Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound

By Lori Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. 232 pp. $25.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-8166-9216-5.

Humans shape technologies, but technologies in turn impact the people who adopt and use them, a point made by a long line of commentators and scholars, such as Lewis Mumford, Norbert Wiener, Edward T. Hall, Neil Postman, and Sherry Turkle. That observation applies to information technologies as much as to powerful technologies such as the wheel, the clock, and the internal combustion engine. Lori Emerson recognizes at the outset that “[t]echnological constraints are nothing new” (ix), but then she dramatizes the technology she has chosen to discuss – digital interfaces – by claiming that “what is new is that the interfaces themselves and therefore their constraints are becoming ever more difficult to perceive because of the blinding seductions of the wondrous” (ix). These ubiquitous interfaces, on our computers, tablets, phones and televisions, may make us feel empowered but in fact they reduce us to consumers engaged in “mindless/endless clicking” (42) rather than encouraging us to create content of our own.

Emerson sets two main tasks for herself in this book. One is to show that the digital interfaces that dominate the market currently (the user-friendly interfaces which require no programming skills) are the result of designers’ and marketers’ choices, and are not the outcome of some inevitable technological evolution. Things could have been different. The second is to show how creative writers can engage in insurgency against the domination of interfaces that conceal the workings of the devices themselves “by producing digital literature that is deliberately difficult to navigate or whose interfaces are anything but user friendly” (4).

To address the first task, she presents examples from the history of interface design to show that industry could have provided computer users with systems over which they would have had more control (at the cost of learning at least something about coding). She confesses to being a dedicated user of Apple products at the same time she laments that Steve Jobs’s approach to design led to devices that do things to their users rather than for them. One imagines Plato might have felt a similar confusion as he wrote about the perils that writing presented to culture.

For the second task, she introduces readers to writers engaged in “activist digital media poetics” (85) and their predecessors (particularly Emily Dickinson) whose works teach us “that there is no such thing as the interface-free – that it is absolutely necessary we both acknowledge that all writing comes to us through an interface and identify the precise ways in which the interface...inescapably defines or frames such writing” (142). Digital writing strains to call attention to the medium itself, to make the point that the purpose of art is not production of content but the act of creation. Digital poetry “is both created using a digital computer and self-conscious and/or self-reflexive about its digital medium of creation and representation” (134).

Emerson does not proceed through a carefully structured, evidence-based argument. Instead, she repeats dramatic claims, such as those above, and presents the emergence of contemporary computer design as the product of undemocratic, profit-seeking and largely anonymous technologists whose claim that technology is neutral in a values frame is actually based on an ideology that rejects individual autonomy. The book is more polemic than analytic, although honestly I am not sure whether Emerson, consciously working in the traditions of Michel Foucault and Marshall McLuhan, would concede a difference.

The examples presented are interesting. The school of thought Emerson represents is worthy of the attention of scholars interested in information and culture. The book, then, is more interesting for information studies as an example of a kind of thinking extant in contemporary culture than it is as an explanation of how interfaces actually impact art and all other aspects of human behavior. Emerson represents a challenge to scholars in information studies. She describes her academic field, “media archeology,” as “a (deliberately) frustrating field because it does not have a clear, overall methodology with precise parameters and a driving philosophy” (185). Reflection on her book raises questions for Information Studies (IS). Is IS also (deliberately or not) a frustrating field without an overall methodology and a driving philosophy?  Does IS offer paradigms for understanding the evolution and impact of computer interface design? Does IS scholarship account for art as an informative (or deliberately uninformative and confusing) use of information technology? And how would scholarly work in IS address Emerson’s claim that the impact of interface design is obscured by “the blinding seduction of the wondrous” (ix)?

Keith Swigger, Professor Emeritus, Texas Woman’s University