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

By Steven A. Johnson  |  Finished: 13th October 2010  |  Back to library

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

While reading the first couple of chapters of “Interface Culture”, I found myself occasionally flicking back to the front to check its publication date. Although this book was published in 1997, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was written five years later.

The reason for this is that Johnson, when talking about the computer interface in its social, cultural and historical context, shows an awareness of the already rich history of its development even though, back in 1997, it was more common to write about it in terms of its future potential rather than how far the interface had already come. Publishers were probably wary of books that dealt with the history behind modern computing, fearing the usual collection of Arpanet, Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee tales – tales that would alienate mainstream readers while simultaneously provoking “nerd rage” among those who felt they knew the topic better than the authors.

“Interface Culture”, however, doesn’t really focus on Arpanet, Cerf, Metcalfe and the like. Technological developments aren’t the core topic. Johnson focuses instead on the development of the interface as a creative or cultural artefact, and its role in mediating between the essentially intangible digital realm and the real, “spatial” world we inhabit in our day-to-day lives.

As a result the book touches on the role of pioneers like Doug Englebart and Alan Kay, as well as products like the Apple II. Elements like this help construct a narrative of how modern UI paradigms came into being and eventually became mainstream. But there’s more than just historical exposition here. Johnson talks with remarkable clarity about how the modern UI changed the way people related to technology – while previously we conceived of technological implements as extensions of our being, the modern UI turned them into spaces into which we projected ourselves, spaces that we would explore. Johnson is also persuasive when he talks about the importance of the computer interface, an importance that has increased dramatically since the time of writing.

Another aspect of this book that had me checking the publication date is Steven Johnson’s anticipation of what we might today call “internet culture”, in a section of the book that helps the modern reader connect the dots between Beavis & Butthead and today’s world of YouTube comments, 4chan and the like. This is a hugely astute extrapolation on Johnson’s part, and one that still holds relevance today.

Some other parts of “Interface Culture” are a bit easier to identify as being from 1997. One chapter in particular looks at the idea of agents, a concept it took me a while to remember, but when I did I realised just how commonplace these things are now. Back in 1997 it seemed radical that an online process would execute on your behalf, when you were away from your computer – for example, compiling a set of news stories that might interest you, or monitoring the stock markets on your behalf. The processes that would do this stuff were called agents and, as Johnson shows in this book, they were the subject of heated debate. But today this such a mundane and ubiquitous aspect of online life that we don’t really have a name for it.

My favourite thing about “Interface Culture”, ultimately, is its awareness of the creative and cultural history of the computer interface. It’s educational but it doesn’t just feed you with new facts. Steven Johnson, writing in 1997, presents a way of thinking about the UI and its importance that still seems relevant and new today. I just feel sad that I didn’t get to read it when it was first published!

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