Interfacing Realities (Introduction)

Introductory essay by Stefan Münker, for the book "Interfacing Realities," 1997.

Interfacing Realities (Introduction)

Interfacing Realities

About different worlds, hidden depths, the tips of icebergs and their relation to the other.

The texts, statements, theses and reflections in this book document a discussion among the authors which basically didn't take place: very much a virtual discussion, so to speak. This is not how we, the V2_Organisation had envisioned it, we had something quite different in mind. At first, there was this idea. We wanted to make a book that explored the use of metaphors for the conception and description of interfaces for the Internet. The basis for this was a simple observation and a few questions arising from it: the proliferation of digital media and their increasing interconnectivity (for which the Internet is by now symbolic) have for some time now let us witness the emergence of a new world.

This new world is built exclusively from electronic information, one enormous, ever rising flow of abstract data; in short, the world of cyberspace (and there we have our first metaphor). The dynamics of the expansion of cyberspace propelling the conversion of (modern) industrial society into (post-modern) information society, clarifies the significance of this reflection just like the high degree of abstraction which characterizes the world of pixels and bytes marks the difference which separates the virtual space from observable reality.

This is where the interface steps in - we climb the abyss, the ravine between the world of binary code and our own analogue world, across a bridge of software and hardware modules, specifically designed to make digital impulses compatible with human demands. Mechanical input and output devices, graphical environments, et cetera, whose double-faced heads can see in the digital as well as in the analogue world. The faster cyberspace grows and the more important the exchanges between the virtual and the material world become, the more significant the question becomes as to how these intermediaries, the interfaces, between these worlds are or should be designed.

Our project "Interfacing Realities" should have initiated a dialogue among the participating authors about the use of metaphors in interface design. It was supposed to have made clear why and how spatial metaphors had developed and what were their underlying motivation, criteria and (aesthetic, political, functional et cetera) implications. The proper place for such a discussion about virtual space, we thought, would be this virtual space itself. So we invited the authors to a discussion that was initially supposed to unfold on the Internet by exchanging e-mail messages.

As mentioned earlier, this discussion never took place in that form, in spite of the large number of provisional texts that wandered to and fro across the Net and that confront each other in their final form here in this book. Overly naive, we, the initiators, trusted that from the electronic exchange of different ideas, would automatically emerge theme-based discussions. Overly naive, because we didn't foresee which areas would open themselves up in the course of this project and how diversely the individual authors would map these areas and adorn them with their own thoughts.

"Interfacing Realities" - this phrase seems to assume the existence of at least more than one reality, in order for the process of interfacing to have a place where it might occur. But can reality be so easily doubled? Could there not be just one reality - in which different worlds (social, technical, scientific, artistic) meet? Or one world, where multiple realities confront each other?

The semantic difference already indicates this: "Interfacing Realities" always also means "Questioning Reality." Each new world is one of new possibilities. A good interface perhaps facilitates the access to unknown dimensions of the possible. Its range however is always determined by the internal parameters of the world in question. In our case, the considerable differences in how the individual texts deal with the subject matter, are also the result of the different worlds in which the authors live and work.

In the search for an adequate way to reflect the collision of the different worlds of the participants in this virtual discussion, we stumbled upon one of the oldest interfaces we know: the book itself. A reader is a virtual traveler par excellence; each book he holds, opens doors for him to strange worlds, unknown spaces and new dimensions.

Normally we take the book as an interface between the world of its writer and its reader so much for granted, that we are not even aware it is an interface. The reason for this is simple - the book is a grown-up medium and we are quite competent to use it without giving it a second thought. With the new media this is not the case. They aren't just called new, they are new.

And that's why our approach to them is still rather questioning, tentative and slightly confused. In dealing with electronic media and their digital technologies we are confronted with the unknown, which is part of our fascination with them. That is one side of it. The other side is the fact that in dealing with the unknown we always fall back on tried and tested techniques. We give it names, turn it into images that make what is unknown about the unknown seem more familiar to us than it actually is. This reversion to familiar imagery opens the gate to metaphorical thinking.

Metaphors are (a certain form of) comparisons. They show us something as something else. For instance a human as an angel, or an Internet node as a city. Of course we are already in the middle of a metaphorical world of language when we mention virtual "spaces" (as in the word "cyberspace," that didn't just happen to have sprung from the literary imagination of a writer). It is after all characteristic of "computer generated events" that they don't easily conform to the system of co-ordinates of our regular space-time continuum.

If on the one hand, especially in view of their high level of abstraction, we seem to have to fall back on metaphoric images in order to be able to find our way at all in the unknown and in these new dimensions of digital worlds, then on the other hand their pictorial description brings with it its own risks. One of these risks lies within the unquestioning manner in which we use certain, at first sight very plausible and nonsuspect language images in order to make this new digital technology more accessible to us.

The seemingly unproblematic way in which we communicate about, for instance, the way we navigate the electronic space, could easily tempt us to assume that we also agree on the meaning of such concepts as "electronic space," "navigation," "surfing," "cyberspace" and so forth. In reality this agreement is usually quite superficial, and the very first step we take outside this all too easy use of seemingly innocent metaphors opens up views of often annoying depths, full of fundamental differences as to the "real" meaning we subscribe to these words.

To put it differently: metaphors are often like icebergs. The agreement we strive to achieve from the fact that they are so widely used, applies only to their visible tips. A more critical scrutiny reveals cracks in this illusion of what appears to be well known. Then there is a collision of the legends which lurk beneath the surface and which help us to explain the images from the most widely divergent lines of approach. In our case this collision of differences became apparent from the authors' reactions to the critical questions which were put to each of them in an identical manner: the common point of departure could hardly be discerned anymore.

Instead of finding one space to hold a collective discussion, the smashing of images revealed a multitude of approaches. This may, however, offer a starting point for a critical discussion concerning the gratuitous use of the same images over and over again, and thus contribute to the necessary clarification of a still unclear terminology.

When we run up against the borders of familiar ways of experience and perception, we can't do without figurative, evocative language and therefore not without metaphors. The virtual world of electronic media doubtless opens up dimensions beyond these borders. The way in which we describe these dimensions co-defines how we learn to interact with them.

An open interaction with the hitherto unknown and new potential of experience which digital technology now brings within reach of its users, requires a vocabulary that does not immediately conceal this experience potential by linking it only to old, familiar experiences. It requires a non-concealing vocabulary.

This is a criteria that should also be met by the metaphors we use to describe the bridges between worlds: they must be open to the difference, the other, the new. By all their differences, this criteria is shared by the authors of our book. The fact that the discussion we initiated didn't materialize in the form we envisioned, surprisingly enough resulted in a form for this book that yet reflects the experimental nature of this project. And that, in the end, is maybe more than we expected in the beginning.

© 1997 Stefan Münker / V2_

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