Keyword: Interface

The post below represents the first draft of a paper I wrote in the tradition of Raymond Williams’ Keywords.  This was for Dr. Ben Peters’ Digital Media Keywords class at the University of Tulsa.  Dr. Peters and the other members of the class did provide me with notes for revision which I have not taken into account for this version only because other projects are demanding my attention.  I have included a short postscript about possible ways to add to the piece.  My interest in interface stems from my dissertation project which examines how Modernist authors such a Pound, Joyce, and H. D. experimented with textual effects in ways that I feel forecast digital media.  Thus the thrust of this piece is to bind together the operations of print and digital interfacial effects.

Keyword: Interface

According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, the first appearance of a term in the interface family was in 1837 by geologist James Dwight Dana who used “interfacial” to describe how surfaces align in crystal formation (“interface” a). The next use of interface listed in OED is not until 1882 (this time as a noun) referring to “a face of separation … between two contiguous portions of the same substance” (“interface” n). In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, uses of interface and the terms related to it diversified and now refer to any type of intermediacy such as interpersonal liaisons, commerce, transition between systems, and most ubiquitously, any kind of screen-based human activity such as selecting a television program or using a computer. In addition to these early uses of the term, Peter Schaefer, in a chapter from The Long History of New Media, “Interface: History of a Concept 1868-1888,” looks to the late nineteenth-century where he finds that “the concept of the interface reveals places of overlap between communication history and the history of science” (164). It’s valuable to preserve the correlation between communication and science that Schaefer highlights, and connect those early zones of overlap to the diverse uses of interface in contemporary discourse. This inclusive approach will help illuminate the array of technical and conceptual issues that prompt thinkers in different fields to deploy the term to describe those places where systems meet and interact.

Schaefer’s account of the early uses of interface centers around James and William Thomson, two brothers interested in the physical sciences and communication technology. Both Thomson brothers used interface to describe the areas where different substances come into contact, but it was William who began theorizing the behavior of energy within systems. James Clerk Maxwell, with help from Thomson, proposed a thought experiment called Maxwell’s Demon, which, as Schaefer describes it, consists of “an enclosed space divided into two sections that are kept separate except for a small opening. Both sections are filled with gas molecules, and a tiny creature is stationed at the opening between the two chambers. This creature only will allow the faster, warmer molecules on one side and the slower, colder molecules on the other” (165).

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

The Demon’s role in this system resembles an interface because it operates the division between the two chambers which sorts the hot from the cold particles. Thomson’s other interest was communication technology: he was involved in increasing signal velocity and reliability in transatlantic telegraph networks. Though technology has changed dramatically since the telegraph networks Thomson worked to improve, similar issues of information delivery present themselves in the current digital age where the primary role of the interface is to provide a user with relevant information. While Maxwell’s Demon is just a thought experiment, it’s active–rather than passive–role in the sorting of particles is an apt metaphor for the the ways interfaces are programmed to function as a filter between the user and information systems. Thus, between its uses in communication technology and the physical sciences, the early story of interface as a term forecasts the ways it’s used well over a century later.

The uses of interface that refer to people using screen-based technologies almost invariably refer to the transfer of information from where it is stored to a user. Lev Manovich, in his 2001 book, The Language of New Media, uses the term “cultural interface” which “describe[s] a human-computer-culture interface–the ways in which computers present and allow us to interact with cultural data.” (69). Tellingly, Manovich’s primary concern is not “what, essentially, is an interface?” Instead, he focuses on the processes (“the ways”) a computer interface performs to present information to the user. Theorizing the interface as a bundle of activities or events is helpful because such an understanding can be applied to screen-based technologies, but also provides an opportunity for comparative analysis with other media, such as print, which also function to provide individuals with information. Rather than defining interface as a thing the parts of which could be disassembled and labeled, it is more important to view it, as the Thomson brothers did, as a concept that allows us to think through the complex circumstances that arise at the point where different entities meet. To confine my own discussion to media studies I will focus on analyzing how different interfacial processes negotiate the problems, issues, challenges, whatever we want to call them, that arise when a reader/user requests information.

Information Scale

Different interfaces manage information scale in different ways. Books, file cabinets, library catalogs, and search engines all provide information to users and, while they perform tasks unique to the demands placed on them, they are designed to present a reader/user with a consumable helpings of data. Compare a book to a file cabinet, for instance: the linear way a book is organized is different from the alphabetical organization of the folders in the cabinet (granted, the cabinet will almost certainly go A-Z or chronologically; the point is no one would read it A-Z). This is a significant difference and both are designed for different types of information storage. However, if a book did not progress successively or if a file cabinet wasn’t organized according to some structure, they would cease to be useful ways to store and present information. In their separate ways, each method solves a similar problem. Naturally, these organization methods are even more important for larger quantities of information. To increase the scale, think of the stacks in McFarlin Library (TU’s library) scrambled: if there were no structure to the arrangement of those books it would take an unfathomable amount of time to find anything. As commonplace an observation as it is, these organizational methods are designed to make finding and using information convenient and effective, but on extremely large scales these types of organizational structures are necessary to make information accessible in the most basic sense.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Alexander Galloway, in his book The Interface Effect, examines complex network visualizations such as this image of the internet like Fig. 2  from Wikipedia. Galloway’s argument is that this is a meaningless representation because each “map” or image of the internet appears, for all practical purposes, identical to the reader/user because she could never process that much information at once. To scale back down, I could say the same about the visual representation of a book. To the left is an image (Fig. 3) from a website that sells the complete text of a novel, here James Joyce’s Ulysses


Fig. 3

comprised of some 265,000 words, on a single poster sheet. While the poster is an interesting example of the fetishization of information as object, it is ridiculous to think that a book from this perspective is informatically meaningful to a human. And, as with network maps of the internet, all books would look more or less identical from this from this view.

The book, as an information delivery technology, solves this problem by its imposition of linear word, sentence, and page order. The reader moves from the beginning of the book to the end by reading each word. Even books arranged alphabetically like an encyclopedia or dictionary, or ones that experiment with non-linear organization (perhaps like Friedrich Nietzsche’s aphoristic style of philosophy, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, or Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions) present their readers with a consumable datastream of linear words and sentences. For nonlinear methods of information organization such as library catalogs, databases, internet searches, the datastream is different, but the requirements remain the same. A reader/user requires an interface that presents large amounts of data in a way they can comfortably digest it. These issues of scale foreground an important aspect of the interface: because we’re so familiar with it, we don’t even notice that a book is an interfacial technique with its own methods for efficient and portable delivery of information. The same is true of the Encore or Classic Catalog search methods on the McFarlin Library’s homepage. We only notice the interface when it can’t deliver a book we’re looking for from out of the nearly million items housed in the building, to say nothing of the massive interdisciplinary databases and full text holdings remotely accessible.

Proximity v. Presence

The difference between proximity and presence is the same as when I am searching for my phone and it turns out to be in my pocket. During the search, I’m extremely close to my phone, but without the awareness of its nearness, it’s necessary to continue looking until the knowledge that it was in my pocket the entire time makes it present to me. Of course, the difference between proximity and presence is more complex when it comes to searching for and retrieving information. For instance, if I’m searching for a particular item in McFarlin and I stand at the center of the lower level stacks I’m relatively near in space to that item. On the other hand, if we again imagine McFarlin’s holdings scrambled, it doesn’t make much of a difference how close or far I am from the item, it will take a long time to find it. To get more perverse, imagine the stacks of McFarlin are in perfect order except for the one book I need. That book is not checked out, it hasn’t been stolen; it’s been misfiled. This book could be as close as the next shelf or filed in the bottom level with the government documents and, if so, may never be seen again. This is not to ignore the importance of proximity in access to information, particularly when it comes to non-digital archives. Living in Tulsa, it is much easier for me to poke around in the R. A. Lafferty papers in McFarlin Special Collections than it would be for someone interested in Lafferty living in Perth, Australia. Once digitized, however, the importance of that spatial disparity is dramatically reduced.

Like print archives, digitally stored information trivializes physical distance and increases the importance of addressability, the ability to locate items where they should be, but on a much more extreme scale. To use a specific example, if I am sitting on the intermediate level in the McFarlin stacks looking for a journal article in the Modern Language Association International Bibliography (MLAIB) and McFarlin has a print version on the bottom floor in the periodicals section, but the MLAIB has a linked full text .pdf version located on a server in Dublin, Ireland. It’s faster and easier to view the .pdf physically located in Dublin than it is to stand up, go downstairs, and locate the print version. The mind boggling speed and scope with which digital communication technologies deliver information creates the illusion that everything is immediately and universally available to the user.
Computers, or the internet, provide individuals with information from all over the globe and throughout time just like any archive or library. Standing in a physical archive puts one in close proximity to information, but without an interface it becomes difficult to access. Because a user can with comparable ease access information on a local memory device or on a server anywhere in the world, it seems as if all information is available. Still, the radical compression of data in digital storage comes with a tradeoff that seems to represent a break with print and other media. Media theorist Wolfgang Ernst takes great pains to demonstrate that the information stored in digital devices is so compressed that human perception is not equipped to interact with it. Without an interface programmed to locate, retrieve, and then translate that information into an understandable format it is inaccessible even if it’s in the user’s hand. This is the same polarity between proximity and presence, but because the digitized information’s ontology is so drastically different than the user’s, simply searching for and finding it as one might for a misfiled book would still never make it present. A byproduct of the increased capacity digital storage can boast of is that it puts the user at a further, and without the proper interface, perhaps insuperable, remove from the original. This underscores the significant difference between proximity and presence, and demonstrates how different interfacial tools are designed in response to similar challenges of information presentation.


In order to circle back around to telegraph networks and Maxwell’s Demon, the overlap between science and communication technology where Schaefer started us out, it seems worthwhile to mention that many of the differences between the print and digital information management methods I described above are differences in technology rather than new solutions to previously unsolved and archaic problems. Rather than thinking of digital memory and transmission technologies as solutions to analog problems, it is more appropriate to view these technological innovations on a continuum of ever increasing efficiency and portability. While a digital storage device hardly resembles the holdings of a library, it essentially performs the same task more efficiently. Interface design, while it has certainly benefitted from these digital innovations, is asked to solve the same problem that Thomson and Maxwell were laboring over the Maxwell’s Demon: how could we program a division between systems that would automatically perform the desired sorting tasks. Google’s high-powered search algorithms and our humbler Encore McFarlin search bar perform this filtering by responding to specific queries and presenting relevant information to the user. At the same time, it’s important to remember the active role the demon and the interface play in this dynamic. Rather than the passive conduits each interface operates according to rules that do good in that they give us what we want, but they also have a vested interest, whether political, commercial, or socially normative, in presenting certain items and omitting others.

Another draft of this paper would include two more sections to deal with issues that are implicitly or explicitly raised here: the first section would discuss digital ontology and how that may affect how we view the difference between print and digital storage capacities. Looking at the technology this way raises further questions about whether or not magnetic hard drives holding electrical charges and then translate that information into text or images is fundamentally different than pre-digital tech (Jonathan Sterne’s discussion of the difference between the digital and analog would prove very useful). This also seems to be an interesting way to reconnect with Schaefer’s account of the early overlaps between the physical sciences and communication technology. The second section would try and suss out the differences between organizational techniques like the LOC or Dewey Decimal system for libraries and the interfaces such as card catalogs and Encore-type search bars. It’s not clear to me that these organizational methods are separate from the interface for a variety of reasons, but I am not comfortable pronouncing they are identical. At any rate, the above represents an incomplete version of what should eventually become a longer paper.

Works Cited

Galloway, Alexander R. The Interface Effect. Polity, 2012. Print.
“interface, n.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. 1 March 2014
“interfacial, adj.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. 1 March 2014
Schaefer, Peter. The Long History of New Media. N. p. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

Image Credits
Fig. 1:’s_demon.svg
Fig. 2:
Fig. 3:


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