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Against the Frictionless Interface! An Interview with Lori Emerson

Monty Cantsin

AS FOUNDER/DIRECTOR OF THE MEDIA ARCHEOLOGY LAB IN COLORADO, LORI EMERSON HAS (since 2009) been surrounding herself with “dead” media technologies in order to help make sense of (and critique) today’s much-hyped alive ones. Being also a scholar and critic of contemporary poetics, she is keenly aware of how such devices are equipped to influence and constrain our writing/thinking.

Emerson’s work celebrates and calls for a “frictional media archeological analysis” aimed at the continual “unmooring” of the accepted conventions of reading and writing. Towards this end, she critiques consumer-oriented trends in computing–trends which unfortunately seek to “efface the interface” in the name of so-called user-friendliness. Montgomery Cantsin conducted the following interview by email upon the release of Lori’s new book, Reading Writing Interfaces (recently published by University of Minnesota Press).

Montgomery Cantsin: First, I want to point out that your new book is part of a series which was founded by Mark Poster, who passed away not too long ago. Can you talk about how your work fits into his “Electronic Mediations” series and what (if any) influence Poster has had on you?

Lori Emerson: Mark Poster has been an underlying, though subtle, influence on my work as I first read him in a graduate seminar I took on “cybercultures” in the mid- to late-90s with the Victorianist and early hypertext theorist Christopher Keep. That class and Poster’s work–his deeply political readings of digital media structures–stayed with me long afterwards. In fact, about seventeen years ago I gave a presentation on “Postmodern Virtualities” in that class and while I have no memory at all of what I said or even what I learned from reading his work back then, it’s remarkable that his opening sentence rings so true to the kind of work I now find myself doing–he writes that “a critical understanding of the new communications systems requires an evaluation of the type of subject it encourages, while a viable articulation of postmodernity must include an elaboration of its relation to new technologies of communication.” And so the point at which I realized I was, to my surprise, writing a political book that meshed together poetics and media studies was the point at which I realized that my work would likely fit in best (or, given its reputation in media studies, I wanted to make my work fit in) with the Electronic Mediations series, especially because of their books on tactical media, glitch and error, as well as the politics of archives and networks. It’s such a thrill and an honor to have my book included in that series.

MC: How did your Media Archeology Lab come about?

LE: I was fortunate enough to have the support of the past director of the Alliance for Technology, Learning, and Society when I was first hired here at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2008. In 2009, the director, John Bennett, offered me a $20,000 startup grant to build a lab, any lab, that Atlas and English Department students could both use. I then began looking for a way to build a lab that wasn’t just another venue on campus to celebrate the perpetual new in computing and, since I was at the time fascinated with how the Canadian poet bpNichol wrote one of the first kinetic digital poems, “First Screening,” in 1983 using Basic on an Apple IIe, I decided to create a lab that had enough Apple IIe’s to teach bpNichol in a classroom full of 20 English majors. It didn’t take long before I moved on to acquiring Commodore 64’s and then to where we find ourselves now, with a collection of about a thousand pieces of still functioning hardware and software from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s. I also have to admit that the MAL wouldn’t be what it is now if we weren’t flying under the radar of the university for the first three years or so. The relative obscurity of the lab in those early years meant that we had little to no oversight, no one to report to, no metrics or outcomes to adhere to, and so on which meant we were free to be as wild as we wanted.

MC: In trying to explain your book to a friend, I admit I had some difficulty. I found that it was (for me) hard to do without making the subject of the book sound obscure. And yet I feel that the issues raised in the book are actually quite significant/fundamental. …Let’s delve right into the concept of the interface. As you point out, digital interfaces are now being made “invisible” by manufacturers in the name of “naturalness,” and so it is hard now to even point to a modern interface and say “this is an interface.” At one point you quote Alexander Galloway, who defines an interface as a “point of transition.” (In other words it is a sort of boundary?) You also quote Johanna Drucker, who says that a book can qualify as an interface!? …Is it useful here to ask what’s NOT an interface??!

LE: I think that, similar to Marshall McLuhan’s notion of ‘medium’ which he even extended to roads (and then had to endure a couple decades of ridicule from academics), interface can indeed be anything that’s an intermediary between a human user or creator and what is being created. But unlike using ‘medium’, ‘interface’ seems to allow us to focus our thinking on the particular affordances of specific intermediary structures. It’s not especially unusual or even useful to point out that paper is a medium but, by contrast, calling it an interface summons up not only the material qualities of paper (the grain, size, texture, limits and possibilities for inscription) but also pens and pencils along with that crucial point of interaction that’s between–between writer or artist and their materials. But I also suspect that some of the significance of the concept as I’m using is lost when you start from an arbitrary point in the past and think about needles as interfaces for needlework, or rocks as interfaces for etchings or engravings. Instead, ‘interface’ gains traction when we use contemporary notions of it to have a see-saw relationship between present and past–reading contemporary interfaces through past interfaces and vice-versa. In this way, my book is resolutely of the present because I tend not to delude myself into thinking I can have a pure, direct access to the past. Instead, I start with the closed interfaces of the present moment whose manufacturers try to convince us that a closed device is the only way for us to have a supposedly “natural,” “intuitive,” “seamless” experience with our digital devices; I then work my way back in time to reread typewriters and fascicles or handmade books as profoundly open and configurable interfaces but still with their own limitations.

MC: I was delighted to see that the first scholarly name you drop into your text is that of the amazingly awesome Florian Cramer, the second-wave Neoist. You say he importantly identified eight different types of interfaces. Of these eight, the type that you identify as being of particular interest to you is the “human-to-hardware” interface?

LE: I’m interested in thinking about how certain (largely profit-driven) decisions about interfaces for human-computer-interaction fundamentally affect the human user–determining their access to information along with what and how they’re able to create. This uneven distribution of power between user and digital computer is most obvious when we start to think about why the keyboard/screen/mouse interface has become the only way for us to interact with our machines or when we look at the history of how a particular notion of the Graphical User Interface was used to advance an ideology of the user-friendly. While I am obviously quite dedicated to certain aspects of media archaeology that believe in the value of looking at the operational undersides of machines and the ways in which these machines can now operate quite independently of humans, in Reading Writing Interfaces I’m most concerned with how humans are now almost totally unable to think outside of the current dominant paradigm in computing. This is why I’m less interested in hardware-to-hardware configurations and more interested in the space between human and hardware–as well as software.

MC: I like how you point out that the closed interface can be a sort of metaphor for ideology (‘that which we are not aware of’). This part of the book blew my mind and I’d love it if you could expand on this here.

LE: I’m fast and loose with how I use ‘ideology’ but, after going through every issue of Byte magazine from the late 70s through the mid-1980s after the release of the Apple Macintosh–mostly just to see what I’d find–I became convinced not even that contemporary computing interfaces are metaphors for ideology but that they are themselves expressions of an ideology. Somehow what was at first a battle between competing philosophies in the 1970s–between a model of computing based on openness and a model of computing based on a closed interface for the sake of a very particular notion of user friendliness–gradually turned into an all-out marketing campaign by Apple that was so successful users/consumers are barely even aware of other possible versions of computing. These closed interfaces have become so familiar, so accepted as the so-called ‘natural’ way for users to access their computers, that we are mostly utterly unable to imagine any other alternative. Over and over again, we’re told: “Computers are only getting easier, more intuitive, more natural to use!” Or so the story goes, until you either try to understand how exactly our digital devices work. Or until you try to create outside of a corporation’s rigid developer guidelines. Or until you come up against the impossibility of working with a closed device whose “seamless,” “natural,” “intuitive” user interface doesn’t in any way conform to your own sense of nature or intuition and can’t be rebuilt, remade, or reassembled in your own image because in computing words like “seamless” and “natural” are code for “closed.”

Something I’d love to research more is how this ideology of invisibility is not a reflection of a particular aspect of capitalism (as I thought when I wrote Reading Writing Interfaces) but is actually one of the key underpinnings of a capitalist economy. I recently learned from reading Kirstyn Leuner‘s dissertation that the diorama–which emerged in the 1820s in Paris not coincidentally at the same time as early industrial capitalism began to get its legs (and only twenty years before Marx would move to Paris and begin formulating Capital)–was also produced and marketed as a “magical” device whose inner workings were kept hidden from viewers in the interests of providing an immersive experience. But I admit this is all just a hunch.

Reading Writing Interfaces (cover)

MC: The Situationists called for a seizing of the “means of conditioning.” Should we also aim to seize the means of programming? And what connections might we draw between these two projects?

LE: As I try to imply above, contemporary computing is one of the most profound manifestations of late capitalism–I only have a superficial understanding of the Situationists but, ultimately, the only reason why our devices are now not only closed to us but gradually disappearing under the guise of ‘seamlessness’ is because, from a profit-oriented perspective, a universal homogeneity of devices is the ideal; and now, to accelerate that homogeneity, these devices must also be invisible. It does seem to me that the way out is to hack, appropriate, seize, rebuild in our own image. The only problem is that even ‘hacking’ and ‘making’ have become big business, as Make Magazine and all its spin-off projects (Maker Faire, Craft Magazine, Maker Television etc.) continue to be enormously profitable and as mega corporations such as Google and Facebook hire hackers and even hire Occupy Wall Street activists. Nonetheless, I have a tremendous amount of respect for utterly unprofitable experiments in taking control of our technology–I’ve begun working on my next project I’m calling OTHER NETWORKS which looks at networks that exist outside of or before that behemoth “the internet” came to dominate our online interactions. One project in particular, Occupy.Here, seems to fit in nicely as a Situationist-inspired seizing of the means of programming in that it is a network that exists entirely outside of the internet via a wifi router near Zuccotti Park in New York City which anyone with a smartphone or laptop can access through a portal website. In other words, it offers us a beautifully simple, elegant way out of the way the internet disempowers us through a system of distributed control.

MC: It used to be that people could take apart and reassemble the mechanical devices in their lives (toasters for example), and these devices were constructed with universal parts (screws, etc) …How can the tinkering impulse survive in the face of smart devices, blackboxing, proprietary components, etc.? (Maybe not everyone is a tinkerer, but…)

LE: I’ve wondered the same thing but projects such as Occupy.Here and devices such as Raspberry Pi (that are as inexpensive as a book) or platforms such as Arduino that are meant to help us build other devices give me hope. But also I think it’s important to remember this blackboxing is largely (but of course not only) driven by Apple and that, as I’ve come to learn, this tinkering impulse is alive and well in countries outside of the U.S. For example, I recently met a graduate student from Israel who assured me that nearly all of her friends and family members living in Israel used PCs or Linux devices and everyone regularly takes apart and fixes their machines. This was quite a revelation to me, to realize that the overwhelming push to disempower users/consumers with closed devices may be a western phenomenon.

MC: Your book suggests that an interface that is truly going to be a “friend” to the user is NOT necessarily an interface that is going to make all the fundamental decisions in advance for the user, etc. Maybe talk about how future interfaces might possibly instead more fully engage the creativity of the user (and/or invite the user to engage at a deeper level with the capabilities of computers)? Also, can such be accomplished in a way that draws in all users and not just geeks?

LE: Uncovering documentation from the 1970s on Smalltalk and on Alan Kay’s vision of a Dynabook (as a device that would have given users the ability to create their own ways to view and manipulate information) demonstrated to me that there are real alternatives to the binary of experts on one side and everyday users on the other. This is a false dichotomy, a convenient construction invented to convince people that closed devices were, as an advertisement for Apple Macintosh put it, computers “for the rest of us.” It is perfectly possible in theory for us to have interfaces in the future that are open, extensible, and configurable to the expert or novice user. The problem is, first, that there’s no way to avoid the need to institute nationwide education in programming and digital literacy in public schools as I imagine that any device built for configurability will also have to be programmable; and second, it’s hard to imagine a configurable, programmable device that will generate maximum profit – companies and western consumers would have to change in a radical way that seems unsupportable by the dictates of late capitalism.

Vectrex, photo by Diane Lynn Bolluck

MC: The computer’s identity as tool for efficiency seems to overshadow the computer’s poetic potential. I use ‘poetic’ here to mean “the development of absolutely new forms of behavior”–a Lettrist definition of poetics which is notably similar to Mckenzie Wark’s definition of hacking (which you cite): “creating the possibility of new things entering the world.” …Has the poet always been a sort of hacker?

LE: I think so! Seeing writing, especially innovative poetry that lives on the edges of acceptability, as studies of media has brought about a profound shift in my thinking so that I’m no longer interested in trying to seeing through letters and words to get at the representational meaning but instead I think about how the writing registers media effects. I’m not sure how far back you can go in literary history and make this work, but there’s no question in my mind that poets such as Emily Dickinson, Stéphane Mallarmé, and of course a whole host of experimental early twentieth century poets were pushing up against the limits of what the media of their time could and could not do for/with writing. And to the extent that these poets are engaged in a continuous cycling of tinkering with the limits and possibilities of writing media of their time which in turn re-enlivens our language, it does seem like poetry [defined as such] could be seen as hacking.

MC: Diane di Prima wrote: “THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST THE IMAGINATION / ALL OTHER WARS ARE SUBSUMED IN IT” [emphasis in the original]. Do you think we have the means to win this war (which is also, it would seem, Richard Bailey’s “war against conventionality”)? To what degree is it a question of interface?

LE: Nearly all of our tools, no matter how simple, are interfaces for accessing other sets of tools (think of hammers and pens as interfaces to access nails and paper) so that not only are nearly all our actions mediated by interfaces of some sort but also there may not be such a thing as an unmediated, interface-free interaction. So, it’s possible to say that it’s always been a question of interface–the problem now is that corporations are making it as difficult as possible to perceive these interfaces and to see how they’re mediating and even determining our experience.

To get to your question about imagination, it’s getting harder and harder to be weird, or even encounter the truly weird which, for me, is “imagination”–existing in or seeing the world askew, envisioning new kinds of existence in the world because everything is indeed mediated tightly and thoroughly for us, making it next to impossible to be anything but a consumer. In this sense, winning the war could come down to making or producing either as an end in itself or as a means to just exercise imagination.