Hyperrhiz 11: Reviews

Reading Reading Writing Interfaces by Lori Emerson

Kathi Inman Berens

University of Southern California


At a Shakespeare conference in Ashland many years ago, a Marxist was discoursing over dinner on the finer points of materialism. "Garçon!" he interjected, motioning for the wait staff. "My soup is cold." When a critic claims that his or her work is "performing" a critique or "intervening" in the dominant discourse, I pause to hear the moment when the privilege of such a critical vantage doubles back on itself, when activist speech sounds the sharp edges of what academic political criticism can and cannot do.

That's why, when I read Lori Emerson's claim that "This book is more about doing through thinking than theorizing media archeology" (xiii, emphasis Emerson's), I was skeptical that the categories of "doing" and "theorizing" would be sufficiently distinct. But as I read on, the rationale motivating the distinction became not just credible but winning. Emerson "does" rather than "theorizes" media archeology by organizing her analysis as "nonlinear and nonteleological." Messing with a typical media book's "triumphalist" telos encoded by a book's fixed beginning, middle and end, Emerson instead enacts a series of "media phenomena — or ruptures — to avoid reinstating a model of media history that tends toward narratives of progress and generally ignores neglected, failed or dead media." Dead media feature particularly in chapter two, "From the Philosophy of the Open to the Ideology of the User-Friendly," which sparks the imagination with ghostly, alternate histories of how computing might have gone differently if the GUI and Apple "ideology" of the "invisible interface" had not prevailed. Emerson asks us to reinhabit how contingent, unpredictable and unsettled were those early experiments in interface: how "user-friendly" began as an open philosophy that was gradually foreclosed by a proprietary commercial logic. Such ideology can still be resisted, as this book makes plain it wishes to do. Its conclusion focusing on art that jams Google enacts a critical media poetics.

Emerson ruptures chronology in the four chapters and postscript of Reading Writing Interfaces. We begin chapter one at the present moment with Tim Cook extoling the iOS interface as magical ("It just works"), and then travel backward to a time before "magic" and "invisibility" were desirable: when in fact, attention to the interface entailed potential activism and "philosophy." Chapters two and three offer different and sustained treatments of the mid-1960s-70s: early interface design (chapter two) and typewriter concrete poetry as "activist poetics" (chapter three). Emerson travels still further back in chapter four to Emily Dickinson's "fascicle as process and product," poems Dickinson pinned into 3D objects that cannot render into book-bound form. A "postscript," "The Googlization of Literature," zooms us to present day and the "strange blurring of, even feedback loop between reading and writing" in browser algorithms that read our writing in search bars, then reciprocally "write us" by selling productized refractions of ourselves back to us (163 and ff).

Emerson delivers sufficient cohesion to explain why invisible interfaces are pernicious but also denies straightforward continuity. Instead, she populates her book with ghostly "sideshadows," as the Slavist Gary Saul Morson might call them, alternate histories of failed interface experiments that might have inclined personal computing to stay rooted in command-line programming.

Despite studies released since 1985 that clearly demonstrate GUIs [graphical user interfaces, a.k.a. "icons] are not necessarily better than command-line interfaces in terms of how easy they are to learn and to use, Apple — particularly under Jobs's leadership — created such a convincing aura of inevitable superiority around the Macintosh GUI that to this day the same "user-friendly" philosophy, paired with the no longer noticed closed architecture, fuels consumers' religious zeal for Apple products. (49)

One needn't strain to hear Winston Smith and "He loved big brother" in Emerson's observation about "consumers' religious zeal for Apple products." The alternative history Emerson sketches shows that the GUI ("gooey" Graphical User Interface) was not and is not inevitable. Creative programming is a philosophy that underpins new work such as Nick Montfort's Programming for Fun, Together (see his presentation about the forthcoming book here) and the interdisciplinary 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, a collaboratively authored book that uses the title's one-line BASIC program "as a lens through which to consider the phenomenon of creative computing."

The moral core of Reading Writing Interfaces is in the failed experiments, the "philosophy" of making as tinkering, exemplified by Alan Kay whose Dynabook "for children of all ages" was never realized. "We make not just to have, but to know" he says (54, emphasis Emerson's). Kay, Emerson says, "understood the need for computing to move from the specialized environment of the research lab into people's homes by way of a philosophy of the user-friendly oriented toward the flexible production (rather than rigid consumption) of knowledge" (54, emphasis mine).

But is the "invisible interface" really responsible for dumbing down would-be programmers into Buzzfed consumers? Don't busy people (and you're one, aren't you?) benefit from autocomplete and cookies? It's convenient that software learns our habits and anticipates them.

Emerson doesn't advocate eschewing such technologies so much as understanding the bargain we make when we barter ease for openness. The substitution of command line computing with the "user-friendly invisible interface" is a commercial move with significant financial rewards for Apple and Google and a corresponding loss to ordinary people whose computational literacy erodes with each new product and software update.

While there isn't a specific telos to Reading Writing Interfaces, the book's conclusion in the algorithm prompts a neologism that reads like an endpoint to the "philosophy of openness." Reading and Writing, formerly discrete actions, become in the search algorithm readingwriting, "the practice of writing through the network, which as it tracks, indexes and algorithmizes every click and every bit of text we enter into the network" and then sells us back to ourselves (xiv and 163). Emerson historicizes the present dangerous moment in which interfaces that "further alienate the user from having access to the underlying workings of the device . . . turn all computing devices into appliances for the consumption of content instead of multi-functional, generative devices for reading as well as writing or producing content" (xi-xii; repeated 163-4).

Emerson's book is influenced by cyberfeminist principles though Emerson doesn't acknowledge them as formative. The activists who demanded women's access to critical maker tools did so because they saw in the mid-eighties and early 90s how even the "open" culture of that era wasn't sufficiently open to them. Customers of Apple and Google products today find themselves disenfranchised in ways that cyberfeminists diagnosed and fought against: the "seductions to organic wholeness" in Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto (1985) that created an illusion of a universal experience by erasing difference. Haraway doesn't anticipate Emerson's work unmasking the "invisible interface" so much as create a critical lexicon by which such things could be made visible and resisted, as when Haraway discusses "the plot of original unity" that sounds to my ear like the designed docility borne of an interface that "just works." When Emerson analyzes Apple's representation of the iPad as "thin," "thinner," "thinnest," "gorgeous," "beautiful," "elegant" and "light" (pp. 13-19), her local critique of the "fashion magazine" language is diminished by not being tied to a more systemic explanation of how the chiasmus of women as objects/objects as women is the attractive distractor that enables the interface's operations to seem "invisible." We gawk at the pretty lady getting cut down thinner and thinner, or elongated (like iPhone 5), and our gaze is distracted from noticing iOS's aggressive operations of power. Emerson notes that Google Glass provides, in Google's own words, "Answers without having to ask" (165-66, emphasis Emerson's). "Answers without having to ask" could be a line straight out of The Feminine Mystique (1963), which explained why women ought to have been happy with housewifery but were not. "Answers without having to ask" is convenience but also subjugation: the "user" learns to subsist on that which the algorithm can deliver, and stop searching for what it can't.

Critics of print-based works have done important work defamiliarizing the ontological priority of text (Genette's paratext, Derrida's parergon); Emerson's work is also groundbreaking, convincingly showing why literary criticism has more explanatory power when it puts interface at its core. Emerson's reading of Dickinson's fascicles is not just locally brilliant but logically expansive: media-specific reading of digital poetry could guide new understanding of our book-bound past. This is the most generative and exciting part of Emerson's vision. But "[w]e must be wary of too easily seeing literary precedents everywhere we look," she cautions. "It is undeniable that digital poetry, one genre among many in digital literature, is transforming the limits and the possibilities of poetry and poetics (so much so that unless the author specifies that their work is digital poetry, it's often unclear whether these works are poetry at all or are simply instances of digital literature)" (136). For any critic of print-based works, what Emerson accurately represents might look outlandish: an artist's fiat declares the work's generic properties? Why would intention be a reliable metric of anything? Indeed, poets and critics of electronic literature would benefit from Emerson's method of starting with the medium as a means of parsing literary history. Jessica Pressman's Digital Modernism: Making It New In New Media (2014) shares this orientation, and does it with skill and elegance. Literary criticism of electronic literature is young, and these two books are stars to set one's course by.

Reading Writing Interfaces discloses a problem central to electronic literature's emerging canon. Are there repeated, specific generic properties of digital poetry that transcend platform? Or does the authoring software change so rapidly that a "canon" is not an apt tool for creating explanations of origin and influence? Do legacy, print-based methods for determining a canon get at the heart of how digital-born literature works? Rather than strenuously applying print-based methods to born-digital texts, or excluding the newest and arguably most exciting work from the literary canon because it doesn't fit, perhaps we need to take a page from Emerson's Dickinson chapter and imagine how electronic literature prompts us to gaze backward for inspiration: to find the outliers in canonical texts that help us re-imagine the canon not via periodization (per Ted Underwood's recent and excellent Why Literary Periods Mattered (2013), but through medium.


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