“The two most significant events in the 20th century: Allies win the war…and this.”

I found this week’s readings to be some of the most fascinating we’ve done so far.

One of the main takeaways I had from the Mahoney reading is that the history of computational and software development was not singular and fixed, but rather collective and malleable. As Mahoney himself says “The computer thus has little or no history of its own. Rather, it has histories derived from the histories of the groups of practitioners who saw in it, or in some yet to be envisioned form of it, the potential to realise their agendas and aspirations.” (Mahoney 119). The various “communities of computing” that were present in the formative years of machine based computing, such as the science and engineering community, the data processing community, the management science community, and the industrial engineering community all have their fingerprint on our modern computational systems. They each had unique expectation and needs from the computer, and as such, the product we have now is an amalgamation of these distinct cultures.

I was interested in how we got from the relatively esoteric and community-based uses of computers to the general-purpose PCs we have now. A key step in this process seems to be the universalization of computational affordance via the evolution of GUI design. Going from Vannevar Bush’s Memex to Douglas Engelbart’s work at the SRI labs, to the innovations that came out of Xerox PARC, we can see an active thread linking much of our contemporary conception of computing to designs decades in the making. But while Xerox PARC may have been the incubation chamber for much of our modern GUI design, such as the WIMP UI that we all know and love, companies like Apple and Microsoft played a crucial role in taking these breakthroughs and disseminating them to the public at large.

As for the development of interfaces and interactions, I was stunned by that side-by-side comparison of writer-scribe Jean Mielot in his 15th century library and Ivan Sutherland demonstrating the Sketchpad in 1963 (Irvine 7-8). Yet again, we see that the gods didn’t gift us these technologies. Rather, they are extrapolations and advances in the existing technological lineage. The mediatory role of interfaces is something I find highly fascinating. In fact, to bring it back to semiotics, one can think of interfaces as languages that allow us to communicate with the underlying technology. A good UI designer always keeps this concept in mind. Realization of good interface design also requires knowledge of contextual use. What is the ultimate purpose of the underlying technology? Is it to read text, like Ramelli’s 14th century “Book Wheel” and Bush’s Memex? That context has a particular affordance history that will inform the design of that technology’s interface.

Cubs are one out away! 

Thinking of a high-profile interface development in recent times, my mind goes to Google Glass.

Ubiquitous computing was Google’s goal in producing the headset, and this context informed their interface design. The product was a commercial failure, but one thing the readings have taught me is that timing is a crucial component of public adoption. Many of the historical antecedents to the current interface designs didn’t catch on in their time. But they played a crucial role in laying down the framework that successfully adopted interfaces have utilized. So even though right now everyone isn’t walking around with Google’s sleek, metallic eyeglasses, one day we may be.

If ubiquitous computing is to be the dominant computing context, then I believe the future of interface design will be shaped around seamless, recognition-based non-events. Augmented reality devices are also a distinct possibility, and will require a whole new set of design principles as we learn to rethink not only traditional computational affordance, but the affordance of everyday objects we map computational abilities onto. Diversification of design is another concept that should play a large role, especially as computers become less physically constrained, and more multifarious (think IoT). This shifting paradigm will require a new interface and interaction framework, but perhaps we will look to the past to help define our future.



  1. Mahoney, Michael S. “The Histories of Computing(s).” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30, no. 2 (June 2005): 119–35.
  2. Engelbart, Dave. 1962. “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” New Media Reader. Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, Nick Montfort, ed.. 93–108. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.
  3. Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” Atlantic, July, 1945.
  4. Sutherland, Ivan. 1963. “Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System.” New Media Reader. Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, Nick Montfort, ed.. 109–125. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.
  5. Irvine, Martin. “Introduction to Affordances and Interfaces: Semiotic Foundations”