Reading #3

by Johanna Drucker

Read the final chapters:
- Interface & Interpretation
- Designing Graphic Interpretation

Use the tag “R3” when you post your assessment of the text’s message and the questions it raises.

I had a very difficult time gleaming much usable information from this last chapter. Drucker walks us through the origin and current state of Human Computer Interfaces, referencing back to the grpahical composition of earlier forms of text. I found the whole chapter painful to get through, her wordy sentences flowing into one another. I often needed to read the entirety of page to understand what she was getting at, the individual sentences leaving me with little substance to grab on to despite their length and weight in loaded terminology.

"This dimension, of registering affective qualities of human experience, extends the mechanistic boundaries of computational processing into a dynamic relation with living beings whose continually differentiating experiences is its lifeblood and core."

I understand what she is saying and do think it's a crucial aspect of the project to highlight but Jesus f*ing Christ, was there no simpler way to say that? For someone that reiterates the need for humanistic interfaces I often felt I was trying to understand some alien translation.

We very well may be pushing up against the limits of my vocabulary and intellect here as I often felt like Druckers philosophical musings, straightforward and logical as they were, were written with an irresponsibly complexity, perhaps as some form of gate keeping; distracting the reader from the lack of solutions with an appeal to academia.

Her idea of the next iteration of a digital book, perhaps deserving of a new label all together, reminded me of this clip from Werner Herzog's documentary on the internet, "Lo & Behold", in which he interviews Ted Nelson on his idea of a universal system of hyperlinking all text:

Ted Nelson in Herzog's "Lo and Behold"

Interface and Interpretation

Any interface disciplines, constrains, and determines what can be done in any digital environment. Creating a continuum between electronic and print formats and their features provides another useful synthesis of historical materials and future project design.

History Of Interface: Early in the process of computational design. It was more of a text based interface that developed into a mouse and real time drawing program. It was a Powerful tool but human beings need to know how to use them without the tedious high learning curve.
Created visual conventions to quicken the use of the computer and became an interface of iconography. We now think of the screen from a 2D element to a 3D element. In addition, the interface is information and not a window to merely access to it. With the birth of web design came HCI and a new way of thinking. It is aimed to “design effective environments, ones in which satisfactions are balanced with frustrations, and efficiency can be maximized.” More importantly, it has developed into a means of “forming an intention” and “specifying an action” to “evaluating the outcome.” The Interface is much more than a dashboard to display information, but a stadium to call for action.

Interface Theory: Interface has changed over the years in practice and in definition. However, all cases revolve around the idea that it plans Expected actions and unpredicted discoveries of users. The crucial distinction she mentions that the user is not a consumer. Meaning, an interface is is what we read and how we read. The author mentions that all interfaces should be subject oriented, allowing the true information to be the main purpose. They eventually become the most authentic representations. How we present the information is how the user will grab it, either at a glance or through a detailed study. It is more than an “agent” “network” relationship between the two but a more humanistic understanding that allows communication. Interface is not a “thing” based on expectations of performance but a conversation.

Reading Interface: Linked to film and a book. Allowing room for an exterior frame and a link to a repository so understand where the user is in the interface. We can make connections of the different parts of the frame by their tangents. Usually a sense e of a map helps users understand where they are and how deep they are in the interface. Reading is augmented through visually expressing the differences of the surrogates within the interface. However, there is a need to clearly define the scale of information, type of information before the reader dives into the information to make the experiences that more efficient. Using interlocking frames for each term, commerce, entertainment, information, work, communication, depends on the fluidity of the interface. Frames allow a smooth speed of recognition and make the decision making process more innate. An interface is a zone od “affordances” that allow room for activities and choices occur based on probability. whose

Humanistic Interface: It is important to use aesthetic materials by studying the, using them, but not consuming them. Again she repeats that the user is not a consumer. A good interface design clearly states where the user is, how they arrived, how to move, and most importantly how to analyze. In addition, it supports the production of reading and not about consuming. It is all about the user.

Lessons from Bibliography: When we look at a book, we think it has no relation to the screen. In reality, the screen has mimicked the functions of the book in a new platform. They are presentations of representations organized through navigations based on orientation with references that live on through social networking. The main advantage of graphical organization in a book allows the user to go back and more importantly expand. For example, the table of contents is a summary and an introduction. We rely on special organization of information and the type of information on a page. The shift from manuscripts to a square allows us to think about the relationship of information. This allowed us to push further and think about Hypertext; the means of breaking text into a narrative of links grounded on a database. All based from a book, the base of the interface.

Towards Humanistic Design: To truly show networked relations, we cannot reply to those found in a book. There are some limitations that are evident when working for the digital world. An interface is a system that has a voice of information. It allows room for interpretations on the information as well. The aim is to focus on “the act of producing and less on [the] product.”

Designing for Graphic Interpretation:

Create interpretative activities based on textual and visual artifacts is the same as creating arguments in the digital space. It is aimed more at breaking away from the conventions of print becoming more flexible and adaptable to the user. These attributes promote a micro and macro reading to any type of information boundless by size, dimensions, and even depth. Presentation, representation, computational processing, navigation, orientation, reference, and social exchange. If we add a humanistic approach to the digital space, it will create a more cultural experience. However, it is essential to keep in mind not to allow room for non repeatable interpretations but an authentic presentation.

In the first of these chapters, Drucker extends the ideas she developed in discussing static information visualizations to the theory of web interfaces and user interfaces in general.

She begins by detailing the historical development of user interfaces and provides a critical overview of interface theory in general. Her main criticism -- similar to her earlier criticism of information visualizations, as they are -- is on the emergence of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) from highly technical fields like engineering. She describes how traditional HCI methods tend to abstract away any sort of nuance, subtlety, or ambiguity about the behavior of its subjects, instead viewing them as effectively mechanistic "users" who can be sufficiently modeled by feedback loops and related systems. Drucker advocates instead for viewing these "users" as human "subjects," the change in terminology emphasizing her argument that users are ultimately human, that they cannot be fully understood, and that acknowledgment of this ambiguity of human-ness should be explicitly incorporated into user interfaces.

To further elaborate on these ideas, Drucker briefly discusses Media Theory, saying that its ideas can be effectively applied to Interface Theory. She explains how reading a website is "an act of self-production," saying that a subject-oriented interface (rather than the existing user-centered interface) should take into account that, in using an interface, the human subject is constantly trying to situate herself in the interface she perceives. In this way, the information that an interface successfully communicates is heavily dependent on the changing subject that interacts with it -- of course this subject cannot be statically modeled. The interface, Drucker says, "becomes a codependent in-betweenness in which speaker and spoken are created" (151).

She then goes on to describe the development of reading interfaces, explaining how web-based reading interfaces are unnecessarily similar to the structure of physical books. She explains how, in the development of books, the form was a result of careful consideration of how a book was used and argues that effective web-based reading interfaces should be designed in the same way -- that we should consider the nature of how we read on the web and capitalize on that, not simply rely on simplicity and familiarity.

In the following chapter, Drucker describes further how interfaces should be designed to support "knowledge production." As in previous chapters, by this she means that the design of an interface should acknowledge that information conveyed will be a result of interpretation on the part of the subject. To maximize communicative ability, then, Drucker advocates for interfaces that can be read and navigated combinatorially, which helps explicate the interpretation of the subject.

In the Final Analysis

Johanna Drucker's focus on scholarly applications new visual forms is apparent as she winds down Graphesis in Interface and Interpretation and Designing Graphic Interpretation.

The Drucker Advantage

What I appreciate about her point-of-view and nexus of experience is her concern with how new mediums will either stifle or hyper-foster the dawn of future learning.

Reifications of...Graphification

It was most amusing to read that late medieval books have more blood affinity with books nowadays than with their earlier era counterparts. It emphasized how reifications of graphical standards can structure entire experiences of our world, each other and the information we use to navigate it.

Finally: Interface as Provocation

Her invitation to think about "interface as provocation" rang loud and clear as it resonates with why I am studying in the program today.

Some Personal Thoughts

Working in app development, business development, IGOs where deliverables do indeed follow a seamless, continuous search for the final "truth" to be signed, sealed and delivered to the client or end user prompts questions of how we can infuse confrontations within our creations.

It is from this standpoint that I appreciate Drucker's vocal presence on humanistic interfaces. After all, we have tools to fulfill any sort of imagined practical requirement nowadays. I also find it the more interesting task at hand to experiment with tools that are no longer tools, but provocations that allow us as humans to enter into higher levels of discourse with one another.

What is interface?

"Interface is a mediating structure that supports behaviors and tasks."

"It is a space between human users."

"An interface is a space in which a subject not a user is invoked."

"The space between" the term itself leaves it open to interpretations, which may be what Drucker is driving home- not solely as form or display or consumption, but the interpretation, the process, the procedures, the act of, is interface. The rest is quite simply vehicles, structures, methods, forms, display, etc. where both are required for true knowledge transfer. This felt counterintuitive, perhaps by way of popular expression I assumed interface to be a thing that I as a user, or as Drucker states, subject, interacted with rather than the interaction with a display by a subject.

The synthesis of the design process with humanism is a glitchy one. When industry drives need, and process drives product, the human, user, subject- is often an afterthought. Our existing digital displays, task-oriented and behavior-driven, full of expectations and assumptions, influenced more by engineering than art or people, have a continuity and consistency almost by default. 960px960 of one-dimensional digital space can only represent so much, while still remaining true to its form and limitations. But as we migrate into new mediums- which industry shows we have, and Drucker concludes will only escalate- will playing catch up suffice? Will turning needs into requirements and tasks into deliverables drive design and production? Will we eventually be at the mercy of what we've created, which Drucker seems to think is not impossible. She further notes, "We have to imagine the design of a situation of sustained activity, a series of events." What makes for good HCI, HCD, UX? These terms used to express the need that at the center of any product, device, interface is a person- a subject- and that they have been accounted for successfully. But how to quantify qualitative characteristics, methodologies, needs? What does it look like, or feel like, to have invoked human-centered design successfully? Our preconceived notions of what currently implies good design within the digital realm may point towards success, but the sustainability of that design should it need to adapt to be or evolved into a new space- augmented reality, perceived sensors, audio- as well as existing limitations of policy, law, or resource, more than likely suggest otherwise.

An article published in FastCo Design claimed that Data Ethnographer is "the most crucial design job of the future" for many of the reasons Drucker has presented us with as current challenges that need consideration.

Defined as the study of the data that feeds technology, looking at it from a cultural perspective as well as a data science perspective. Data ethnography is a narrower, but no less crucial, field: Data is a reflection of society, and it is not neutral; it is as complex as the people who make it.

The job of a data ethnographer, then, would be to ask questions like: What is the culture of a data set? How old is it? Who made it? Who put it together? When was it updated–has it ever been updated? The ethnographer could then test data and label it, much in the same way that food labels break down nutritional contents. Consumers could then see data sets labeled like “social media data, Twitter, 2021, U.S., 75% male users ages 35-40, 50% white.”

The uncertainty of the future state of things, what will "interface" look and feel like, and if 90% of the data we have access to has been collected over the last few years, what does that mean for the future of storage, access, interpretation and understanding the qualitative elements of data snapshots?

The responsibility of data ethnographers is a large one, and perhaps for that reason alone I want to believe that Drucker is encouraging all of us to be data ethnographers. If the knowledge lifecycle is keeping some kind of shared memory from which to draw, what then if access becomes limited, not simply for policy reasons, but medium evolution, sustainability of form and function? Who is to say that collective shared data memory doesn’t end up dusty and useless as every cd collection.

When Drucker describes the work of Dunne and Raby, Garnet Hertz, and Matt Ratto as designing interface to be catalysts for social change, but brings up "the real challenge is conceptualizing the spaces of interfaces that engage humanistic theory.” As we evolve into new mediums, she notes, everything is a derivative. Most mediums were created out of industry need or market consumption. Essentially everything is a work in progress, an iterative process whether recognized as such or not. These fragmented pieces, perhaps congratulations to marketing or ignorance or optimism- are often perceived as complete, and perhaps in the purpose they serve they are. But Drucker touches on the notion that as new mediums are devised and we evolve interface design and production, the focus shifts from "product" to "process", that an "interface meant to support the activity of interpretation, rather than to display finished forms, would be a good starting point." She further believes that our ability to evolve our computational and digital environments" will never outpace our "ability to articulate the metalanguages of our engagement." Which seems like a no brainer. But facial recognition technology, sensory activated devices, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies are already blurring lines between interface, subject, display and form. It seems the mission is to answer Drucker’s lingering question: "what kind of interface exists after the screen goes away?"

In the final chapters of her book, Drucker moves from discussions of historical forms of data visualizations to contemporary ones, exploring the Graphical User Interface as a primary form for the presentation and dissemination of information. She posits that the interface is itself a bridge between forms: neither a map of data nor a set of tasks to perform, but a combination of the two. In relation to the interface, Drucker attempts to reposition the audience for work from the “user” model exemplified by the traditional model to the “subject” identified in post-structuralist academic examinations of literature and media. She states that “we need to theorize interface and its relation to reading as an environment in which varied behaviors of embodied and situated persons will be enabled differently according to its many affordances” (149). The gap between HCI and (her perceptions of) the concerns of the design community on the one hand, and academics investigating subjectivity on the other, can be brought together by her proposition for “interface theory.”

Drucker highlights a few examples of work that she sees as embodying this subject-oriented model: what they share in common are the “production of reading” rather than consumption of media. They provide the audience with the opportunity to move between modes and scales of finding information and drawing connections between works by different authors and in different media.

While I can appreciate Drucker’s concern with creating active rather than passive (consumptive) experiences in the digital sphere, I wonder how she sees this model playing out as it moves beyond the academic-minded examples she provides. Is this actually a desirable state for the majority of people in a majority of contexts? Are there times when a consumptive mode is preferred.

This, the last chapter of Drucker's book, focuses primarily on the elementary properties and propositions of graphical user interfaces. This is contextualized in a cross disciplinary review of precedents in attempts to create a foundation for a way forward towards a humanist interface. She starts with the dominant paradigm of HCI and how it orients us to a task optimized model of interaction. Beyond this, web offerings while potentially allowing more freedom still struggle with the duality of their roles as both information spaces and task oriented exigencies. The primary connection between these two is the interface which is simultaneously a culturally understood construct embodying values and by virtue of our familiarity, rendered largely invisible. Frame analysis owing to its recognition of subject affordances is one mode of engagement that could offer direction from these starting points as it allows us to consider layout in terms of a constructivist process (157). It offers options rather than dictating an experience. So too, the codex and Talmud can offer ways of navigation that are both nonlinear and context rich in ways that both assist scholarly work and have yet to be replicated on the web. Humanist, to this point, seems to be a function of a form's combinatoric possibilities amplified by (process) contextualization. The antithesis of this, is of course, a reductive mediation which allows access only to the finished form (179). What the finished form will never allow us, and what is promised by humanism is access to an internet supported noösphere where boundless information is supplied in equal parts by supporting materials allowing each subject to chose their direction unhindered by the interface perspectives of the few. Regardless of whether this process is undertaken, Drucker cautions, there are existing forms now which could serve as the beginning of her future. We have the choice to engage with science and business to direct the evolution of these phenomena now or just accept the result.

While I agree with many of her foundational assertions, as with the cholera map of the previous chapter, I often find her conclusions and methods problematic. To begin, the dream of an unregulated "cyberspace" cum autodidacts dream never fully materialized. There are reasons for this, not the least of which being monetization. There is no reason she supplies to believe her vision would fare any better. Much of what she considers a plan I would regard as a series of equivocations. (Eg: X has much to teach us...) When she does speak specifically she asserts the need for books of the future or humanist programming languages and information systems that tolerate inconsistency and fluid ontologies. Assumably this is the infrastructure for us to be able to "awaken the cognitive potential … as constructs that express themselves in forms, contingently, only to be remade again, across the distributed condition of knowing.(192)" which she again fails to clarify in any meaningful way. Perhaps most importantly, she never effectively makes the case that such tools, if they existed, would be a genuine use to anyone outside of a subdomain of her academic interests (which is, she admits the ultimate focus of her inquiry (157)).

There will be no revolution that is ushered in first and primarily by new graphical forms. When a company creates a reductionist map of the world or a scientist visually downplays data that runs counter to their hypothesis, these are intentional acts. In the age of the internet where data, algorithms, and process have been so heavily monetized the conception that Google would give you their secret sauce to contextualize your search results is, in a word, unlikely. These are not issues of lacking access to innovative graphical forms but instead of utility and/or morality we ensconce in protocol, pedagogy, or law.

In the final chapters of Graphesis, Drucker extends her humanistic perspective on information visualization (and her humanistic critiques of visualizations' shortcomings and misuses) to the interface through which we interact with this content. She brings us through a (rapidly paced) history of the development of interface in the world of visual information, arguing for a more nuanced and flexible design of interface:

We need to theorize interface and its relation to reading as an environment in which varied behaviors of embodied and situated persons will be enabled differently according to its many affordances (146)

Additionally, she laments over the emphasis over designing with a "user" in mind, instead arguing for a focus on the "subject" of an interface. While this distinction is largely lost on me, frankly due in large part to Drucker's overly obtuse language and writing style that often leaves me struggling for clear understanding, I've gleaned that she advocates for this change by arguing that individuals are unpredictable, and their actions do not fit cleanly into a mechanical feedback loop. If this is truly her argument, I do find this compelling, although I did not leave this chapter with any succinct avenues to explore how to actually go about doing this.

She extends her arguments from previous chapters to interface, arguing for an injection of humanistic principles in interface design. Just as she argued for visualization design, she calls for a "content model" in interface design that focuses on the content of study rather than an oversimplified end product - she cites examples that "[support] the production of reading, rather than the consumption of experience" (160).

Her argument about the "reification of misinformation" seems to reemerge here as well. She argues that interface is developed to serve a particular function and provides a perspective towards what information is portraying, and must be interpreted as such. She first takes us through the development of interface conventions in books, outlining how these elements we now take for granted were developed only to help structure our reading. Within new conventions she argues that

the surface of interface often conceals the back-end technical and conceptual processes by which they are produced (167)

In arguing for interface with a humanistic perspective, Drucker concludes with an argument for interface that exposes how the sausage is made rather than displaying the final product of analysis and nothing more:

More attention to acts of producing and less emphasis on product, the creation of an interface that is meant to expose and support the activity of interpretation, rather than to display finished forms, would be a good starting place (179)

While most of what I believe Drucker was trying to express in her final chapter, Designing Graphical Interpretations, was lost on me (I am looking forward to discussion on this chapter for a little more understanding and perspectives on this chapter), what did stick is the idea that we need to bake uncertainty and ambiguity in graphical conventions. Doing this will provide the caveats and context required to be more active and mindful in our production and consumption of information in visual forms.

Interface & Interpretation:

In this section, Drucker takes the reader on a historical tour of interface. Drucker, staying on theme in the book, seems to lament the concept of designing universal, drawing the distinction between the generic "user", stemming from a more "engineering" aspect, and instead suggesting we use the word "subject." Again I think this implies there is some deeper way of adding unique perspective to an interface, a kind of always-on point of view. Later, in a discussion of "frame analysis" Drucker calls interface "not a thing, but a zone of affordances in which format features provoke meaning production." This sort of turn of phrase throughout Graphesis becomes exhausting. I don't see any new particular insights from this section.

The section the history of book design is interesting, and more thought provoking. By the time we get to her "book of the future" concept - that it will not imitate old forms, but a book will an "interface" and a "richly networked portal." One can only wonder why Graphesis, which draws on a rich history and offers a lot of forward looking content, is not available in a format which could demonstrate Drucker's vision. It certainly seems like it would be a great candidate for this.

Turning interface into a "event space of interpretative activity" seems like a nice ideal - but it would be more interesting to see an example of handling "ambiguity" and "uncertainty". The constant references to "uncertainty" have me wondering if Drucker is aware that statistics, which Drucker seems to place on a opposite poll from the humanities, is actually the study of uncertainty itself. So I feel Drucker is eventually is headed towards the same place many in the physical/empirical sciences are, she is just traveling a different path.

Designing Graphic Interpretation:

In this chapter, Drucker calls on us to further develop methods to explore knowledge. I did like her suggest to offer an intgrated 'table of contents across multiple texts'. But usually Drucker offers more questions than suggestions or answers. I visted the "Knotted Line", which is one example referenced in the text. I could appreciate the structure and interactivity of its content. From these perspectives, the content may work, but it fails to handle multibles point of view, ambiguity, etc.


The afterword is a kind of grand gesture, conjuring up a future vision of limitless possibilities for narrative, collaboration, and interaction. There is a sense of wonder about what types of grammar will emerge in the future. Its a sort of optimistic future but with few details. Ultimately, in the final analysis, I think Graphesis serves less as new insight and more as an inspiring read to challenge the read to imagine what "might be". I am reminded of Thoreau's quote when he heard about long distance telephone: "What if the people of Maine have nothing to say to the people of Florida?"

That is to say, Graphesis is an interesting take on the field; it is more of a challenge and a book about history & ideas; I feel likely its aims won't be realized without purposeful intent.

Interface and Interpretation

Throughout these last sections, Drucker is urging us to redefine our methods and approaches towards the web and new interfaces. She pushes us to question our assumptions about text and these varying knowledge forms and reevaluate our goals in designing them.

One example of Drucker highlighting a false assumption is in our use of the term "real time" regarding online metrics showing that the term itself is a fallacy:

"Nothing about that metric is "real," except that it describes the limit of our perception of temporal units" (p. 149)

Her main argument throughout these chapters was that we need to move away from a "user" focused approach towards interface design and towards a "subject" focused approach. "User-centric" approaches, in Drucker's eyes, are too engineered and mechanistic and assume a rational and autonomous agent that Drucker suggests just doesn't exist. As Drucker writes,

"The standard theory of interface, based on the "user experience," is reductively mechanistic." (p.151)

and then continues a few pages later with:

"The very term "user" needs to be jettisoned -- since it implies an autonomy and agency independent of the circumstances of cognition -- in favor of the "subject." (p.158)

Another part I found interesting was Drucker's analysis of text and the printed word and how that changes with the introduction of the web. On one hand, she challenges our assumptions by poignantly pointing out that books as we know them are not the static, absolute forms of knowledge that we often take them for. Instead they are a snapshot of a particular social and intellectual network taken at the point in time in which the book was published. She writes,

"Just like a web page, a book is a site of social exchange. Its apparent stability and fixity are an illusion" (p.162)

and then continues with,

"Printed and manuscript pages are and were their own snapshot of a continuum of socially networked exchanges." (p.170)

I find this to be a beautiful and nuanced view of authorship that highlights the depth that the context (social, historical, environmental) adds.

She then continues to discuss how the whole concept of authorship and stability that we take for granted in books is now being redefined with the web. Examples of collaborative authorship (ex: wikis) and the constantly changing network are redefining this field. She elaborates by writing,

"The search I perform with one string of characters today yields a different result tomorrow... the conditional text has become the norm." (p.184)

Overall, I found Ducker's analysis very interesting and compelling, but also found it difficult to understand the shift she is pushing for. She explained it by referencing many social theories that I am not immersed in and, even with her examples, I found it hard to conceptualize what it would really mean to design for a "subject" rather than a "user."