The much-discussed, much-explored interface between humans and machines is seemingly our final frontier. Comparing the interface to the Victorian novel and the 1950s television show (both of which shaped society’s understanding at the time), Steven Johnson wrote, “There are few creative acts in modern life more significant than this one, and few with such broad social consequences.” The graphical user interface has come to represent all of the many processes going on inside the computer — and the way we interact with each other through them.
The machine is not the environment for the person; the person is the environment for the machine. — Aviv Bergman
With Beyond the Desktop Metaphor: Designing Integrated Digital Work Environments (MIT Press), editors Victor Kaptelinin and Mary Czerwinski have compiled essays finding the limits of the current widespread user interface and imagining a post-desktop interface. Studies have found that our current virtual desktop doesn’t afford supporting services for the growing areas of computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW), the ever-expanding diversity of technologies, or the multiple roles or tasks we find ourselves filling. Beyond the Desktop Metaphor is a compendium that reaches just that — beyond the desktop.
Looking back to look ahead, Thomas Erickson and David W. McDonald compiled HCI Remixed: Reflections on Works That Have Influenced the HCI Community (MIT Press). Erickson and McDonald asked fifty-one designers to reflect on one work — something at least ten-years old — that influenced their approach to human-computer interface design. The result is fifty-one brief essays covering artifacts spanning everything from books like Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations (The Free Press) and Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines, early innovations like Douglas Engelbart’s mouse and Ivan Sutherland’s SketchPad, and influential people like Edward Tufte and Jane Jacobs. In a field where the research and results are cutting-edge and exciting, but where the literature is often bogged down in minutia and, well, boring, HCI Remixed exhibits a novel approach and is actually fun to read.
It is all just an algorithm with enough unknowns to make a game of it. — McKenzie Wark
Nowhere has HCI been more “remixed” than in computer gaming. A simmering subculture for decades, supposedly the gaming industry has overtaken Hollywood in size, money, and attention. Making sense of this rapid growth and its influence on our culture has spawned confusion, reckless theorizing, and a whole new field of study. Fortunately for us, people like Alexander Galloway and McKenzie Wark have taken up the task of keeping things in perspective. Galloway’s Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (University of Minnesota Press) draws from over fifty video games — from PONG and Space Invaders to Half-Life and Halo — (as well as his keen critical eye and l33t gamer skills) to deliver a holistic and seasoned approach to gaming studies.
Wark’s Gamer Theory (Harvard University Press), which was originally published in-progress online as “G4M3R 7H30RY,” is written in the aphoristic style of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (not unlike Wark’s previous book, A Hacker Manifesto). While its being published online has gotten more attention than the book itself, this should not be the case. Like Wark’s previous work, this is an important text for anyone interested in progressive thought on media and technology — and our relationships with it. Gamer Theory is less about the avatars, images, and interface, and more about the philosophy that drives them. It’s the algorithm as allegory, the formula as form, the rules as rubrics, and what all of it might mean to the culture they’re shaping.
Depending on what end of the human-computer spectrum you’re interested in — from haptics and CSCW to gaming and philosophy — these four books tap the pulse of the melding of humans and machines.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.