaa
Data Matthew Fuller
Database Christiane Paul
Dialogue Systems Jichen Zhu
Digital and Net Art Roberto Simanowski
Digital Fiction Maria Engberg
Digital Humanities Matthew K. Gold
Digital Installation Art Kate Mondloch
Digital Poetry Leonardo Flores
Early Digital Art and Writing (pre-1990) Christopher Funkhouser
Easter Eggs Laine Nooney
eBooks Johanna Drucker
Electronic Literature Scott Rettberg
Electronic Literature Organization Marjorie Luesebrink
Email Novel Jill Walker Rettberg
Emergence Ragnhild Tronstad
Ethics Digital Media Charles Ess
Fan Fiction Karen Hellekson
Film and Digital Media Jens Eder
Flarf Darren Wershler
Flash/Director Brian Kim Stefans
Free and Open Source Software Luis Felipe Rosado Murillo
From Book to Screen Kirstyn Leuner
Game History Henry Lowood
Game Theory Travis Ross
Gameplay Jesper Juul
Games and Education Brian Magerko
Games as Art/Literature David Ciccoricco
Games as Stories David Ciccoricco
Gender and Media Use Ruth Page
Gender Representation Kim Knight
Glitch Aesthetics Lori Emerson
Graph Theory Marie-Laure Ryan
Graphic Realism Rune Klevjer
Hacker E. Gabriella Coleman
History of Animated Poetry Philippe Bootz
History of Computers Jussi Parikka
Hoaxes Jill Walker Rettberg
Holopoetry Eduardo Kac
Hypertextuality Astrid Ensslin
Identity Steven Edward Doran
Immersion Jan-Noël Thon
Independent and Art Games Celia Pearce
Interactive Cinema Glorianna Davenport
Interactive Documentary Sandra Gaudenzi
Interactive Drama Brian Magerko
Interactive Fiction Emily Short
Interactive Narrative Marie-Laure Ryan
Interactive Television Jens Jensen
Interactivity Peter Mechant and Jan Van Looy
Interface Carl Therrien
Language Use in Online and Mobile Communication Naomi S. Baron
Life History Ruth Page
Linking Strategies Susana Pajares Tosca
Location-Based Narrative Scott Ruston
Ludus and Paidia Marie-Laure Ryan
Machinima Michael Nitsche
Markup Languages Kirstyn Leuner
Mashup Benjamin J. Robertson
Materiality Anna Munster
Media Ecology Michael Goddard
Mediality Jan-Noël Thon
Micro-Blogging (Twitter) Brian Croxall
Mobile Entertainment Anastasia Salter
MUDs and MOOs Torill Mortensen
Music Aden Evens
Narrativity Jan-Noël Thon
Networking Mark Nunes
Ngram John Cayley
Non-linear Writing Astrid Ensslin
NPC (Non-Player Character) Ragnhild Tronstad
Old Media/New Media Jessica Pressman
Online Game Communities Celia Pearce
Online Worlds Lisbeth Klastrup
Ontology (in Games) Jose Zagal
Participatory Culture Melissa Brough
Performance Ragnhild Tronstad
Plot Types and Interactivity Marie-Laure Ryan
Politics and New Media Joss Hands
Preservation Matthew Kirschenbaum
Procedural Jonathan Lessard
Properties of Digital Media David Golumbia
Quest Narrative Ragnhild Tronstad
Race and Ethnicity Kim Knight
Randomness Marie-Laure Ryan
Reading Strategies Adalaide Morris
Relations Between Media Philipp Schweighauser
Remediation Jay David Bolter
Remix Aaron Angello
Role-Playing Susana Pajares Tosca
Sampling Benjamin Robertson
Searle’s Chinese Room Inderjeet Mani
Self-Reflexivity in Electronic Art Winfried Nöth
Semantic Web Axel-Cyrille Ngonga Ngomo
Simulation Gonzalo Frasca
Social Network Sites (SNS) Olga Goriunova and Chiara Bernardi
Software Studies Matthew Fuller
Spatiality of Digital Media Marie-Laure Ryan
Story Generation Pablo Gervás
Storyspace Anja Rau
Subversion (Creative Destruction) Davin Heckman
Tabletop Roleplaying Games Olivier Caïra
Temporality of Digital Works John David Zuern
Transmedial Fiction Christy Dena
Turing Test Ragnhild Tronstad
Video Patrick Vonderau
Video Game Genres Andreas Rauscher
Viral Aesthetics Jussi Parikka
Virtual Bodies Marco Caracciolo
Virtual Economies Edward Castronova and Travis L. Ross
Virtual Reality Ken Hillis
Virtuality Michael Heim
Walkthrough Frederik De Grove and Jan Van Looy
Web Comics Karin Kukkonen
Wiki Writing Seth Perlow
Windows Jay David Bolter
Word-Image Maria Engberg
Worlds and Maps Bjarke Liboriussen
Writing Under Constraint Anastasia Salter

E-Poetry Festival: May 17-21st, Buffalo NY

I’ve just received a copy of the preliminary program (pdf) for the upcoming 10 year anniversary E-Poetry Festival in Buffalo, New York and it’s little short of astonishing. With critics, poets, and performers from Canada, the U.S.A., Scandinavia, the U.K., France, and Australia (among others), it promises to be yet another field-defining event. (And you can get some sense of how far the field has come in just ten years by looking at the program from 2001 – clearly, a much broader and even more resolutely international group of writers are beginning to identify as digital workers now.) My first time participating in E-Poetry was in 2003 when it was held in Morgantown, West Virginia. I had been a PhD student at SUNY Buffalo for two years at that point and I presented my first conference paper whose title was far more intriguing than the paper itself – “Computer Kiss: Mechanical Love and the Digital Poem.” And while my paper was nothing to write home about, as the expression goes, I will always value that first defining experience as it didn’t introduce me to the mores of conference-going so much as it introduced me to a lively, intense, cutting-edge creative and critical community of like-minded people. And it’s this community that I identify as one of my homes.

This year I’ll be presenting a paper on the Archeological Media Lab – a paper which I expect will approach the pressing issue of preserving and maintaining access to early works of e-literature through a discussion of the challenges and opportunities presented by the creation of this lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I expect I will discuss how the AML is propelled equally by the need to maintain access to early works of electronic literature (and note too that, given how quickly technology changes, sometimes an “early work of electronic literature” may have been created as recent as 2001 and is similarly no longer viewable on current platforms) and by the need to archive and maintain the computers these works were created on.

Here is an example I often use to illustrate what I mean: from the perspective of a literary scholar, Canadian poet bpNichol’s First Screening – created in 1983-1984 using an Apple IIe and the Apple BASIC programming language – cannot be understood if we view it with an emulator, with Hypercard, or via a Quicktime movie version of the twelve programmed poems. First Screening is a series of poems whose meaning is actually activated through the writer/programmer’s invitation to the reader/view to type in commands; for example, in line 110 of the code for First Screening, Nichol writes: “REM   FOR THE CURIOUS VIEWER/READER THERE’S AN ‘OFF-SCREEN ROMANCE’ AT 1748. YOU JUST HAVE TO TUNE IN THE PROGRAMME.” Furthermore, even though First Screening has been preserved via emulator, hypercard and Quicktime movie on the Electronic Literature Directory, there is simply no substitute for the unique interface and physical structure of the Apple II computer; as Matthew Kirschenbaum points out in his groundbreaking 2008 book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, the Apple II computer has no hard drive; instead, “a program is loaded by inserting the disk in the external drive and booting the machine. In practical terms, this meant first retrieving the program by going to one’s collection of disks and rummaging through them…Consider the contrast in affordances to a file system mounted on a hard drive: here you located the program you wanted by reading a printed or handwritten label, browsing like you would record albums or manila file folders, not by clicking on an icon” (33). Everything about the Apple II system offers both writer and reader an utterly different set of experiences than when they read or write on, say, a MacBook or a PC or when they read/write a poem such as First Screening by way of Windows.

I will post the entirety of my e-poetry paper here sometime in mid-May. I hope to see many of you there!