Space and Interface: seeking new intuition

I think we could benefit a lot from considering what we now typically call “interfaces” as “spaces”. I’d like to look into this notion through a series of blog entries, with which I hope to provoke some intelligent comments that can help me smoke out the value in this idea. My ultimate goal is to turn this into a more formal talk or essay or seminar or something.
This first entry is the fairly raw sulphur left from a brainstorm (though for your benefit, gentle render, I’ve passed over it once since spitting out the initial draft two months ago) :
What does a space bring to mind?

  1. The implication of habitation/containment, of things, agents, and events/actions.
  2. The implication of sharing an experience … which implies interaction with other inhabitants of the space.
  3. The implication of entry and exit — of being inside or outside something. An extension of this is to see a space as having one dominant difference in state: either you are in or you’re out. When you’re in, various things are possible.
  4. Degrees of publicness and privateness, most directly due to degrees of enclosure.
  5. Perhaps a notion of permanence — of the ability to return to, or refer to, that space. I.e. something with its own state/memory. Of course permanence is just one end of a spectrum. Let’s say that, for a typical space, its beginning and end in time are remote from the time-scale of events occurring within it…. though this might cut out a lot of very exciting transient spaces!
  6. Something that can become a background, that can almost disappear in the course of an event, but that is still fundamentally associated with what goes on inside it. I.e. something with a certain degree of ambience.
  7. Something that has value unto itself, that can be protected, shared, claimed, destroyed, re-programmed, etc.
  8. (grab-bag) Something that can be compared to other spaces we know very well, such as men’s bathrooms, cathedral apses, airport terminals, the insides of buses, the space beneath a bed, inside a pizza box, contained by the orbit of Pluto, defined by a set of orthogonal unit vectors, etc.

And what does an interface bring to mind?

  1. Frequently, a specific connection from one agent to another. More generally, a connection from [one/many] to [one/many]. I’m not sure how many to many really works — whether it really exists as an interface. I will explore this some other time.
  2. A protocol for communication — something that limits or specifies subsets of the otherwise rich actions of the agents using it.
  3. A certain timing or pacing — a sequence of events or actions. A script?
  4. Something that imposes or makes possible (is there a difference?) a higher level of precision than the agent would otherwise have.
  5. Something subservient in intent/design, but determining of execution.  I.e. we frequently design interfaces as support tools, but they end up having tremendous staying power … the IP, TCP, FAT, yada yada.
  6. Something that ratchets up… (okay, ratcheting in this sense is something I should write more about!)
  7. Something that can be localized, i.e. something that is adaptable, even customizable.
  8. Something that allows operations in remote locations and at remote scales to those of the gestures driving the interface.
  9. Frequently these days, a notion of instantiation in the Object-oriented programming or typological sense — a channel through which the “virtual” can become “real”.
  10. Something typically ‘smaller’ than the agent on either end — something that plugs into or is plugged into, that comes up alongside, that manipulates and is manipulated. NOT something that contains the agent or agents (the physical envelopes of arcade games are perhaps an interesting counter-example? But they are special for this, as are all early video games).
  11. (grab-bag) Something that reminds us of using our hands, of dexterity, of manners, of Continental Europe, of snaps and other locking mechanisms, of repetition, of adapting to different body types.

I will stop here for now. The ambition here, in case it isn’t clear, is to start re-thinking all the so-called ‘interface’ moments in our lives as spaces, with the hope that this would be a pro-public, pro-politics, pro-transparency, pro-manners, pro-humanity undertaking.

8 comments to Space and Interface: seeking new intuition

  • George

    This in from Ed Keller (thanks Ed!):

    I like very much the way you’re drilling into the space/interface question.  However I have to say that the repeated attempts to redefine or clarify these kinds of terms end up being clouded by discipline specific terms of art, which then require laborious unpacking. Often using unnecessarily hermetic terminology, something I have been guilty of many times.

    So: here’s my counter proposal.

    Let’s throw out any space/interface dialectic, and say simply:

    We may propose certain statements as axiomatic:

    AXIOM 1:
    Bodies can affect other bodies.

    AXIOM 2:
    Bodies can exist in many different states: as physical things, systems, or what people typically call more virtual stuff: economies, information, energy flow, etc. Rooms in buildings are ‘bodies’, just as windows are, just as cultural systems like ‘jazz’ are, just as viruses are, just as demographic groups are. Etc, etc.

    THEOREM [resulting from AXIOM 1 &2]
    Bodies can convert from one ‘state’ to another ‘state’ [information to energy, for example] and these transactions/conversions happen all the time. Quod Erat Demonstrandum: Formal rulesets and formal manifestations in bodies general provide evidence that combining AXIOM 1 & 2 results in the full spectrum of what we call ‘BEING’ or ‘REALITY’.

    In this case, SPACE and INTERFACE are simply less precise terms for the general concept of a body affecting or being affected by another body. As I’ve given an open but fairly precise definition of the range of possibilities that a body can be, the only further investigation will be to continually define [rigorously but provisionally] a body and then ask
    how it affects and can be affected by other bodies.

    ERRATA: The temporal question has not been raised. Suffice it to say that a body is constituted in time as much as in space, and that metrics of time and capacity to affect, be affected, remember, and forget according to time scales are
    crucial to adequate definitions of ‘bodies’.

    NOTE: Obviously Deleuze’s writing on Spinoza- specifically his _Expressionism in Philosophy_, and the ‘What Can a Body Do?’ chapter therein, have substantially inflected my take on this. More recently the discovery of Spencer-Brown’s _Laws of Form_ informs this thinking, specifically vis. the concept of construction of the most fundamental ‘division’ category. A kind of MONAD fundamental of both being and thought. Can it be this simple?

  • one more thought, George- as per the theme of intuition.
    There’s a thread to be followed thru Bergson’s idea of intuition,
    which is actually a very critical, practice/ test based concept of
    intuition.
    Cheers,
    Ed

  • jd

    I agree with Ed that the use of the terms space and interface may have indeed become too loaded, too imprecise for your use here. In fact, you seem to have already transcended them in your lists of comparative qualities. That being said, a cautionary note on relational systems: If memory serves, it was Lefebvre, in the conclusion to The Production of Space, who called attention to the way in which a focus on relationships had become a well-trodden path away from the subject-object formulations, rooted as they were in ontology, of previous epistemologies. The problem is that a system of subjectification comes roaring back in whether the operands in the relationship are thought of as forms (which are either utterly empty or have some kind of content), functions (which need objects on which to operate), systems, structures, hierarchies, etc, etc, all of which rely upon objectification for their efficacy.

    These types of systems reach their apogee, ironically, in both quantum mechanics and string theory. Both necessitate a parallax condition of perception in which one must flip from the systems’ monads (particles or strings, or ‘branes) to the relational activity between these monads (a term which, if it has a shared attribute across its myriad usages, is inscrutability). The resulting perception, though jarring at first due to its unfamiliarity, sometimes succeeds in resolving the troubling dichotomy – though this process starts to sound dangerously dialectical…

    The focus on the old troublesome subject-object is due to my own perception (projection?) of the qualitative differences George lays out between notions of ‘space’ vs. ‘interface’, especially in relation to his stated ambitions. It seems as though ‘interface’ is set up as a category of behaviors that is far more restrictive, more dominating than that of ‘space’. This may be because ‘interface’ is simply unevolved, or more precisely, that it suffers from excessive purposiveness.

    This may relate to de Certeau’s strategy/tactics formulation, famously difficult for a designer to appropriate. It also brings to mind Hollier’s call for an a-subjectivity in designed conditions, a means of opening up spaces anterior to subjectification, if I remember the line correctly. Also coming to mind (and here I’m less sure of the connection) is Zizek’s claim that Deleuze, far from being a philosopher of virtual reality, was actually the philosopher par excellence of the reality of the virtual. What he means is the reality, the real effects, of the virtual, the condition of becoming, as exemplified by the attractor, which has no form – its form is virtual. Possibly herein lies a means through the ideologies of domination inherent in enjoining interfaces, among other things – a break from the cycle of revolutions which Zizek despairs of at the end of his book on Deleuze – “how, then, are we to revolutionize an order whose very principle is constant self-revolutionizing?”

  • George

    Thanks so much for your comments.

    In response to Ed: I think much of what I’m trying to characterize with this distinction between spaces and interfaces could be found under the canopy of your “stateful bodies” theorem. I think in fact that what I am proposing is just simply a downstream branch of that thinking. Namely, I think that the class of relationships between bodies that we tend to call ‘interfaces’ have come to dominate many aspects of our time — to condition the bulk of our experience — in a fairly thoughtless way. By comparing the particular properties of this class of relationships between bodies to those of another class, which I am clumsily calling ‘spaces’, I am simply trying to lay out some tools in preparation for some surgical acts of design.

    Obviously my incredibly fat definition of ‘interface’ is problematic, but maybe case studies would be the best way to look at this. Some thoughts: air travel, the physical box and components of a computer, billboards, a drafting table, a major newspaper, driving to work, the software ‘user interface’ to something like Second Life.

    If I do try for a moment, Ed, to rise up to the level of abstraction at which I think your theory is operating, however, then I also see that my lists have much more to do with the relations between bodies than with the bodies themselves. Now, part of what you’re saying is that those relations are most likely themselves the parts of larger bodies, but I think that fundamentally, _at specific scales_ (of space and time), the relations between certain clearly-defined bodies will have a strength that needs to be taken into account at that scale. I.e. when I interface with the medical system, it’s actually the negotiation with the lady at the front desk that I must concern myself with, not the fact that I am tickling a node of a much larger, much murkier body — well, both scales are important to the situation, but operations at certain scales inevitably come to the fore.

    Anyway I’ll stop here. I spoke with Jeff at length today about this, so I might write more in response to him tomorrow. The references you guys are bringing up all sound really interesting and applicable. I think my first pass at this is really trying to engage directly with elements of design/programming practice that have been troubling me for a few years. So this first surgery may be done in a bit of a rush, just to make some incisions. Later, perhaps further reading will provide latex gloves and some antiseptic… Of course the final theory will, like MRI, just indicate that surgery wasn’t necessary to begin with.

    A final note: clearly ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ are going to be a problem here. I take it for granted that activity occurring online, in ‘virtual worlds’, etc. is completely real; ‘virtual’ used in that way is just a convenience. But in item #9 on interfaces, I’m referring to a specific software term, which perhaps I can elucidate in later posts, since it’s kind of interesting.

    Cheers — george

  • SL

    i fail to recognize a valid reason for the systematic defining of the hither and yon , a clearing/categorizing of probabilistic utopia towards a more cleated approach of “axioms”. Of course the question here remains that of ” instantiation”. One idea that comes to mind is that of the “simulacrum”….

  • AG

    On a more simple-minded level – appropriately enough, now that I’m into my second G&T, it’s 90 degrees out and not quite five o’clock yet – “interface” has always struck me as a rather flat and laminar place to be, sandwiched (and translating) between two alternatives.

    The word may be used differently in architecture, but in the terms of my disciplinary background, interface tends to be something that mediates between two and no more than two entities. What I appreciate about your use of “space” here is that it seems to have more room for a variety of in- and egresses.

  • George

    Thanks for your comment Adam! I don’t think there is currently a good architectural sense of what “interface” is — it’s a phenomenon, a formation of new cell walls, that’s come up from digital interactions, methinks.

    But I think your thought about interface as surface is how it’s typically thought. A surface, or maybe a membrane — a surface that filters things from one side to another. Movement along the surface seems really unlikely when interfacing (I suppose this would be like two Europeans switching from German to French halfway through a conversation? But of course that’s simplistic).

    My impulse is that, since these constant filters, negotiations, what have you, are taking more and more of our time, conditioning/enabling more and more of our behavior, we should be careful not to let them completely disappear. One prosaic example: waiting in line used to be a major skeleton for public space in some cultures.

    I’m not sure I’m making my idea clear! But at least, thanks to comments and other people’s writings, it’s getting clearer in my head! Thanks.

  • [...] 7. Weekly meetings: once we are sharing a space, we could start meeting for a ‘company lunch’ once a week to discuss what we’re all working on, and look for project-specific collaboration opportunities.  One obvious project-specific collaboration would be competitions. 8. Forming some kind of legal partnership structure: now we’re getting really serious.  This will probably never need to happen, unless for specific large projects. All of these are designed to foster a sense of belonging to some kind of institution or community.  Obviously many of these collaborations happen already, but mostly as interactions (or ‘interfacings’?) between individuals.  Spatializing them is the intent here (note, I’m using the terms from my weird post on interface and space ).  The rewards are society and kismet. tags:architecture, blog, collaboration, institutions, new york professional [...]

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