PIPES Interface – User, Subjectivation, Materiality - Notes By Pau Alsina

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Becoming Interface for World-Building: Notes towards a theory

From the early days of artistic experimentation with computers in the sixties, interfaces became a field of action and battleground for artistic practice, because it soon became clear that interfaces were precisely where the relationship between man and machine was mediated, translating signs and symbols in order to enable communication between the two. The different models of the world inscribed in man and machine clashed in the interstitial space that established communication links and communication breakdown between totally different languages and mental models. In its desire to create worlds and transform realities, artistic practice moved into that in-between space, aware that it was the place where everything was at stake. Meanwhile computing, hand in hand with cybernetics, sought to gradually improve interaction between man and machine. In traditional models of human-computer interaction, the user must be able to give orders and at the same time receive the response of the computer, which must in turn have been able to receive and process the information sent by the user. Likewise, the user must be able to readjust the information sent, so as to optimize the computer’s response. The space where this exchange of information between user and computer takes place is the interface, which may take different forms such as the graphic user interface (what we now know as the windows system in an operating system), the mouse (invented by Douglas Engelbart), the graphic tablet (invented by Ivan Sutherland), the interactive glove (co-invented by Jaron Lanier), and even more experimental interfaces created with artistic intent, such as the immersive casing that interacts through the user’s breathing (created by Char Davies).

In this sense, one of the pioneers in the history of computing and the development of the interface was Douglas Engelbart, whose efforts where aimed at making computers easier to use so as to make them accessible to non-expert users. As such, he dedicated his life to studying and implementing user-friendly projects that were intuitive and did not require users to embark on an intensive learning process before using a computer. As a result of his work, in 1963 Engelbart invented the famous “mouse” that we still use today to move around the computer desktop and point and click to order the machine to carry out actions. The mouse coordinates the eye (vision) and the hand (movement) and sets up human-machine interaction that is more intuitive than typing commands on a keyboard, for example.

Also in 1963, Ivan Sutherland, another pioneer in the field, developed a device called the Sketchpad, which consisted of an interface for sending data to the computer using a pencil and a tablet that detected its movements on its surface and sent them to the computer for processing. This tool later became the basis for the development of infographics and all the CAD systems that are still used today. Once again, hand and vision came together for control and human-machine intercommunication. Along these lines, GUI or graphic user interfaces also evolved over time, adapting to technological advances and to changing user demands: from the first Xerox Alto computer around 1973 to the Apple Macintosh GUI in 1983 (which was the first affordable personal computer designed to work with sound and graphics), the successive versions of Windows, and the Linux operating system with its open source code and distributed development.

Graphic user interfaces are based on human-computer interaction standards that have been evolving since 1950. GUIs are usually based on the office metaphor, which is an apparently clear, functional way to contextualise possible interactions in order to allow users to remember them more easily. Nonetheless, the ability to read this metaphor requires a certain cultural context that makes the functions developed in the GUI intuitive to users. Without this context, it would be difficult to understand elements such as the desktop, the recycle bin, files, and folders without some kind of learning process. There is a cultural variable by default in effective interface design, given that the appropriate use of metaphors inevitably draws on social and cultural knowledge and experience.

Donald Norman envisaged an ideal “invisible computer” with an ideal interface that would allow human-computer communication to be as trauma-free as possible, adjusting to the specific operating logic of humans and machines, so that the space between user and technology would become an empty space. At that point we would be able to say that we have achieved total communication, integrated with the transmission of information by users that access a usable, secure, functional system.

The design of interfaces based on screens and peripheral devices gradually paved the way for a discipline called human-computer-interaction, based on solving tasks and achieving communication efficiency by means of feedback, minimising frustration and maximising benefits through rewards in the form of clicks and whistles of all kinds. It was a highly mechanistic environment that originated in engineering, and it replaced “individuals” with “users” so as to reduce their complexity to a mathematical model of communication. Pioneers such as Engelbart and Sutherland took great pains to come up with ways of using hands, feet, the movement of the body, and the orientation of the screen as the basis of human-machine interaction, placing the embodied user at the centre of interface design.

Indeed, as Christian Anderson and Soren Pold remind us, the conceptual base of the Input/Processing/Output model stems from cognitive psychology and empirical studies carried out under controlled conditions in laboratories in an attempt to reproduce real situations of real users in interaction with computers. This attempt to reduce human factors to a discipline that could be applied systematically later merged with the progress that came by way of participatory design and user-centred design, which concentrates its analyses on generic use and work contexts. As such, it reduces the unit of study to the isolated cognition of human individuals, thus automatically leaving aside all other highly significant social and cultural variables. As Anthony Dunne writes, talking about “human factors” is simply a way of generalising and simplifying people and their interactive devices in an attempt to optimize and rationalize human-machine interaction. But even if an iterative design emerges, the process involves the loss of the evolution of interests and user experience, of what is known as “use dynamics”.

As defined by James Garret, from a perspective in line with the IPO community, an interface expresses the tension between the rational organization of content and the need for the intuitive use of this content. Brenda Laurel, on the other hand, defines the interface as a surface, where the contact between interaction and tasks enables the performativity of functions, a surface that Norman Long theorises as a critical point in the interaction between “life-worlds”. The interface has thus gradually come to be seen less as an “in-between” space and more as a place in which the user experience is constituted. Because, as Michel Serres writes, these “in-between” spaces are more complicated than they seem. They are not a conjecture under control, but an adventure to be upheld. .

Even so, we shouldn’t forget that in semiotic terms, computer interfaces act as codes that fill all kinds of media with cultural messages. Code is rarely a simple, neutral conveyer, because it inexorably affects the message that it helps to transmit. We can thus say that code is non-transparent in nature, and this leads us to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which argues that human thought is determined by natural language code, and that this is why speakers of different languages perceive and think about the world differently.

It thus seems reasonable to think that creating interfaces that help to modify accepted ways of perceiving the world is one of the basic aims of artistic digital production. Breaking established input-output correspondences becomes a creative strategy with the potential to open up a whole field of possibilities for interaction, and also perception. As Andreas Broeckman says, the interface is both the territory and the tool where the force fields of mediation converge, and it can become a field of action and a field of subjectivation. The creation of hybrid, plural, porous interfaces that cut across mediatised territories and “real experiences” can trigger presence and participation, and enable forms of going online that are also ways of becoming public.

As Alex Wilkie points out, with the insights that science and technology studies give us, we could argue that interface design is not oriented towards achieving greater functionality and intercommunicability among different words, but instead generates assemblages that reconfigure identities in progress, which mutually need each other in order to be co-produced. Users and interfaces are co-dependent in a reciprocal dynamic, and it is impossible to isolate one from the other. Instead, they create a network of interoperable elements, and when they are assembled they become genuine black boxes that cannot be deciphered until they are broken. It is clear that users mediate social-technological relations in the process of the application of user-centred design principles. But, as theorists such as Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law argue, it is also true that both human and non-human actors are involved in this process, and that they mutually interconnect to the point that users become social and technological (semantic-material) assemblages that formalise tense alignments of interests that are constantly under construction.

We can certainly say that interfaces are now everywhere. But we often don’t see them, perhaps because our eyes are not trained to detect them in the interstice of events, perhaps because the strategy of innocent invisibility that mediates everything. And so interfaces surround us, stealthily building a relationship with the world. What’s more, creating worlds as they micro-construct us in each of our distracted actions involving them. We have become accustomed to interfaces to the point where they now appear to be absolutely natural, and we happily delegate to them, using them as mere intermediaries while failing to notice that their mediation may involve elements that can interfere, confuse, influence, construct, or simply divert the pristine course of events that unfold as a chain. They’re there, concealed behind the mask of univocal functionality while revealing their shameless truth with crystalline clarity.

Interfaces – those transmitting angels that connect disparate worlds, linking isolated spaces that require somebody to translate their interests, desires, intentions, and actions, and above all their hopes. Truth-transmitting angels, angels that are attached to their constituent materiality in spite of their seemingly winged, ethereal nature. Extremely material angels that coordinate, connect, convey, translate, transmit, and offer up. We are not suspicious of them because we ourselves created them, and they are supposedly mere effects in the image and likeness of our designs: inert, passive matter shaped by the active creative idea of the good maker. We did not harbour the slightest suspicion that perhaps it is they who dare to make us, the makers. They’re there, and they may even be something, but they will always be less than us, who endow their being with our benevolence, we told ourselves.

This is how we always saw them, and it is how we still see them like now. So it is hardly surprising that we find it so hard to think about them, and that we non-critically apply tired old technical handbooks that endlessly reproduce tried and tested formulas based on the same, complacent pattern. And, as we said earlier, it shouldn’t surprise us that they could end up turning into both the territory and the tool at the convergence of the forces of the field of mediation, which could become key field of action and of subjectivation. Perhaps we should dare to consider that interfaces make us just as much as we make them. And as such we can venture to think that they generate relationships that are sustained – over a shorter or longer time – and fix them extra-somatically in the form of buttons, arrows, or levers, prefiguring behaviour and potentialities to be explored in this two-way dance between humans and machines that we call interface. They build world with their discreet charm, as they open up a crack that allows us a glimpse into the secret life of things hidden behind the opacity of our untrained gaze. So let us learn to open our eyes wide and detect interfaces wherever they are. Let us learn to look at what hides behind their metaphors, their actions, their standards, the uses and users, the codes, events, effects and affects that hover behind, in front, to either side, inside, around and beyond the tenuous surface that eclipses everything. Let us learn to conjugate the verb “interface” in its own context, to move with it and observe the fluids that accompany it in order to evolve with the interface, to become-interface and create ourselves as other. In the process, we will learn that a theory of interfaces is also a theory of culture, because we exist also (or precisely) in and through them. Because interfaces can only occur within a web of materially and discursively heterogeneous relations that produce and remodel all types of actors involved.


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