Synthesis and Sense-making
Ok, yes, I’m sorry, it’s yet another looong quote. But it’s worth it. Read it if you want to see Steven Johnson, a most lucid man, at his most lucid, at his most techno-lyricist. Read it if you want to know how interfaces are our culture’s cathedrals, why interface design is the art form of our century, and why I’ll spend the next decade trying to master it. Read it as a favor. To me. To you.
And yet against all that dislocation and overload and multiplicity there is the interface. Most of the time we talk about the graphic interface as though it were a logical culmination of the digital revolution, its crowning glory, but the truth is, the interface serves largely as a corrective to the forces unleashed by the information age. Whenever I find myself being swayed by the fragmentation jeremiads, I like to sit down at my computer and go through the usual routines — check my e-mail, rearrange my desktop, log on to the Web — and concentrate all the while on what is really happening as I do these things. Because what is really happening, not on the screen but down in the innards of the machine itself, or out on the great expanses of the Internet, what is happening in that world is literally unimaginable. What is happening is that billions of tiny pulses of electricity are hurtling through silicon conduits, like an entire planet’s worth of digital automobiles making their way across the grid of a single microchip. And all those pulses self-organize into larger shapes and patterns, into assembly codes, machine languages, instruction sets. Some of these ethereal languages then transform themselves into flashes of light, or audio waveforms, and depart en masse from my machine into the sprawling backbone of the Net, where they disperse into countless separate units, and then thread their way through thousands of other microchips, before reuniting at their destination.
But what happens on the screen is this: a window pops open, a dialog box appears, a bright, cheerful voice tells me that I have mail.
No news here, of course, but something profound nonetheless. The great surge of information that has swept across our society in recent years looks genuinely innocuous next to the meticulous anarchy of real bit-space, that netherworld that lurks in our microchips and our fiber-optic lines. But we see almost nothing of that universe because we have built such sturdy mediators to keep it separate from us, translators that make sense of what would otherwise be a blizzard of senselessness. It is undeniable that the world has never seen so many zeros and ones, so many bits and bytes of information — but by the same token, it has never been so easy to ignore them altogether, to deal only with their enormously condensed representatives on the screen. Which is why we should think of the interface, finally, as a synthetic form, in both senses of the word. It is a forgery of sorts, a fake landscape that passes for the real thing, and — perhaps most important — it is a form that works in the interest of synthesis, bringing disparate elements together into a cohesive whole.
Seen in this light, all that ranting about the fragmented consciousness of the digital age sounds a great deal less convincing. After all, critics have bemoaned — or championed — the accelerated pace of the present, its dislocations and divided selves, ever since the industrial age powered up in the early nineteenth century. Think of Baudelaire losing himself in the shimmering, half-lit streets of Paris, becoming a “kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness.” Think of Joyce’s characters bouncing back and forth between biblical references and advertising jingles. Think of Marinetti’s poetry, renouncing “the ‘I’ in all literature” for the speed of the race car and the destructiveness of the machine gun. Conceptual turbulence — the sense of the world accelerating around you, pulling you in a thousand directions at once — is a deeply Modern tradition, with roots that go back hundreds of years. What differentiates our own historical moment is that a symbolic form has arisen designed precisely to counteract that tendency, to battle fragmentation and overload with synthesis and sense-making. The interface is a way of seeing the whole. Or, at the very least, a way of seeing its shadow illuminated by the bright phosphor of the screen.
When I think about the gap between raw information and its numinous life on the screen — something I try to avoid doing, because it is a dark and difficult thought, more than a little like contemplating the age of the universe — the whole sensation has a strangely religious feel to it, that sense of the mind trying to reach around a vibrant (and convenient) metaphor to the wider truth that lies beyond. Cathedrals, remember, were “infinity imagined,” the heavens brought down to earthly scale. The medieval mind couldn’t take in the full infinity of godliness, but it could subjugate itself before the majestic spires of Chartres or Saint-Sulpice. The interface offers a comparable sidelong view onto the infosphere, half unveiling and half disappearing act. It makes information sensible to you by keeping most of it from view — for the simple reason that “most of it” is far too multitudinous to imagine in a single thought.
Yes, I know it’s pretentious. But you just wait and see. Let the quote sit on your mind for some weeks and when the brain fart comes, let’s talk.