Manovich marks the beginning of computer-based culture in the late 1990s when computers were recognized as a “universal media machine” rather than simply a “simulation of a typewriter, paintbrush, or drafting ruler”; it was not only possible then to create cultural content digitally but to “store, distribute, and access” it as well (69). Human-computer interface then became cultural interface as humanity defined itself through lenses and codes of new media. In addition to his more explicit treatment of rhetoric involved in this definition, Manovich makes occasional references to specific grammars and logics, so I thought that, as these these are historically considered to be foundational aspects of education, that is enculturation, it would be interesting to organize my thoughts on cultural interface accordingly.
Manovich points out that through written, and eventually printed, text, humans employed hundreds of distinct rhetorical figures. By the mid-twentieth century, this number had been reduced to just two: ”metaphor and metonymy,” digital media—specifically, hyperlinking—has privileged the latter (77). This claim seems to be contrary to his overall demonstration that every new form of interface, such as the human-computer interface, is built with the metaphors, or disembodied practices and strategies, of older interfaces, such as printed text and cinema. The metaphors of printed text remain as a prominent influence in computer media, as evidenced by the newspaper-page interface of web pages and the citational aspect of hypertexts, which locate any text and participant in that text relative to others.
It is debatable though whether the printed word’s influence on the human-computer interface is a direct one or an indirect one, operating through cinema, which absorbed printed text: “The Gutenberg galaxy turns out to be just a subset of Lumières’ universe” (Manovich 80). In addition to the assimilation of printed text metaphors, it could also be argued that it similarly assimilated papyrus, used in the end credits of films and utilized often in social media. As well, cinema, building on the metaphor of the frame acting as a “window onto a larger space that is assumed to extend beyond the frame,” adds the quality of mobility to its rectangular framing as it exposes its audience to more of that extending space, and over time, this revelation of this space is controlled by the user (Manovich 80).
The addition of this control is demonstrative of the mediation interface attempts between immersion the user experiences, which the novelly employed metaphors of older interfaces facilitate, and control the user exerts, which is realized through specific “grammar[s] of action”—also rooted in older interfaces, and this is a tension that defines contemporary interfaces more appreciably than those older interfaces (Manovich 73). Action grammars exist to allow users to manipulate perspective through such operations as “[z]oom, tilt, pan, and track” or manipulate data through commands like “copy, rename, and delete a file” (Manovich 80, 69). These grammars allow the user to exercise more autonomy in the context of this extended space—be it cinematic narrative or datascape—thus facilitating a greater degree of immersion, which then increasingly requires the “immobility of the spectator” as though “chained by the leg and also by the neck” (Manovich 109, 108).
This physical captivity is mirrored in the creative captivity the logic of selection entails. As “new media are designed less to enable us to create cultural objects from scratch than to assemble them ready-made part,” the new cultural interface legitimizes a copy-and-paste authorship rather than one of creativity and originality in the traditional sense (Gane and Beer 58). These once valued, artifacts of the printed text interface now speak to the competency with which one can composite the already assimilated, reducing the gap between “authors and readers” and “professionals and amateurs” while greatly diminishing the autonomy of the user (Gane and Beer 58). This deterministic facet of interface that prohibits originality “naturalizes ways of thinking and working, while at the same time reducing interactivity to the adoption of ‘already pre-established identities’” (Gane and Beer 59.)
To be fair, another aspect of rhetoric that Manovich addresses does counterbalance this apparent prohibition. One significant effect of postmodernism is “spatialization—privileging space over time, flattening historical time, refusing grand narratives” (Manovich 78). Here, Manovich posits a rhetoric of “spatial wandering” possible through hyperlinking; the idea of one wandering through space apart from time, meaning the time as exploited in the aforementioned extended space, quickly brings to mind the image of a database (78). This archival notion calls back to his marking the beginning of computer-based culture with the advent of digital data storage and distribution; as well, it provides a profound degree of freedom on the part of the user to confer meaning on the information conveyed via the current interface as well as perhaps effect historical shifts that alter the viability of future interface possibilities.
Perhaps, this capacity on the part of the user is too much to expect as, by their nature, interfaces facilitate the “‘disappearance of the difference between [two systems] and thereby, as well, altering the type of linkage’” between them (Gane and Beer 53). With boundaries between content and medium, information and material context, nodes and what connect them, man and machine, instrument and concept, and interface from the two systems being joined dissolving, it problematic to ascribe the dignity of traditional subjectivity to any part of the supra-system, if such a designation is even possible. Hayles calls for the consideration of computers as intelligent: “Any cognizer that can perform the acts of evaluation, judgment, synthesis, and analysis exhibited by expert systems and autonomous agent software programs should prima facie be considered intelligent” (84). It seems a fruitful endeavor to expand the notions of subjectivity and agency to include computers and the like.
As an aside, Richard Rorty tracks the evolution of language through the use of metaphors, specifically as they become literal, attain truth values, and shape human understanding and consciousness. There is a clear parallel here with the de-contextualization of old metaphors to suit new media and such—though Rorty would understand the novel aspects of new media to be truly metaphoric rather than the pre-existent aspects of interface that make it familiar and thus understandable, which he would consider simply “old tools which as yet have no replacements” (22). What of metonymy though? The emergent metonymy in its present deployment through hypertext seems to possess a disruptive capacity metaphors do not, disruptive with respect to the political as well as the epistemological.
Gane, Nicholas, and David Beer. New Media. Berg, 2012.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis.” University of Illinois, 2004.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2002.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009.