Interfacing Knowledge: New Paradigms for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

March 8-10 2002, University of California Santa Barbara


From Cultural Interfaces to Info-Aesthetics


Lev Manovich

Visual Arts Department, UC/San Diego

(all rights reserved)



Engineering Vision: the rise of computer imaging and HCI

(1940s-1980s) in the context of the shift from industrial to IT society; the engineering of vision in the 20th century (from Bauhaus to Media Lab).


The Language of New Media: new media in relation to modern visual and media culture of the last few centuries;

focus on continuities


HCI (human – interface – computer)

Cultural Interface (human – computer interface – culture). Examples:

       Cultural applications: computer games, multimedia encyclopedias, virtual museum walk-throughs, e-books, interactive narratives, etc.

Culture-access software: Web browsers, media players, etc.


Cultural Interfaces of the 1990s: GUI + Print + Cinematic.

Example: Myst (1993)




Info-Aesthetics: aesthetics of informationalism vs. aesthetics of modernism; focus on the differences




New media, and, more generally, the aesthetics of IT society, is a mix between:


older conventions for data representation, access and manipulation = “culture”


newer conventions of data representation, access and manipulation = “information access”




       cultural interfaces


       Information interfaces



IT aesthetics is situated between a number of oppositions:

form – information [1]

Immersion – interactivity

linearity - random access

depth – flatness

narrative – database

non-differentiation (gestalt, symbol) – modularity

fixed interface – multiple interfaces

culture – work [2]



[1] information - Form

Figuration / Abstraction (modernism) -- Figuration / data (informationalism).

Examples: Alex Galloway, John Simon, Lisa Jevbratt / C5, Warren Sacks



[2] Work Into Art: Work (i.e. information) Interfaces and Cultural Interfaces


Modernist strategy (“Bauhaus filter”):

(1)          new aesthetics of industrial society already exists in the real of industrial work (factories, cars, bridges; ideology of engineering)

(2)          transfer of this aesthetics to the everyday life (architecture, design)

(3)          art as advertizement for this aesthetics


Modernist strategy re-applied to IT society (“info-Aesthetics”)

(1)          new aesthetics of IT Society already exists in the realm of information work (i.e. software interfaces, or information interfaces). “Avant-garde as Software”

(2)          systematically transfer the strategies of information interfaces to cultural interfaces. Visualization, database, multiple views of data, windows, email, etc. as new cultural forms/aesthetics.



The problems with direct transfer of modernist strategy - aesthetization of work in IT society.

Behind modernist strategy is the ideology of engineering.

Today it is hard to separating work and leisure, functional and non-functional.

From “engineering” to “experience design.”

Example: MAC OS 10 (2001)




“Data Beautiful” project