This week I have grasped a much better understanding of the meaning behind interfaces and their evolution alongside digital computers. My understanding of the definition best came from Herbert Simon’s writings, “An artifact can be thought of as a meeting point—an “interface” in today’s terms—between an “inner” environment, the substance and organization of the artifact itself, and an “outer” environment, the surroundings in which it operates. If the inner environment is appropriate to the outer environment, or vice versa, the artifact will serve its purpose.” In this respect, I am able to understand an interface on a computer as more than simply graphics and instead as a substrate for conceptual organization. Interfaces also act as platforms allowing the mind to build these concepts through the interface design.
Engelbart wrote about the notion of interfaces in the form of filing systems. This is not a new system, but has acted effectively for thousands of years. Computation then allowed to tasks to happen faster and for information to take up less space. Because of this, the interface platform is both modeled after traditional filing systems as well as altered to utilize the affordances of computation. Written information on a computer is often stored on a document which resembles a piece of paper. Then that document is stored in file folders and are often organized alphabetically or by data. All of these interface systems are for humans to feel conceptually organized. Computers on the other hand, do not actually store written information in a folder, it stores it wherever it has space in the form of binary numbers.
Near the end of Augmenting Human Intellect, he writes, “The conceptual metaphors of interface and medium have deep roots. The philosopher-scientist and founder of semiotics, C. S. Peirce, defined a sign (and sign clusters) as a medium because sign structures enable cognitive agents to go beyond the physical and perceptible properties of representations to their interpretations (values, meanings), which are not physical properties of representations themselves. Perceptible (and remembered) representations only become signs when an agent supplies.”
This nod to Peirce has helped me make some of the conceptual leaps between semiotics, computation, and design. I am beginning to understand that each symbol we interact with is in fact a series of complex relationships to our knowledge of the past, our cultural standards, and our cognitive organization. The standard graphical user interface that is so often what comes to mind when one thinks of interfaces is actually a complex network of relationships to each other as well. Each of the sign vehicles on a computer screen make up a symbol system similar to our alphabet. The meanings behind them have deep roots in our analog system.
If we take the filing system example again, when we see a folder on our computer screen, it acts as an icon referencing a physical folder. What I am curious about is how many new symbol systems that are made on computers are not referencing analog experiences and culture. Because computational user interface is a fairly new field of symbol system making (30-40 years) as compared to the roots of the alphabet or filing library systems. I wonder if as time moves on interfaces and computational graphical user interface design will move more towards the creation of symbol standards.
Engelbart, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” First published, 1962. As reprinted in The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, 93–108. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.
Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Affordances and Interfaces: Semiotic Foundations”
Mahoney, Michael S. “The Histories of Computing(s).” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30, no. 2 (June 2005): 119–35.