Rise of Interface

To help me absorb some media studies knowledge I am auditing University of Tulsa Communication professor Ben Peters’ Digital Media Keywords undergraduate course, which he has modeled after Raymond Williams’ Keywords.  In October, Dr. Peters’ keywords approach to media studies will culminate in the Digital Keywords Workshop held here in Tulsa.  My contribution to the Digital Media Keywords class is a historical and analytic piece on interface.  According to OED, the first use of the term “interfacial” (as an adjective) was in 1837 to describe the angle “between two faces of a crystal or other solid.”  Later, in 1882, the word began to be used as a noun, and, importantly, as a concept for describing the “face of separation … between two contiguous portions of the same substance.”  In addition to fleshing out this etymological history, Peter Schaefer’s article “Interface: History of a Concept, 1868-1888” traces the early uses of the term by two brothers, both physicists, James and William Thompson.  With references to Maxwell’s Demon, telegraphy, and other scientific-technologic uses of the term, Schaefer brings the term up to our more familiar and ubiquitous understanding of the computer interface.  Looking back, interface has always been a concept used to describe the liminality of the surface between elements and therefore, has proved a difficult idea to definitively express.  Hence, more recent texts like Alexander Galloway’s The Interface Effect which, instead of defining the interface as an object, seeks to identify its effects.  Brandon Hookway’s Interface, set for release in April, also aims to define interface as a relationship rather than an object.  All told, my piece on interface is not nearly as ambitious, but the hope is that my attempts to understand the term will inform my dissertation on avant-garde modernist textual effects in H. D.’s Palimpsest, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Pound’s A Draft of Thirty Cantos.  For now, here is the Ngram of interface.


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