Folder, File, Function – The Omnipresence of the Modern Computer Interface

It started with COMM 169. On the projector screen were the first representations of various actions you could perform on a computer: a pixelated paintbrush to represent the paste function, a pair of scissors that allowed you to cut text, and even a poorly illustrated tree to represent…creating a new document? (Needless to say, that manila-folderone hasn’t persisted over the years.) This was my first eye-opener into the logic and historic progression of the computer interface. There was a time in which these seemingly simple functions weren’t so easy to understand. Engineers and developers had to find a way to represent these functions as paralleled actions in the real world.

In the stagnant heat of the lecture room the TA struggled to impart on us the importance of a good interface. It has to be simple, it has to be intuitive, and hopefully it’ll look good too. It’s so important to get this right that there are thousands of people out there who are being paid specifically to design good user interfaces.  And often, it’s a thankless job. The person who designed the Safari browser logo probably didn’t anticipate that I wouldn’t recognize that it was a compass until I was too old to admit it. The person who designed the ubiquitous power on/off icon would most likely never be able to share his or her design choices, and yet it exists on every piece of technology we own. Somehow throughout my whole life I had assumed that terms like “cut and paste”, “surf and browse”, and “save and quit” were idiosyncratic phrases associated with the computer; there was no explanation for them, they just existed, and they were what you said when you wanted to describe virtually anything you did on a computer. However, behind every single icon and term, there was a deliberate choice made to use that linguistic and visual cue as a representation for that action.

power-on-computer_318-26613Sherry Turkle, in her book Life on the Screen, writes that “The simulated desktop that the Macintosh presented came to be far more than a user friendly gimmick for marketing computers to the inexperienced. It introduced a way of thinking that put a premium on surface manipulation and working in ignorance of the underlying mechanism.” This resonated with my personal interaction with computers growing up; I adopted computer jargon without questioning where it came from or why we used it, and any vocabulary that shared meaning with its real life counterpart were considered completely separate actions in my mind. A desktop in real life was simply a surface on which school papers piled up and I worked away at my math homework in disgust, but on the computer the desktop was the home base, the foundation, the place in which all other things began. A document in real life was an official piece of paper that important people signed, but on the computer a document was a fresh sheet of paper with infinite capabilities, a place where I could type thousands of words of my new novel or insert my favorite pictures from the internet at the click of a button. In the frenzy of creation, of working, of entertainment, the phrases and icons slipped into the background and the computer became a natural yet powerful and instantaneous extension of myself.

Back in the day, however, engineers and developers had no idea what the personal computer would look like. How would one interact with it? What possibilities were there for people to make something meaningful out of it? Turkle writes, “The new opaque interfaces – most specifically, the Macintosh iconic style of interface, which simulates the space of a desktop as well as communication through dialogue – represented more than a technical change. These new interfaces modeled a way of understanding that depended on getting to know a 17computer through interacting with it, as one might get to know a person or explore a town.” Out of the infinite possibilities there were in how the computer would be designed, the way that we interact with it now is the only way we understand computers to be. It’s almost impossible to imagine a computer where you don’t point and click with a mouse and cursor, where you don’t consume media by looking at windows, where you don’t type and click with your hands. The computers that we know and love were pioneered by the early Macintoshes and Windows, and so far we haven’t seen any other kinds of interfaces. Part of it may have to do with the reason we don’t radically change the design of cars: if buttons, gears, and visuals are placed in vastly different places, the majority of drivers in the world would lose the ability to competently control a car. But part of it has to do with the norms and expectations we have for what an interface should look like. We now expect computers to be interactive, tactile, and representative of real-life functions, all without thinking about it. To be honest, I find the whole concept mind-boggling. Maybe someday a radical group of minds will find a way to completely reimagine the computer. But in the meantime, we will continue to cut and paste away, not truly understanding how much the interface of the modern computer may be enabling or limiting us.