Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Theory- lecture #2

2 …: Interfaces

“The inhabitants (of Ersilia) stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain. From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia's refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing. They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away. Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.” --Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.

Figure Three: All Design is Interface Design. Jacques Tati’s M. Houlot, lost in Tativille, the vertiginous, dystopic parody of Modern spatial interfaces. Tati commissioned the sets for Playtime (1967.)

(A.) Interfaces
The aesthetics of logistics is a diagrammatic image of a system's interfaces, but what is an interface? How is the interface critical to the material cultures of global mobility? How has computation contributed to this criticality? What is a useful typology of interfaces, and how do they effect and perform differently? An interface is any point of contact between two complex systems that governs the conditions of transference and exchange between those systems. A steering wheel is an interface to a car, a car is an interface to a city, a city is an interface to social and economic proximities, etc. But interfaces disclose different things depending on where you stand, and how you may access them and they may access you. When I travel, the airport is an interface to another city, but to the person receiving me on the other end, the airport is an interface that produces people, in this case me.

Interface: (a.) The site at which independent and often unrelated systems meet and act on or communicate with each other. (b.) boundary or point common to two or more similar or dissimilar command and control systems, sub-systems, or other entities against which or at which necessary information flow takes place. (c.) A threshold point between two abstract systems that governs and joins the conditions of exchange between those systems (such as a border between countries.) (d.) An active membrane that conjoins programs, mediating interplay, interpenetration and inclusion, and/or enclosure, discretion and exclusion. (e.) an instrument enabling intentional action at distance through a network.

(B.) Interfaces and the Software Society (GUI)
In our cultures of intermodal networks (the “software society”) contact itself is condensed into buttons and icons, menus and dashboards, and into familiar pathways and fast surfaces, diagrams and directions.[i] Interfaces are nodes along lines of urban flow: terminals, spectacles, ports and stations. Interfaces link and partition society itself, as belief systems, ballots and borders. Such points of contact, everywhere and nowhere at once, are not just our interfaces to the world, but also the world's channels to us. Again, what is open for me may be closed to you, and so our vectors are made divergent.[1] As we ourselves are hurtled through logistical space (more as data than as agents, it seems) the world discloses itself to us as interfaces: activated and unactivated interfaces, mobile and immobile, synchronous and asynchronous, symmetrical and asymmetrical etc. (See Interface Typologies, below) Cities become differential assemblages of such interfaces: mobile, synchronous, symmetrical interfaces (like cell phone calls) bump up against and make use of immobile, synchronous and asymmetrical interfaces (like a quiet alleyway where I can make call.) Cities divulge themselves as spatially embedded portals to specific goods and services (a hotel) or location-specific screen events (scanning my passport crossing a border) or a redundant network of remote control financial media (ATM’s), Interfaces speed us up or slow us down, both enabling our intentions at a distance and defending space against our movement. They arbitrate carefully to a person, thing or data, and the better they get at the specificity of that arbitration the more responsibility they are given. The interface, in short, is the elemental component of our logistical modernity.

The generalized technology-language apparatus of software brings with it an associated genre of the interface, the GUI or Graphical User Interface. These are dashboards of buttons with words on them that, if pushed, execute an event in the world ostensibly correspondent with the word on the button. While the GUI is a contemporary mode of the interface, it is no more or less an interface than is an open or closed door. Instead, the GUI condenses such gateway functions into signs and pulses. The GUI’s “dashboard discourse,” is based on a conversion of indexical signs (signs that register an accumulation of items and characteristics) into iconic signs (signs that represent and codify that accumulation,) and back again. Things and actions become systems, and systems become words and images that when “clicked,” become actions that are in turn agents within the expanded system. Displayed words and images become instruments of remote control, and the operations they mobilize become artifacts of choreography. In this, the space between what is a purely cultural or technological operation is ultimately undecidable. Further, it is not just the immediate content of icons and indexes that make difference, it is their poetic affect that focuses and instrumentalizes gestural expression into symbolic communication. “I love you,” shows up as a text message, and my heart really warms. The aesthetics of logistics is not just a cultural commentary on the function of technologies, but a revelation of technologies as themselves already a collective commentary on the cultures that they embody. Interfaces, despite the nominative and iconic logic of GUI, are not most fundamentally “about” the nature of the things they might cite, but are rather the thresholds of transference and action that govern the active potential of each thing in a (designable) chain of connection (of both intersubjectivity and interobjectvity.) In this as well the contemporary differentiation between instrumental and “picaresque” representations of network flow is collapsed. [ii]

Some Political Interfaces

Figure Four: the disputed Florida ballot in the 2000 Presidential Election. Industrialization of ‘making things visible’ and the control error. Immobile, unactivated, asynchronous, symmetrical(?)

Figure Five: Mao’s Little Red Book, his interface to the masses, and theirs to the nation. Mobile, activated, asynchronous, asymmetrical.

Figure Siv:. Sign at the birthplace of Karl Marx in Trier, instructing Chinese tourists how to get to the restrooms.

(C.) Mobility and Mobilization

$15 billion: Gross value of the self-storage industry, providing temporary apartments for the possessions of the temporarily or permanently mobile, 2005.

$9 billion: Gross value of the content generated by Hollywood movie, television and music industries, 2005.
--Source self-storage industry of America.

As people, things and data move greater distances and at greater speed, how is the governance of interfaces made more critical? Such regimes of relative motility enable and are enabled by the performative capacities of the interfaces they compose and comprise. Mobility, as ever, locates politics in the gateway and the threshold. But what do we mean by mobility? Paul Virilio defines Modernity itself in the tectonic terminologies of mobilization (Virilio, 1986, 1989.) From bunkers and shipping lanes to radar and remote viewing, socio-technological transformations are understood as phase transitions in an elemental, metabolic economy of attrition, speed and optics. In Virilio’s history, the “military proletariat,” the mobilized masses on display in gymnastic spectacle form the urban basis of the industrialization of vision itself. The mobilization and competitive acceleration of the masses, troops, machinery, data, imagery becomes the operant technology of civilian logistics and the cultures of speed they enroll in their image. Though Virilio locates this generalized mobilization at the origin of his very contemporary critique, the concept of socio-technical speed, -one that desolidifies cultural forms through disembedding accerlation-- is a foundational theme across the ideological spectrum of Modern Social Theory, from Le Bon to Marx to Tonnies to Durkheim to Bataille to Benjamin to Giddens, etc.
But perhaps in the 21st century, that tendency has so radicalized itself that a qualitatively new arrangement has emerged. John Urry has suggested that mobility, as an overriding socio-technical force, has reorganized fundamental institutions in its image, creating a pervasively “post-social” landscape of contingent surfaces into which bodies in motion coming to rest in place is now the exceptional state of things (Urry, 2000.) Society is no longer a set of bounded institutions, but a determining matrix of physical, imaginative, and virtual movements, and a fundamental relation between form and flow has reversed, Urry suggests. The static, contiguous form is no longer the norm into and around which mobilization passes, but rather motion governs, determines provisional location. This advances an image of comprehensive integration and terrific lines of flight, but should not suggest that globalization results in some smooth logistical singularity. Extending the line from Arjun Appadurai, we understand that the swerves and momentums of such globally interconnected spaces are radically disjunctive and inconsistent. The general economy of motility is a polymorphous (and perverse) arbitrator of things.

For most of the 5 billion or so people who might one day possess “a computer” connected to “the Internet,” their first device will not be a PC, or a laptop, but rather a handheld device on which they can also make voice calls. In fact, the cheap cell phones connecting Manila, Montana and Mogadishu already are software platforms, and are chief beneficiaries of the trailing edge of Moore’s Law. The little computers in our hands are where the action is, but any technology is an ambivalent collaborator. Consider the PC user as a subject prone at his desk, arranged like his pre-computation era counterpart in the isomorphic array of organizational space. He may be “virtually” mobile to interact with value chains across the world, but his body is as stationary as the decorative flora. A smart phone condenses the affordances of urban social proximity, and of corporate organizational media into his hand, thereby recasting the physical as a more elective backdrop for social, economic exchanges taking place at a distance. In the long run, this re-mobilization might liberate the city toward more improvisational experiential landscapes (de Certeau, Benjamin, Vaneigem) and it also enable re-rationalize the same city further into an artificially designable monotony of branded pavilions. Or both, or neither. But as the same city, and its attendant economies become accessible through different interfaces, it is fact is no longer the same city. This sort of mediational modernization is radicalized by the radical intensification in the performative capacity of such interfaces (such as the smart phone) as a result of their (quite recent) incorporation into networked computation. And still, as ever, placelessness intensifies the possibility of placefulness.
As interfaces, and especially interfaces connecting locations across great distances become more specifically intelligent, their governance becomes more essential. Modern mobility (that arc traced from Marx to Corb to Virilio to Urry) constitutes a social demand on the performative capacities of interfaces. The composite forces of such demands place greater and greater pressure on interfaces (from individual to regional scale) to mediate flow with increased speed and efficiency, and transparency or invisibility. Like the bustling port city that gains its wealth at the expense of the inland, traditional capitol, interfaces that allow for maximal interchange will attract the attentions and engagements over which governance will seek its profit and discourse. This does not eradicate the importance of immobile, idiosyncratically emplaced interfaces (such as that old capitol) but new scenarios recompose what those older structures in fact now are, and what their interfaces do, and for whom, and for what ends. Maybe they do more, maybe less. Emergent or dissolving, such relational motility makes sites of intensified flow, and their specific interfaces a critical site of governance and social imaginary, wherever they may be, big or small, official or improvised.

Our contemporary condition(s) are ones in which the amplification of the computational power of interfaces enables and has been enabled by the radicalization of mobility of people, things and data. The programmable intelligence of any given interface continues to increase exponentially every few years, and in the flowering of this cumulative “bandwidth,” the general economy of interfaces becomes proportionately complex. However, as the intensification of computational power of each interfaces and the networks that link them scales, allowing for the more intense linking of production, supply, commodity and consumption chains across more non-linear routes, the temporal integrity of the network is also dissolved. Unlike a capitol building or corporate headquarters or medieval prison where the corporeality of power was embedded into the choreography of architectural form and program, today’s software society can delocalize and delink the individual experience of interaction and its chains of transference such that they appear to be invisible, or ungraspable, or insubstantial, despite (or because of) the friction and fragmentation they carry.
Interestingly, instead of curing the desire for a “binding collective representation” (Luhmann,) such non-linear connections in fact seemingly intensify it (Wigley.) In this, the provision of an affectively compelling and instrumentally effective image of a composite interface chain becomes a critical labor and a strategic “content.” Such images are forms of organizational narrativization, and become –perhaps as graphical user interfaces- an imagistic display of events that is also an instrument with which to dialogue with those events and with the networks that bind them. The images become themselves geographies, and interfaces become technologies of intersubjectivization. Such images, these interfaces-of-the-interfaces, are not merely logistical techniques, they are a critical aesthetic index and register of what Appadurai might have called the softwarescape in the global, cultural economy. The softwarescape is a spatial, if not precisely architectural configuration, but like architecture it is an idiomatic, symbolic palette for the deliberately designed and designable narrations upon which such an economy and the interfaces that comprise that economy critically depend on for their social legibility and purpose.

Figure Six: Port of Long Beach, special economic zone, California, USA. Interface to the NAFTA trading zone, in 2005 the conduit of 6.7 million TEU’s (twenty foot equivalent units) worth $80.7 billion.

Figure Seven: Goods (and bads): recombinant parcels. The component unit of B2C logistics.

Interface and Network Typologies: A taxonomy of interfaces would be useful only if it would differentiate their performative affordances, rather than cataloging all the types of things that are or are not “interfaces.” We see that a building is an immobile interface and its power (and the limit of it) is derived from this. The same is true of a national border. While the building and the border are not the same, nor do they do the same thing, their immobility is critical to their performances as interfaces, and thus makes them comparable. The following chapters will make use of this typology to explore the relative and relational performances of interfaces, but will do so only as it serves to illuminate something more important than the typology itself.
As a point of comparison, “networks” are comprised of interfaces, and they are also understood according to typological systems. While networks are not emergent singularities other than in their own visual representation, these representations in turn become interfaces through the network is instrumentalized, enforcing the logic of that singular image. Networks are often categorized in a “topological” typology, according to their form. Alex Galloway suggests this list: Centralized Network, Decentralized Network, Distributed Network, Chain Network, All-Channel Network (define each in next version.) Similarly Social Network Analysis makes use of its own typological vocabulary including indices such as: Cohesion, Constraint, Density, Integration, Radiality, Structural Equivalence, etc.
An interface typology would differentiate the performative rather than the morphological characteristics of these. For example, a mobile interface (cell phone) versus an immobile interface (national border.) Or a synchronous interface (telephone conversation) versus an asynchronous (e-mail.) Or an interface than enables symmetrical or asymmetrical power relations (back to that open and close door again,) or one that is activated or unactivated, ones that are, after C.S. Pierce, indexical, iconic or symbolic in character. To this list we can add many more variables.

(D.) The Work of Imaging Interfaces (refrain)
Figure Eight: Control Room of the IESO, Ontario-based electrical power distribution, and NFP clearing house. An interface of interfaces; images become infrastructure, infrastructure becomes images. Words into button, devices into words.

Intensification of the computational power of interfaces moves attention to them, shifting what counts and does not count as an interface, what counts as a place with strong interfaces or a non-place without them, and what is centered and what is peripheral at all. (Auge, Deleuze) While any social form or lifeworld is an assemblage of differentially empowered and embodied interfaces, the contemporary configuration --called post-societies of mobility (after Urry), network societies (after Castells), supermodern societies (after Auge, Ibelings), etc.—tends to distribute the performance of governance from fixed, contiguous institutional interfaces to decentralized, serial nodes or couplings. These interface configurations are tuned to accommodate transitory, goal-directed contact with large numbers of people, and in this prosaic, cumulative remediation, fundamental contours of social morphology re-fold along with it.
Again, this seminar argues that the radicalization of this tendency is only possible because of software, and its utility in specific reprogramming (architectrual as well as digital program) of computationally intelligent interfaces. The transit node is newly empowered as a medium of governance, and as computational power and networked software becomes faster, cheaper and better, the complexity of articulation through which that governance can act is radically amplified. The shifts toward mobile social forms then both drive and are driven by the acceleration in the computational power and communicative flexibility of the interface points that structure the landscape. The greater the mobility within the network, the greater the need for more sophistication in its interfaces. The greater the availability of cheap, powerful, intelligent computation, the greater the enabling of flexible mobilization. As said, this makes the production and figuration of these interfaces a critical site of both empowered authority and the social imaginary, and forms of power that were once inscribed by fixed partition are now reterritorialized into ambient or pervasive electronic gateways (Deleuze, 1990) Bodies of power become unfurled into newly specific networks of interiorization and exteriorization.
But even if so deterritorialized, the image of power still relies on iconic self-narration. Mark Wigley in Network Fever, is critical of architectural projects that attempt to enroll the spatial agency of the network in their schemes, only to present picaresque forms that resemble iconic images of networks, but which make no serious innovation in how architectural design might accommodate or resist logistical forces in new ways. In Wigley’s critique, things that look like networks but don’t act like (or against) networks, don’t really engage the conundrum of architecture’s role in a logistical economy that alternately annihilates and garrisons the specificity of place. What must be added to Wigley’s now axiomatic critique of a certain design style is that, in everyday life, the iconic misrepresentation of the network –as an instrumental interface of interfaces- is in fact crucial to the cultural economy of the network society. The image of the instrument, and the instrument as an image, is the (artifactually designed) universal grammar that makes the integrative landscape of interfaces into a “democratic” market technology. In this, the picaresque (even the architectural picaresque) is not an alien imposition of aesthetic dressing on top of the serious speed of flow, but a conjectural experimentation in the visualization of infrastructure (now already an image of infrastructure). Because the indexical configuration of forces into form is already iconic, the picaresque is already a gesture toward the indexical. The pretty picture of the machine makes the machine work at all.
Without the artifiactual visual narration of interfaces, the collective instrumentality of the network would be undermined. Metcalfe’s Law of Networks (or Kurzweil’s to be slightly more discriminating) holds that the aggregate value of a network is a direct function of the number (and quality) of participating terminals. Especially if spread across the world in a discontiguous network of chain-reactions and relay points, the very lack of contiguity of social form, motivates a desire to screen and to display its dramatic integration, demonstration and imaginary resolution. This is precisely the design labor in question: a diagrammatic aesthetics of logistics.

Figure Nine. Erisilia 2. Tokyo subway map.

[1] Social open and closedness becomes spatial open an dclosedness. Lefebvre

[i] “Software Society” is a potentially useful term and concept coined by Lev Manovich and I. The manifesto is forthcoming at

[ii] Wigley, network fever., indexicla or picaresque.