Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate


"As our machines are increasingly jacked into global networks of information, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine the dataspace at our fingertips, to picture all that complexity in our mind's eye . . . Representing all that information is going to require a new visual language, as complex and meaningful as the great metropolitan narratives of the 19th-century novel."—from Interface Culture

In this hip, erudite manifesto, Steven Johnson—one of the most influential ...

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"As our machines are increasingly jacked into global networks of information, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine the dataspace at our fingertips, to picture all that complexity in our mind's eye . . . Representing all that information is going to require a new visual language, as complex and meaningful as the great metropolitan narratives of the 19th-century novel."—from Interface Culture

In this hip, erudite manifesto, Steven Johnson—one of the most influential people in cyberspace, according to Newsweek bridges the gap that yawns between technology and the arts. Drawing on his own expertise in the humanities and on the Web, he not only demonstrates how interfaces—those buttons, graphics and words on the screen through which we control information—influence our daily lives, but also tracks their roots back to Victorian novels, early cinema and even medieval urban planning. The result is a lush cultural and historical tableau in which today's interfaces take their rightful place in the lineage of artistic innovation.

With Interface Culture, Johnson brilliantly charts the vital role interface design plays in modern society. Just as the great novels of Melville, Dickens and Zola explain a rapidly industralizing society to itself, he argues, web sites, Microsoft Bob, flying toasters and the landscapes of video games tell the digital society how to imagine itself and how to get around in cyberspace's unfamiliar realm.

The role once played by novelists is now fulfilled by the interface designer, who has bridged the gap between technology and everyday life by providing a conceptual framework for the vast amounts of information and computation that surround us.

Johnson boldly explores the past—a terrain few tech thinkers have dared enter, and one that throws dazzling light on the modern interface's roots. From the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages to the rise of perspective drawing in the Renaissance, from Enlightenment satire to the golden age of television, Interface Culture uses a wealth of venerable "interface innovation" to place newfangled creations like Windows 95 and the Web in a rich historical context.

Controversial, clear-sighted and challenging, Interface Culture also looks at the future—from what PC screens will look like in 10 years to how new interfaces will alter the style of our conversation, prose and thoughts. With a distinctively accessible style, Interface Culture brings new intellectual depth to the vital discussion of how technology has transformed society, and is sure to provoke wide debate in both literary and technological circles.

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Editorial Reviews

Johnson is editor-in-chief and co-founder of the online cultural magazine . He explores how buttons, graphics, words on the screen, and other interfaces by which people control information in cyberspace influence daily life. He traces the interfaces back to Victorian novels, early cinema, and Medieval urban planning. The cloth edition was published by Harper San Francisco in 1997. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062514820
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/29/1997
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Johnson has been named one of the most influential people on Cyberspace by Newsweek, New York magazine, and Websight magazine. He is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Feed, the award-winning on-line cultural magazine. He lives in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt


An Introduction

In the fall of 1968 an unprepossessing middle-aged man named Doug Engelbart stood before a motley crowd of mathematicians, hobbyists, and borderline hippies in the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, and gave a product demonstration that changed the course of history.

It was an unlikely setting for such momentousness. The crowd brought to mind a Star Trek convention, or the wonderfully shabby trade show of private detectives and "security experts" from Coppola's The Conversation. Engelbart himself hardly conjured up images of Luther pounding out reforms on the church doors. But historians a hundred years from now will probably accord it the same weight and significance we now bestow on Ben Franklin's kite-flying experiments or Alexander Graham Bell's accidental phone conversation with Watson. Engelbart's thirty-minute demo was our first public glimpse of information-space, and we are still living in its shadow.

The idea of information-space had been around for thousands of years, but until Engelbart's demo, it was mostly just that: an idea. But what an idea it was! The Greek poet Simonides, born six centuries before Christ, was famous for his uncanny ability to build what rhetoricians call "memory palaces." These were the original information-spaces: stories turned into architecture, abstract concepts transformed into expansive—and meticulously decorated—imaginary houses. Simonides' trick relied on a quirk of the human mind: our visual memory is much more durable than our textual memory That's why we're much more likely to forget a name than a face, and why weremember months later that a certain quote appeared on the upper-left-hand corner of a page, even if we've forgotten the wording of the quote itself. By imagining his stories as buildings, Simonides tapped that potential for spatial mnemonics. Each room triggered another event in the story, another twist in the argument. He could furnish the rooms for added detail, if he needed to stock up on adjectives or stylistic ornamentation. Telling the story itself was just a matter of strolling through the rooms of the palace.

The "memory palace" remained an essential tool in the art of rhetoric for thousands of years. Jonathan Spence's historical study The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci tells the story of a seventeenth-century Italian missionary who attempts to convert China to Catholicism by teaching the natives a spatialized rendition of the Bible. Ricci's prodigious mnemonic skills were intended as both a sign of godliness (like the superior firepower or the pathogens of other missionaries) and the key to salvation. By entering into Ricci's sacred floor plan, and taking its passageways to heart, the Chinese too could enter the kingdom of heaven. Ricci's imagined landscapes were not uncommon for his time, and their influence spread far beyond the usual confines of academic rhetoric. As Spence notes, "The idea that memory systems were used to 'remember Heaven and Hell' can explain much of the iconography of Giotto's painting or the structure and detail of Dante's Inferno, and was common-place in scores of books in the sixteenth century"

There is a marvelous symmetry to this story: the venerable art of the memory palace, having aided the original "symbolic analysts" and "knowledge workers," returns to subdue the rhetorical complexity of the modern digital computer. In Engelbart's day, of course, computers weren't terribly skilled in the art of representation: the lingua franca of modern computing had been a bewildering, obscure mix of binary code and abbreviated commands, data loaded in clumsily with punch cards, and output to typewritten pages. A few pathbreakers like Ivan Sutherland had experimented with graphic displays, generating rudimentary polygons on blocky, pixelated screens. Sutherland's program—called Sketchpad—was the precursor to design applications like MacPaint and Photoshop. These are certainly impressive descendants, but Sketchpad mainly addressed the question of how you got the computer to draw things on the screen, how you got the machine to move beyond simply displaying characters. It didn't tackle the more significant problem of translating all digital information into a visual language. That was Engelbart's great quest, one he had been chasing for nearly two decades.

The quest had begun with a short provocative essay entitled "As We May Think" that Engelbart stumbled across while waiting to be shipped back to the States at the end of World War II. Written by a high-ranking army scientist named Vannevar Bush, the essay described a theoretical information processor called the Memex that enabled a user to "thread through" massive repositories of data, almost like a modern-day Web surfer. (We will return to Bush's seminal essay in the "Links" chapter.) The image haunted Engelbart for decades, as he followed a desultory career through the fledgling computer industry. That legendary demonstration in San Francisco was the first working product that even approached the functionality of Bush's speculative Memex device. Doug Engelbart has had a remarkably varied and visionary career, but even for that one demonstration alone, he deserves his reputation as the father of the modern interface.

What exactly is an interface anyway? In its simplest sense, the word refers to software that shapes the interaction between user and computer. The interface serves as a kind of translator, mediating between the two parties, making one sensible to the other. In other words, the relationship governed by the interface is a semantic one, characterized by meaning and expression rather than physical force. Digital computers are "literary machines," as hypertext guru Ted Nelson calls them. They work with signs and symbols, although this language, in its most elemental form, is almost impossible to understand. A computer thinks if thinking is the right word for it—in tiny pulses of electricity, representing either an "on" or an "off" state, a zero or a one. Humans think in words, concepts, images, sounds, associations. A computer that does nothing but manipulate sequences of zeros and ones is nothing but an exceptionally inefficient adding machine.

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Table of Contents

Preface: Electric Speed 1
1. Bitmapping: An Introduction 11
2. The Desktop 42
3. Windows 76
4. Links 106
5. Text 138
6. Agents 173
7. Conclusion: Infinity Imagined 206
Notes 243
Acknowledgments 248
Index 251
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Interviews & Essays

Before the live chat, Steven Johnson agreed to answer some of our questions:

Q: What kind of computer did you use, and what software did you run on it, to write your book?

A: A PowerMacintosh 8500 when I was at home, and a Powerbook 5300 on the road. I used Microsoft Word 6.0 mostly for writing, though a few sections were scratched out in BBEdit.

Q: What is the most touristy thing you've ever done, and did you enjoy it anyway?

A: Probably the seven trips I've made to Disney World -- three of which were in the last five years. (Don't ask.) Did I enjoy it? How can you not enjoy the Pirates of the Caribbean?

Q: If music could accompany you wherever you went throughout your day, what would you choose as your personal soundtrack?

A: One album playing constantly all day? What a nightmare! It'd probably have to be something mellow, like Astral Weeks or the Goldberg Variations. Otherwise I'd go completely insane.

Q: If you could ask for one supernatural power, what would you ask for? How would it benefit your life?

A: I guess I'd probably like some kind of superhero strength skill at information management -- something that would keep track of all my email, appointments, voice messages, etc. Basically a Newton that actually worked.

Q: Regular or decaf?

A: I quit coffee about six months ago. It was making me too smart. (Joking, of course.) But I definitely drink caffeinated tea -- I'm having some right now!

Q: Right-handed or left-handed?

A: Rightie.

Q: A distinctly "New York" question: Please list in order of take-out preference....

A: Here's my order:
Buffalo Wings

Q: What, to you, is the most important time of the year?

A:  Whenever one season is transitioning into another.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2000

    The Changing Face of Interface

    Steven Johnson has found a way to use the metaphors of the computer (desktop, windows, links, and text) to explain the impact of those metaphors on not only how we use computers in our society, but how they influence our non-technology lives as well. Throughout, Johnson makes a well crafted argument for the limitations of our current computer interfaces, or GUI's (graphical user interface), and how the initial breakthrough of using the desktop as a means for humans to interact with computers has fallen short of unleashing the potential of today's powerful computing systems. Unfortunately, cites Johnson, the advances in computer technology, user sophistication and the Internet have rendered the breakthrough of the computer desktop, and its navigational metaphor, tired and ill-equipped to handle the way in which computer users now demand that their technology work for them. In chapter four, Links, Johnson is particularly critical of the limited way in which hyperlinks are designed into our computer interfaces. He notes that the way links diffuse information, instead of converging it, has more to do with the traditional text-based, linear methodology of books than with the tool from which these links were created, the World Wide Web. Further, in an interesting discussion about non-traditional online magazines, he produces an image of circular linking within text documents on the web that stands the traditional methodologies of today's writer and webmasters on their heads. Compiled skillfully, the concluding chapter of the book brings all of Johnson's thoughts and ideas together in a very interesting look at what computing in the future may look like - if software and interface designers can break out of their traditional coding patterns and approach the computer interface from a different angle. My sense of Johnson's perspective is that irregardless of whether established programmers and companies decide to alter their vision of the user interface, these changes will come. And they will come from a new breed of designer, one who has grown up with the web, and the desktop. These designers don't require a paradigm shift in order to change the way human computer interface (HCI) appears on our monitors, they've been tinkering with the existing model, in their bedrooms (and in hacking chat rooms), for awhile.

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