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“Interface culture” front cover
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Steven Johnson
Interface culture
How new technology transforms the way we create and communicate

Harper, 1997
264 pages
ISBN: 0-0625-1482-2

An interesting exercise in juxtaposing interfaces with historical and contemporary works of art (literature, architecture, paintings), and trying to define and predict cultural aspects and influences of interface design. This is quite a different read than all the other, more technical volumes presented here, and goes way beyond GUIs. For those wishing to expand their horizons, this could be a demanding, but satisfying detour.
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Back cover blurb

The following paragraphs are quoted verbatim from the sleeve:

“As our machines are increasingly jacked into global networks of information, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine the dataspace at our fingertips, to picture all that complexity in our mind’s eye... 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.” – from Interface Culture

In this hip, erudite manifesto, Steven Johnson – one of the most influential people in cyberspace, according to Newsweek – bridges the gap that yawns between technology and the arts. Drawing on his own expertise in the humanities and on the Web, he not only demonstrates how interfaces – those buttons, graphics, and words on the screen through which we control information – influence our daily lives, but also tracks their roots back to Victorian novels, early cinema, and even medieval urban planning. The result is a lush cultural and historical tableau in which today’s interfaces take their rightful place in the lineage of artistic innovation.

With Interface Culture, Johnson brilliantly charts the vital role interface design plays in modern society. Just as the great novels of Melville, Dickens, and Zola explained a rapidly industrializing society to itself, he argues, web sites, Microsoft Bob, flying toasters, and the landscapes of video games tell the digital society how to imagine itself and how to get around in cyberspace’s unfamiliar realm.

The role once played by novelists is now fulfilled by the interface designer, who has bridged the gap between technology and everyday life by providing a conceptual framework for the vast amounts of information and computation that surround us.

Johnson boldly explores the past – a terrain hardly any tech tinker has dared enter and one that throws dazzling light on the modern interface’s roots. From the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages to the rise of perspective drawing in the Renaissance, from Enlightenment satire to the golden age of television, Interface Culture uses a wealth of venerable “interface innovation” to place newfangled creations like Windows 95 and the Web in a rich historical context.

Controversial, clear-sighted, and challenging, Interface Culture also looks at the future – from what PC screens will look like in ten years to how new interfaces will alter the style of our conversation, prose, and thoughts. With a distinctively accessible style, Interface Culture brings new intellectual depth to the vital discussion of how technology has transformed society, and is sure to provoke wide debate in both literary and technological circles.

Steven Johnson has been named one of the most influential people in cyberspace by Newsweek, New York Magazine, and Websight magazine. He is the editor-in-chief and cofounder of Feed, the award-winning online cultural magazine. Johnson has degrees in semiotics from Brown University and in English literature from Columbia University. He lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.


Preface: Electric speed1
1. Bitmapping: An introduction11
2. The desktop42
3. Windows76
4. Links106
5. Text138
6. Agents173
Conclusion: Infinity imagined206

Page added on 7th October 2005.

With thanks to Christoper Ong.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.