"From Cultural Interfaces to Info-Aesthetics"
(Or: from Myst to OS X)
Lev Manovich
Visual Arts Department, UC/San Diego

In "The Language of New Media" (2001) I have analyzed the interfaces of digital cultural applications (multimedia encyclopedias and museum walk-throughs, media players, computer games, e-books, interactive narratives, etc.) as the meeting of two sets of conventions: on the one hand, the conventions of HCI, and on the other hand, the conventions of already mature cultural forms such as print and cinema.

In my new book-in-progress "Info-Aesthetics" I re-formulate this analysis while attempting to extend it further. I speculate that new media today can be understood as the mix between older cultural conventions for data representation, access and manipulation and newer conventions of data representation, access and manipulation. The "old" data are representations of visual reality and human experience, i.e., images, text-based and audio-visual narratives ­ what we normally understand by "culture." The "new" data is numerical data ­ that is, the original "signified" of HCI.

Thus, new media, and, by extension, the emerging aesthetics of information society is situated at at the intersection of a number of oppositions which characterize the old and the new interfaces: immersion - interactivity; linearity - random access; depth - flatness; narrative - database; non-differentiation - modularity; culture - work.

What is the "right" aesthetics for information society? We can take the clue from early twentieth century modernists who understood that the new aesthetics of industrial society has already existed in the industrial realm. They admired the forms of motor cars, bridges, grain elevators, aircraft's propellers; and they begun the project to carry over the logic of these forms into the realm of design, architecture and art.

Similarly, I speculate that the "functional" aesthetics of newer information interfaces - Palm OS, an email client, data visualisation software, search engine, etc. - already contain the new cultural logic. At the same time, I recognise that the modernist move cant be directly applied to own our time. While in work and leasure which were strictly separated in industrial society, today they have become much more intertwinded. Consequently, information interfaces themselves gradually lose their original functionalist aesthetics, becoming "contaminated" by the non-functional.