|Lev Manovich on Tue, 18 Aug 1998 23:13:00 -0700 (PDT)|
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|Syndicate: A THEORY OF CULTURAL INTERFACES 3/3|
III. Human-Computer Interface The development of human-computer interfaces, until recently, had little to do with cultural applications. Following some of the main applications from the 1940's until the early 1980's, when the current generation of GUI (Graphic User Interface) was developed and reached the mass market together with the rise of a PC (personal computer), we can list the most significant: real-time control of weapons and weapon systems; scientific simulation; computer-aided design; finally, office work with a secretary as a prototypical computer user, filing documents in a folder, emptying a trash can, creating and editing documents ("word processing"). Today, as the computer is starting to host very different applications for access and manipulation of cultural data and cultural experiences, their interfaces still rely on old metaphors and action grammars. Thus, cultural interfaces predictably use elements of a general-purpose HCI such as scrollable windows containing text and other data types, hierarchical menus, dialogue boxes, and command- line input. For instance, a typical "art collection" CD-ROM may try to recreate "the museum experience" by presenting a navigatible 3-D rendering of a museum space, while still resorting to hierarchical menus to allow the user to switch between different museum collections. Even in the case of The Invisible Shape of Things Past which uses a unique interface solution of "filmobjects" which is not directly traceable to either old cultural forms or general-purpose HCI, the designers are still relying on HCI convention in one case -- the use of a pull-down menu to switch between different maps of Berlin. In general, cultural interfaces of the 1990's try to walk an uneasy path between the richness of control provided in general-purpose HCI and an "immersive" experience of traditional cultural objects such as books and movies. Modern general-purpose HCI, be it MAC OS, Windows or Unix, allow their users to perform complex and detailed actions on the digital data: get information about an object, copy it, move it to another location, change the way data is displayed, etc. In contrast, a conventional book or a film positions the user inside the imaginary universe whose structure is fixed by the author. Cultural interfaces attempt to mediate between these two fundamentally different and ultimately non-compatible approaches. As an example, consider how cultural interfaces conceptualize the computer screen. If a general-purpose HCI clearly identifies to the user that certain objects can be acted on while others cannot (icons of files but not the desktop itself), cultural interfaces typically hide the hyperlinks within a continuous representational field. (This technique was already so widely accepted by the 1990's that the designers of HTML offered it early on to their users by implementing the "imagemap" feature). The field can be a two-dimensional collage of different images, a mixture of representational elements and abstract textures, or a single image of a space such as a city street or a landscape. By trial and error, clicking all over the field, the user discovers that some parts of this field are links. This concept of a screen combines two distinct pictorial conventions: the older Western tradition of pictorial illusionism in which a screen functions as a window into a virtual space, something for the viewer to look into but not to act upon; and the more recent convention of graphical human-computer interfaces which, by dividing the computer screen into a set of controls with clearly delineated functions, essentially treats it as a virtual instrument panel. As a result, the computer screen becomes a battlefield for a number of incompatible definitions: depth and surface, opaqueness and transparency, image as an illusionary space and image as an instrument for action.  Here is another example of how cultural interfaces try to find a middle ground between the conventions of general-purpose HCI and the conventions of traditional cultural forms. Again we encounter tension and struggle -- in this case, between standardization and originality. One of the main principles of modern HCI is consistency principle. It dictates that menus, icons, dialogue boxes and other interface elements should be the same in different applications. The user knows that every application will contain a "file" menu, or that if he/she encounters an icon which looks like a magnifying glass it can be used to zoom on documents. In contrast, modern culture (including its "post-modern" stage) stresses originality: every cultural object is supposed to be different from the rest, and if it is quoting other objects, these quotes have to be contextualized. Cultural interfaces try to accommodate both the demand for consistency and the demand for originality. Most of them contain the same set of interface elements with standard semantics, such as "home," "forward" and "backward" icons. But because every Web site and CD-ROM is striving to have its own distinct design, these elements are always designed differently from one product to the next. For instance, many games such as War Craft II (Blizzard Entertainment, 1996) and Dungeon Keeper give their icons a "historical" look consistent with the mood of an imaginary universe portrayed in the game. The language of cultural interfaces is a hybrid. It is a strange, often awkward mix between the conventions of traditional artistic forms and the conventions of HCI -- between an immersive environment and a set of controls; between standardization and originality. Cultural interfaces try to balance the concept of a surface in painting, photography, cinema, and the printed page as something to be looked at, glanced at, read, but always from some distance, without interfering with it, with the concept of the surface in a computer interface as a virtual control panel, similar to the control panel on a car, plane or any other complex machine.  Finally, on yet another level, the traditions of the printed worde and of cinema also compete between themselves. One pulls the computer screen towards being dense and flat information surface, while another wants it to become a window into a virtual space. To see that this hybrid language of the cultural interfaces of the 1990s represents only one historical possibility, consider a very different scenario. Potentially, cultural interfaces could completely rely on already existing metaphors and action grammars of a standard HCI, or, at least, rely on them much more than they actually do. They don't have to "dress up" HCI with custom icons and buttons, or hide links within images, or organize the information as a series of pages or a 3-D environment. For instance, texts can be presented simply as files inside a directory, rather than as a set of pages connected by custom-designed icons. This strategy of using standard HCI to present cultural objects is encountered quite rarely. In fact, I am aware of only one project which uses it quite successfully: a CD-ROM by Gerald Van Der Kaap entitled BlindRom V.0.9. (Netherlands, 1993). The CD-ROM includes a standard-looking folder named "Blind Letter." Inside the folder there are a large number of text files. You don't have to learn yet another cultural interface, search for hyperlinks hidden in images or navigate through a 3-D environment. Reading these files required simply opening them in standard Macintosh SimpleText, one by one. The effect of this simple technique is remarkable. Rather than distracting the user from experiencing the work, the computer interface becomes part and parcel of the work. Opening these files, I felt that I was in the presence of a new literary form for a new medium, perhaps the real medium of a computer -- its interface. As the examples analyzed here illustrate, cultural interfaces try to create their own language rather than simply using general-purpose HCI. In doing so, these interfaces try to negotiate between metaphors and ways of controlling a computer developed in HCI, and the conventions of more traditional cultural forms. Indeed, neither extreme is ultimately satisfactory by itself. It is one thing to use a computer to control a weapon or to analyze statistical data, and it is another to use it to represent cultural memories, values and experiences. The interfaces developed for a computer in its functions of a calculator, control mechanism or a communication device are not necessarily suitable for a computer playing the role of a cultural machine. Conversely, if we simply mimic the existing conventions of older cultural forms such as the printed word and cinema, we will not take advantage of all the new capacities offered by a computer: its flexibility in displaying and manipulating data, interactive control by the user, and the ability to run simulations, etc. Today the language of cultural interfaces is in its early stage, as was the language of cinema a hundred years ago. We don't know what the final result will be, or even if it will ever completely stabilize. Both the printed word and cinema eventually achieved stable forms which underwent little changes for long periods of time, in part because of the material investments in their means of production and distribution. Given that computer language is implemented in software, potentially it can keep on changing forever. But there is one thing we can be sure of. We are witnessing the emergence of a new cultural code, something which will be at least as significant as the printed word and cinema before it. We must try to understand its logic while we are in the midst of its natal stage. NOTES 1. For an analysis of the parallels between the language of the nineteenth century moving image presentations and the language of computer multimedia during the first half of the 1990's, see my "What is Digital Cinema?", in The Digital Dialectics, edited by Peter Lunenfeld (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1988). 2. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970). 3. Brad. A. Myers, "A Brief History of Human Computer Interaction Technology," technical report CMU-CS-96-163 and Human Computer Interaction Institute Technical Report CMU-HCII-96-103 (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Carnegie Mellon University, Human-Computer Interaction Institute, 1996). 4. http://www.xanadu.net/the.project, accessed December 1, 1997. 5. XML which is supposed to replace HTML on the World Wide Web will enable any user to create his/her customized markup language. Thus, the next stage in digital media culture will involve authoring not simply new documents but new languages. For more information on XML, see http://www.ucc.ie/xml., accessed December 1, 1997. 6. http://www.hotwired.com/rgb/antirom/index2.html, accessed December 1, 1997. 7. See, for instance, Mark Pesce, "Ontos, Eros, Noos, Logos," keynote address for International Symposium on Electronic Arts 1995, http://www.xs4all.nl/~mpesce/iseakey.html, accessed December 1, 1997. 8. Roman Jakobson, "Deux aspects du langage et deux types d'aphasie", in Temps Modernes, no. 188 (January 1962). 9. XLM promises to diversify types of links available to include bi-directional links, multi-way links and links to a span of text rather than a simple point. See http://www.ucc.ie/xml. 10. This may imply that new digital rhetoric may have less to do with arranging information in a particular order and more to do simply with selecting what is included and what is not included in the total corpus being presented. 1. See http://www.aw.sgi.com/pages/home/pages/products/pages/poweranimator _film_sgi/index.html, accessed December 1, 1997. 12. Jacques Aumont et al., Aesthetics of Film (Austin: Texas University Press, 1992), 13. 13. By VR interface I mean the common forms of a head-mounted or head- coupled directed display employed in VR systems. For a popular review of such displays written when the popularity of VR was at its peak, see Steve Aukstakalnis and David Blatner, Silicon Mirage: The Art and Science of Virtual Reality (Berkeley: CA: Peachpit Press, 1992), pp. 80-98. For a more technical treatment, see Dean Kocian and Lee Task, "Visually Coupled Systems Hardware and the Human Interface" in Virtual Environments and Advanced Interface Design, edited by Woodrow Barfield and Thomas Furness III (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 175-257. 14. See Kocian and Task for details on field of view of various VR displays. Although it varies widely between different systems, the typical size of the field of view in commercial head-mounted displays (HMD) available in the first part of the 1990's was 30-50o. 15. The following examples refer to a particular VRML browser - WebSpace Navigator 1.1 from Silicon Graphics, Inc. Other browsers have similar features. http://webspace.sgi.com/WebSpace/Help/1.1/index.html, accessed December 1, 1997. 16. See John Hartman and Josie Wernecke, The VRML 2.0 Handbook: Building Moving Worlds on the Web (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1996), 363. 17. For a more detailed analysis of this narrative structure, see my article, "The Aesthetics of Virtual Worlds: Report from Los Angeles," in CTHEORY (www.ctheory.com). 18. Examples of an earlier trend are Return to Zork (Activision, 1993) and The 7th Guest (Trilobyte/Virgin Games, 1993). Examples of the later trend are Soulblade (Namco, 1997) and Tomb Raider (Eidos, 1996). 19. Critical literature on computer games, and in particular on their language, remains very slim. Useful facts on history of computer games, description of different genres and the interviews with the designers can be found in Chris McGowan and Jim McCullaugh, Entertainment in the Cyber Zone (New York: Random House, 1995). Another useful source is J.C. Herz, Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1997). 20. Dungeon Keeper, MS-DOS/Windows 95 CD-ROM (Bullfrog Productions, 1997). 21. For a more detailed discussion of the history of computer imaging as gradual automation, see my articles "Mapping Space: Perspective, Radar and Computer Graphics," in SIGGRAPH '93 Visual Proceedings, edited by Thomas Linehan, 143-147 (New York: ACM, 1993); and "Automation of Sight from Photography to Computer Vision," in Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation, edited by Timothy Druckery and Michael Sand (New York: Aperture, 1996). 22. Moses Ma's presentation, panel on "Putting a Human Face on Cyberspace: Designing Avatars and the Virtual Worlds They Live In," SIGGRAPH '97, August 7, 1997. 23. Overlapping windows were first proposed by Alan Kay in 1969. 24. The examples of Citizen Kane and Ivan the Terrible are from Aumont et al., Aesthetics of Film, 41. 25. On the ideal of engineering efficiency in relation to the avant-garde and digital media, see my article "The Engineering of Vision and the Aesthetics of Computer Art," Computer Graphics 28, no. 4 (November 1984): 259-263. 26. Although this essay was written as late as 1936, Walter Benjamin still sees film technology as an alien presence which disrupts the familiar patterns of human perception and destroys an object's aura. Benjamin compares a cameraman to a surgeon who "penetrates deeply into its [reality] web" (237); his camera zooming in order to "pry an object from its shell" (225). Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schochen Books, 1969). 27. See http://www.artcom.de/projects/invisible_shape/welcome.en, accessed December 1, 1997. 28. The computer screen also functions both as a window into an illusionary space and as a flat surface carrying text labels and graphical icons. We can relate this to a similar understanding of a pictorial surface in the Dutch art of the seventeenth century, as analyzed by Svetlana Alpers in her The Art of Describing. In the chapter entitled "Mapping Impulse" she discusses how a Dutch painting of this period functioned as a combined map / picture, combining different kids of information and knowledge of the world. See Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). 29. This historical connection is illustrated by popular flight simulator games where the computer screen is used to simulate the control panel of a plane, i.e. the very type of object from which computer interfaces have developed. The conceptual origin of modern GUI in a traditional instrument panel can be seen even more clearly in the first graphical computer interfaces of the late 1960's and early 1970's which used tiled windows. The first tiled window interface was demonstrated by Douglas Engelbart in 1968.