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
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
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
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
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
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
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
are uniquely suited to probe the questions of the human relationship
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
"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. …