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The Interface and Hyperreality

As we continue to experience reality through, within, via a series of digital user interfaces (UI's), we begin to adopt the notion of the interface as a perfect analogy for our conscious approach to the world and everything in it.

The significance of the interface lies in the fact that it is designed. We are all aware of interfaces which have failed us, of programs and applications whose cumbersome framework or unresponsive features have produced in us no end of frustration, even devastation should the consequences of interface failure prove irrevocable.

Interfaces are presented, indeed, sold to us by technologists as answers to questions; as bridges to gaps in our understanding or physicality. They are supreme passages between subject and object, superhighways of information and functionality whose services augment efficiency and productivity.

But interfaces, appearing to quell or vanquish the distance between actor and completed action, in fact seem only to emphasise the presence of such distance. However seamless, however (anthropomorphically) "intuitive", interfaces are an expression not that the journey may be eliminated, but that a journey can be created and subsequently traversed with ease, indeed pleasure. Many interfaces, you will have noticed, attempt to "gamify" or make aesthetically pleasing the process of interacting with objects or data. They shimmer and flex rewardingly, they are anything but invisible, even though the mathematical calculations which they perform are.

Notice how Google Chrome flashes pre-emptive responses to your search query as you type into the address bar. Observe the faux (but indisputable) spatiality of your virtual record collection in the album cover view which is the calling card of Apple's iTunes program.

This simulation of the tactile, of the active (even of the sentient) is crucial to our culture' s adoption and appreciation of interfaces. There may even be groups whose obsession with fine-tuning and accelerating their various interfaces evolves them into a kind of "interface cult" - perhaps, for example, the PC gamers who painstakingly install perfectly water-tight cooling pipes into their machines, in order to "over-clock" processors and encourage the pixelated rendering of images on their monitors to take place at a faster rate. The response, they claim, is a more "immersive" experience. 

In an attempt to eliminate the unintentional noise and visible artificiality of an interface, such enthusiasts clearly emphasise their personal investment in the form - each souped up piece of hardware results in an interface which is more comfortable to use, more inviting to peer into, more satisfying to feed and control (and with more and more unseen technology, hardware and software, behind and beneath it).

In Jean Baudrillard's essay "The Precession of Simulacra", he made this important statement which helps to define his concept of the hyperreal, and which in turn we may take to be an accurate description of the impact of interfaces:

"By crossing into a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor that of truth, the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials - worse: with their artificial resurrection in the systems of signs, a material more malleable than meaning, in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalences, to all binary oppositions, to all combinatory algebra. It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and shortcircuits all its vicissitudes. Never again will the real have the chance to produce itself - such is the vital function of the model in a system of death, or rather of anticipated resurrection, that no longer even gives the event of death a chance. A hyperreal henceforth sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and the imaginary, leaving room only for the orbital recurrence of models and for the simulated generation of differences."

Interface junkies are not simply following a quest for a more aesthetically, objectively pleasing interface which may exist somehow in a space detached from their otherwise "physical" existence. Rather, they are exploring the power of a controllably real (and hyperreal) realm. The suggestion that interfaces saturate us with mere illusions of an idealised 'real' is a delusional conceit. Interfaces instead demonstrate (quite vividly) that our conception of reality has passed beyond facile distinctions of the physical and the virtual. (For more on this, see Nathan Jurgenson's blog post on digital dualism).

Furthermore, it is in the very act of constructing interfaces that we refuse to merely simplify, rationalise or make more efficient our existence. In fact, we elaborate upon it; build new models and systems of control into which old antitheses are unravelled. This gestures at another central tenet of Baudrillard's essay. In one of his notes to it he develops the concept of systems of power "dissolved" away from quaintly active-passive lines; the Duke who was given power by the King, the King who was given power by God. "To the question: who made you a psychoanalyst? The analyst can well reply: You," says Baudrillard. He continues;

"Thus is expressed, by an inverse simulation, the passage from the "analyzed" to the "analysand," from passive to active, which simply describes the spiralling effect of the shifting of poles, the effect of circularity in which power is lost, is dissolved, is resolved in perfect manipulation (it is no longer of the order of directive power and of the gaze, but of the order of tactility and commutation)."

Perhaps the same may be said of interfaces. Interfaces which seem now to give so much sense to experience, which produce systems for us to inhabit. Suddenly interfaces, as I indicated above, provide the perfect analogy for all experience. Our bodies (and their constituent organs) are interfaces. So is language. Postboxes, frying pans, telephones, calculators... From all of these have sprung the digital counterparts which reference them, which supersede them, and now, for the first time, precede them. Looking back at the analogies of interfaces today, it becomes natural to question what, exactly, is analogous to what.

It is just as the statement muttered by Jed in Tao Lin's short story "Nine, Ten" suggests:

"What if you could Google your own house?" Jed murmured. "If you lost your keys or your TV remote you could just Google it."

The structure of the house is no longer crucial as a point of access, but the itemisation instantly dispensed by a Google search algorithm provides the immediate, palliative point of reference for the lost individual. It is within this conceptual space that we now wander. And far from being a method of collapsing space, of making things smaller, interfaces seem to project us into yet another dimension. Subject and object are both transformed; simultaneously created and taken away, replaced by an experience of revolving functionalities forever remixing the world we thought we knew.


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Great piece. From iOS\'s implementation of real- world momentum in touchscreen navigation, and the Wii Controller\'s bold move away from the abstraction of levers and buttons; through the cumbersome yet enticing 3D gestural control mechanics of Tom Cruise\'s computer in Minority Report, to perhaps something even more pervasive than Star Trek\'s Holodeck - the end game of interface development won\'t be reached until the interface is indistinguishable from the reality it orchestrates. And when we can\'t tell the difference, will we be then be indistinguishable from God?

Yes I felt that going into those areas would be a bit of a minefield; asking for trouble... I\'m thinking quite specifically here about the socio-cultural consequences of that impetus to design specifically digital interfaces. Their pre-internet analogies are fascinating, but analysis of these would probably be best explored in another post. Stay connected...

wonderful post! it was really refreshing to read something taking the interface perspective that does not fall into the trap of digital dualism, viewing electronic interfaces and those of the physical world as separate. of course, as you mention, they come together, enmeshed, to form our reality (our \"augmented reality\"). however, i would like to see the way the interfaces of language, architecture and so on influence our conceptions of reality be given a bit more weight. of course, so many structuralist/post-struct/postmo thinkers have covered that ground extensively...





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