Make it reappear

A review of 'Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound'

Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound

Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound

Lori Emerson

University of Minnesota Press 2014, 232 pages, $25.00 , ISBN 978-0816691265

Reading Writing Interfaces by Lori Emerson undertakes the ambitious task to demystify the rhetoric of magic surrounding ubiquitous computing. When so-called invisibility, user-friendliness, and seamlessness are touted as integral features of a device, how can everyday users disrupt the imperceptibility of the interface to access its mechanisms? To what extent can digital literature and art critique by unveiling the closed architecture of the personal computer? And what exactly is at stake when the pervasive ideology of the invisible interface camouflages what information is available to the user? In her new book, Emerson defamiliarizes the illusion of this disappearing surface by revealing how interfaces open and foreclose “certain creative possibilities.”[1] With cogent analyses of both analogue and digital literature, Emerson renders legible the historical and contemporary instantiations of the interface that have been masked from the user by the sleek celebratory language of marketing. Reading Writing Interfaces, in other words,makes the interface reappear by demonstrating how the so-called naturalness of our devices is in fact a fantasy perpetuated by the computing industry.

A critical study that brings together interface theory with both print and digital literature has been long overdue. In the context of the last fifty years, the works of great computer pioneers — Doug Engelbart, Ivan E. Sutherland, or Theodor H. Nelson, for example — are integral for understanding the development of HCI, or Human-Computer Interaction.[2] Yet to focus on the interface as primarily a digital phenomenon — a fixed entity moderating human interactions in iPads or iPhones — would be misguided. Over the last twenty years, a small body of literature has begun to reassess the interface as a mediated environment of cultural activity and pleasure.[3] As Johanna Drucker suggests, interface theory must attend to the user “as a situated and embodied subject” as well as “the affordances of a graphical environment that mediates intellectual and cognitive activities.”[4] While reimagining the interface brings its own challenges, it also puts a new lens onto our interactions with offline objects and environments — including those of codices and manuscripts — that likewise structure social behaviors. To this end, Reading Writing Interfaces adopts Alexander Galloway’s description of the interface as a “point of transition between different mediatic layers within any nested system” (x). But Emersonputs further pressure on the constraints and affordances of graphical environments by comparing and antagonizing diverse materials from digital writers (such as Mary Flanagan, Deena Larsen, and Judd Morrissey) to the paper based (like Emily Dickinson’s fascicles) in a move that identifies the continuities and discontinuities between old and new media. In the process, Emerson presents how a comparative analysis of media can be successfully accomplished when the interface, and not the particularities of the work, becomes the target of inquiry.

This comparative approach underscores a broader thesis at work in Reading Writing Interfaces. What can a dialogue between different media and technologies reveal about the relation of the literary to the environments of human-computer interaction? Emerson begins by interrogating Apple’s commercial philosophy of the iPad, whereby marketing rhetoric is shrouded in the language of showmanship, the magical, and the marvelous. Although the company encouraged consumers to tinker with the hardware in its early years, Apple’s business model today stresses tight control over the acceptable use of its products. The company limits, for instance, the extent that users can create and manage content for apps. Nonetheless, digital writers like Jörg Pringer, Jason Lewis, and Erik Loyer have created and marketed poetry apps that play with the tactile capabilities of the iPhone and iPad in ways that “help us think through and experience the multitouch device as both interface and medium” (30). Loyer’s beautiful app Strange Rain, for example, offers “different modes of falling rain” that respond varyingly to a user’s touch (27–28). Yet the creativity of these writers must dovetail into the hidden mechanics of the device and the propriety restrictions imposed by Apple. Emerson turns to digital writers like Deena Larsen, who have been able to “subvert or exploit” defects or “glitches” in early hypertext authoring systems without the “permission of the publisher” (34). Glitches, even if deliberately engineered by the writer, defamiliarize “the slick surface of the hardware/software of the computer” by self-reflexively enunciating its enabling mechanisms (36). Accordingly, the creative opportunities afforded by older hypertext software like Storyspace can be viewed as a contrast to Apple’s propriety philosophy, which restages the artist and writer within the company’s model of permissible creativity.

Emerson’s comparative approach is then an “attempt to produce a friction” by reading with and against the grain of the old media and older forms of digital writing (129). Emerson draws on the emerging field of media archeology to elucidate the heterogeneity of our contemporary media condition. Media archeology can be best described as a set of novel trajectories of inquiry into media cultures, as Jussi Parikka suggests, “through insights from past new media, often with an emphasis on the forgotten, the quirky, the non-obvious apparatuses, practices and inventions.”[5] Further, “it is also a way to analyze the regimes of memory and creative practices in media culture — both theoretical and artistic.”[6] Lest these descriptions seem rooted in technological determinism, Parikka stresses a history of digital artifacts that “tackle[s] past and present media cultures in parallel lines,” a methodological gesture that counters the more technological determinist model of media history enunciated by Frederick Kittler.[7] Emerson’s methodology in Reading Writing Interfaces deploys a nonlinear model of this media history to articulate the present, as she argues, “as one possibility generated out of a heterogeneous past” (xiii). Put another way, media need not determine our situation — or, it seems, our writing interfaces.[8]

The nonlinearity of Reading Writing Interfaces is evident in its structure, which fluidly weaves between present and past media cultures. The book is divided into five chapters, including a self-sustained postscript. Each chapter yokes together sets of historical and contemporary media interfaces to rupture the distinctions between present and past conditions of writing. Chapter 1, “Indistinguishable from Magic,”tackles the drive for the invisible interface, the smooth salesmanship of iPads that have fostered a contemporary culture of magic around Apple products, and interrogates the disruptions in the works of digital literature that bring those hidden surfaces back into full purview of the user. Chapter 2, “From the Philosophy of the Open to the Ideology of the User-Friendly,” traces the shift from the DIY and active-learning culture of early computing in the 1960s to the development of enclosed, invisible, and user-friendly GUI systems of the Apple Macintosh in the mid-1980s. The command-line interfaces of Apple II and Apple IIe, suggests Emerson, allowed experimental writers like bpNichol, Geof Huth, and Paul Zelevanksy to tinker with the formal possibilities of the medium (64–76). Chapter 3, “Typewriter Concrete Poetry as Activist Media Poetics,” examines the concrete poetry of bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, bill bissett, and Dom Sylvester Houédard, who — under the influence of Marshall McLuhan — exploited the typewriter as an interface, “media system,” and literary device “to create new modes of communication” (105). Chapter 4, “Fascicle as Process and Product,” applies the interface more broadly to pen, pencil, and paper. This chapter is undoubtedly the more daring section of the book, reading digital works by Mary Flanagan, Aya Karpinska and Daniel C. Howe, and Judd Morrissey in and around Emily Dickinson’s fascicles in a move that defamiliarizes the paradigms of the page. Finally, the postscript, “The Googlization of Literature,” turns to the search engine as an interface. Twenty-first-century media poetics, suggests Emerson, entails a novel “readingwriting” that involves a digital and paper-based praxis of writing “through the network” (xiv, 163). This chapter brings media poetics into the contemporary moment by interrogating the literary and artistic responses to the search algorithms that shape and feed information back to the consumer.

If Reading Writing Interfaces betrays a weakness, it is that the literary richness of the examples is occasionally conflated under the rubric of the interface. Her reading of Jason Nelson’s Game, Game, Game and Again Game (2007), for example, identifies its destabilizing gestures toward “video game conventions” (40). This work is especially notable for its remediation of multiple interfaces, materialities, and genres — home video, children’s drawings, messy handwriting, autobiography — which Nelson restages online and on the screen for the computer user.[9] Yet Nelson’s work begs the question how the materiality of language remodulates to this collusion of multiple remediating layers. If we settle our focus on “point[s] of transition,” are we reductively locating interfaces in every work of art, machine, or appliance produced? In the age of digital information, will the interface replace genre? These questions do not reveal the pitfalls of Emerson’s book, but rather that the interface will challenge long-held beliefs about the nature of our literary objects. And the immense scope of media cultures in Reading Writing Interfaces demonstrates that while much work is still to be done in the field of media archeology, its intersections with literary studies will generate fruitful interpretations about our present media cultures.



1. Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), ix.

2. Ivan E. Sutherland, for example, created Sketchpad, which enabled a user “to converse rapidly” with a computer “through the medium of line drawings.” See: Noah Wardrip-Fuin and Nick Montfort, eds., “Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System,” The New Media Reader (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 111.

3. See, for example, Johanna Drucker, “Humanities Approaches to Interface Theory,” Culture Machine 12 (2011): 1–20, or Alexander Galloway, The Interface Effect (Malden, MA: Polity, 2012). For a discussion on cultural interfaces and media see Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 69–73.

4. Johanna Drucker, “Humanities Approaches to Interface Theory,” 12.

5. Jussi Parikka, What is Media Archaeology? (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012), 2–3.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid, 14.

8. See Frederick Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).

9. Jason Nelson, “Game, Game, Game And Again Game,” Electronic Literature Collection, vol. 2 (2007).