Interface is to the web what space is to the physical world

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In this sense: In the physical world, perhaps one of the biggest, most basic hurdles to overcome for any creature (above plant) is navigating space. Whatever you may want (eat, talk, watch, mate..) you have to be there first. That’s the tyranny of space, a tyranny that lingers despite telecommunications easing it to a degree we can’t really imagine now.

But technology has uncovered a new hurdle, even more basic in some ways, that we hadn’t even glimpsed some decades ago (you don’t much care about space when you live in a pen). The new hurdle is interface — a device’s how, its ways of interaction, what you have to wrestle with to get things done through it. Whatever you may want to do through technology (moving, watching, writing, browsing, talking, killing,…) you have to overcome the interface first. The need is more acutely felt the more plastic and dynamic the technology. The web ranks right up there. The information superhighway delivered its promise of abolishing space but the freedom has shifted the load from our legs to our brains, from space to interface. The challenge is no longer motive, it’s cognitive.

Consider malls. Besides modern comforts and breathtaking opulence, the single main thing they have going for them, their reason for being, is that they get stuff closer. They ease space. That’s also why similar stores cluster together, closeness is so valuable for customers that they force owners to set shop right next to the competition. Big box stores are the climax of contiguity.

A very similar thing happens in the web under interface constraints. Beyond critical-mass, Amazon, eBay, and the myriad vertical marketplaces (etsy is a good one) thrive because there’s a nontrivial number of interface details you have to tiresomely learn, divine, or settle if you go somewhere else. And these details are particularly painful in shopping because the whole process is staggeringly complex: it involves a lot of searching, browsing, foraging, comparing, digesting, authenticating, etc.

But in other areas the reality of the tyranny of interface is just as real. Wikipedia, we’ve now come to realize, is useful chiefly because it provides a single unified interface to knowledge. The blog is one of the most significant web innovations in recent years and at bottom it’s just a genre for the efficient exploitation of interface, uniforming it, streamlining it, adapting content interfaces to the new realities of the web, kind of what convenience stores did for space and cars. Heck, even search engines, interface-saving devices in a way (the search engine is the modern steam engine, directories are human-powered transport), have nontrivial interfaces all their own, as I’ve attested recently trying out torrent engines (mininova, torrentSpy, and isoHunt are my favorites).

You could have once said that downloading was the web’s equivalent of moving but broadband quickly made that friction negligible. In our current web, figuring out interface is the new moving. Interface is the new space.

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