Metaphors, Interfaces, and Thought Processes (rerun)

Writing in today’s WSJ, Peggy Noonan says: “This year I am seeing something, especially among the young of politics and journalism.  They have received most of what they know about political history through screens  They’re college graduates…they’re bright and ambitious, but they have seen the movie and not read the book….They learned through sensation, not through books, which demand something deeper from your brain.  Reading forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect…Watching a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis shows you a drama.  Reading about it shows you a dilemma.”

The article reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s book and of this post, which I originally ran in late 2007.

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 mustachioed 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 century 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 sensorial 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.

15 thoughts on “Metaphors, Interfaces, and Thought Processes (rerun)”

  1. I think this tracks with Richard Fernandez column about “The Market State” and the Principle agent problem.

    “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Bobbitt wrote. But if so, why did the State fail to transition into the Market State? The key fallacy may lie in his belief that the market state would work to “maximize its citizens’ opportunities.” This belief rests on the unsupported assumption that such State would continue to act as the faithful agent of its citizens. Yet once a State has been relieved of what Paul Monk called the duty to maintain “sovereignty within territorial borders … and a public policy of large-scale social security for the population within those borders” it acquires a rival claim to its services: the World.

    “World leaders” no longer work only for their own countries, but for the World. Politicians like the Prime Minister of Greece suddenly find themselves working for “global capital markets that ignore borders”, faceless bureaucrats in Brussels and accountable to a bewildering plethora of G’s — G8, G20, etc — not to mention a United Nations and a United Europe.

    In retrospect the idea that an increasingly internationalized political elite would automatically remain faithful agents of their own populations should have rung alarm bells. Although much has been made of the security violations of Hillary Clinton’s private email system, its true value is as a record of how the Clinton’s constituency grew beyond the borders of America. It is not for nothing that the Clinton Foundation is also known as the Clinton Global Initiative. It has received money from 20 foreign governments.

    His column, like most of them, is worth reading.

  2. “the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball”
    This is completely and totally wrong. There was no such agreement, and it’s outrageous to claim that there was. This reads to me like a sick attempt to deflect blame from the thugs who took over to their victims.

  3. Those who control the present control the past; those who control the past control the future.

    The Academy has been dumbing down its students to the point that the students don’t have any notion that things may be different than what the professors are saying. There is no internal reference. Real research — digging through libraries and assembling source material — is perfunctory at best, and usually done over the internet. So they are unfamiliar with text. Thus, the Millennials in particular are ripe for any message thrust upon them. They have no internal BS meter.

    All is going according to plan.

  4. “I don’t think, though, that the sensorial interface provides insulation against people like those who “turned the century 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.”

    Witness the horror of all western media on the Syria debacle, when the Russians break stuff and kill people. Watch Aljzeera eulogize the heroic white hats. Watch American politicians lie and prevaricate in a situation where every move is exposed. I guess they don’t think it matters.

    Good stuff.

    I have friends who watch a documentary on TV and decide their doctors are lying to them. It’s too late, the high production values Reality Show that is modern life has won.

    I still burn CDs and make small notes, directly from the command line. All my media runs from a curses application Midnight Commander, which runs in a terminal, either in X or from a console. I will hide under the GUI, I will be safe there. ;)

  5. “The digital nature of the written word confers on it exceptional stability, which is why it is the vehicle of choice for extremely important concepts like the Ten Commandments …”: but the Commandments aren’t even stable between their different appearances in the Old Testament. There are multiple different versions of the Koran (the differences, I am told, are theologically trivial, but they are differences none the less). Mind you, it seems daft to pick nits with his examples when his basic point is bonkers anyway. Did he think that the authors of the Bill of Rights had the option of popping it onto the internet?

  6. Dearieme….I think his argument is that a rather definitive roadmap for operating a government, such as the Constitution/Bill of Rights, would be unlikely to have been conceived in an age of oral-only communications, and, if conceived, would not have likely had much stability.

    By extension, would something like the Constitution likely be conceived and broadly accepted in our own age of soundbites, tweets, and politically-tendentious movies and video games with “high production values”, to borrow PenGun’s phrase?

  7. Brian….well, certainly in the case of Germany it was *not* a takeover by thugs with no popular consent…the Nazi Party share of the vote in the 1930 election was 37%. It’s true that the full horror of Naziism may have not been evident by this point, but it *was* evident that the party was totalitarian and was anti-Semitic even beyond traditional European anti-Semitism levels.

    I don’t think that Naziism was primarily a movement driven by intellectuals, though; there were many intellectuals who actively supported it (such as Heidegger) or went along with it for career and personal safety reasons, but they weren’t the driving force.

    In the case of Russia, there were a lot of intellectual revolutionaries about who *did* reject traditional values of Czarism and the Orthodox Church; however, the takeover of the revolution by the Bolsheviks does seem to have been largely due to their better organization.

  8. Throwing Germany and Russia together in that sentence really confuses things, that’s for sure. His phrasing just brought to my mind the lie repeated over and over again in the past century that communist countries ever had the consent of the governed, anywhere. I hate commies, commie sympathizers, commie apologists, etc.

  9. The takeover by the political left since communism fell seems to me to be an example of the results promoted by Gramsci.

    Born in obscurity on the island of Sardinia in 1891, Gramsci would not have been considered a prime candidate to impact significantly the 20th century. Gramsci studied philosophy and history at the University of Turin, and soon became a dedicated Marxist, joining the Italian Socialist Party. Immediately after the First World War, he established his own radical newspaper, The New Order, and shortly afterwards helped in the founding of the Italian Communist Party.

    Disappointed by Mussolini, he moved to Soviet Russia. Disappointed again, he returned to Italy. Arrested and imprisoned by the Fascists, he spent nine years writing on Marxist theory.

    What Gramsci proposed, in short, was a renovation of Communist methodology and a streamlining and updating of Marx’s antiquated strategies. Let there be no doubt that Gramsci’s vision of the future was entirely Marxist and that he accepted the validity of Marxism’s overall worldview. Where he differed was in the process for achieving the victory of that worldview. Gramsci wrote that “there can and must be a ‘political hegemony’ even before assuming government power, and in order to exercise political leadership or hegemony one must not count solely on the power and material force that are given by government.” What he meant is that it is incumbent upon Marxists to win the hearts and minds of the people, and not to rest hopes for the future solely on force or power.

    Richard Fernandez has further explained how Gramsci’s theory is working.

    The West is filled with millions of people like Alex, all of them waiting for Someone. They are the product of a multi-decade campaign to deliberately empty people of their culture; to actually make them ashamed of it. They were purposely drained of God, country, family like chickens so they could be stuffed with the latest narrative of the progressive meme machine. The Gramscian idea was to produce a blank slate upon which the Marxist narrative could be written.

    I have posted some thoughts on this here.

    I think we are seeing the Gramscian concept carried out in our schools, including colleges. Whether ISIS or just chaos will profit in the end, is still not clear.

  10. In general the article is quite good. It does go wrong here:

    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.”


    The artist at Disney, the programmer at Apple and Microsoft can’t handle all of the details either. There is no necessity, no inevitability that the people we choose to handle such duties be nameless and not personally in our trust. All of us, in our own areas of expertise, know the details. If we are given the tools to make simple, persuasive sensorial experiences for others who trust us and we take such experiences from others in our own web of trust, the world would progress quite differently. Creating interoperable small programs that can work with each other is a large part of the genius of Unix. If one particular program does not suit your needs, pick from one of the alternatives and you’ll be just fine.

  11. “the programmer at Apple and Microsoft can’t handle all of the details either.”

    The programmer who wrote the most commonly used complier, Phillipe Kahn, retired and spent the rest of his time sailing. He got quite good at it.

    Of course, he has a few more inventions but sailing has been a lot of his life.

    Kahn’s focus on the environment and the outdoors led him to the sport of sailing. Kahn’s sailing team, Pegasus Racing, competes in many world championships each year around the world. An offshore sailor with over 10 trans-Pacific crossings, Kahn holds the Transpac double handed record from San Francisco to Oahu, Hawaii.[20] Recent sailing achievements also include winning the double handed division of the 2009 Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Hawaii, and setting the Transpac record at 7 days, 19 hours, beating the previous time of 10 days, 4 hours.

    Double handed Transpacs are hardcore sailing. He often sails against his son, Samuel, “Shark.”

  12. Interesting about Kahn. For a while his company, Borland, could do no wrong. The compiler you speak of is probably his C compiler for $29.95. He had a whole family of them in the 80s

  13. Mike K – I stand by that statement. Phillipe Kahn can handle any particular detail he cares to devote time to. A lot of people can. But no, he’s not going to be able to handle *all* the details for the same reason that we don’t produce true renaissance people anymore. The number of things we do has grown too large for anybody to handle it all so we all outsource something. As I research and go through government activities, I regularly run into people inside the bureaucracy who are relieved that finally *somebody* is asking about a particular detail. Until I did, nobody had.

  14. “The programmer who wrote the most commonly used complier, Phillipe Kahn”

    I’d dispute that. I’d guess that GCC the Gnu C Compiler is the most commonly used compiler. I base this on the fact that the internet is a *nix network and all them Linux web servers, etc, got compiled by GCC.

    It used to be a bit of a trick to get an Apache server up with all the trimmings. One had to compile all the various bits against the Apache code, and it had to be done in the right order.

  15. I would have to agree with you Pengun on the GCC compiler – being that is free, but let’s qualify Kahn by stating the most used commercial compiler There were a few years during the 1980s when Borland was king of the compilers – not by overall excellence but “good enough” and cheap –

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