The defining element of the desktop GUI is the icon, which, although it often has a name, is above all a picture that performs or receives an action. These actions give the icon its meaning. As elements in a true picture writing, icons do note merely remind the user of documents and programs, but function as documents and programs. Reorganizing files and activating programs is writing, just as putting alphabetic characters in a row is writing. Rather like the religious relics after which they are named, computer icons are energy units that focus the operative power of the machine into visible and manipulable symbols. Computer icons also remind us of the cultural functions of Hebrew letters in the Cabala or of alchemical and other signs invoked by such Renaissance magi as Giordano Bruno. Magic letters and signs were often objects of meditation, as they were in the logical diagrams of the medieval Raymond Llul, and they were also believed to have operational powers. As functioning representations in computer writing, electronic icons realize what magic signs in the past could only suggest.
What exactly is an interface anyway? In its simplest sense, the word refers to software that shapes the interaction between user and computer. The interface serves as a kind of translator, mediating between the two parties, making one sensible to the other. In other words, the relationship governed by the interface is a semantic one, characterized by meaning and expression rather than physical force. Digital computers are “literary machines,” as hypertext guru Ted Nelson calls them. They work with signs and symbols, although this language, in its most elemental form, is almost impossible to understand. A computer thinks—if thinking is the right word for it—in tiny pulses of electricity, representing either an “on” or an “off” state, a zero or a one. Humans think in words, concepts, images, sounds, associations. A computer that does nothing but manipulate sequences of zeros and ones is nothing but an but an exceptionally inefficient adding machine. For the magic of the digital revolution to take place, a computer must also represent itself to the user, in a language that the user understands.
Representing all that information is going to require a new visual language, as complex and meaningful as the great metropolitan narratives of the nineteenth-century novel.
Put simply, the importance of interface design revolves around this apparent paradox: we live in a society that is increasingly shaped by events in cyberspace, and yet cyberspace remains, for all practical purposes, invisible, outside our perceptual grasp. Our only access to this parallel universe of zeros and ones runs through the conduit of the computer interface, which means that the most dynamic and innovative region of the modern world reveals itself only through the anonymous middlemen of interface design.
[Quote adapted from Johnson, S. (1997) Interface Culture. Harper Collins (pp.14-19).]
When reading a book or even a sentence, there is a beginning step. A book and a sentence both have a beginning that is formally denoted. There is a middle, and, hopefully, there is a solution to a problem that is posed. The reader is recognizing symbols and making associations. The reader controls the pacing, the level of participation, and the dwell-time. But, essentially, the part that interests the reader are the symbols and finding the solution to the problem: that is, making meaning.
Launching an application follows the same steps as reading, with the user of the program recognizing symbols for the sake of solving a problem. The user determines the pacing, the level of participation, and the dwell-time, but in the end is only concerned with the symbols and the solution to the problem.
Simply put, running an application is an interactive form of reading.
The emerging sense of a self-directed, self-aware person takes place within the context of symbolic systems that are increasingly only internally referential. Awareness is not of the world but of the systems of mediated representation. An increase in personal knowledge about the world equates with the extension of mind ever deeper into the mediated systems of representation and meaning. Individual choice and personal freedom thus become based on the ability to discriminate between a limited number of elements presented and represented in the mediated world, whether shampoo or political candidates.
I am encouraged to frame my experiences into the shop-worn clichés of a language that drones perpetually through the airwaves and over the broadband connections.
Rather than arising out of local, human experience elaborated though conversations with other people, language now comes prepackaged and reflects not the need of human beings but the values of capital, the machine, and the technological system.