Lev Manovich

The Interface as a New Aeshetic Category

In 1984 the director of Blade Runner Ridley Scott was hired to create a commercial which introduced Apple Computer's new Macintosh. In retrospect, this event is full of historical significance. Released within two years of each other, Blade Runner (1982) and Macintosh computer (1984) defined the two aesthetics which, twenty years, still rule contemporary culture. One was a futuristic dystopia which combined futurism and decay, computer technology and fetishism, retro-styling and urbanism, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Since Blade Runner release, its techno-noir was replayed in countless films, computer games, novels and other cultural objects. And while a number of strong aesthetic systems have been articulated in the following decades, both by individual artists (Mathew Barney, Mariko Mori) and by commercial culture at large (the 1980s "post-modern" pastiche, the 1990s techno-minimalism), none of them was able to challenge the hold of Blade Runner on our vision of the future.

In contrast to the dark, decayed, "post-modern" vision of Blade Runner, Graphical User Interface (GUI), popularized by Macintosh, remained true to the modernist values of clarity and functionality. The user's screen was ruled by straight lines and rectangular windows which contained smaller rectangles of individual files arranged in a grid. The computer communicated with the user via rectangular boxes containing clean black type rendered again white background. Subsequent versions of GUI added colors and made possible for users to customize the appearance of many interface elements, thus somewhat deluding the sterility and boldness of the original monochrome 1984 version. Yet its original aesthetic survived in the displays of hand-held communicators such as Palm Pilot, cellular telephones, car navigation systems and other consumer electronic products which use small LCD displays comparable in quality to 1984 Macintosh screen.

Like Blade Runner, Macintosh's GUI articulated a vision of the future, although a very different one. In this vision, the lines between human and is technological creations (computers, androids) are clearly drawn and decay is not tolerated. In computer, once a file is created, it never disappears except when explicitly deleted by the user. And even then deleted items can be usually recovered. Thus if in "meatspace" we have to work to remember, in cyberspace we have to work to forget. (Of course while they run, OS and applications constantly create, write to and erase various temporary files, as well as swap data between RAM and virtual memory files on a hard drive, but most of this activity remains invisible to the user.)

Also like Blade Runner, GUI vision also came to influence many other areas of culture. This influence ranges from purely graphical (for instance, use of GUI elements by print and TV designers) to more conceptual. In the 1990s, as the Internet progressively grew in popularity, the role of a digital computer shifted from being a particular technology (a calculator, a symbol processor, an image manipulator, etc.) to being a filter to all culture, a form through which all kinds of cultural and artistic production is being mediated. As a window of a Web browser comes to replace cinema and television screen, a wall in art gallery, a library and a book, all at once, the new situation manifest itself: all culture, past and present, is being filtered through a computer, with its particular human-computer interface.

In semiotic terms, the computer interface acts as a code which carries cultural messages in a variety of media. When you use the Internet, everything you access - texts, music, video, navigable spaces - passes through the interface of the browser and then, in its turn, the interface of the OS. In cultural communication, a code is rarely simply a neutral transport mechanism; usually it affects the messages transmitted with its help. For instance, it may make some messages easy to conceive and render others unthinkable. A code may also provide its own model of the world, its own logical system, or ideology; subsequent cultural messages or whole languages created using this code will be limited by this model, system or ideology. Most modern cultural theories rely on these notions which I will refer to together as "non-transparency of the code" idea. For instance, according to Whorf-Sapir hypothesis which enjoyed popularity in the middle of the twentieth century, human thinking is determined by the code of natural language; the speakers of different natural languages perceive and think about world differently. Whorf-Sapir hypothesis is an extreme expression of "non-transparency of the code" idea; usually it is formulated in a less extreme form. But then we think about the case of human-computer interface, applying a "strong" version of this idea makes sense. The interface shapes how the computer user conceives the computer itself. It also determines how users think of any media object accessed via a computer. Stripping different media of their original distinctions, the interface imposes its own logic on them. Finally, by organizing computer data in particular ways, the interface provides distinct models of the world. For instance, a hierarchical file system assumes that the world can be organized in a logical multi-level hierarchy. In contrast, a hypertext model of the World Wide Web models the world as a non-hierarchical system ruled by metonymy. In short, far from being a transparent window into the data inside a computer, the interface bring with it strong messages of its own.

As an example of how the interface imposes its own logic on media, consider "cut and paste" operation, standard in all software running under modern GUI. This operation renders insignificant the traditional distinction between spatial and temporal media, since the user can cut and paste parts of images, regions of space and parts of a temporal composition in exactly the same way. It is also "blind" to traditional distinctions in scale: the user can cut and paste a single pixel, an image, a whole digital movie in the same way. And last, this operation also renders insignificant traditional distinctions between media: "cut and paste" can be applied to texts, still and moving images, sounds and 3D objects in the same way.

The interface comes to play a crucial role in information society yet in a another way. In this society, not only work and leisure activities increasingly involve computer use, but they also converge around the same interfaces. Both "work" applications (word processors, spreadsheet programs, database programs) and "leisure" applications (computer games, informational DVD) use the same tools and metaphors of GUI. The best example of this convergence is a Web browser employed both in the office and at home, both for work and for play. In this respect information society is quite different from industrial society, with its clear separation between the field of work and the field of leisure. In the nineteenth century Karl Marx imagined that a future communist state would overcome this work-leisure divide as well as the highly specialized and piece-meal character of modern work itself. Marx's ideal citizen would be cutting wood in the morning, gardening in the afternoon and composing music in the evening. Now a subject of information society is engaged in even more activities during a typical day: inputting and analyzing data, running simulations, searching the Internet, playing computer games, watching streaming video, listening to music online, trading stocks, and so on. Yet in performing all these different activities the user in essence is always using the same few tools and commands: a computer screen and a mouse; a Web browser; a search engine; cut, paste, copy, delete and find commands. (In the introduction to "Forms" chapter I will discuss how the two key new forms of new media - database and navigable space - can be also understood in relation to work--leisure opposition.)

If human-computer interface become a key semiotic code of the information society as well as its meta-tool, how does this affect the functioning of cultural objects in general and art objects in particular? In computer culture it becomes common to construct the number of different interfaces to the same "content." For instance, the same data can be represented as a 2D graph or as an interactive navigable space. Or, a Web site may guide the user to different versions of the site depending on the bandwidth of her Internet connection. Given these examples, we may be tempted to think of a new media artwork as also having two separate levels: content and interface. Thus the old dichotomies content - form and content - medium can be re-written as content - interface. But postulating such an opposition assumes that artwork's content is independent of its medium (in an art historical sense) or its code (in a semiotic sense). Situated in some idealized medium-free realm, content is assumed to exist before its material expression. These assumptions are correct in the case of visualization of quantified data; they also apply to classical art with its well-defined iconographic motives and representational conventions. But just as modern thinkers, from Whorf to Derrida, insisted on "non-transparency of a code" idea, modern artists assumed that content and form can't be separated. In fact, from the 1910s "abstraction" to the 1960s "process," artists keep inventing concepts and procedures to assure that they can't paint some pre-existent content.

This leaves us with an interesting paradox. Many new media artworks have what can be called "an informational dimension," the condition which they share with all new media objects. Their experience includes retrieving, looking at and thinking about quantified data. Therefore when we refer to such artworks we are justified in separating the levels of content and interface. At the same time, new media artworks have more traditional "experiential" or aesthetic dimensions, which justifies their status as art rather than as information design. These dimensions include a particular configuration of space, time, and surface articulated in the work; a particular sequence of user's activities over time to interact with the work; a particular formal, material and phenomenological user experience. And it is the work's interface that creates its unique materiality and the unique user experience. To change the interface even slightly is to dramatically change the work. From this perspective, to think of an interface as a separate level, as something that can be arbitrary varied is to eliminate the status of a new media artwork as art.

There is another way to think about the difference between new media design and new media art in relation to the content - interface dichotomy. In contrast to design, in art the connection between content and form (or, in the case of new media, content and interface) is motivated. That is, the choice of a particular interface is motivated by work's content to such degree that it can no longer be thought of as a separate level. Content and interface merge into one entity, and no longer can be taken apart.

Finally, the idea of content pre-existing the interface is challenged in yet another way by new media artworks which dynamically generate their data in real time. While in a menu-based interactive multimedia application or a static Web site all data already exists before the user accesses it, in dynamic new media artworks the data is created on the fly, or, to use the new media lingo, at run time. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways: procedural computer graphics, formal language systems, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Artificial Life (AL) programming. All these methods share the same principle: a programmer setups some initial conditions, rules or procedures which control the computer program generating the data. For the purposes of the present discussion, the most interesting of these approaches are AL and the evolution paradigm. In AL approach, the interaction between a number of simple objects at run time leads to the emergence of complex global behaviors. These behaviors can only be obtained in the course of running the computer program; they can't be predicted beforehand. The evolution paradigm applies the metaphor of the evolution theory to the generation of images, shapes, animations and other media data. The initial data supplied by the programmer acts as a genotype which is expanded into a full phenotype by a computer. In either case, the content of an artwork is the result of a collaboration between the artist/programmer and the computer program, or, if the work is interactive, between the artist, the computer program and the user. New media artists who most systematically explored AL approach is the team of Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau. In their installation "Life Spacies" virtual organisms appear and evolve in response to the position, movement and interactions of the visitors. Artist/programmer Karl Sims made the key contribution to applying the evolution paradigm to media generation. In his installation "Galapagos" the computer programs generates twelfth different virtual organisms at every iteration; the visitors select an organism which will continue to leave, copulate, mutate and reproduce. The commercial products which use AL and evolution approaches are computer games such as Creatures series (Mindscape Entertainment) and "virtual pet" toys such as Tamagochi.

Any critical discussion of new media has to deal with the problem of interface. To put this differently, the rise of new media forces us to rethink our existing aesthetic categories and to consider new ones. Interface is the most important such category. This essay just scratched the surface: there is much, much more behind the menus, the buttons, and the desktop.