On The Borderline

Branden Hookway, Interface

MIT Press, 184pp, £17.95, ISBN 9780262525503

reviewed by Robert Barry

In Arthur C. Clarke’s Hugo Award-winning 1972 novel Rendezvous with Rama, scientists discover an alien spacecraft careening towards our solar system, just beyond the orbit of Jupiter. Upon entering the ship, however, they find it abandoned by its presumed masters and the astronauts are left to glean what information they can about the absentee extraterrestrials from the way they have designed their tools. Slowly, patiently, the human explorers construct an image of the alien others by extrapolating from their control surfaces. The whole novel then becomes an exercise in exploring the relationship, the mutual processes of forming and being formed, between a species and its interfaces.

From cyberneticians to singularitarians, the years since World War II have seen a great deal of talk about man-machine interaction but precious little about the place where these two interlocutors meet. This, according to the new book by Branden Hookway, is very much in the nature of the thing. The interface, Hookway tells us, has always exhibited a ‘a tendency toward a seeming transparency and disappearance’ and this ‘illusory disappearance is an essential aspect of the operation of a user interface, in as much as an operator internalizes the user interface in the course of working through it.’ The professed purpose of this slender but attractively-sleeved volume, then, is to ferret this elusive locus from its hiding place, to derive from the many sidelong glances a single focus and theory for the interface as such.

Hookway, who teaches at Cornell University, found his interest in the interface first piqued from the cockpit of a plane. ‘While writing on the airplane cockpit for a PhD dissertation,’ he writes in the acknowledgements, ‘it became clear to me that I needed to develop a theory of the interface.’ If his text is sometimes weighed down by an excessively fussy prose style by consequence (presumably) of its academic origins, the meticulousness that comes with that leads him into some surprising and fascinating territory. For as it turns out, the notion of interface originally had little to do with machines at all. The interface, when first coined, was a congress of fluids; the boundary between flows of different velocities, different densities, different viscosities, at the moment when the sluice gate is lifted.

It was James Thomson who first raised the question of interface. ‘[It is] as if the fluid everywhere possesses an expansive tendency,’ the Belfast-born engineer and physicist wrote in a note of 1869, ‘so that pressure must everywhere be received by the fluid on one side of a dividing surface (or as I call it interface) from the fluid, or solid, on the other side, to prevent the fluid from expanding indefinitely, or to balance its expansive force.’ He slips it in parenthetically, almost cheekily, as if barely worthy of comment. Much as James Clerk Maxwell would, from the fourth edition of his Theory of Heat, where we find ‘A fluid is a body the contiguous parts of which act on one another with a pressure which is perpendicular to the interface which separates those parts.’ Even here, at its very origin, the interface arrives as something hardly to be defined, rather presumed to be transparent, simply raised as a matter of convenience in the definition of something else.

The mutually enmeshed concepts of fluid and interface would soon break their own dividing surfaces, with the later in particular becoming central to the emerging field of thermodynamics, from whence it was picked up by the likes of Norbert Weiner and applied to his own new science of control and communication, in the mid-20th century. Like, Hookway himself, it was the aeroplane cockpit, along with other like forms of military-industrial man-machine complexes, that alerted him to the need.

In the 20th century, by Hookway’s account, the interface becomes a Janus-faced beast, referring to the Roman god of thresholds whose power was second only to Zeus. ‘Control upon the interface involves a double moment,’ we are told, ‘where power at once confines and enables.’ We are at once augmented and reduced by our interactions, promised limitless powers but only if we may shrink ourselves to fit a machine-readable vision of the human.

It is at this point in his analysis that Hookway becomes surprisingly close, for all their vast differences in style and presentation, to Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), a book which would make a fascinating companion piece to the present text. Hookway travels by different routes but he reaches some similar conclusions about the way ‘the interface comes to define human agency. This defining is also a kind of subject formation … it draws together two or more otherwise incompatible entities into a compatibility … and from this compatibility produces an overall governance or control.’

But that is not the whole story – and neither, despite appearances to the contrary, is this book just a book about technology or suitable for people with an interest in technology. Read between the lines and a subliminal art historical thesis emerges, one that dovetails neatly with the narrative espoused by Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics. ‘[T]he surface refers back to a thing,’ Hookway explains, ‘and expresses the properties of that thing, while the interface refers back to a relation between things and expresses an action.’

He doesn’t mean this diachronically, it’s simply a way of distinguishing – as James Thomson was once forced – the interface from its cousin surface. But once we start to think of Clement Greenberg’s modernist ideas about pictorial flatness, it’s hard not to mentally reconfigure this statement as a historical passage from one conception of the art object to another, more contemporary one, suggesting that finally there may be more in this book for artists and art theorists to mine than appearances might suggest. Beneath all the dense academese, Interface emerges as an inspiring, quietly magical text. If androids really do dream of electric sheep, perhaps Branden Hookway is the modern Bachelard to explore the phenomenology of those machine reveries.