Toolkit Formation and Thoughts on Interface

Toolkit Formation and Thoughts on Interface

Sara Levine

It seems that no two analysts’ tool kits are the same. Certain theories resonate more strongly with some analysts and not with others. For example, Chandler’s website, Semiotics for Beginners, functions as a toolkit for budding semioticians. However, Chandler’s colleagues may disagree with the organization of Semiotics for Beginners or with the omission of certain concepts. Consequently, the tool kit that I have begun to outline here may be particular to my interests and is not intended to be used as a general reference.

Here is my first draft:

Don’t Take It Out of Context
I would make it a priority to learn the context surrounding the development of the form of media or technology that I am analyzing. Most media artefacts were not created in a vacuum, and their histories may reveal a new issue or perspective. Lisa Gitelman’s article in which she emphasized the historical significance of the ink and paper of the Salem Witch Trials records would make a good reference for this lens of analysis.

Technical Content
The “black box” effect indicates that the user of a media or technology artefact is unaware of the technical processes involved in its usage. For example, I can use a computer but I may not understand the technical details involved in saving my documents or sending an email. Consequently, it is important to ask: What does the user see and interact with? What is invisible to the user? Lev Manovich’s discussion of number-based operations contained within “new media” that users do not interact with might be a good resource for this topic.

There are a large variety of semiotic concepts to choose from when analyzing media. However, Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners is a great resource. Barthes may work well with Chandler’s basic overview because Barthes introduces new layers of interpellation and the signification of myth. For example, if I were analyzing a web comic I would draw from Chandler when studying specific panel construction. I would then consider Barthes’ concepts in order to analyze the web comic in terms of codes, ideologies, and target audiences.

Cognitive Processes and Interface
It seems more effective to group cognitive science and interface together because interactivity between a media interface and users usually demands some form of cognitive work on the part of the user. If we return to the web comic example, the semiotic analysis may reveal certain meaning-making processes involved in reading the comic. The cognitive and interface analysis might uncover certain aspects that are not covered by semiotics. This includes how a user interacts with the software that displays the web comic. Specific readings that may be helpful with this analysis include most of Andy Clark’s writings, McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message,” “Distributed Cognition,” and Lakoff’s “Conceptual Metaphor.”

Powerful Combinations
Intertextuality and intermediality could be explored as the final component of the toolkit. Manovich, Bolton, Grusin, and Clark discussed the ways in which media forms encapsulate each other in the same way that a Russian nesting doll is constructed. An iPhone, for example, is composed of many different media forms that came before it including the photographic camera, video camera, telephone, etc. Intertextuality can be analyzed under this topic as well, but may be more applicable to a text within the media artefact. The iPhone provides users with a personal assistant named Siri. If the user asks certain questions, Siri will answer with jokes and ironic statements that a user may only be able to appreciate if she or he is familiar with another text such as the Star Trek series.

I look forward to refining this tool kit and perhaps applying it to a case study as the semester comes to a close. Additionally, I would like to point out two concepts that stood out to me in regards to interface.

Andy Clark’s perspective on spatialization and spatial grouping reminded me of how tagging has become a spatial process on blogging websites such as Tumblr. Tumblr’s interface allows users to tag posts and “follow” tags that they are interested in. The popular tags that people follow then  organizes a space for users to have discussions in. Consequently, this interface for tagging leads many users to refer to tags as places rather than labels. A common complaint amongst Tumblr users is that other users should “stay out” of a certain tag. This implies that there are physical boundaries in place around each tag. These boundaries may be breached when a user adds a label to a blog post, but the language surrounding this action implies that the offending user has walked into a room as an unwelcome guest.

Another concept discussed in terms of interface is hypomnesis. Stiegler uses the example of advancements in automobile technology. The more advanced this technology becomes, the less we have to know in order to operate the vehicle. Consequently, we are forgetting how to drive. Another example that might be applicable here is attribution and copyright. The use of artists’ images without permission is an issue that continues to inspire heated debate on Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook, and other websites. Tumblr’s interface allows users to re-blog an artist’s work without any attribution because the source link always appears at the bottom of the post. However, there are many instances in which a Tumblr user has posted a piece of artwork that was not theirs and was taken from another site without proper citation. I became involved in a similar situation when a pet supplies company took an image from my Deviantart Gallery and posted it on their Facebook page. I learned about it by chance and sent the company a message asking why I had not been cited or contacted about the use of my artwork. The company replied that they thought the watermark on my image was enough, but eventually made the changes I asked for. It seems that the advanced sharing and re-blogging components of certain website interfaces have further eroded our ability to attribute sources for creative works.

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Gitelman, Lisa. Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. Excerpt from Introduction.
Hollan, James, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh. “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-computer Interaction Research.” ACM Transactions, Computer-Human Interaction 7, no. 2 (June 2000): 174-196.
Lakoff, George. “Conceptual Metaphor.” Excerpt from Geeraerts, Dirk, ed. Cognitive Linguistics: Basic Readings. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2006.
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Manovich, Lev. “New Media from Borges to HTML.” Introduction. The New Media Reader. By Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.: MIT, 2003. N. pag. Print.
McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium is the Message,” Excerpts from Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man, Part I, 2nd Edition; originally published, 1964.
Stiegler, Bernard. “Anamnesis and Hypomnesis.” Ars Industrialis. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.