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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Connecting today to the past
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...
Published on April 20, 2000 by Andrew Proehl

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Yeah! The culture is understandable now
Johnson has a very unusual, yet helpful way of explaining how we have come to our current level of human computer interaction. This book uses each of it's chapters to weave a perspective based in historical information as well as analogies and technical expertise. Johnson's skillful combination of the three elements paints a picture of understanding that turns on...
Published on April 1, 2000 by Victoria R. Thompson


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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Connecting today to the past, April 20, 2000
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This review is from: Interface Culture (Paperback)
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. The desktop helped non-engineers deal with the concept of computing by giving them a familiar metaphor and the ability of "direct manipulation" of their data through the mouse and pointer.
The book is a quick read that can be enjoyed by web designers and the general public. It is a wonderful exploration of the historical context of today's emerging careers in the hi-tech world.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most intelligent and graceful of the cyberbooks, June 4, 1998
By 
Alan Liu (ayliu@humanitas.ucsb.edu) (Altadena/Santa Barbara, Calif.) - See all my reviews
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. (The book thus moves toward an optmistic guess about what a revised text or "meaning"-based interface might look like.) Even the best of the "neo-Luddites" by contrast--for example, Cliffo! rd Stoll's wonderfully droll and insightful Silicon Snake Oil--gives one the impression of being stuck in a little time warp: they came, they saw the limited state of the technology in 1989, or whenever, and they conquered. But on the other hand, Johnson is not boosterish either precisely because his strong sense of history discounts the inflated millennium-mongering of those who claim that every new technological development is revolutionary. A very thoughtful piece of work. I'd recommend it in particular to anyone whose background or current training (e.g., in the humanities, arts, etc.) leaves them grasping for a meaningful way to understand the interface between what they know and love in the past and what the engineers and programmers aspire to in the future.
--Alan Liu
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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
This review is from: Interface Culture (Paperback)
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. 64) This is a plausible argument, though the quality of web-based relationships is certainly open to question.
There can be no question, however, that the Internet allows for communal sharing and vast dissemination of information, art, music, and any other data that can be digitized and transmitted through the world wide web. This raises a significant dilemma: how do we determine and protect intellectual property rights on the Internet? The answer is not as straightforward as it may seem. Johnson queries: "if I show you a copy of Newsweek through my personal (website), is that like selling a tape of the World Series without...consent of Major League Baseball? Or is it like inviting friends over to watch a ball game from an apartment that happens to overlook Comiskey Park?" (p. 96) Clearly there is no easy answer, as the advent of webpage frames has created a whole new interface environment that falls outside traditional property rights jurisdiction. Thus, the new Internet interface provides freedoms to the public to harvest, share, and display virtually anything that is published on the web. This transference of power will need to be negotiated between the content providers and their consumers.
A different transference of power is an issue in the development of text-based semantic interfaces. Such interfaces rely on text pattern recognition software that empowers computers to organize files by meaning rather than by iconographic space. Thus, the user must relinquish his reliance on desktop metaphors, and grant the computer "control over the organization of...data." (p. 172) Relinquishing control may very well be the wave of the interface future, according to Johnson. Given the proliferation of computer agents, programs that perform tasks on the user's behalf, it may be just a matter of time before intelligent traveling agents not only report back to user with lowest airfare, desired stock prices, and movie showtimes, but actually purchases them based on user preferences. This may seem desirable, but Johnson warns of Madison Avenue's manipulation of traveling agents in order to attract them to specified sites. (p. 186)
Johnson concludes Interface Culture by identifying the "blind spots" of modern interface design, while foretelling what may be its future. These blind spots include: "the tyranny of image over text, the limitation of the desktop metaphor, the potential chaos of intelligent agents," and the confinement of interface design to the "world of functionality and increased convenience." (p. 212-213) Johnson prophesizes a "profound change ( that lies) with our generic expectation about...interface itself." (p. 213) He believes that "the interface came into the world under the cloak of efficiency, and it is now emerging-chrysalis-style as a genuine art form." (p. 242)
Johnson may be proven right, though it might be wishful thinking to argue that interface design will become "the art form of the next century." (p. 213) Nonetheless, Interface Culture is compelling reading that does indeed provoke the reader to elevate interface design from the ranks of generic utilitarian programming and at least to consider the discipline as a craft if not an art form. At times Johnson's frequent literary and historical allusions are inspired; at other times they seem affected. Despite this, Johnson's Weltanschauung is infectious, and leaves the reader with anticipation of what may come in the field of interface design.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Fusion of Technology and Culture, March 26, 2000
This review is from: Interface Culture (Paperback)
Interface Culture is one of those books that comes along ever so often that helps you make sense of a seemingly disparate but conjunctive collection of emerging influences in life. The emerging influences dealt with in this book involve computer technology, cultural changes and human/machine interaction, with the interaction taking place through the computer interface. Johnson says that the book is "...an extended attempt to think about the object-world of today as though it belonged to the world of culture....For the truth is, they have been united all along"(p.1).
He then takes you on a journey through the history of interface discovery and development that opens your eyes to the connections between interface design and implementation and their cultural and historical underpinnings, as well as to their potential impact on the culture of the future. He says that because of Doug Engelbart's interface breakthrough in 1968(first public demo of a Graphical User Interface), "...a machine was imagined not as an attachment to our bodies, but as an environment, a space to be explored"(p.24). And, just like the way the advent of the automobile changed the way cities developed, "the (computer) interface has already changed the way we use our computers....(and) it is also bound to change other realms of modern experience in more unlikely, unpredictable ways"(p.25).
According to Johnson, this book was written about "...the fusion of art and technology that we call interface design"(p. 6). However, it goes well beyond such mild-mannered sounding concerns and invites the reader to consider the influence of technological breakthroughs on society and culture from the time of cave painters, through the Renaissance, past Marx and Mcluhan to the dawning of the 21st century. With the appearance of Apple's Macintosh computer, he says that "...you could see for the first time that the interface had become a medium....(and) if the personal computer [was] a truly new medium then the very use of it would actually change the thought patterns of an entire generation"(p. 50).
Near the end of the book, Johnson visits the controversy growing around the development and use of "agents" in computing. He sees the idea of computer "...windows governed by semantics and not by space"(p. 169) as a possible "genuine paradigm shift" in the employment of computers. This paradigm shift, in the form of "digital personalities," "agents," or "agent-driven interfaces," however, is problematic. Referencing Mcluhan from Understanding Media, Johnson says that "...new technological forms...transform not only the balance of power between our senses, but also our experience of other media"(p. 178). And, that "because agents are the most independent-the most autonomous-tools in the interface repertoire, their influence may turn out to be the most far-reaching, and the most subtle" and because of that, "...the design of our intelligent agents shouldn't be left up to the CEOs and the technocrats"(p. 179). One of Johnson's real concerns with intelligent agents is that, "As in the world of espionage, ...it's not always clear who they're working for"(p. 188). That especially in the Web environment, the development of "counteragents" designed by ad organizations to "lure" personal agents, could result in "...a custom-fit delivery of information and services that's always one step ahead of you," in other words personalized Junk Mail!
I found this book fascinating reading in terms of the content, the hip-but-literary cultured style of the prose and the questions raised by the consideration of how some of our notions about technology and culture came about and the speculation about where we may be headed. The book should be required reading for those in, headed toward or curious about interface design. I would also strongly recommend it to those of us who wonder why we get along better with some computing facilities versus others, and/or are curious or concerned about where the digital revolution might be taking us and our progeny.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars easy to read, May 4, 1999
By A Customer
In his book, Steven Johnson explains how we use interfaces in our daily lives. He then moves from this to expound on user interfaces specific to digital media. His arguments for their revolutionary nature are clear and concise. He is not, however, swept away by current interfaces and he makes sure to point out the limitations which he finds in their designs. For example, he points out that GUIs are not actually graphic, but a mixture of graphics and text. The mouse and desktop metaphor of modern computer interface design are revolutionary, but the metaphor is limiting--it is time for new metaphors that would better serve users and better utilize technology such as hypertext.
While I agreed, to a certain extent, with his comments on television versus hypertext and the WWW, I feel that he overemphasized a competition between them. Nevertheless, his points regarding the passive receipt of a limited amount of information inherent to watching television and the active engagement with information inherent to the WWW are clear and well-reasoned.
I don't feel that he follows his own advice in his e-zine, FEED. The sheer volume of text seems to replicate the uses hard-copy magazines, and the use of hypertext becomes laborious and confusing. In light of his assessment of the uses of hypertext, and his plea for artists and programmers alike to find ways to break out of fixed or outdated metaphors to fully explore the limits of hypertext, I would like to see him break free from this himself.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars review of steven johnson's interface culture-by nataliemann, April 29, 1999
By A Customer
In Interface Culture, Steven Johnson brilliantly brings together technology and the arts to create a work that shows how both effect and reflect on one another. He uses references of Gothic Cathedrals and Leonardo Da Vinci to tout that the role of the interface designer is similar to that of a more traditional artist. Johnson¹s dismantling of the superficially erected barrier between art and technology is quite successful. His book is filled with references to the fine arts and popular culture. He does this by carefully portraying how technology has been used and/or depicted in literature, film and other forms of visual art. By tying together different cultural periods in his analysis of technology, he reveals that the technical types are not always nerds that are solely concerned with cracking computer codes or developing websites. Using the modernist notion of the avant-garde, Johnson calls for the interface designers to step away from the old and into the new. He makes reference to the influence of the camera on modern art. Since the camera depicted reality as it was, there was no longer a reason for art to perform the role of documentation. This appears to be the same rationale that Johnson uses to challenge the role of the interface metaphors on today¹s personal computer. While Johnson does acknowledge that some of the user- friendliness that today¹s interface has to offer will dissipate as it takes on a more artistically and philosophically aesthetic approach, he fails to acknowledge (until the very last sentence of the conclusion) that our own perception of what is and is not user-friendly will change as the years go on. As we have seen in other forms of art, tastes and ways of looking at visual surfaces change and fluctuate as time goes on. What isn¹t user friendly today will be user friendly tomorrow. After reading Interface Culture and listening to Johnson¹s plea for interface designers to become more artistic, non-traditional and innovative in their designs, I was rather disappointed in his ezine, ³Feed.² ³Feed² hardly represents anything more than another ³fancy² website. It doesn¹t reflect his own vision of technology becoming more than just another user-friendly tool. His cyber-mag appeared to be nothing more than just another ezine full of hyperlinks to transport you too and from various articles pertaining to today¹s cultural climate. This seems hypocritical for someone who seeks to revolutionize the face of the interface, but it does go along with his attempt to synthesize technology and art. His ezine combines articles on culture, art, and society and places them in the realm of cyberspace. I would highly recommend Johnson¹s Interface Culture. His attempt to transform the way in which art and technology are viewed is successful. This book is interesting for both the computer nerd and humanities nerd. There is something that both of these types of people can get out of it. Johnson¹s book is one way of looking at ways to challenge the paradigms and dichotomization of the arts and technological sciences.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Yeah! The culture is understandable now, April 1, 2000
This review is from: Interface Culture (Paperback)
Johnson has a very unusual, yet helpful way of explaining how we have come to our current level of human computer interaction. This book uses each of it's chapters to weave a perspective based in historical information as well as analogies and technical expertise. Johnson's skillful combination of the three elements paints a picture of understanding that turns on light bulbs for the reader.
Johnson's discussion of links as they relate to the internet and Dicken's favorite phrase "Links of association" allows the reader to understand why we are thrilled with the simplistic idea of linking. Then just as the reader is shaking their head yes, he expands the reader's mind to where the next phase of "linking" could/should go.
Another interesting discussion surrounds the need for more "pull" technology as Johnson feels this is what "...compelling interface design is about" (p.191)
While the book would be on the recommend list. It is important to note that as with many books about design, it sounds good in theory and it's ideas are ones to be sought after on a daily basis. Yet there is little "how to" in this book. In the end many may feel the need for some reality checks with regards to real feasability.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Changing Face of Interface, March 21, 2000
Steven Johnson has found a way to use the metaphors of the computer (desktop, windows, links, and text) to explain the impact of those metaphors on not only how we use computers in our society, but how they influence our non-technology lives as well. Throughout, Johnson makes a well crafted argument for the limitations of our current computer interfaces, or GUI's (graphical user interface), and how the initial breakthrough of using the desktop as a means for humans to interact with computers has fallen short of unleashing the potential of today's powerful computing systems. Unfortunately, cites Johnson, the advances in computer technology, user sophistication and the Internet have rendered the breakthrough of the computer desktop, and its navigational metaphor, tired and ill-equipped to handle the way in which computer users now demand that their technology work for them.
In chapter four, Links, Johnson is particularly critical of the limited way in which hyperlinks are designed into our computer interfaces. He notes that the way links diffuse information, instead of converging it, has more to do with the traditional text-based, linear methodology of books than with the tool from which these links were created, the World Wide Web. Further, in an interesting discussion about non-traditional online magazines, he produces an image of circular linking within text documents on the web that stands the traditional methodologies of today's writer and webmasters on their heads.
Compiled skillfully, the concluding chapter of the book brings all of Johnson's thoughts and ideas together in a very interesting look at what computing in the future may look like - if software and interface designers can break out of their traditional coding patterns and approach the computer interface from a different angle. My sense of Johnson's perspective is that irregardless of whether established programmers and companies decide to alter their vision of the user interface, these changes will come. And they will come from a new breed of designer, one who has grown up with the web, and the desktop. These designers don't require a paradigm shift in order to change the way human computer interface (HCI) appears on our monitors, they've been tinkering with the existing model, in their bedrooms (and in hacking chat rooms), for awhile.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling and thought provoking, February 6, 2001
By 
Edward Kim (New York, NY United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Interface Culture (Paperback)
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. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this book is the way Johnson presents so many interesting ideas - each one triggering many new ideas in the reader. Although many will find Johnson's ideas debatable, it is still a compelling read due manner and intelligence in which each argument is presented. Another interesting aspect of the book is the way Johnson attempts to predict the future direction of interface design. Rather than merely extrapolating on recent trends, he looks at deep historical patterns of the social, psychological, and philosophical effect that each interface development had on us as a society and the way they shaped our culture. His arguments take us from the early work done at XEROX PARC to the web-enabled interfaces of today. In the end, Johnson makes a credible argument that is strongly rooted in the broader context of history and culture.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Opening Our Imaginations to "DataSpace", July 29, 2000
By 
K. Rocap (San Francisco, CA USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Interface Culture (Paperback)
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 "dataspace." In some ways he is asking us to view the Internet and the World Wide Web anew.
Perhaps he worries that habits have already begun to form around the new media and that commonly evinced assumptions and metaphors of "cyberspace" have so strongly asserted themselves that we are in danger of forgetting that, for instance, "The Desktop" is only a metaphor, and a rather prosaic and limited one at that.
Johnson offers an alternative view of dataspace as being like a Victorian novel, with labyrinthine passageways, surprises around every corner, and as in the novels of Dickens the possibility of bumping into others, meeting online and being surprised by new or even long lost relationships.
Johnson entreats us to consider that while "the interface came into the world under the cloak of efficiency...it is now emerging - chrysalis-style - as a genuine art form" Unreflective habit and dusty assumptions are oppositional to the consideration of an art form. Further, if it is true that "the medium is the message" then it may be important to more closely consider the elements of interface that we may already be taking for granted. And, in some cases, such considerations raise issues not merely of artistic, but also of ethical, import.
What, for instance, are the implications for intellectual property of "framing" others' ideas in Windows within our own web pages? And what does it mean when, as part of a business arrangement, an online newspapers makes use of the features available in Internet Explorer while IE and Netscape are locked in a federal court battle that is itself national news - reported by that same online newspaper?
Johnson helps to challenge what we think we know about such fundamental elements of an interface as Text and Links and brings us up-to-date on "Smart Agents." He also goes back in cyber-time, to describe Vannevar Bush's theoretical Memex, to remind us that early visions of what "information space" could be about, may surpass our own current formulations, and what we're actually making of it.
Ultimately Johnson's attempts to help us to see with creativity and verve succeed and perhaps we and the "dataspace" we inhabit will be the better for it.
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Interface Culture
Interface Culture by Steven Johnson (Paperback - October 7, 1999)
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