Annotation of: "The Impossibility of Interface", Matthew Fuller
In the essay The Impossibility of Interface, Matthew Fuller analyzes the notion of interface, taking into account both computing and society. The relation between these two fields is mutual, because while society gives computing a certain framework and system of values, software interfaces have a feedback effect on society (ex. GUI as democratization of computing). Fuller’s survey takes this definition of interface by Brenda Laurel: “An interface is a contact surface. It reflects the physical properties of the interactors, the functions to be performed, and the balance of power and control.” Then Fuller identifies three different typologies of interfaces:
* Interface as distributed throughout and indivisible from the system of which it is part.
* Interface as monitoring and control of a reductive, indexical map of separate elements that can be changed from state to state, but not altered.
* Interface as an associational structure which allows a user to manipulate, alter, destroy, and multiply processes and objects from which it is independent.
Two particularly relevant definitions are given at this stage: software is defined as “the interpenetration of informational patterns by other informational patterns”. Metaphor is described as an expression of the functionality of a device using a pre-existing apparatus as reference. This use of metaphor determines an imbalance between the explanatory potential of the metaphor and the functional potential of the device.
In order to deepen the first typology of interface, the author introduces I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts –a documentary by Harun Farocki– in which prison guards were presumed to have generated fights between rival gangs of prisoners. The interface produced by the architecture of the building, the system of surveillance, etc. is not only representational, but it also provides a feedback to the system that generates it, reinforcing the latter. This anecdote exemplifies the Deleuzian shift from a disciplinary society to a society of control, a paradigm in which behavior is directed and modified. The control of behavior in this case is demonstrated by the “free choice” of the prisoners to share the space with rivals.
Fuller refers to a Boston bakery to explain the second kind of interface. Thanks to a simplified software interface, bakers have no need (and no possibility) to have contact with bread and flour. The consequence of this machine is that bakers have no consciousness anymore of the actual process of baking. From this point of view the interface works as a device for alienation and it expresses deeply a dialectic between freedom and paralysis, facilitation and productivity.
The third typology of interface is the one that is associated to the functions of a computer for instance. Invoking the sphere of videogames, Fuller notices that one of the key feature of a successful interface is its coherency, not necessarily related to realism. Codes are understood as laws within the game. Videogames reverts the definition of good interface in which “the focus should be on interacting with the task, not with the computer” (Donald Norman), because in videogames the task is to perform interaction with the computer. The consequence is a dynamic relation between subject and object that requires a wide and continuos understanding of system by the interface designer. There is no strict separation between woking application and videogames, thus we can consider Microsoft Word as a simulation game. What does Word simulate? Not the practice of writing in general but the practice of writing within a workspace.
In conclusion Fuller discusses the relation between software and user: it is common belief that the software is made to fit on user’s needs and behaviour, but it is also the user that adapts itself to the software. In this feedback loop the conclusions taken on the usability of an interface have to be considered provisional and have to be constantly questioned. A degree of openness should always be provided, because it would allow what Franc Berardi calls a ‘Reinassance’, a situation in which potentiality and innovation are unleashed.