|Lev Manovich on Tue, 18 Aug 1998 23:12:57 -0700 (PDT)|
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|Syndicate: A THEORY OF CULTURAL INTERFACES 1/3|
Lev Manovich A THEORY OF CULTURAL INTERFACES The Most Popular Moving Image Sequence of All Times Don't you wish that somebody, in 1895, 1897 or at least in 1903, realized the fundamental significance of cinema's emergence and produced a comprehensive record of new medium's emergence? Interviews with the audiences; a systematic account of the narrative strategies, scenography and camera positions as they developed year by year; an analysis of the connections between the emerging language of cinema and different forms of popular entertainment which coexisted with it, would have been invaluable. But, of course, these records do not exist. Instead, we are left with newspaper reports, diaries of cinema's inventors, programs of film showings and other bits and pieces -- a set of random and unevenly distributed historical samples. Today we are living in the midst of an emerging new medium - the metamedium of the digital computer. All information becomes encoded in one code; all cultural objects become computer programs, something which is not only seen, heard or read, but first of all stored and transmitted, compiled and executed. In contrast to a hundred years ago, when cinema was coming into being, we are fully aware of the significance of this new media revolution. And yet I am afraid that future theorists and historians of computer media will be left with not much more than the equivalents of newspaper reviews and random bits of evidence similar to cinema's first decades. They will find that the analytical texts from our era are fully aware of the significance of computer's takeover of culture yet, by and large, they mostly contain speculations about the future rather than a record and a theory of the present. Future researchers will wonder why the theoreticians, who already had plenty of experience analyzing older cultural forms, did not try to describe computer media's semiotic codes, modes of address, and audience reception patterns. If, for instance, they painstakingly reconstructed how cinema emerged out of preceding cultural forms (panorama, optical toys, peep shows), why didn't they attempt to construct a similar genealogy for the language of computer media at the moment when it was just coming into being, while the elements of previous cultural forms going into its making are still clearly visible, still recognizable before melting into a new unity. Where there the theoreticians at the moment when the icons and the buttons of multimedia interfaces were like a wet paint on a just completed painting, before they became a universal convention and thus slipped into invisibility? Or, at the moment when the designers of Myst were debugging their code, converting graphics to 8-bit and massaging QuickTime clips? Or, at the historical moment when a young 20-something programmer at Netscape took the chewing gum out of his mouth, sipped warm Coke out of the can -- he was at a computer for 16 hours straight, trying to meet a marketing deadline -- and, finally satisfied with its small file size, saved a short animation of stars moving across the night sky, the animation which was to appear in the upper right corner of Netscape Navigator, thus becoming the most widely seen moving image sequence ever -- until the next release. The following is an attempt at both a record and a theory -- of the present. Just as film historians traced the development of film language during cinema's first decades, I want to describe and understand the logic driving the development of the language of computer media. It is tempting to extend this parallel a little further and to speculate whether today this new language is already getting closer to acquiring its final and stable form, just as film language acquired its "classical" form during the 1910's. Or are the 1990's more like the 1890's, because future computer media language will be entirely different than the one used today?  In either case, by trying to understand which cultural forces are shaping the development of this language, we may be in a better position both to predict its future course as well as to offer different alternatives. For just as avant-garde filmmakers throughout cinema's existence offered alternatives to its particular narrative audio-visual regime, the task of an avant-garde computer artist today is to offer alternatives to the existing language of computer media. This can be better accomplished if we have a theory of how "mainstream" language is currently structured. Does it make sense to theorize the present when it seems to be changing so fast? It is a gamble. If subsequent developments prove the theoretical projections of this text to be correct, I win. But, if the language of computer media develops in a different direction than the one suggested by the present analysis, this does not mean that I automatically lose. Rather, the analysis presented here will become a record of possibilities which were heretofore not realized, of the horizon which was visible to us today but later became unimaginable. We no longer think of the history of cinema as a linear march towards only one possible language, or as a progression towards more and more accurate verisimilitude. Rather, we have come to see its history as a succession of distinct and equally expressive languages, each with its own aesthetic variables, each new language closing off some of the possibilities of the previous one -- a cultural logic not dissimilar to Kuhn's analysis of scientific paradigms.  Similarly, every stage in the history of computer media offers its own aesthetic opportunities, as well as its own imagination of the future -- in short, its own "research paradigm." This paradigm is modified or even abandoned at the next stage. In this paper I want to record the "research paradigm" of new media during its first decade before it slips into invisibility. Cultural Interfaces During the 1990s, the cultural role of a digital computer has changed from a tool to a medium. In the beginning of the decade, a computer was still largely thought of as a simulation of a typewriter, a paintbrush or a drafting ruler -- in other words, as a tool used to produce cultural content which, once created, will be stored and distributed in its appropriate media: printed page, film, photographic print, electronic recording. By the end of the decade, the computer's public image has begun to shift to one of a universal machine, used not only to author, but also to store, distribute and access all media. All culture, past and present, is beginning to be filtered through a computer, with its particular human-computer interface. The term human-computer interface (HCI) describes the ways in which the user interacts with a computer. HCI includes physical input and output devices such a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse. It also consists of metaphors used to conceptualize the organization of computer data. For instance, the Macintosh interface introduced by Apple in 1984 uses the metaphor of files and folders arranged on a desktop. Finally, HCI also includes ways of manipulating this data, i.e. a grammar of meaningful actions which the user can perform on it. An example of this grammar are the commands used in a command-line interface such as DOS and UNIX: copy file, delete file, set date, open port, list directory, and so on. As the role of a computer is shifting from being a tool to a universal media machine, we are increasingly "interfacing" to predominantly cultural data: texts, photographs, films, music, virtual environments. In short, we are no longer interfacing to a computer but to culture encoded in digital form. I would like to introduce the term "cultural interfaces" to describe evolving interfaces used by the designers of Web sites, CD-ROM and DVD-ROM titles, multimedia encyclopedias, online museums, computer games and other digital cultural objects. If you need to remind yourself what a typical cultural interface looked like in 1997, go back in time and click to a random Web page. You are likely to see something which graphically resembles a magazine layout from the same decade. The page is dominated by text: headlines, hyperlinks, blocks of copy. Within this text are few media elements: graphics, photographs, perhaps a QuickTime movie and a VRML scene. The page also includes radio buttons and a pull-down menu which allows you to choose an item from the list. Finally there is a search engine: type a word or a phrase, hit the search button and the computer will scan through a file or a database trying to match your entry. For another example of a prototypical cultural interface of the 1990s, you may load (assuming it would still run on your computer) the most well-known CD-ROM of the 1990s - Myst (Broderbund, 1993). Its opening clearly recalls a movie: credits slowly scroll across the screen, accompanied by a movie-like soundtrack to set the mood. Next, the computer screen shows a book open in the middle, waiting for your mouse click. Next, an element of a familiar Macintosh interface makes an appearance, reminding you that along with being a new movie/book hybrid, Myst is also a computer application: you can adjust sound volume and graphics quality by selecting from a usual Macintosh-style menu in the upper top part of the screen. Finally, you are taken inside the game, where the interplay between the printed word and cinema continue. A virtual camera frames images of an island which dissolve between each other. At the same time, you keep encountering books and letters, which take over the screen, providing with you with clues on how to progress in the game. Given that computer media is simply a set of characters and numbers stored in a computer, there are numerous ways in which it could be presented to a user. Yet, as it always happens with cultural languages, only a few of these possibilities actually appear viable in a given historical moment. Just as early fifteenth century Italian painters could only conceive of painting in a very particular way - quite different from, say, sixteenth century Dutch painters - today's digital designers and artists use a small set of action grammars and metaphors out of a much larger set of all possibilities. Why do cultural interfaces - web pages, CD-ROM titles, computer games - look the way they do? Why do designers organize computer data in certain ways and not in others? Why do they employ some interface metaphors and not others? My theory is that there are three key cultural forms which are shaping cultural interfaces in the 1990s. What are these forms? The answer to this puzzle can be found in the opening sequence of Myst which activates them before our eyes, one by one. The first form is cinema. The second form is the printed word. The third form is a general-purpose human-computer interface (HCI). At the time of this writing (1997), it appears that out of the three, the influence of cinema is becoming more and more important. So, despite frequent pronouncements that cinema is dead, it is actually on its own way to becoming a general purpose cultural interface, a set of techniques and tools which can be used to interact with any cultural data. Accordingly, I will devote the largest section of this article to the discussion of the ways in which cinematic techniques structure cultural interfaces. As it should become clear from the following, I use words "cinema" and "printed word" as shortcuts. They stand not for particular objects, such as a film or a novel, but rather for larger cultural traditions (we can also use such words as cultural forms, mechanisms, languages or media). "Cinema" thus includes mobile camera, representation of space, editing techniques, narrative conventions, activity of a spectator -- in short, different elements of cinematic perception, language and reception. Their presence is not limited to the twentieth-century institution of fiction films, they can be already found in panoramas, magic lantern slides, theater and other nineteenth-century cultural forms; similarly, since the middle of the twentieth century, they are present not only in films but also in television and video programs. In the case of the "printed word" I am also referring to a set of conventions which have developed over many centuries (some even before the invention of print) and which today are shared by numerous forms of printed matter, from magazines to instruction manuals: a rectangular page containing one or more columns of text; illustrations or other graphics framed by the text; pages which follow each sequentially; a table of contents and index. Modern human-computer interface has a much shorter history than the printed word or cinema -- but it is still a history. Its principles such as direct manipulation of objects on the screen, overlapping windows, iconic representation, and dynamic menus were gradually developed over a few decades, from the early 1950s to the early 1980s, when they finally appeared in commercial systems such as Xerox Star (1981), the Apple Lisa (1982), and most importantly the Apple Macintosh (1984).  Since than, they have become an accepted convention for operating a computer, and a cultural language in their own right. Cinema, the printed word and human-computer interface: each of these traditions has developed its own unique ways of how information is organized, how it is presented to the user, how space and time are correlated with each other, how human experience is being structured in the process of accessing information. Pages of text and a table of contents; 3-D spaces framed by a rectangular frame which can be navigated using a mobile point of view; hierarchical menus, variables, parameters, copy/pasteand search/replace operations -- these and other elements of these three traditions are shaping cultural interfaces today. Cinema, the printed word and HCI: they are the three main reservoirs of metaphors and strategies for organizing information which feed cultural interfaces. Bringing cinema, the printed word and HCI interface together and treating them as occupying the same conceptual plane has an additional advantage -- a theoretical bonus. It is only natural to think of them as belonging to two different kind of cultural species, so to speak. If HCI is a general purpose tool which can be used to manipulate any kind of data, both the printed word and cinema are less general: they offer ways to organize particular types of data: text in the case of print, audio-visual narrative taking place in a 3-D space in the case of cinema. HCI is a system of controls to operate a machine; the printed word and cinema are cultural traditions, distinct ways to record human memory and human experience, mechanisms for cultural and social exchange of information. Bringing HCI, the printed word and cinema together allows us to see that the three have more in common than we may anticipate at first. On the one hand, being a part of our culture now for half a century, HCI already represents a powerful cultural tradition, a cultural language offering its own ways to represent human memory and human experience. This language speaks in the form of discrete objects organized in hierarchies (hierarchical file system), or as catalogs (databases), or as objects linked together through hyperlinks (hypermedia). On the other hand, we begin to see that the printed word and cinema also can be thought of as interfaces, even though historically they have been tied to particular kinds of data. Each has its own grammar of actions, each comes with its own metaphors, each offers a particular physical interface. A book or a magazine is a solid object consisting from separate pages; the actions include going from page to page linearly, marking individual pages and using table of contexts. In the case of cinema, its physical interface is a particular architectural arrangement of a movie theater; its metaphor is a window opening up into a virtual 3-D space. Today, as media is being "liberated" from its traditional physical storage media - paper, film, stone, glass, magnetic tape - the elements of printed word interface and cinema interface, which previously were hardwired to the content, become "liberated" as well. A digital designer can freely mix pages and virtual cameras, table of contents and screens, bookmarks and points of view. No longer embedded within particular texts and films, these organizational strategies are now free floating in our culture, available for use in new contexts. In this respect, printed word and cinema have indeed became interfaces -- rich sets of metaphors, ways of navigating through content, ways of accessing and storing data. For a user, both conceptually and psychologically, their elements exist on the same plane as radio buttons, pull-down menus, command line calls and other elements of standard human-computer interface. Let us now discuss some of the elements of these three cultural traditions -- cinema, the printed word and HCI -- to see how they are shaping the language of cultural interfaces. I. Printed Word In the 1980's, as PC's and word processing software became commonplace, text became the first cultural media to be subjected to digitization in a massive way. But already in the 1960's, two and a half decades before the concept of digital media was born, researchers were thinking about having the sum total of human written production -- books, encyclopedias, technical articles, works of fiction and so on -- available online (Ted Nelson's Xanadu project ). Text is unique among other media types. It plays a privileged role in computer culture. On the one hand, it is one media type among others. But, on the other hand, it is a meta-language of digital media, a code in which all other media are represented: coordinates of 3-D objects, pixel values of digital images, the formatting of a page in HTML. It is also the primary means of communication between a computer and a user: one types single line commands or runs computer programs written in a subset of English; the other responds by displaying error codes or text messages.  If a computer uses text as its meta-language, cultural interfaces in their turn inherit the principles of text organization developed by human civilization throughout its existence. One of these is a page: a rectangular surface containing a limited amount of information, designed to be accessed in some order, and having a particular relationship to other pages. In its modern form, the page is born in the first centuries of the Christian era when the clay tablets and papyrus rolls are replaced by a codex - the collection of written pages stitched together on one side. Cultural interfaces rely on our familiarity with the "page interface" while also trying to stretch its definition to include new concepts made possible by a computer. In 1984, Apple introduced a graphical user interface which presented information in overlapping windows stacked behind one another -- essentially, a set of book pages. The user was given the ability to go back and forth between these pages, as well as to scroll through individual pages. In this way, a traditional page was redefined as a virtual page, a surface which can be much larger than the limited surface of a computer screen. In 1987, Apple shipped popular Hypercard program which extended the page concept in new ways. Now the users were able to include multimedia elements within the pages, as well as to establish links between pages regardless of their ordering. A few years later, designers of HTML stretched the concept of a page even more by enabling the creation of distributed documents, where different parts of a document are located on different computers connected through the network. With this development, a long process of gradual "virtualization" of the page reached a new stage. Messages written on clay tablets, which were almost indestructible, were replaced by ink on paper. Ink, in its turn, was replaced by bits of computer memory, making characters on an electronic screen. Finally, with HTML, which allows parts of a single page to be located on different computers, the page became even more fluid and unstable. The conceptual development of the page in digital media can also be read in a different way - not as further development of a codex form, but as a return to earlier forms such as the papyrus roll of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Scrolling through the contents of a computer window or a World Wide Web page has more in common with unrolling than turning the pages of a modern book. In the case of the Web of the 1990s, the similarity with a roll is even stronger because the information is not available all at once, but arrives sequentially, top to bottom, as though the roll is being unrolled. A good example of how cultural interfaces stretch the definition of a page while mixing together its different historical forms is the Web page designed in 1997 by the British design collective antirom for HotWired RGB Gallery.  The designers have created a large surface containing rectangular blocks of texts in different font sizes, arranged without any apparent order. The user is invited to skip from one block to another moving in any direction. Here, the different directions of reading used in different cultures are combined together in a single page. By the mid 1990's, Web pages included a variety of media types -- but they are still essentially pages. Different media elements -- graphics, photographs, digital video, sound and 3-D worlds -- were embedded within rectangular surfaces containing text. VRML evangelists wanted to overturn this hierarchy by imaging the future in which the World Wide Web is rendered as a giant 3-D space, with all the other media types, including text, existing within it.  Given that the history of a page stretches for thousands of years, I think it is unlikely that it would disappear so quickly. While the 1990's cultural interfaces have retained the modern page format, they also have come to rely on a new way of organizing and accessing texts which has little precedent within book tradition -- hyperlinking. We may be tempted to trace hyperlinking to earlier forms and practices of non-sequential text organization, such as the Torah's interpretations and footnotes, but it is actually fundamentally different from them. Both the Torah's interpretations and footnotes imply a master-slave relationship between one text and another. But in the case of hyperlinking, no such relationship of hierarchy is assumed. The two sources connected through hyperlinking have equal weight; they exist on the same level of importance. Thus the acceptance of hyperlinking in the 1980's can be read as a perfect reflection of contemporary culture with its suspicion of all hierarchies, and its aesthetics of collage where radically different sources are brought together within the singular cultural object ("post-modernism"). Traditionally, texts encoded human knowledge and memory, instructed, inspired, and seduced their readers to adopt new ideas, new ways of interpreting the world, new ideologies. In short, the word was always linked to the art of rhetoric. While it is probably possible to invent a new rhetoric of hypermedia, which will use hyperlinking not to distract the reader from the argument (as it is often the case today), but instead to further convince hir/her of argument's validity, the sheer existence and popularity of hyperlinking exemplifies the continuing decline of the field of rhetoric in the modern era. Ancient and Medieval scholars have classified hundreds of different rhetorical figures. In the middle of the twentieth century Roman Jakobson, under the influence of computer's binary logic, information theory and cybernetics to which he was exposed at MIT, radically reduced rhetoric to just two figures: metaphor and metonymy.  Finally, in the 1990's, the World Wide Web hyperlinking has privileged the single figure of metonymy at the expense of all others.  Hyperlinking leads the reader from one text to another, ad finitum. Contrary to the popular image, in which digital media collapses all human culture into a single giant library (which implies the existence of some ordering system), or a single giant book (which implies a narrative progression), it maybe more accurate to think of the resulting object as an infinite flat surface composed from individual texts in no particular order -- the antirom design for HotWired. Expanding this comparison further, we can note that Random Access Memory, the concept behind the group's name, also implies the lack of any hierarchy: any RAM location can be accessed as quickly as any other. In contrast to the older storage media of book, film, and magnetic tape, where data is organized sequentially and linearly, thus suggesting the presence of a narrative or a rhetorical trajectory, RAM "flattens" the data. Rather than seducing the user through the careful arrangement of arguments and examples, points and counterpoints, changing rhythms of presentation (i.e., the rate of data streaming, to use contemporary language), simulated false paths and orchestrated breakthroughs, cultural interfaces, like RAM itself, bombards the users with all the data at once.  In the 1980's many critics have described one of key's effects of "post-modernism" as that of spatialization: privileging space over time, flattening historical time, refusing grand narratives. Digital media, which has evolved during the same decade, accomplished this spatialization quite literally. It replaced sequential storage with random-access storage; hierarchical organization of information with a flattened hypertext; psychological movement of narrative in novel and cinema with physical movement through space, as witnessed by endless computer animated fly-throughs or computer games such as Myst and countless others. In short, time becomes a flat image or a landscape, something to look at or navigate through. If there is a new rhetoric or aesthetic which is possible here, it may have less to do with the ordering of time by a writer or an orator, and more with spatial wandering. The hypertext reader is like Robinson Crusoe, walking through the sand and water, picking up a navigation journal, a rotten fruit, an instrument whose purpose he does not know; leaving imprints in the sand, which, like computer hyperlinks, follow from one found object to another.