Category Archives: Week 11

Interfaces: What Make Interactions Possible

It’s surprising to see the “new media” functions/concepts had been proposed long before we thought it would be. The concept of interactive interfaces, hyperlinks, etc.

Manovich’s definition of new media is that new media can not only simulate old media, but also opens for future design possibilities, done by both technical and non-technical people. So the new media can be understood as platforms of platforms. It’s dynamic and creative. Manovich discusses several historical technology conceptual model to explain what makes “new media” possible, DynaBook and Hypertext.

The overlapping of Manovich and Alan Kay’s idea lays in their use of the term “interface”. Although most of the time when we say interface, we refers to the surface, visible design principles. However, Manovich and Kay use the term interfaces as the underlying principles that makes technological designs possible. Just like Alan Kay says in the video, “If you want people to go along with you, you have to involve with the same conspiracy. And user interface is a conspiracy that I hope people get interested in.” Also Kay’s words, “the music is not the piano” reveal his idea that by only looking at hardware and software itself cannot fully explain the technology’s ability of augmenting human intelligence, it is how hardware and software open the possibility for people to use/create new functions. There are many examples in our current age that how technology opens up possibilities to new functions— many apps in iTunes store are developed by individuals instead of institutions. Also the website mentioned by Kay, Etoy, where child can program on their own.

  • Describe the conceptual, technical, and design steps that enabled computers and computation to be used for information access and processing with any kind of medium by ordinary, nontechnical users.

This topic in the syllabus and the concept of hypertext remind me of the experience that I had in a used bookstore. We are using the concept of hypertext everyday: looking for certain information we need by Google search or just by  “ctrl+F”. The conceptual model of hypertext is revolutionary. It allows us to get access to information in a random order and augment our ability of information processing. The experiences that I had in that bookstore was that because the trade used books with customers, a customer can trade his/her books with their store credits. The way they keep record of customers’ credits information is by writing on a paperback card. What happened the day when I went to the store with my friend was that they cannot find the piece of paper that writes my friend’s credits. The woman spread all the cards on the table and try to find it by my friend’s last name. Unfortunately the order of cards was messed up and not in alphabetical order. When I was watching at their way of searching information, I see the importance of using a digital spreadsheet. The conceptual model that Word Excel (or other spreadsheets) is to enable people to record correlated information. In this case, it is the credits information correlates with each customers. Also there is not so many technical barriers for ordinary nontechnical people to use Word Excel (except some functions need more programming).

Take one step back, our computers, phones, tablets, or other technologies have so many softwares like this. Users of those technologies are mostly nontechnical people. The accessible interfaces make it possible for them to interact with machine and other users. However, problems still exist. Alan Kay said, for all media, the original intent was symmetric authorizing and consuming, ““Apple with the iPad and iPhone goes even further and does not allow children to download an Etoy made by another child somewhere in the world. This could not be farther from the original intentions of the entire ARPA-IPTO/PARC community in the ’60s and ’70s.” From my perspective, copyright problems are smothering creativities. One of the most prominent examples that I can think of are “patent trolls” referring to the phenomenon that some companies make money by suing start-up technology companies. They can destroy a small start-up company overnight. When I read this week’s article, I couldn’t help contracting the ideal image of “new media” and its great potential (this optimistic feeling mostly comes from Manovich) and the reality (I wish I am not pessimistic by thinking this way.) No matter thinking optimistically or not, re-center the idea of interface as what makes interaction possible is useful. Hypertexts, DynaBooks are all conceptual models proposed way before the invention of real physical technologies that implementing those concepts. And remember, those concepts were not new but highly intuitive. 

Who Dun It: Faultlessness Thanks to Computers

Of the narratives and backstories provided about pioneers in computing, Vannevar Bush’s story stuck out like a sore thumb to me this week. His instrumental contributions to science led to technological foundations for warfare — an unforeseen occurrence for the intelligible innovator. The creation of the military-industrial complex is one planted upon unstable political grounding, as America transitioned from World War II to the Cold War. As Bush explained, however, the optimum use of science is to benefit and not dismantle society. The need and utility of computer surpasses efficiency; it’s about wiping hands clean of guilt and liability.

Our dependency and abhorrence of computers is complex. We are the minds that created such technologies by determining their purpose, flexibilities, possibilities and accommodations. Yet, it’s clear that technologies are more malleable and capable than we are. Bush iterates that we operate off of association and past experience; aside from the Web’s bread crumbing of webpage history, computers do not do that. The subsequent web page you visit after looking at YouTube isn’t Vimeo, unlike how our memories and cognitive moments are chained together by association. Inner working in web browsing are attempting to mimic human cognitive relationship formation (i.e. cookies). Moreover, there is only one route to reach a specific piece of information in computing, by delving into subclasses. Conditions must be satisfied to reach an outcome, unlike humans who can use other factors to evaluate acting upon something.


The interfaces of computers create a bridge between the human user and the desired action-oriented program. All of the capabilities of these programs are things that humans can do, but as Bush explains, “such machines have enormous appetites.” Moreover, computers lack morality and fulfill tasks if objectives are fulfilled. So for example, one of the opening scenes of the ’80s film Robocop illustrates a boardroom meeting in which engineers and executives discuss the newest model of law enforcement — the ED209. This seemingly effective technology maliciously “malfunctions” and kills an armed executive during a demonstration, leaving several — but not all parties — appalled. Needless to say, ED209 is rejected as solution for the city’s rising crime rate and thus Robocop is created. The ED209 is a computer fulfilling the needs and desired actions of humans, only lacking morality and displacing accountability. So, the EP209 will say anyone who steals is wrong and should be shot, while humans may evaluate the motive behind one stealing — like feeding their family — before placing a final judgment. This is what makes computers so daunting and enchanting to humans; they are more perfect than we are but serve as a scapegoat for our actions.  The U.S. military-industrial complex works in the same way, in that drone strikes devastate residential areas with one goal in mind, neglecting the side effects of attacks.

Final note: The cover art of Engelbart’s text shows a man with a third-eye technological device. Does this remind anyone else of the Dr. T.J. Eckleberg billboard? It makes me this of the post-World War I atmosphere and the steady corruption of America’s moral fiber. Possible preceder of military-industrial complex? Or is this a stretch?


It is clear that the intellectual ability of scholar is not stunted due to technical innovations, but to the layman — is it stifled? With our mundane use of technology, particularly with HCI, how will this alter human-to-human interactions, along with individual and community-dependent skill sets ? Understanding the concepts for this week was a bit of a struggle, but I’m hoping after some discourse with my fellow students, my intellectual vision will be cleared.

Is There an App for DIY Computing?

Freedom of expression?

Many of the readings for this week struck me as unsettlingly prophetic. (The vintage ones, of course – Bush, Kay, and Engelbart.) Maybe it makes perfect sense that given the state of computing in the ’60s and ’70s, the paths and possibilities would have already been clear to computer literate creative thinkers. Indeed, in the Kay video, he basically implies that some of the earliest design programs, like Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad, were better for intuitive human use than the ones available in the ’80s. So maybe all the pieces were there. Indeed, Manovich goes as far as to say that Sketchpad “already contains most of the genes…of contemporary graphics applications” (p. 93).

Manovich notes that Kay referred to “metasystems that can support many kinds of information structures” as “a first metamedium,” Nelson as hypertext and hypermedia, and Engelbart as “automated external symbol manipulation” and “bootstrapping,” but that “behind the differences in their visions lay the similar understanding of the radically new potential offered by computers for information manipulation” (p. 83). So, have we harnessed that potential?

The answer appears to be yes and no. There’s no doubt that today’s computers are interactive and to some extent can “support the processes of thinking, discovery, decision making, and creative expression” (Manovich p. 83). But are these interactions too mediated? In class we’ve discussed the question of who owns computing technology. Indeed, if we’ve fallen short of the interactive visions of the ’60s and ’70s, the gap can be found in the divide between creators and consumers.

As the saying goes, there’s an app for everything under the sun. Lots of people know how to make apps; but lots don’t. The latter group is fully dependent on the market to provide them with the tools they want to manipulate information. As long as a software is a commodity packaged for consumption rather than a learning tool to which everyone has access, we consumers will be following preordained channels for interacting with technology. Programmers may be able to approximate an experience like Beth and Jimmy’s (with Kay’s DynaBook), but our choices will all have to be anticipated by the creator of that experience.

Kay writes “What then is a personal computer? One would hope that it would be both a medium for containing and expressing arbitrary symbolic notions, and also a collection of useful tools for manipulating these structures, with ways to add new tools to the repertoire.” For most people, the way to add new tools to the repertoire is to download them from the market. (Even free software often survives off ads on the downloads page.) To take it down another level to basic computer literacy, as long as 90% of people don’t know how to use Ctrl/Command+F, they will download a “word search” add-on or program that someone else made. (Full disclosure: I only learned to use Ctrl/Command+F a few years ago. And the word search add-on is conjecture.)

On the other hand, how big a trade-off would we be making to spend the time it takes to learn to code and gain a high level of computer literacy? If like Beth and Jimmy, we all learned from early childhood to manipulate and create software, would it become as natural a skill as writing on paper?

The new Memex and the Economics of Interaction

As in the case of ideologies and political movements, technological progress was as well possible by inspiring ideas, which provided vision for future engineers and scientists as they were making progress. Bush’s “As we may think”[1] is one of those articles which provide the conceptual grounding for today’s technology. Memex, based on the idea of compression, was conceptualized as an external memory which people could consult to. The concept of memex, however, do not rely on digitization but rather provides a vision.

This conceptualization has manifestations in multiple technology products that we use today. The idea of compressing information relates to the idea of USB flash drives – commonly used for storage and data back-up. USB’s are economically available for the public, and they relate to the idea of memex through its availability and ability to storage large data. USB’s, however, involve passive information – there is no interface in USBs that renders them devices that we can consult, nor hypertexts. Google’s search engine, on the other hand, relates more to Bush’s conceptualization of the Memex through its association with the memory.

That being said – less than 24 hours ago, a product that has functionalities of both USB and Google were introduced: (USB’s storage capabilities and mobility combined with Google search engine’s hypertexted structure that relates to our cognition): the Chromebit. Being able to be plugged in to any HDMI-equipped display, Googlebit turns every interface to a computer. Functionalities of Google-based laptops, in a device that is smaller than an iPhone: A USB-like computer. Memex is still inspiring new technological products, since it is more than a technological model.

The fact that the idea of memex existed before a technical model of Google, USB or digitization makes me think about the following: did participatory media exist before social media, or the current structure of Web 2.0? Actually, interactive media existed before social media platforms, or Web 2.0: Consider the following cases where more than one people interact with content: Second-hand book stores where people seek books with notes, in order to relate to nostalgically relate to the memories of strangers, or the signatures a paper gets for a cause. These two are the cases where media is interactive, where people are collectively interacting through a medium.

Interacting with content, however, is now integratl to media constumption process. By rating videos on Youtube,  we interact with content. By commenting on comments and rating feedbacks, we even interact with interaction. This particular structure do not base on a technological innovation, but rather bases on the way network architecture was modified to accommodate interaction. User-experience is the priority, and is facilitated through abstraction. Focusing on user-experience is is possible through design – the most crucial element in the architecture, considering that it is the interface between human cognition and the blackboxed artifact.

It should be noted, however, that the current structure of the Web as an interactive platform where users engage with content – rests on a digital economic model. Interactive design exploits our brain’s structure, by providing instant informational and emotional inputs. This structure is economically promotes, because the interfaces that we interact are also marketing channels for brands. Our attachment to interfaces is a demand of the market, not only because brands want us to be close to us as possible, but also because brands want us to interact with them.

In order to describe and characterize the current computational devices through which we access these content, I believe that it is necessary to note a convergence of the interface – the functionalities embedded on my computer, phone and television are getting similar day by day. Therefore, in today’s context, it is necessary to differentiate forms of media from medium. Previously, media forms directly related to senses: radio would make sound, books were for reading, and television was for watching. In today’s context, however, it is easier to discern that media forms are functionalities, and these functionalities are accessible through simple finger movements (such as scrolling, tapping, etc.) Differentiating media functionalities from the devices that enable access leads to the idea of “metamedia.”

[1] Bush, V., & Think, A. W. M. (1945). The atlantic monthly. As we may think,176(1), 101-108.


Manovich and Remediation

In Software Takes Command, Manovich challenges Bolter and Grusin’s remediation theory, claiming that computers surpass the mere remediation of previous mediums. Instead, the computer is “‘a metamedium’ whose content is ‘a wide range of already existing and not-yet-invented media‘” (105; italics original). In addition, computers provide the ability to translate various mediums into other mediums (e.g. audio into visualizations) and to control the viewing of a medium’s content.

However, what are we to make of the continued presence of older media? Although Manovich revises remediation theory’s understanding of new media, he entirely overlooks the more interesting, or at least less intuitive, claim that older mediums remediate newer ones in an attempt to compete economically, culturally, and aesthetically. As the title of his book suggests, for Manovich, software takes command. Therefore, there is no such competition between old and new media; new media easily encompass the old and, further, add to it. Why, then, the continued existence of oil-on-canvas paintings, print, cable, vinyl records, AM/FM radio, etc.?

Although new media is capable of simulating and adding new perspectives  to older media, it appears that some quality of older media may be lost in digitalization. Specifically, the meaning of text (in the broadest sense of the word) must change when it transitions into a digital medium. Manovich addresses this dynamic when he writes about hypertext and the various options for viewing, or otherwise experiencing, digitized media. As his quotation of Nelson suggests, “the philosophical consequences of all this are very grave” (80); hypertext “destabilizes the conventions of cultural communication” (81). Nelson remarks that hypertext may have “more teaching power” than previous means of dissemination, and perhaps it does. However, unless we are to perceive the continuation of old, mostly analog media as merely the remnants of the pre-digital past, and those who consume these media as merely conservative Luddites or retro fetishists, Manovich’s theory is incapable of answering why these technologies continue to exist and how they function within the broader media landscape.

If we are to take up Bolter and Grusin’s claim that these old mediums remediate the new in a competition for cultural and economic supremacy, we can shift the focus from how new media is more than the remediation of older media to how older media are possibly more than the remediation of anterior and posterior media. What happens when an older medium, say, literature, remediates digital technologies? Manovich somewhat examines the dynamic of translating a material sign into a digital sign, but how might we understand the reversal of this process?

Are We Using the Same Interface Style All Along?

The most inspiring quotation from this week’s readings is Alan Kay’s words, “The music is not the piano.” From my understanding, by saying that Alan Kay wanted to remind us the intention for interface design all about how can we interact with the content and absorb more information from it. Kay thought differently from his precursors in computer science, he wanted to find a way to envision computing from simple binary computation.  Kay designed Dynabook wanted it to be operated by everyone, to include children. For him, the content and the interaction between users and machines are the most important part of the conversation on interfaces. Kay says in the interview, “For all media, the original intent was ‘symmetric authoring and consuming’.”

Manovich’s idea that software is the essential element strongly echoes Kay’s philosophy. From my understanding, Manovich’s central argument of the entire book is that the important thing to analyze is not the “hardware” at all, but the software which people created to re-mediates and makes that content accessible. We are in a remediated and metamediated world, which means all media do not exist as stand-alone media objects; instead software encompasses everything that we consume from older technologies.

Debray also embraced the idea that, “New media is in some ways remediating our entire culture and forcing us to take a much broader perspective when analyzing media and communications.” Not surprisingly, when I look at the interfaces of social media, webpages and blogs, I found them all look similar. It reinforced my understanding about the idea started from Kay that people should feel they are interacting with the computer to get the content or information from it. He even expanded his idea that people should also be able to tailor their applications to suit their specific needs and desires. Therefore, the best interface should not be too “fancy” to hinder its affordance. Maybe we are most comfortable with or used to the newspaper column style interface.

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