The Mouse: Where Art, Science Meet

Article excerpt

Consider the computer mouse.

Disarmingly quiescent, the rounded piece of plastic confers on those who grasp it a thrilling control over the daunting machine to which it is tethered. Nudge it and the cursor moves. Click it twice - - or as the manual instructs, "double-click" -- and a window explodes, an hourglass appears, new choices open up. It is, for most computer users, an essential tool.

But is it art? Is it a product of culture or simply an instrument of technology? As ever larger slices of life are conducted in the digital realm, its visible forms are beginning to draw scrutiny beyond the computer trade reviews. Indeed, the conventions that have come to govern "information space" and their replacements, says a new generation of cyberphilosophers, will affect everything from the way we think to the way we relate to one another. Issues of such import, they insist, demand the attention of the public. In a new book titled Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate, Steven Johnson contends that the metaphors that help us make sense of the zeros and ones behind the computer screen are becoming "as complex and vital as the novel or the cathedral or the cinema." The sprawling metropolitan narratives of Dickens, like Bleak House and Great Expectations, interpreted the changing relations of class and geography in the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, representations of the cyberworld help shape the relationship between people and their digital data, argues Johnson, who is the editor and co-founder of the online magazine Feed. Johnson is specifically referring to the "interface," which is an ugly term that perhaps too accurately conveys the awkward mingling of mind and machine. The hypertext link that zips you across the World Wide Web, the electronic voice at directory assistance who wants to know "What city? What listing?" the cartoon trash can where unwanted files are deposited (it has morphed into a recycle bin in the latest incarnation of Microsoft Windows), all are interfaces. Web sites, video games and virtual spaces all qualify, too. Johnson is not only advocating a new "interface" column to run alongside the book and movie reviews in the arts pages of mainstream magazines and newspapers; his is a cautionary message as well, in the tradition of Marshall McLuhan. It is this: If we fail to critique this mushrooming art form, we may miss the chance to shape its evolution, a process that will in turn shape the way we think and create and interact within it. Already, those studying technology's cultural ripples have found evidence that the dominant interfaces like "windows" or the mouse are affecting the social psyche. Janet H. Murray, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that one interface, hypertext, is already changing the kinds of stories we tell. In Hamlet on the Holodeck (The Free Press, 1997), she writes that just as the soliloquy expressed the new loneliness of the human- centered Renaissance, the multiple perspectives that hypertext allows are uniquely suited to probe the questions of the human relationship to machines. Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at MIT, says the "windows" environment that most computer users operate in facilitates the exploration of multiple selves and multiple viewpoints, a feature that is both a reflection and a hallmark of a post-modern age. In her book Life on the Screen, she quotes a teen-ager who told her that "real life" is "just another window." The idea of using the image of a "desktop" on the screen has been around for over a decade, since it was developed at the Xerox Parc research lab and adopted by Apple Computer and later Microsoft. The desktop, symbolized as a series of windows, one for writing, one for communicating, another for Web surfing, and so on, was the welcome successor to the original DOS interface, in which personal computer users had to type arcane commands to navigate the infosphere. …