Excerpt from the Introduction (p. 7-14):
Towards a Critique of Interfaces
The term interface is as common as it is mysterious. The more it is taken for granted, the more it seems to escape our understanding and the closer we look, the more obscure the concept becomes. Interfaces are omnipresent and invisible at the same time. The trend towards unobtrusiveness is conspicuous: deep integration, actionable notifications, ambient computing or shytech—apparatuses and applications hide what happens behind the visible surface, disguising their mechanisms, operations and processes. The actual technology such as wires, processors, boards, batteries, chips, transistors, memory blocks and amplifiers disappear into the background and are sealed off in a blackbox that becomes ever more difficult to open up; with ubiquitous computing, the dissolution of computation into networked on-demand resources, virtual machines and hard- ware simulation, and converged and decentralized infrastructures for storage, information and data, we are facing a techno-ecological surrounding that is only accessible through the interfaces of connected apparatuses. The technology is not only boxed in, but it also dissolves into the environment.
This emphasis of the surface and the accompanying withdrawal or dissolution of the inside could be considered a simple dialectics of technological realities: visibility implies invisibility and perceptibility implies imperceptibility. At the same time, apparatuses and applications are not purely passive tools but active agents, creating the subject of the user. Just like every other device, they guide and govern behavior through the selection and limitation of possible interactions through management of expectations and conditions. Networked apparatuses and applications are also able to measure and track interactions, create behavioral metrics and funnel analysis in order to optimize their designs and functionalities and to integrate deviation and misapplication. Every abuse might become a feature. Every violation is a possible source of innovation. Interfaces use their users as much as the users use them.
Furthermore, the perceivable aesthetics of apparatuses and applications— what one might call graphical user interface—is regulated and constricted by the companies that build them. Apple was among the first companies to promote their own set of human interface guidelines as online specs in the aftermath of the iPhone launch. Their approach had a strong impact not only on a cultural level, but also on a strategic and economic one. Easing the design process by offering clear rules and principles, they not only encouraged third party developers to work on their iOS platform, but in return also boosted the attractiveness of their product by integrating ever more apps and services, rendering the mobile device as an empty canvas on which users could project their own needs and desires—a narrative that resonated strongly with Apple’s marketing strategy. Publishing the human interface guidelines online was just the last step of a marketing effort that started much earlier. Since the early 1980s, a sales force of so-called evangelists has been gathering support among developers for the technology provided by Apple. These quasi-religious initiatives, promoting a better world through technology by advocating how an interface should work and look like, raise suspicion. What does it mean, if the realm of interface production, i.e. design and information architecture, is constricted and regulated by the companies who own the platforms of distribution? And what implications arise, when not only the questions of how to create an interface but also the theoretical discourses on interfaces end up as questions of branded identity and usability, as it did with the discussion of skeuomorphism (Apple) versus at design (Microsoft) in 2012 and the Material Design Paradigm introduced by Google in 2014? These developments showcase a paradigm where visibilities and interactions are intertwined with corporate strategies and branded visual languages.
The term critique is not any less complex than the term interface. If one understands critique in the very basic sense that Michel Foucault suggested on what critique could be—the “art of not being governed so much”—it corresponds strongly with topics of discourses around the interface. By replacing governance with guidance, it becomes clear that critique could be a way to think about the interface as a governing tool, as an apparatus that governs the user through gentle means, through so-called experience design, user guidance and usability. The interface in this perspective can be described as means of governmentality, of institutionalization or territorialization, developing patterns of social behavior, of social practices, rules and structures, conditioning actions within specific contexts and measuring behavior to improve efficiency. But critique in the Foucaultian sense does not only imply awareness of the mechanisms of governance, but also of the historicity of interfaces. It focuses on the conditions and contingencies of the present by tracing its predecessors, by examining the decisions, contexts and discourses that have led to the present. Critique therefore aims to expose the implicit principles of governance and, at the same time, to develop an alternate past, an alternate presence and also an alternate future.
Interface Critique is an attempt to interrogate apparatuses and applications. How can we examine the dissolving intersections between human and machine? How can we comprehend the contexts and conditions of their production? Where and how do these interfaces govern and guide us? How do they shape our perception of our surroundings and of our world? And what significance could the interface have in the context of current technological, social and economical developments?
We are glad to announce the first volume of Interface Critique published by Kadmos Kulturverlag Berlin.
Download the Introduction as PDF
With contributions by:
Tara L. Andrews
Karl Wolfgang Flender
Konstantin Daniel Haensch
Lukas F. Hartmann
Gabriel F. Yoran
Joris J. van Zundert