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Interface Culture [Paperback]

Steven A. Johnson
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 7, 1999 0465036805 978-0465036806 Rep Sub
Drawing on his own expertise in the humanities and on the Web, Steven Johnson not only demonstrates how interfaces - those buttons, graphics, and words on the computer screen through which we control information - influence our daily lives, but also tracks their roots back to Victorian novels, early cinema, and even medieval urban planning. The result is a lush cultural and historical tableau in which today’s interfaces take their rightful place in the lineage of artistic innovation. With a distinctively accessible style, Interface Culture brings new intellectual depth to the vital discussion of how technology has transformed society, and is sure to provoke wide debate in both literary and technological circles.

Editorial Reviews Review

Steven Johnson turns the tables on the way we consider our computer interfaces. While many discussions focus on how interfaces help us work by adapting to our ways of thinking and our real-world metaphors, Johnson jumps from there to look at how our thinking and world view are altered by our computer interfaces.

He begins with the simple: The mouse improved the spatial nature of our computers by letting us move, by the proxy of our pointers, within the screen. The windows metaphor made cyberspace a 3-D space. And while we tend to think about the graphical nature of interfaces, Johnson also explores the textual side and how it has changed the way we work with the written word.

Interface Culture then goes on to show how, with each advance in technology, the interface shapes our perceptions in new ways. Where mice and windows turned the computing world into cyberspace, agents have created a perception of software as personality. On the larger scale, Johnson sees these tools, originally built on noncyber metaphors, as creating, in their turn, a new set of metaphors for looking at the rest of the world. And while he finds it exciting, he spends considerable time on such shortcomings in our approach to interfacing: what he considers the excessive emphasis on graphics elements at the cost of anything textual. Johnson, who is the editor of the cerebral Feed Web site and whom Newsweek called one of the most influential people in cyberspace, has written an intelligent book about interface design, its relationship to the real world, and how it affects our perception of worlds both cyber and physical. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"...Interface Culture blends familiar cultural studies paradigms, a history of interface design, and sharp criticism of the state of the Web...this is one of the most cogent and accessible samples of Net theory around." -- Village Voice

"In Interface Culture, Steven Johnson deftly paddles against this zeitgeist by examining the machine, software, and network interfaces of the past half century in light of more archaic developments...He combines his insight and his engaging prose to achieve what so many writers fail to: make the reader feel smart by providing new tools with which to understand technology...Johnson's sitting pretty on a mountain of visions, and, luck for us, her shares the wealth." -- Wired --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; Rep Sub edition (October 7, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465036805
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465036806
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,168,569 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Questions from Readers for Steven Johnson

Steven, you've often written about the ways in which a city's density enables great ideas to flourish. You've applied the same metaphor to the web as a engine of creativity and innovation. What about book-reading? Do see our natural inclinations...
Ryan T. Meehan asked Aug 30, 2011
Author Answered

Well, my first response is that the book, in its traditional form, has been as much of an idea generator as the Web or the city over the centuries. In part that was because it had been the best mechanism for storing and sharing information, before computers and networks came along. But also because the linear format of the book -- and the word count of most books -- allowed more complex and important arguments or observations to be presented. So I would hope we can preserve some of that linearity and that length in the digital age. But in general, I am exhilarated by all the new possibilities of the networked book. I wrote an essay for the WSJ journal a few years ago -- inspired actually by the Kindle I had just bought -- about where I thought the book was heading. Here's the link:

Steven Johnson answered Aug 31, 2011

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Connecting today to the past April 20, 2000
What do Beavis & Butthead, Talk Soup, and Entertainment Tonight all have in common? The answer is that they are all TV about TV. All of these shows, rather than being concerned with original content, comment on other TV shows. Beavis & Butthead comment on music videos, Talk Soup is a talk show roundup of what's happening on other Talk Shows, etc.
This is just one of many clear and insightful observations Steven Johnson makes in his book, Interface Culture. The book is a broad review of the growing role interface design plays in society. In describing the role of interface design, Johnson begins by putting it into historical perspective.
According to Johnson, the development of meta-media, like, "Talk Soup" happens whenever a medium becomes mature. It also develops when the content or subject matter begin to overwhelm the people who are dealing with it. He gives several historical examples of this including, Cave paintings, where artists painted what they saw in the natural world as a way of understanding it or to symbolically master it. Medieval cathedrals, where the sacred and profane worlds were modeled physically in stone and in stained glass in a way that an illiterate society could understand. Victorian novels. The industrial revolution brought about great changes to urban life in the 1800's Novels, such as those written by Charles Dickens helped an emerging middle class come to terms with the physical and cultural changes that were happening around them.
Interface design is just the latest mixture of art and science that develops, as it is needed, to help people deal with the massive cultural change of computers, data and the internet. The first sign of this change was the development of the desktop metaphor.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
I've read a lot of these books about cyberculture recently, and Johnson's is one of the best. Positioning itself in neither the camps of "technoboosterism" nor "neo-Luddism," the book is an insightful, informed, and gracefully written history/meditation/prophecy about the evolving nature of "interfaces" as our primary means of inhabiting information society as a culture. Two things about the book stand out for me. One is Johnson's ability to pierce to the core of the notion of "interface" by thinking at a fundamental level about the experience of using such components as "windows," "links," "desktop metaphor," etc. His discussion of these topics is aided by a very judicious, selective look at recent software examples or online paradigms (e.g., his nice discussion of the nature of link discourse on the Suck site). In general, Johnson made me think about these seemingly mundane elements of the "interface" in new, broad ways--technical, social, cultural, and artistic. Secondly, Johnson's penetrating sense of the continuities between current information society and past literary, artistic, and technological societies is a wonder to behold (I enjoyed particularly his comparison of information space to such architectures of the past as the Gothic cathedral or city, and also his excellent comparison/contrast of information space to the 19th-century "connective" novel). He never overdoes the comparisons; I see them as the ballast that accounts for the steadiness of his middle tone between "technoboosterism" and "neo-Luddism." He is not Luddite because he has a strong sense of the evolving, slowly accreting momentum of technical changes and their (sometimes surprising) social reception. Read more ›
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Metaphors for Interaction April 9, 2000
Steven Johnson, in his provocative book, Interface Culture, defines interface as "software that shapes the interaction between user and computer." (p. 14) Fond of literary and artistic allusion, he suggests that interface design is the fusion of art and technology. (p.6) Johnson gives numerous examples of interface designs that have been successful due to their intuitive appeal to the end-user, e.g. desktop iconography, as well as less successful designs that have failed to inspire the end-user, e.g. Microsoft's "Bob."
Interface Culture traces the evolution of interface design from the introduction of the first GUI, through the Mac desktop, Microsoft Windows, Internet linkage, semantic interface, computer agents, and on to speculation of what may come.
Johnson proposes that computers think in ones and zeroes, while people think in words, concepts, sounds, and images. (p. 14) Thus, in order for an interface design to attract users, the ones and zeroes must tell a story; they must represent a virtual metaphor. (p.15) Apple's desktop iconography, although derided at introduction, translated binary syntax into concepts that the average person could understand: files, folders, trash, etc... The desktop metaphor further evolved into digital environments: town squares, shopping malls, and personal assistants, interface environments that are familiar and easily understood. (p. 18)
Having established the interface-as-metaphor concept in the first chapter, Johnson presents a number of interesting claims throughout Interface Culture. He asserts that the Internet is the first technology that brings people closer together rather than pushing them apart, via web communities (p.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Terrible
In 1999, the year this book was published, this book would still have been 1 star. Today it's zero, but I gave it 1 star... why not. This book is what's wrong with books. Read more
Published on July 1, 2011 by Amazonman
5.0 out of 5 stars 5 stars
Service was great and the book I ordered arrived quickly. It was in the exact condition listed so I'm very happy.
Published on February 23, 2007 by Gordon K. Chen
4.0 out of 5 stars Doctoral Student. Gonzaga University, Spokane WA.
Before I continue with a review I would like to explain what "Interface" means in terms of the title of the book: Is the interaction between the user and the computer through soft... Read more
Published on November 22, 2004 by Enrique A. Ditto
5.0 out of 5 stars Doctoral Student. Gonzaga University, Spokane WA.
Before I continue with a review I would like to explain what
Published on November 22, 2004 by Ditto
2.0 out of 5 stars Good first chapter, little ensuing worth
The premise of the book set out in the first chapter was fascinating. Interfaces shape our perceptions, just as Marshall McLuhan proclaimed in "The Medium is the... Read more
Published on March 8, 2004 by dr. lowbrow
2.0 out of 5 stars It was a chore
I chose this book to read as an out of class reading assignment. I literally had to trudge through it and forced myself to finally finish it a week before I had to make a report... Read more
Published on October 18, 2002 by Lisa LaFontaine Bynum
3.0 out of 5 stars Dull Overall, but Inspiring in Places
A few places in this book contained quite inspiring passages -- Johnson questions a number of today's notion about interfaces, including the WIMP (Windows-Icons-Menus-Pointers),... Read more
Published on July 6, 2001 by David P. Bishop
2.0 out of 5 stars Good premise, poor execution
The fundamental ideas expressed in this book are important and I applaud the author for recognizing them and bringing them to our attention. Read more
Published on March 16, 2001
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling and thought provoking
One of the most thought provoking books I've ever read on the topic, Johnson offers an intriguing perspective on the state of the human-computer interface. Read more
Published on February 6, 2001 by Edward Kim
4.0 out of 5 stars Opening Our Imaginations to "DataSpace"
In writing Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate, Steven Johnson seems to want us to open our imaginations wider to the potential of... Read more
Published on July 29, 2000 by K. Rocap
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