The Language of New Media | 2. The Interface

In semiotic terms, the computer interface acts as a code which carries cultural messages in a variety of media. When you use the Internet, everything you access - texts, music, video, navigable spaces - passes through the interface of the browser and then, in its turn, the interface of the OS. In cultural communication, a code is rarely simply a neutral transport mechanism; usually it affects the messages transmitted with its help. It may make some messages easy to conceive and render others unthinkable. A code may also provide its own model of the world, its own logical system, or ideology; subsequent cultural messages or whole languages created using this code will be limited by this model, system or ideology. Most modern cultural theories rely on these notions. For instance, according to Whorf-Sapir hypothesis which enjoyed popularity in the middle of the twentieth century, human thinking is determined by the code of natural language; the speakers of different natural languages perceive and think about world differently. Whorf-Sapir hypothesis is an extreme expression of "non-transparency of the code" idea; usually it is formulated in a less extreme form. But then we think about the case of human-computer interface, applying a "strong" version of this idea makes sense.

The interface shapes how the computer user conceives the computer itself. It also determines how users think of any media object accessed via a computer. Stripping different media of their original distinctions, the interface imposes its own logic on them. Finally, by organizing computer data in particular ways, the interface provides distinct models of the world. For instance, a hierarchical file system assumes that the world can be organized in a logical multi-level hierarchy. In contrast, a hypertext model of the World Wide Web models the world as a non-hierarchical system ruled by metonymy. In short, far from being a transparent window into the data inside a computer, the interface bring with it strong messages of its own.

As an example of how the interface imposes its own logic on media, consider "cut and paste" operation, standard in all software running under modern GUI. This operation renders insignificant the traditional distinction between spatial and temporal media, since the user can cut and paste parts of images, regions of space and parts of a temporal composition in exactly the same way. It is also "blind" to traditional distinctions in scale: the user can cut and paste a single pixel, an image, a whole digital movie in the same way. And last, this operation also renders insignificant traditional distinctions between media: "cut and paste" can be applied to texts, still and moving images, sounds and 3D objects in the same way.

If human-computer interface become a key semiotic code of the information society as well as its meta-tool, how does this affect the functioning of cultural objects in general and art objects in particular? In computer culture it becomes common to construct the number of different interfaces to the same "content." For instance, the same data can be represented as a 2D graph or as an interactive navigable space. Or, a Web site may guide the user to different versions of the site depending on the bandwidth of her Internet connection.

Given these examples, we may be tempted to think of a new media artwork as also having two separate levels: content and interface. Thus the old dichotomies content - form and content - medium can be re-written as content - interface. But postulating such an opposition assumes that artwork's content is independent of its medium (in an art historical sense) or its code (in a semiotic sense). Situated in some idealized medium-free realm, content is assumed to exist before its material expression. These assumptions are correct in the case of visualization of quantified data; they also apply to classical art with its well- defined iconographic motives and representational conventions. But just as modern thinkers, from Whorf to Derrida, insisted on "non-transparency of a code" idea, modern artists assumed that content and form can't be separated. In fact, from the 1910s "abstraction" to the 1960s "process," artists keep inventing concepts and procedures to assure that they can't paint some pre-existent content.

This leaves us with an interesting paradox. Many new media artworks have what can be called "an informational dimension," the condition which they share with all new media objects. Their experience includes retrieving, looking at and thinking about quantified data. Therefore when we refer to such artworks we are justified in separating the levels of content and interface. At the same time, new media artworks have more traditional "experiential" or aesthetic dimensions, which justifies their status as art rather than as information design. These dimensions include a particular configuration of space, time, and surface articulated in the work; a particular sequence of user's activities over time to interact with the work; a particular formal, material and phenomenological user experience. And it is the work's interface that creates its unique materiality and the unique user experience. To change the interface even slightly is to dramatically change the work. From this perspective, to think of an interface as a separate level, as something that can be arbitrary varied is to eliminate the status of a new media artwork as art.

There is another way to think about the difference between new media design and new media art in relation to the content - interface dichotomy. In contrast to design, in art the connection between content and form (or, in the case of new media, content and interface) is motivated. That is, the choice of a particular interface is motivated by work's content to such degree that it can no longer be thought of as a separate level. Content and interface merge into one entity, and no longer can be taken apart.