Reading Response #5:
to Artful Design • Chapter 5: Interface Design

Noah B.
Music 256A


"Interface design is how we access and unfold a things quality and purpose, it's essential qualityies, and ultimately its role in our lives. ...interaction always induces a consequence of experience, a flavor to the encounter."

"The way a musical interface is designed – how it feels to play it – inspires, constrains, stimulates what we do with it"

These quotes from the reading remind of Bruno Latour's notion of Object Oriented Ontology, and his famous 1988 essay "The Sociology of a Door-Closer". (Link here). This essay is peculiar – Latour is a French philosopher, but wrote this essay under the clumsily Americanized persona of "Jim Johnson", a sociologist from Ohio, in an attempt to seed ideas into the American discourse. The essay is fantastic, and I recommend it, basically analyzing the interface and affordances of a door-closer in extreme depth, with humor and perhaps unintentionally funny over-the-top attempts at passing as your Average Joe. He argues for developing a sociology of objects, basically treating nonhumans as active participants in shaping human behavior, thought, and culture.

I appreciate the hypothesis of why musical instruments are a particularly interesting case of the interface, which Ge attributes to a desired simplicity of the interaction paired with complexity of output. In a way, this is probably true for most tools – everything, from a shovel to a book to a pot, aimed to mediate interaction with simplicity and efficiency. Music is certainly a complex output – but is it any more intrinsically complex than, say, the complex chemical reactions of cooking and final product of a meal, mediated by the simple instruments of pots and pans?

The centrality of the human body was probably much more necessary in pre-industrial society, before machines could engage in long sequences of actions autonomously. Still, we interact with everything with our bodies, being physical beings, even digital objects controlled with mediating digital limbs and apparatuses, as in a first-person videogame, ultimately, must be controlled by the body. No mind-control interfaces, yet – although I suppose even that would be the body, the brain, one step removed. 

It's a fun thought experiment to think what the interface "sees" of the human, from its perspective. For example, the perspective of the "traditional" GUI of the human as a finger, eyes, and ears, makes total sense in the cultural context of Western Enlightenment-informed thought. Imagine the computer interface emerging from another culture, or another time. Perhaps different aspects of the human experience and body would be emphasized, different interactions would dominate, and as a result, our behavior and thought might take radically different forms. 

What's most interesting about the concept of interfaces, it seems, is the way they can actually dictate and prescribe the limits of human behavior and thought, and how tentative we are to prescribe that degree of power – or to let go of some of our own deeply coveted notions of free will, creativity, freedom of thought – to the inanimate tools and objects we use.