Interfaces of the Word

Designer James Macanufo once said that if paper didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Paper, inscribed with writing and then with printing, enabled recorded history (Ong, 1977). Media theorist Friedrich Kittler (1990) wrote that print held a “monopoly on the storage of serial data” (p.245). Even as writing represents a locking down of knowledge, one of “sequestration, interposition, diaeresis or division, alienation, and closed fields or systems” (Ong, 1977, p. 305), Walter Ong points out that it also represents liberation, a system of access where none existed before. After all, we only write things down in order to enable the possibility of referring to them later.

@mathpunk People would make fun of you if you were working on software for communicating with the dead even though that’s half the purpose of writing. [Tweeted, November 1, 2014]

Paper Knowledge“Written genres,” Lisa Gitelman writes in her latest book, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Duke University Press, 2014), “depend on a possibly infinite number of things that large groups of people recognize, will recognize, or have recognized that writings can be for. To wit, documents are for knowing-showing” (p. 2). This “knowing-showing” is the liberation aspect of writing and printing, the enabling of access. She continues, “[J]ob printers facilitate or ensure the pure exchange function. That is, they ensure value that exists in and only because of exchange, exchangeability, and circulation” (p. 48).

“Digital documents… have no edges” (Gitelman, 2014, p. 17). A “document” in digital space is only metaphorically so. Every form of media is the same at the digital level. Just as genres of writing emerge from discursive fields according to the shared knowledge of readers, “the ways they have been internalized by members of a shared culture” (Gitelman, 2014, p. 17), digital documents are arranged in recognizable forms on the screen. The underlying mechanisms doing the arranging remain largely hidden from us as users, what Alex Galloway (2013) calls “the interface effect” (passim). It’s kind of like using genre as a way to parse massive amounts of text, as a different way to organize and understand writing.

Comparative Textual MediaGitelman also rightfully makes an appearance in Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), edited by N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, further arguing the importance of job printing and helping define and redefine the fraught term “print culture.” Other pieces include ones by Matthew Kirschenbaum, Johanna Drucker, Jessica Brantley, and an excellent, contextualizing introduction by the editors. In her chapter, Rita Raley outlines what she calls “TXTual Practice,” describing screen-based, “born-digital” works as unstable, “not texts but text effects” (p. 20). Her essay moves away from viewing the digital document and other such contrivances as metaphors and toward employing Galloway’s interface effect. Galloway’s view casts the old argument of interfaces becoming transparent and “getting out of the way” in a bright and harsh new light, writing that their “operability engenders inoperability” (p. 25).

Reading Writing InterfacesLori Emerson’s Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) takes on the “invisible, imperceptible, inoperable” interface, starting with ubiquitous computing. Once our devices obsolesce into general use, “those transparent devices that achieve more the less they do” (Galloway, 2013, p. 25), they escape everyday criticism. The interface stuff hides in those edges that aren’t really there. The words I write now float and flicker on a screen in a conceptual space I barely understand. Emerson cites the mass seduction of the Macintosh computer interface and the activist digital media poetics that critique that seduction. Her media archeological approach unearths the hidden mechanisms of reading and writing and the ways we negotiate screen- and print-based texts. It’s no surprise that Reading Writing Interfaces is one of the better recent books on these issues.

Type on ScreenLike Judith Donath’s The Social Machine (MIT Press, 2014), Type on Screen: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Developers, and Students (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014), edited by Ellen Lupton, takes a designer’s tack on these issues. Though it’s a guide rather than a scholarly study, the book covers contrivances and conventions like type sizes, fonts, grids, scrolls, spines, wireframes, wayfinding, laundry lines, and designing the written word for different screens, as well as case studies of each. It’s an excellent way to frame one’s thinking on all of the above for critique or the classroom. Or both.

If paper didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Would anyone say the same for the screen?


Emerson, Lori. (2014). Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Galloway, Alexander R. (2013). The Interface Effect. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Gitelman, Lisa. (2014). Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Raley, Rita. (2013). TXTual Practice. In, N. Katerine Hayles & Jessica Pressman (Eds.), Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (pp. 183-197). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Kittler, Friedrich A. (1990). Discourse Networks: 1800/1900. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lupton, Ellen (Ed.) (2014). Type on Screen: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Developers, and Students. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Ong, Walter J. (1977). Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Contested Boundaries and Saturated Selves

In her book The Social Machine (MIT Press, 2014), Judith Donath outlines designs for living online. Echoing George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), she writes, “We are embodied beings, who have evolved in the physical world; our thoughts and imagination are rooted in the sensory experience of our physical surroundings. Online, there is no body; there is only information. We comprehend abstract ideas by reframing them in metaphoric terms that ultimately derive from physical experience” (p. 9). One needn’t look any further that a computer’s desktop to see this in action. “Immersion” was once a strong notion in computer-mediated communication studies, online communities, and virtual reality. Now we are not so much immersed in media as we are saturated by it.

The Social MachineDonath points out that these are boundary issues. Walls, fences, locked doors, online moderators—“the doormen of discussions” (p. 159), spam filters, and other gate-keeping contrivances protect the private from the public and vice versa. Even with such boundaries in place, our embodiedness is still at risk. We are as sieves, filtering news from noise, or as sponges, soaking up information and influence of all kinds. The latter evokes Psychologist Kenneth Gergen’s “saturated self”:

Emerging technologies saturate us with the voices of humankind—both harmonious and alien. As we absorb their varied rhymes and reasons, they become a part of us and we of them. Social saturation furnishes us with a multiplicity of incoherent and unrelated languages of the self (1991, p. 6).

Nearly twenty years ago, Nicholas Negroponte (1995) pontificated on the fading boundaries of the “post-information age,” writing,

In the same ways that hypertext removes the limitations of the printed page, the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in specific place at specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible. In the post-information age, since you may live and work at one or many locations, the concept of an “address” now takes on new meaning (p. 163).

The history of the internet is largely a story of broken-down boundaries (see Grodin & Lindolof, 1996; Jenkins, 2006; van Dijck, 2013). Its architecture “rests upon principles of convergence, which enable multiple and overlapping connections between varieties of distinct social spheres” (Papacharissi, 2011, p. 305). The inherent irony of Negroponte’s observation is that since physical location no longer matters in the digital, post-geographic workday, it makes it matter even more. If you can work from anywhere, where you live means more than ever. You can live wherever you want regardless of where your work is. The old boundaries are gone.

The End of AbsenceThe overwhelming irony now is that where we are matters less than the digital wares with which we saturate our selves. On the commute, at school, at work, at home, on a trip, visiting friends—the smartphone usurps all of these with a persistent and precise hold on our attention. In William Gibson‘s term, the online world has “everted” itself into physical space. The fact that it is now inescapable is what writer Michael Harris calls “the end of absence.” His is an example of what I have called the Advent Horizon. We feel a sense of loss when we cross one of these lines. From the Socratic shift from speaking to writing, to the transition from writing to typing, we’re comfortable—differently on an individual and collective level—in one of these phases. As we adopt and assimilate new devices, our horizon of comfort drifts further out while our media vocabulary increases. It takes 30 years for a full, generational change and with that a full shift in advent horizons. Harris notes, “If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After” (p. 15).

Reaching across one of these divides, Thomas de Zengotita (2005) writes of digitally zombified youth,

… It was if they were somnambulating, hypnotized, into some newborn zone of being where hallowed custom and bizarre context were so surreally fused that the whole tableau seemed poised to shimmer off into the ether at any moment (p. 155).

Ours is a chronic presence in a chronic present. Donath (2014), writes of our online personal presences, “The stranger, as we think of him now, may cease to exist” (p. 336). But Harris (2014) adds, “Before all memory of those absences is shuttered, though, there is this brief time when we might record what came before. We might do something with those small, barely noticeable instances when we’re reminded of our love for absence. They flash at us amid the rush of our experience and seem to signal: Wait, wasn’t there something…?” (p. 8).

Well, was there?


de Zengotita, Thomas. (2005). Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It. New York: Bloomsbury.

Donath, Judith. (2014). The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gergen, Kenneth. (1991). The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. New York: Basic Books.

Grodin, Debra & Lindlof, Thomas R. (1996). Constructing the Self in a Mediated World. Thosand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Harros, Michael. (2014). The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. New York: Current.

Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lakoff, George, & Johnson, Mark (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Negroponte, Nicholas. (1995). Being Digital.  New York: Knopf.

Papacharissi, Zizi. (2011). A Networked Self. In Zizi Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 304-317). New York: Routledge.

van Dijck, José. (2013). The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. New York: Oxford University Press.

Terminal Mediation: Two Recent Books

Since the telegraph’s advent separated the process of long distance communication from the means of transportation (Carey, 1988), communication technologies have covered the globe with an endless network of connectivity. Today, the web is host to nearly every type of information available via other forms of media (e.g., text, audio, video, etc.), the computer has become a staple technology in the homes of millions, and the average American is now a computer user (Nie & Erbring, 2000). You don’t need me to tell you all of this, but our capacity for producing information far exceeds our ability to process it. If you’ve read more than one thing on this site before, you know that this represents my main intellectual obsession. Here are two recent edited collections on the subject. Continue reading “Terminal Mediation: Two Recent Books”

Mirroring Minds

In researching technological mediation (which many of you know has been my most intense intellectual jones over the past few years), I started looking internally a year and a half or so ago. Internally meaning cognitively, thinking that quite a lot of the process I’m trying to figure out is going on inside our heads. I first read about mirror neurons when David Byrne and Daniel Levitin were in Seed Magazine‘s “The Seed Salon,” and I immediately knew I’d stumbled across something I couldn’t ignore. Continue reading “Mirroring Minds”

WALL-E: Here to Save You All

I’ve been holding off on writing about WALL-E as I felt it needed to marinate for a while. There are so many things to comment on, I scarcely know where to start. I’ve seen the movie twice now, and it could definitely stand several more viewings. The accolade is often used recklessly, but WALL-E is the very definition of an “instant classic.”

Though I don’t care for Disney otherwise (or particularly any other animation outfit), I’m a dedicated Pixar fan. After last year’s absolutely abortive and formulaic Ratatouille, WALL-E is a welcome return to form and one of their very best films to boot. One aspect of the genius that is WALL-E is the well-developed characters, and the fact that they’re sculpted in such relief with some of the sparsest dialog to hit the screen since 1981’s Quest for Fire. As painfully adorable and engaging as WALL-E himself is (some say he’s the direct descendant of Johnny 5 from 1986’s Short Circuit), even the minor characters (the feisty M-O being my favorite) have depth and appeal.

Thematically, WALL-E takes several modern memes and pushes them to extremes. WALL-E‘s is a world where our destruction of all the resources on Earth, our leaving it behind, and robots patrolling the planet after we’re gone are reality. The big-box retailer (Buy n Large) has grown so big as to replace the government and eventually moved us all off-world aboard its all-inclusive space community — the “Axiom” — where our every need is provided by machines (e.g., hoverchairs, ubiquitous screens, meals in cups eaten through straws, etc.).

The idea that our time on Earth is limited due to our own negligence is not new. The late George Carlin once quipped, “Humans are like a virus. Earth will shake us off like a bad cold and continue on its path.” Dave Allen calls WALL-E, “a parable for our eventual extinction,” and while eschatological themes are disturbingly rampant lately (Children of Men, I Am Legend, Cloverfield, Southland Tales, and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening all toil similar thematic soil), I’d much rather watch a movie laced with global misanthropy than selective racism (as seen in Kung-Fu Panda, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, and The Love Guru. I mean, really… WTF?).

Of course the idea that our replacements will be of our own creation isn’t new either, but neither of these themes are necessarily integral to the central plot or appeal of WALL-E. To me, breaking out of our technologically mediated, workaday trances is the most subtle but most pointed theme in WALL-E (admittedly, that’s my lens), while doing so by way of connecting with each other is its most direct. WALL-E is a lonely collector, and, spurred on by scenes from the 1969 film Hello Dolly, is searching for love. On his quest for companionship, WALL-E nudges everyone he meets out of their normal path. Like the Harlequin in Harlan Ellison‘s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (who deliberately knocks a clockwork world out of its scheduled whack), WALL-E breaks everyone — human and robot — out of their routines and shows them a different way, his intentionality notwithstanding.

Pixar has always been infamous for their easter eggs, but they’ve outdone themselves this time. There are WALL-E appearances in most previous Pixar films, and artifacts from past films in WALL-E!

In the age of the long tail, it’s refreshing to see a movie that holds appeal for everyone and is still well-crafted in every aspect. Seriously, be wary of the person that doesn’t like WALL-E.