A University of California
Multi-Campus Research Group

Director: William Warner, UC Santa Barbara

Discussion Threads from "Interfacing Knowledge: New Paradigms for Computing in the Humanities, the Arts, and the Social Sciences" (March 8-10, 2002)
Compiled by William Warner
A few apercu spoken at our conference:
  • Within the interface there is a persona, the root of "person," meaning a mask. (Miller, Ernst)
  • "Face-to-face communication---the missionary position so beloved of Western man-is not at all the most direct of all possible ways to communicate." (S. Plant from Siskin)
  • The Web is a great communications unifier that doesn't; it is noiseless and incoherent (Poster)
  • "Metaphors be with you" = "may the force we with you." (Bowker)
  • "A computer could be an instrument whose music is ideas" (Kay)
  • The interface should be a magical theatrical space, one that makes us "tingle to remember." (Kay)
  • The laugh of the scientist at the moment of discovery results from bemused surprise: "It's so simple!" (Kay)
  • If you design an interface for children, you avoid gratuitous complexity. (Kay)
  • The alterity of code layers, bleeds in and out of language. (Raley)
  • Interactive immersion gives thought a body. (Morse)
  • Interface metaphors transform the objects passing through them giving them new meaning (LeGrady)
  • Community self-representation aims to alienate the public in an enduring way. (Daniel)
  • The Logo stages corporate performance art. (Case)

Thread 1: Interface transparency versus opacity; "user-friendliness' versus alterity

From the earliest session of this conference, a strong thread of discussion developed around visualization. Transparency has strong roots in Western epistemology and aesthetics, but so does a tradition of mirroring and reflection, that emphasize not content and creators, but process, users, and contexts. (Bolter) The transparency of the interface may be an illusion (Ernst), but new technology is making that illusion stronger (Manovich). The interface, by linking humans and machines, may introduce an alternity or otherness more radical than that expressed by mere visual opacity. We might grasp the alterity of the technology behind the interface by considering writing as a selfish gene (Siskin): the interface augments the human (rather than merely accommodating it, with "user-friendliness"). Because the analogy ascribes agency to a gene, such an analogy risks a form of anthropomorphism.(Poster) However, this charge of anthropomorphism assumes we know what the human is (Ernst).


  • does an interface require a certain transparency to do its work?

Thread 2: History and the interface; or, the charge of anachronism

Throughout this conference there was a debate about the usefulness of the recourse to history to understand new media. Conversely, new media might revise our our understanding of old media technologies. No one at the conference embraced the logic of the "ancient" position: truth must come in the forms that the greatest thinkers of the past practiced or envisioned; no one (not even Alan Kay) adopted the most iconoclastic "modern" stance: that modern science invents new technologies for knowing that utterly surpass and outdate those we have received from the past. However, the evocations of earlier forms of knowing, when used to interpret new media, were constantly open to the charge of anachronism. Thus it was asked, does elucidating new technologies through recourse to history hide something? (Liu) The strongest use of an old interface to invent a new one came in the presentation of the Camillo project, "Know It All." (Meadow, Sallis, and Dobbs) Sharp critique of this project came from the perspective of modern design: wasn't adapting the 7X7 (curved) matrix of a Renaissance project essentially arbitrary? (Lunenfeld) Does this project blur the distinction between interface and data organization (which is numerical rather than spatial; distributed on a network rather than organized into a theater)? Why recapitulate an earlier spatialization of knowledge? In rejoinder: the development of the web suggests the cultural staying power of spatialization; networked knowledge, through peer-to-peer file sharing, would allow the collaborative sharing of individually structured data sets.
Speakers offered different ways to characterize their recourse to history as other than the well worn argument that "the future will repeat the past." Instead speakers offered a more complex and experimental splicing of the past into the present: by recasting stories about writing and print in order to tell new narratives about the development of the human computer interface (Siskin, Kay); by reading new uses of a traditional interface (the book) against "the material metaphors" embodied in the reading machines being devised by Xerox Parc (Hayles); by studying the history of the modernism of the 1920s avant guard in order to plot the emergence of a new "info-aesthetics" (Manovich); by exploring the possibilities and difficulties of translating an older concept of the public sphere and citizen participation into on-line media forms and practices (Daniel; Sack; Warner; Bimber).
In order to account for proximity and distance of old and new media, the project of "media history" (which traces continuities between and evolution of media forms) was contrasted with "media archeology", where discontinuities and the radically new are given their due.(Ernst)


  • Is spatializing information hardwired into the human brain, or merely a very powerful convention for interfacing knowledge?
  • How can what we know about the habits of the ancient and modern librarians and researchers (Jacob), the contingent history of the university of London (Robertson), or the recent design of the California Digital Library (Carver) inflect our design and construction of new interfaces of knowledge?
  • Not just the usual historical question, "how does old media explain the emergence of the new?"; but "how does the new retroactively change our interpretation of the old?"

Thread 3: It's the technology stupid! Behind the interface lurks the system (Siskin), simulation (Aarseth), mobility (Parks), the temporal dimension (Ernst), interactive immersion (Morse), global networking (Poster), visualization (Lunenfeld), the database from which a sublime quantity of data pours (Liu), software code (Manovich) ….

If the concept of the "cultural interface" (Manovich) suggests why the interface can never have done with history, why in both its uses and forms the interface is embedded in a culture that has momentum, then a number of the conference presentations insisted that interfaces derive much of their meaning and force from the new technologies that enable them. If our histories courts the danger of domesticating new technologies by embedding them in the past, then Espen Aaresth sought to defamiliarize the human-computer interface by insisting that we account for what is "really" new in "new media." His provisional answer was "simulation": the computer is coded to act upon itself so it can simulate other things and processes. A modification of this idea from the floor: the computer as "emulation machine" since it never gives up being itself"(Manovich). Aarseth's skeptical work with defining new media had the effect of many other talks: of reminding us that behind the interface there are networks, satellites, databases, new techniques of visualization, all bound together by computers running code. In facing the machine we face a ghost with a decaying face. (Ernst) Our thought about the interface needs to calculate the effects of these hard and soft machines. In her Saturday afternoon conference overview, Rosemary Joyce took up the metaphor of the "splice," introduced by Wolfgang Ernst, to suggest that the interface is the point of separation and connection where person and machine are linked. Invoking Bruno Latour, Joyce suggested that it is through the interface that a network of humans and non-humans become linked and act together. Life at the interface is necessarily hybrid, one lived within a network of humans and non-humans.


  • We need to think the materiality at the interface, but what kind of materiality is this? (it does not equal "information"; "the body"; "opacity"…even a voice can be material) (Joyce).
  • Does a networked interface allow us to go from content to context providers? (Daniel, Joyce)
  • Does the code work of "Networker.Mez" achieve its critical aesthetic resonance by foregrounding the hybridization of code and language?. (Raley)
  • In a response to the invocation of the "splice" (and the mirror, etc), it was asked: were we in danger of recapitulating many of the moves made by feminist film theory in the 1970s? (Sack)
  • By narrowing the interface to the point of the splice, or the extreme condensation of the metaphor, did we risk eliding the place for the political? (Bartlett) [Bartlett offered "metonymy" as a better term for the symbolic work of the interface, because it foregrounds the "part for the whole" operation of an explicitly political interface-society relation, by preserving difference in connection.]

Thread 4: Political, social and aesthetic strategies of interface work: doing something with it.

Many of conference talks alerted us to the political stakes of how we interface with these technologies, and offered strategies for avoiding the occlusions that can proliferate at the interface. For example, what are the effects of the software design in the background of any database search we perform? (Manovich, Bowker, Liu) The topologies used to represent relations among data and diverse objects (for example in 'a tree of life') have political consequences worth calculating. Some computer databases deploy regimes of implosion (like gene banks) that are in tension with regimes of particularity (eco-system survival).[Bowker] Making visible what is usually hidden can become a useful strategy.


  • Can we counter "techno-nomadic fantasies of global access" with an interface that shows "where" in the World Wide Web we've been going? (Parks) [But then, how does digital networking change mobility's meaning and how "we" experience it? (Ernst)]
  • What are the "people-enabling powers" of the new interfaces? (Poster, Parks)
  • Can we counter the sublime, and ultimately metaphysical allure of the "date pour," by making visible the XML code that shapes the way the data back end is served to users? Can we elude the religio-metaphysics of this system? (Liu)
  • How do we develop the sensory and aesthetic potential of the new interfaces (Hayles, Raley)?
  • Does the interface invite a theater that engages the mind and body (Kay, Case, Morse), or does it open users to domination by corporate spectacle (Case)?
  • Could the "enlightened anonymity" used in various ways in 18th century print culture be introduced into on-line public spaces so as to increase their wit, artfulness, and responsible engagement? (Warner)?
  • Can we create a software architecture that facilitates online, democratic public discourse for citizens rather than for generic users or consumers? (Sack) Can such a mediation of public life create new levels of participation and freedom from the old gatekeepers of old media, without undermining the "experience of the common" the old system brought? (Bimber)
  • How can we learn from the "crabbiness" ascribed by some to Alan Kay and self-consciously performed by Morse, to say "not, its our technology, they took it away" but, rather "it's their technology, and we need to do something with it?" (Siskin)
 Director William WarnerWebmaster Jeremy DouglassModified February 27, 2002 18:34