RERUN–Metaphors, Interfaces, and Thought Processes

(I originally posted this in late 2007…I was reminded of it by the recent story about the Obama administration’s propaganda video game featuring space aliens, global warming, and gender issues)

My post today is inspired by In the Beginning was the Command Line, by Neal Stephenson, a strange little book that will probably be found in the “computers” section of your local bookstore. While the book does deal with human interfaces to computer systems, its deeper subject is the impact of media and metaphors on thought processes and on work.

Stephenson contrasts the explicit word-based interface with the graphical or sensorial interface. The first (which I’ll call the textual interface) can be found in a basic UNIX system or in an old-style PC DOS system or timesharing terminal. The second (the sensorial interface) can be found in Windows and Mac systems and in their respective application programs.

As a very different example of a sensorial interface, Stephenson uses something he saw at Disney World–a hypothetical stone-by-stone reconstruction of a ruin in the jungles of India. It is supposed to have been built by a local rajah in the sixteenth century, but since fallen into disrepair.

The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual building you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on the gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll among stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient structure, they’ve been done, not as Disney’s engineers would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would–with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar.

In one place, you walk along a stone wall and view some panels of art that tell a story.

…a broad jagged crack runs across a panel or two, but the story is still readable: first, primordial chaos leads to a flourishing of many animal species. Next, we see the Tree of Life surrounded by diverse animals…an obvious allusion (or, in showbiz lingo, a tie-in) to the gigantic Tree of Life that dominates the center of Disney’s Animal Kingdom…But it’s rendered in historically correct style and could probably fool anyone who didn’t have a PhD in Indian art history.

The next panel shows a mustacioed H. sapiens chopping down the Tree of Life with a scimitar, and the animals fleeing every which way. The one after that shows the misguided human getting walloped by a tidal wave, part of a latter-day Deluge presumably brought on by his stupidity.

The final panel, then, portrays the Sapling of Life beginning to grow back, but now man has ditched the edged weapon and joined the other animals in standing around to adore and praise it.

Clearly, this exhibit communicates a specific worldview, and it strongly implies that this worldview is consistent with traditional Indian religion and culture. Most viewers will assume the connection without doing further research as to its correctness or lack thereof.

I’d observe that as a general matter, the sensorial interface is less open to challenge than the textual interface. It doesn’t argue–doesn’t present you with a chain of facts and logic that let you sit back and say, “Hey, wait a minute–I’m not so sure about that.” It just sucks you into its own point of view.

The very astute blogger Erin O’Connor has written frequently about the “Tunnels of Oppression” that have become common on college campuses. (Here, for example, also here.) It strikes me that these vehicles of “education” and/or indoctrination are sensory interfaces, in exactly the same sense that the Disney exhibit in Stephenson’s book is a sensory interface.

But in a society in which sensory interfaces threaten to become overwhelming, shouldn’t one of the primary responsibilities of the university be the preservation of the text-based interface and the propagation of the ability to deal with this modality? Don’t “Tunnels of Oppression,” by their very nature, tend to undercut this mission?

Stephenson again:

The digital nature of the written word confers on it exceptional stability, which is why it is the vehicle of choice for extremely important concept like the Ten Commandment, the Koran, and the Bill of Rights. But the messages conveyed by modern audiovisual media cannot be pegged to any fixed, written set of precepts in that way and consequently they are free to wander all over the place and possibly dump loads of crap into people’s minds.

Stephenson points out that the people who create the sensory interfaces, and the people who absorb information and worldviews from them, tend to be different groups. Those who designed the Disney exhibit probably got much of their information from books and magazines. Similarly, those who design a computer system with a graphical user interface are probably doing so largely using programming languages which are themselves highly textual. Following the terminology invented by H G Wells, he refers to these two groups as the Morlocks and the Eloi:

In The Time Machine, the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world it’s the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks…those Morlocks will go to India and tediously explore a hundred ruins, then come home and build sanitary bug-free versions, highlight films, as it were. This costs a lot, bcause Morlocks insist on good coffee and first-class airline tickets, but that’s no problem, because Eloi like to be dazzled and will gladly pay for it all.

Why are explicit word-based interfaces tending to be replaced by sensorial ones? Stephenson suggests that part of it is the world’s growing complexity. We can’t handle all of the details; hence, “We have no choice but to trust some nameless artist at Disney or programmer at Apple or Microsoft to make a few choices for us, close off some options, and give us a conveniently packaged executive summary.” Also:

But more importantly, it comes out of the fact that during this century, intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abattoir. Those wordy intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they seem kind of dangerous as well.

Stephenson suggests that the dominance of the sensory interface, in such forms as the Disney exhibit, is not necessarily a bad thing: “It is simply the case that we are way too busy, nowadays, to comprehend everything in detail. And it’s better to comprehend it dimly, through an interface, than not at all.”

I don’t think, though, that the sensorial interface provides insulation against people like those who “turned the centruy into an abattoir”…indeed, it increases vulnerability to such people, since it allows them to present their appeals in ways not directly subject to logical refutation. I also think the Eloi-Morlock distinction may show some changes over time. The first generation of “Tunnel of Oppression” designers may be highly literate and text-oriented, basing their ideas on the reading of people like Foucault–but ten years later, the Tunnels of Oppression may well be designed by people whose own ideas were formed by earlier Tunnels of Oppression, films, and other sensial interfaces.

While the educational profession has tended too often to surrender to the sensorial interface, the emergence of blogging–essentially a text-based medium–has created a trend in the opposite direction. But the number of blog-writers and blog-readers remains small as a proportion of the population, and the failures of K-12 education have arguably created a large segment of people who will never be able to deal easily and naturally with text.

The impact of media on thought processes was, of course, addressed by Marshall McLuhan in works such as The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Mechanical Bride, and Understanding Media. Although McLuhan tends to overstate his points, I do think his work is worthy of another look in the context of another media revolution.

Stephenson’s book is highly recommended: you can read it in a few hours and will think about it for a long time.


9 thoughts on “RERUN–Metaphors, Interfaces, and Thought Processes”

  1. I have run Linux for 15 years and I still burn CDs and DVDs from the command line. It’s quicker and easier than calling up some GUI (sensorial) program and clicking away.

    The Linux command line auto completes so I can enter the directory with wav files type wob, hit tab, and my script woburn (wodim -v -audio -speed 16 dev=0,0,0 *.wav) just needs an Enter to execute. Well I need to chuck a CD in the barbie.

    It does give one a different view of the world when you know all the GUI programs are just tarted up, graphical interfaces to the command line.

    “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God!”

  2. Perhaps you are mixing too many metaphors. It makes sense to use a GUI for most computing for the same reasons that it makes sense to let your car’s computer determine the optimal spark advance and fuel/air mixture. For most machine-aided tasks it’s more important to make things easy for the user, and to minimize the possibility of destructive errors, than it is to allow the maximum flexibility of control. The command line allows maximum flexibility but also makes it too easy to erase files and directories inadvertently or make other costly errors. To continue with the machine metaphor, the command line is like an airplane cockpit in which all of the controls are identical, unlabeled rocker switches that require the pilot to memorize a written manual in order to perform even the simplest control tasks.

    Still, the point about sensory UIs is well taken. It’s been clear from the early days of film that the motion picture (and now video) is, in skilled hands, a powerful tool for manipulating people’s beliefs. And the same point applies now to other types of non-verbal presentation. It is easier for people to see the flaws in a written argument than in a spoken one, and it is much more difficult for people to see the flaws in visual presentations — most of which operate on a purely emotional level and do not even attempt to present rational arguments — than in written or spoken ones. Furthermore, the nature of visual presentations isolates the viewer from alternative views. It works like brainwashing and should be treated with suspicion rather than encouraged.

  3. Actually, of course, there are computer interfaces that are *neither* GUIs *nor* command lines….in department stores, for example, you can still sometimes see old green-screen or amber-screen terminals where the applications are textual and highly constrained. For example, a menu that says:



    There are no cute icons, but the user can’t do anything other than what the designers of the system intended him to do. Depending on the design of the system, he (the user) *may* be able to skip steps like displaying menus with whose content he is already familiar.

  4. I have neither the time, nor the expertise to go into this properly, but Stephenson and others are making an error here. The very title is erroneous. In the beginning was the switch, the relay, the valve, the transistor, the one and the zero (although base ten computers were built at one time) and of course there were completely analog devices. I have programmed with rows of dip switches… A graphic interface is no more necessarily a tarted up command line than a command line is a tarted up collection of bits.

    In fact, if you look at early gui stuff in some ways it is a *more* exact representation of what’s actually going on in memory since the graphics directly represent the underlying memory space.

    Once you have committed to creating an interface of any kind, you’ve committed yourself to abstraction and choices and tradeoffs that go with that abstraction.

    Stephenson is suffering from the fallacy which causes us to believe that the first thing we saw, or the one which immediately preceded it is more “real” and “original” and authentic than later versions…

  5. John…I doubt that Stephenson’s that limited. Surely he knows that the command line interface is created by an operating system, or a subsystem/extension thereof, rather than being intrinsic to the hardware.

    What he is trying to get at is the difference between systems and media that give the user freedom to create and explore and those that constrain him to the role of a consumer. The graphic vs command-line dichotomy is not a perfect metaphor for this, as I noted in my previous comment about highly-constrained text-based interfaces such as those seen in traditional transaction-processing systems, but I think it is a useful and suggestive one.

  6. With the IBM 650, we were basically writing programs in assembly language but it was still interpreted by the compiler although that one was a lot less sophisticated then the one that Philippe Kahn wrote for Borland and which is still in use, much modified. My boss at Douglas wrote a program called SOAP (not the more recent one of that name) that calculated the optimal storage location on the rotating drum for the next instruction or data word.

    I like the Mac GUI.

  7. “Perhaps you are mixing too many metaphors. It makes sense to use a GUI for most computing for the same reasons that it makes sense to let your car’s computer determine the optimal spark advance and fuel/air mixture.”

    Indeed a mixed metaphor for sure.

    It may be interesting to some that I have on my list of things to do to my Mark VIII is a computer interface for my ECC IV, an Intel 8061. The Quarterhorse:

    allows me to change anything in the computer and stack up 4 different tunes I can apply at will. You know the old movie bit where the guy pops the laptop from the console, changes a few things, and transforms his car into a monster.

  8. The ‘graphical’ learning mechanism that came to mind first was the “Inconvenient Truth” with all the visuals that bear no relation to fact.
    It was accepted as truth by a lot of people. Apparently their disgronifiers were disconnected…
    Set them down in front of a screen, and they’ll lap up the visuals without a single discriminatory thought clouding their mind.
    It just has to ‘feel right’ to be acceptable. Sad.

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