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Just One Question for Steven Johnson
Jan 21, 1998 :: Michael Sippey

Take a spin through the index of Steven Johnson's new book, Interface Culture, and you'll quickly realize that this isn't your typical high-tech tome. Consider these consecutive listings from the letter H: Haussmann, Baron; Hendirx, Jimi; Henry IV (Shakespeare); Hertzfeld, Andy; Hitchcock, Alfred.

Johnson, whose day job is editor-in-chief of Feed, was kind enough to clear up just one question I had about his book...

MS: In the final chapter of "Interface Culture" you discuss how the field of interface design could use some "tough love," perhaps in the form of an infospace that "deliberately disorients" the user. Besides advancing the "art" of interface design, how could deliberate disorientation actually benefit either the producer or user of such an information space?

SJ: I'm glad you asked this particular question, because it gives me the opportunity to address what may be the most controversial part of Interface Culture, or at least the most controversial among people in the information design community. In an abbreviated form, the argument that you refer to here basically goes like this: 1) interfaces are on the cusp of becoming a legitimate art form; 2) art forms are distinguished by "avant-gardes" that confound expectations rather than cater to them; 3) the expectation associated with most interface design to date is that it be "user-friendly"; 4) future interface avant-gardes will define themselves by producing "user-hostile" creations.

Now, over the last few months since the book came out, my experience has been that folks in the high-tech world accept the first three premises, but somehow have trouble making that last logical leap to the idea of interfaces designed to disorient rather than confuse. (So much so that I almost wish I'd devoted a whole chapter to it, rather than just a few tantalizing paragraphs.) An interface designed to be confusing sounds just wrong to the ear, sounds almost like a contradiction in terms.

But to me, it reduces down to a simple either/or. Does the idea of an "interface designed to confuse" sound equivalent to "a car designed for standing still" or "music designed to sound dissonant." To me, it sounds more like the latter. And so it shouldn't surprise us that we find something unsettling in the idea of user-hostile interfaces. Deliberately dissonant music would have seemed just as scandalous and unthinkable to most music listeners before the twentieth-century, which is why the twelve-toners caused such a ruckus in their day.

But this brings us to the thornier question of what these user-hostile interfaces would look like, which I sidestep somewhat in the book. But I'll give two examples here. The first may surprise you -- the original Mac interface, and its GUI antecedents in the Lisa and the Xerox Star. One of my favorite parts of Interface Culture is the brief tour through the Mac's original reviews, many of which are openly hostile to the premise of graphic interfaces. In other words, to computer jockeys raised on DOS, the GUI itself -- now largely accepted -- seemed deliberately disorienting, an interface designed to slow you down, condescend to your level. The jockeys had to get an ear for it, and it took some time for them to come around, the way it took decades for mainstream audiences to get an ear for "dissonant music" -- and then only in Hollywood soundtracks and Sonic Youth shows.

The other "user-hostile" interface I would point to is more timely: Riven. In the most basic language, Riven is a game in which the player clicks and clicks-and-drags on various interactive tools represented on a computer screen, without understanding anything about what those clicks and drags actually do. Figuring out how those devices work -- in other words, figuring out how the interface works -- is the goal of the game, what you keep playing for. So by that definition, the pleasure of the game -- aside from the fun of the visuals themselves, which are also part of the interface -- is the pleasure of not knowing how the interface works. Figuring out the logic of the interface is like figuring out who the murderer is in an Agatha Christie mystery. In the language of today's interface critics, whodunits are reader hostile. But no one doubts their capacity to entertain. Same goes for the more adventurous interfaces of Myst and Riven. It's my guess that we will see much more of this user-hostility in the years to come.



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