Welcome to The Interface... Take your bags?

Disclaimer: The views expressed below in no way reflect those of other members of the Reveal team. If they don't agree however, then I reckon they're gimps :)

We often describe the vectors of communication and interaction as existing somewhere. The idea that beyond our screen, there is an actual space where our mind interacts with our computer (and other people through our computer) is one heavily entrenched in computer culture.

If we take that idea further, we might come to believe that this place isn't just some great empty plane or field where data zips back and forth ("when a packet meets a packet, coming through the rye..."). Furthermore, perhaps it's not even a Gibsonesque ("cyber") space where information is etched out as monolithic neon primitives; faint squiggles of light the only indicators of human presence in this world.

What I'd like to suggest to you is that - just like humans are more than mobile meat machines - computers are more than just silicon and plastic. They also consist of (or perhaps house, or even embody) that world where information and ideas interact - communication, to be exact.

Now don't worry, I'm not about to go into how for centuries, philosophers have pondered the nature of thought and communication. I'm not going go all existential and postulate the how and why ideas move and shape themselves. There's plenty of time for that later on…(rubs hand together malevolently)

So, getting back on track; if this world of communication is not some great green grid, then what is it? The most pertinent analogy (and one which makes explaining windows customisations a revelatory experience… yeah, yeah, I'm getting to it) is that this ephemeral electronic environment is a bustling metropolis-world.

Now, the only natives of these city-states are those whose job is to look after and "assist" the massive tourist population that surges in and out of this pleasure/business haven. The tourists? Humans. The functionaries and citizens of this fair land? Applications, programs, bots, and the like - basically, software.

This concept of humans as stranger-tourist in the electronic world of communication and idea interaction brings a new perspective to the nature of human-computer interaction. (Perhaps we could also assert that it is a sad indictment on the human psyche that we find the need to be strangers to our own thoughts, that we must create a foreign land for them, in order to apprehend them and know ourselves better… but we won't right now.) P What I will say, is that we have congealed this dance of human ideas into an electronic flesh. We've built a more tangible realm of electrons, binary code and protocols for them (and us?) to inhabit. The problem is that we're not indigenous to this electronic world (although we may have created it) and that the language spoken there is not native to us.

So logically, what do we need?
Why, an interpreter, of course.

With that concept of interpreter, we're back once more to the idea of software as creatures and characters of this world, so let's try and relate this all back to some software characters we're more familiar with… Interface customisation. And in particular, Windows customisation.

If we want to think in terms of evolution (of depth, sophistication and effect) we might rank the various forms of windows customisation like so:

  • the background and system colours (ie. the appearance properties box)
  • window shaders: efx and the like
  • custom modules and apps that run off wharfs and launchers in explorer
  • complete shell replacements like litestep
  • open script based methodologies for interface creation

Now, this isn't a scale which attempts to rate value or "rightness", so don't accuse me of favouritism or nepotism in this respect. Indeed, most are often mixed and used together. However, it is clear and undeniable that as we progress down the list, the user is given more control over how they travel and interact in the world of information interaction.

And that's the issue. The interface. It's our gondolier, protector and interpreter in this foreign land. We rely on it to work and play effectively in this nebulous nation. Therefore, our ability to inhabit this realm is dependant on our relationship with our interpreter. Our motives must be his (or her) motives. We must trust our interpreter to explain fully just what is going on around us… which finally brings us to the bureaucracy of capital "W" Windows.

If we continue the analogy, we might come to believe that the interpreter the great majority of tourists use by default (Windows 9X) is the "official" companion the large corporation- bureaucracy assigned to us as we stepped off the plane. In accordance with that, we might suspect that such an administration functionary might not have our needs as his top priority. It would not be surprising to find that the "official" tour doesn't show you quite "everything" ; that there are actually ways to get around and things to do that aren't on the official tour.

For instance, if you're in a café in the city square and someone at the next table is talking about some cock fight that goes on in the apartment behind the shop; your official guide would probably not tell you that he said that, even if he knows you're interested in such a deplorable spectacle.

If you're catching my drift, thanks. If I'm not being clear… I'm sorry.
Let's continue anyway.

So to get around and do what we want to do in this electronic realm, we might feel the need to get another interpreter… to find another membrane through which to see and interact with the world.

One of the first things most people try, is to take up the offer of the corporation government to choose the colour and style of our official interpreter's uniform. (ie: appearance properties) Now, this may make us feel a little more comfortable, but it doesn't change how we interact with the foreign land.

How about we stick this stuffy old ambassador-like fellow in boardshorts, thongs, and a t-shirt? Well, that's analogous to what window shaders are doing. They definitely look cool, and lessen the oppressiveness of an appointed "guard". You might even assume that we can pass more unobtrusively through the natives, but it really doesn't change how we interact with the e-world either. Perhaps we should just ditch this untrustworthy interpreter altogether, find us a friendly taxi-driver or truanting child to be our interface with all this information…

I agree, so enter the shell replacements…

Check out the next bit here


headline | blueprints | fumes | designs
workshop | storeroom | what is it? | architects | rev.web