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Most of us take the computer interface for granted.

But for Steven Johnson it is a defining metaphor of our times -- and a summons to the metaphysical by Harvey Blume
October 9, 1997 When I think about the gap between raw information and its numinous life on the screen -- something I try to avoid doing, because it is a dark and difficult thought, more than a little like contemplating the age of the universe -- the whole sensation has a strangely religious feel to it. --Steven Johnson, Interface Culture

As Steven Johnson conceives it, the unnerving gap between "raw information and its numinous
life on the screen" is the setting for the interface, the evolving medium through which computer users control their machines. In Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate, Johnson, a founding editor of the influential Webzine FEED, expands on the practical and metaphorical ramifications of the computer interface as no one before him has ever, to my knowledge, thought to do. For Johnson, the interface is not just a convenience -- a way to copy files, launch programs, or nudge a machine through the eye of a modem out into cyberspace. It is an art form, a window on culture, history, and technology. If you are Steven Johnson, the interface is the source of a recurrent invitation to fear and trembling, your muezzin summoning you to prayer. The question, obviously, is whether a computer interface can live up to such exalted claims. If you can see heaven in a grain of sand, does that mean you will necessarily also find it in the Graphic User Interface (GUI) that is common, in one form or another, to the Macintosh, Windows, and the World Wide Web? Programmers know the GUI as an illusion, the product of operating-system routines meshing so smoothly that the user is never exposed to the sight of icons, menus, windows, and the rest dissolving into the inherently aimless binary digits out of which they are composed. Even so, some programmers are provoked now and again to wonder if the universe isn't built along similar lines, propagating itself at a high-enough refresh rate so that humans don't detect the Supreme Hacker behind trillions of lines of (mostly) bug-free Cosmic Code. Prospective readers of Interface Culture should be assured: the book does not presuppose, and may very well fail to trigger, religious illumination. The computer interface may never rate -- as Johnson suggests it will -- with "the novel or the cathedral" as a means of joining heaven, earth, and society. But whether or not the GUI and its descendants are, in fact, evolving toward a significance that will belie their digital origins, Interface Culture remains a rewarding read -stimulating, iconoclastic, and strikingly original.

Johnson's first chapters hinge on speed, a defining element of both microprocessors and contemporary culture. Johnson stresses that the very speed with which media mutate in our day calls attention to them: "We can grasp the way different media shape our habits of thought because we can see the progression, the change from one form to another." While it might once have been plausible to think of language (a medium if ever there was one), or even writing, as natural and eternal, we can't pretend the same about radio, television, and the World Wide Web. Rate of change brings media out of the shadows. It propels Gutenberg toward the likes of Marshall McLuhan and, by extension, language toward the likes of Noam Chomsky. Johnson takes the interface as seriously as Walter Benjamin took the movies (whose twenty-four frames a second he compared to "a surgical operation" performed on time) and as seriously as McLuhan took the whole of what he termed the "electrically configured world." For Johnson the computer interface affords a privileged outlook on prior media. Basing his thinking on the fact that art and technology are inseparable in interface design, Johnson asserts that they were never truly distinct in the first place. "When James Joyce published Ulysses in 1922 and revolutionized all of our expectations about how books should work, was he so different "One of the things from Gutenberg himself?" His answer: "Joyce was a highly skilled that attracted me to technician, tinkering around with a book-machine, making it do things it the whole premise had never done before." of Interface Culture was the opportunity The tendency in discussions of art and technology is to assume basic to write about a difference and to crawl cautiously toward common ground, all the while medium in embryo, ducking heavy fire from both sides. It is refreshing to encounter someone teetering on the who starts with the assumption that art and technology are similar, even brink of becoming a identical, and writes off difference as nothing but artifact, distortion that fully realized form set in and assumed the appearance of solidity during bygone periods of slow change. Johnson concludes his comparison of Joyce with Gutenberg but not all the way there yet." by stressing, "They were both artists. They were both engineers. Only the --Steven Johnson, from four hundred years that separated them kept their shared condition from his e-mail exchange view." with Harvey Blume. Johnson's style is to cut against the grain of received wisdom, and in that spirit he makes what may be the book's most original point. It is a given in discussions of contemporary literature that while the novel may be in trouble, narrative itself is indestructible, resurrecting itself constantly in the form of memoirs, journalism, even weather reports. Not so, according to Johnson. Narrative may once have supplied the connective tissue for a rapidly changing society -Dickens, for example, joined "working class orphans to withered aristocrats to idle speculators to colonial scavengers" within the novelistic frame. But today's overriding question is no longer, "What connects all these bewildering new social realities?" It is, instead, "What does all this information mean?" Johnson proposes total opposition, complete incommensurability, between narrative and information, and, in so doing, again follows in the footsteps of Benjamin, who characterized information as "menacing" to storytelling in all its forms, and McLuhan, who believed "the story line" to be a relic of print culture soon to be jettisoned by electronic media. Johnson's angle is that information overload renders narrative moot, which is why other forms -- meta-forms, as he

refers to them -- are breaking out all over. These meta-forms -- the nested, ironic, self-referential forms, media communing with itself -- are decried with varying degrees of fatalism (and selfreference) by everyone from David Foster Wallace to Jean Baudrillard. Johnson, in an act of intellectual jujitsu, embraces just these "parasitic" forms, arguing that they are inevitable stages in the evolution of the interface and interface culture. Johnson notes that television narrative has stagnated, whereas "televised 'riffing' -- television commenting on television" has come into its own. He cites shows ranging from Beavis and Butthead to "anything on the E Channel" to prove that meta-forms "are evolving at a much faster clip than their storytelling competitors." He welcomes "TV shows and video installations devoted 'exclusively' to reading the media," arguing that it is precisely by their self-involvement, their sifting publicly through their own data and their own processes, that such meta-forms reveal their ultimate --Steven Johnson, from purpose. Once they have left analog trappings behind -- Johnson calls them Interface Culture. See "digital forms trapped in an analog medium" -- they will emerge as the rest of this and other information filters capable of negotiating between the inane and the excerpts. necessary, the superfluous and the significant. It is a filter, for example, that can bridge the gap between the inscrutable zeros and ones of computer memory and the letters of the alphabet, a filter that configures "raw information" into "numinous life on the screen." A filter, in short, is an embryonic interface, and an interface is a highly developed filter or set of filters. "There's a funny thing about the fusion of technology and culture. It has been a part of human experience since that first cave painter..." If there's a weakness to this exhilarating book, it doesn't have to do with the writing style, which is bracing, inventive, and highly resistant to the penchant for cyberjargon and neologism that are the bane of so many volumes on new media. Nor does Interface Culture's weakness pertain to whether the computer interface turns out, as predicted, to be the master filter of the future. It has more to do with the fact that Johnson seems to lack any sense of what might be lost if, in fact, he's right. In his meditations on cinema Walter Benjamin noted the loss of aura associated with original works of art. (True, he missed the fact that the aura had already grown to enfold cinema as well.) McLuhan, in his less well-publicized moments, mourned what electronic immediacy might do to literacy. Does Johnson feel anything similar? Do we lose nothing, and only gain, if, for example, meta-forms bring narrative to its knees, scavenging it for parts, no doubt, while simultaneously starving our primal need for stories? It would be unique, indeed, if the next medium left nothing broken in its wake. By his silence Johnson implies that's exactly what will happen if and when the interface assumes its place as World Processor. Interface Culture shows Johnson to be an astute critic already. He might be an even better one if his pulse rate and the rate of technological change were a little less perfectly attuned. An

interface designer has to be right on time, but our best critics would do well to be just a little out of phase.