Infinity Imagined

“This digital age belongs to the graphic interface, and it is time for us to recognize the imaginative work that went into that creation, and prepare ourselves for the imaginative breakthroughs to come” (215).

Johnson, Steven A. Interface Culture. Basic Books, 1997.

Infinity Imagined
In the final chapter of this 1997 text, Johnson discusses many of the points on the new attention to interface design. He refers to Thomas Edison and the invention of the phonograph as an example of the fact that an inventor/producer can never fully foresee the way in which users will use the product. They may find a use other than the inventors intent, which could dominate the common application of the product.

According to Edison, the record player was an upgrade for the telephone medium, an enhancement. Perhaps people would occasionally listen to prerecorded music on the device, but for the most part, Edison thought, they’d be sending each other dictated letters through the postal system–like today’s voice mail without the immediacy” (208).

Lisa Gitelman also references this event. In speaking of the phonograph, she writes, “Thomas Edison’s intention for the machine was largely confounded, while composers and musical publications left the phonograph virtually unnoticed until its immense popularity forced them into addressing its role as a musical instrument.” (Gitelman 62). In other words, his intention for the machine as a communication device, not unlike textual mailing, turned out to be overshadowed by its use to play music. The inventor cannot fully know how the product will be used and what effect it will have on culture. More so, the inventor has no authorial role in this effect; the media, based on public application, charts its own course.

Johnson then discusses the critique of Vannevar Bush’s famed article, “As We May Think,” and points out the elements of Bush’s article–on the fictional Memex device–that do seem to have predicted certain elements of the internet as well as those elements that Bush noted and had not come to pass:

  1. That users would have small cameras lodged on their forehead or glasses to snap pictures of documents as they read them.
  2. That photographed documents would be transferred to microfilm-style images stored in the memex device.
  3. A storage mechanism with linear roll where one can scan thousands of little docs.
  4. A user can enter in ext through a spoken word device.

It is important to note that Johnson’s text was written in 1997; since then we’ve made various advancements that necessitate we re-examine these points that allegedly failed to occur .

  1. There now exists the SenseCam that takes a picture passively (user does nothing) at certain points throughout the day. While this could be just a fun toy that documents the wearer’s life at random moments, it has also been suggested that it could be of great use to help Alzheimer’s patients and other afflictions of memory loss. This technology could easily be applied to head-mounted units that take pictures of read material.
  2. This calls out the idea of microfiche. However, that of course is a bit outdated. Now, we can store images digitally, and have thumbnail pop-ups when scrolled over (as in a quick-view mode).
  3. Again, this is very much like the microfiche. However, it is also quite similar to the way that we can look through digital folders with thumbnails and then enlarge them to access them.
  4. Beginning with applications such as jott and reqall, to the now standard cell/smart-phone apps that allow one to speak into the phone and have an email sent, Speech-to-text has become very accurate and quite ubiquitous.

While Johnson was not aware of these technologies, in the face of much touting of the coming age–both from those hailing the internet as the greatest invention ever and those suggesting it will bring the death of print media–he still suggests on a more general level that perhaps we should not be so hard on Bush for not getting every prediction correct, nor even too congratulatory for those predictions that do seem to point to many current aspects of the internet. “The cultural impact of new technology is hard enough to predict without the flurry of manifestos obscuring our view” (212). In this way, we should look more to Bush’s article as a model of techno-criticism, due its tone: reflective, inquisitive, and open to consider possibilities for the future without glorifying or negating the worth of any technology.

Similarly, Johnson suggests that we cannot expect that the most impressive aspect of the digital future will be some tool or feature that blows us away. “The most profound change [ushered in by the digital revolution] will lie with our generic expectations about the interface itself. We will come to think of interface design as a kind of art form–perhaps the art form of the next century” (213). Having worked in a user experience department and with interface designers and architects for a few years now, I can weigh in that it is an art to be sure. It is an art and a truly difficult task to create the interface for a wide variety of tools and sites in order to make them usable, intuitive, aesthetically pleasing, functional, and essentially invisible.

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Gitelman, Lisa. “How Users Define New Media: A History of the Amusement Phonograph.” Eds. David Thornburn and Henry Jenkins. Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. 61-80.

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