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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" (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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