Manovich, Chapter 2: The Interface

The interface – it’s a concept that most people in modern industrial societies use every day, whether they’re aware of it or not. In essence, the interface refers to the means used to communicate between humans and computers. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich attempts to break down this seemingly complicated concept throughout his second chapter, titled simply “The Interface.” Among the main points made by Manovich – at least for someone who has worked on very old computers and can quickly recognize the transition that he describes – is the way that the modern graphical user interface enables human users to handle new media in an entirely new way.

Perhaps the easiest way for many converged communicators to look at the concept of the interface is to remember one of the principles taught in the COM3332 class (assuming you’ve already taken it): The idea of the path of a message – source, message, channel, receiver, where the message is encoded as it enters the channel (transformed into a format suitable to the channel, such as sound waves for a radio broadcast) and then decoded as the receiver sees or hears the message. (More about SMCR is available through this link.) On the computer level, the data of new media are simply a long string of 0’s and 1’s (binary code); that is, they have no meaning to the human user. Manovich highlights the significance of the graphical user interface (or GUI), such as the software introduced for the Macintosh computer. Along with Microsoft Windows, the GUI swept away the old command-line interface of DOS, in which users typed commands on a black screen. Take a look at the images below. The difference between 1980’s and 1990’s DOS and today’s Windows 8 interface is striking.

DOS command line

Photo credit: Remember the dot (Wikimedia Commons)

Manovich uses the illustration of the familiar “cut and paste” commands in word processing, design, and other programs. When we use a couple of mouse clicks to “cut” a block of text or a picture, we really aren’t “cutting” that data – instead, we are selecting a very long string of 0’s and 1’s in the computer’s internal memory. When we “paste” that data, the same principles apply. We can’t actually “see” the individual binary-code elements that make up the data, but the interface – the computer system that translates the inaccessible data into language we can see, hear, and understand – makes these operations possible. As Manovich also notes, the same basic language – text – is at the heart of both human language as well as the computer binary code, serving as a form of communication between human and computer. This is true even though neither participant “understands” the language of the other.

Windows 8 screen

Photo credit: Gareth Saunders

In this chapter, Manovich touches on a broad range of topics, any one of which could make for an interesting discussion – the use of RAM to access any piece of data on a computer with equal speed, the ways that new media compare and contrast with cinematic and printed media, how radar (unlike a movie screen) introduced the concept of changes in real time, the ways that a static screen and a virtual-reality environment are basically different. This might also include the development of new technologies like Google Glass (http://www.google.com/glass/start/what-it-does/), which didn’t exist when Manovich wrote this book. But for purposes of this post, I’ve focused on how the graphical user interface allows users to operate on new media in a manner that would be incomprehensible, if not outright impossible, if humans had to handle data the way the computers do – one byte at a time.

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