Summer Rerun: Metaphors, Interfaces, Memes, and Thinking

This rerun of an earlier post (slightly reworked) was inspired by a comment by MCS at this post:

We are now living in the first post-literate society where the masses will be directed by rumor. Memes will take the place of reasoned discussion.

Neal Stephenson wrote In the Beginning was the Command Line, a strange little book which would probably be classified under the subject heading “computers.”  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 wrote frequently about the “Tunnels of Oppression” that have become common on college campuses. (Her blog is sadly gone.) 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 concepts like the Ten Commandments, 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, because 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.

Writing in the WSJ in 2016, Peggy Noonan said:

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.

While the educational profession has tended too often to surrender to the sensorial interface, the emergence of blogging–essentially a text-based medium–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 emergence and incredible growth of social media, which are better suited to the sharing of memes than of rational discussion and connected thought, has to a considerable extent undercut the emerging beneficent effects of blogging. And videogames are being used for persuasion/propaganda, as with the Obama administration’s video game featuring space aliens, global warming, and gender issues.

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 “Summer Rerun: Metaphors, Interfaces, Memes, and Thinking”

  1. Post-literate is not the same as pre-literate, but it has similarities. I would say that humankind has always operated by rumor, and only in the last few hundred years, in select places, has information been exchanged by the written word. It may be that operating by reason and reading has been a very temporary and partial exception to normal human existence. Complexity is always a house of cards, which needs considerable support from its surrounding culture or it collapses.

    Comparing our current troubles to the fall of the Roman Empire is trite and usually cherry-picks incidents. There are a thousand exceptions why their situation is not ours at all. Yet there may be something to it, especially if one looks at England and Northern France, where the Fall of Rome was quite real, and dramatic. (In other places one might argue there was no fall of the Roman Empire. It varies enormously.) There was literacy, and art, and trade in international goods, and then there was none, in the space of a lifetime.

  2. The point of Post-literacy was that literacy is being discarded deliberately. Pre-literate societies, the ones that have survived, are better described as emerging-literate, where literacy is a common if not universal aspiration.

    I’m not trying to draw a parallel with the Dark Ages. The decline in literacy was profound but I don’t see that any part of it was from a conscious decision that literacy was superfluous. I recall reading something in the 90’s along the line that since video was so ubiquitous, that the non-academy track wouldn’t have to learn to read. We are in the process of finding out if that’s true. In the public school systems, it’s more like nobody learns to read.

    There were three things in the Soviet Union that were more tightly controlled than weapons; typewriters, ribbons and carbon paper. The regime controlled the media and jammed Western broadcasts. The people that rail against Google developing an easily controlled search engine for China completely miss the point that Google doesn’t see China as the market but as just an early adopter. If they can make something disappear from the Internet with a mouse click or better, at the behest of an algorithm in China, there will be no end to organizations willing to pay to do it here. That’s their real goal. Serving video is probably going to remain expensive, so it will be even easier to control.

    Then there’s the simple mater of efficiency. I bought a newish pickup a while ago. I just loaded the pdf, it’s 482 pages. How many hours of video would I have to sit through to find out what oil and anti-freeze I should use. I’d have to improve my memory, if I were to remember them long enough to buy them at the auto supply without taking notes . It’s a Nissan so every damn fluid except the oil is special. I used to have shelves of manuals and catalogs, now I have pdf’s. I can’t imagine having to substitute video.

    I find it easier to imagine an illiterate intellectual, she can get by with a talent for glib BS. I can think of a few possibilities. An illiterate mechanic, engineer or doctor I wouldn’t want to contemplate.

  3. I’m not trying to draw a parallel with the Dark Ages.

    Joel Mokyr has a couple of books , one in particular, “The Lever of Riches,” that explains how the Dark Ages were not as dark as is usually believed. Northern European clay-like soils were ploughed, crop rotation was discovered, wind mills were built.

    Literacy was the principle intellectual loss although it is difficult to determine how many people were actually literate in Greek or Roman times.

  4. When the Western Roman Empire fell, literacy would have meant Latin and Greek. The languages of the Middle East were confined to the Eastern Empire. As far as I know, there were no other written languages in Western Europe at the time, certainly none with an established literature. The result was the latinized alphabets adopted as far east as Moscow.

    How much the virtual ecclesiastic monopoly on literacy was a deliberate strategy of the Church and how much was simply the way things worked out is hard to figure. The Church seemingly repressed the development of vernacular written language, especially the Gospel, at the same time that their scholars were probably responsible for first rendering the various languages in written form.

    The amount of graffiti in places like Pompeii would seem to show that literacy was widespread enough to make it worthwhile. Who would go to the trouble if there was no audience? That was 400 years before the fall and I believe standards slipped with time and trouble. I’ve never been able to get through Gibbons but I remember something to the effect that at the end it was no longer mandatory for a Roman Citizen to be literate.

    I think a lot of the darkness of the Dark Ages is a product of very scant written records and poor communication. Historians are probably no more immune from looking under streetlights than anyone else. Historians and Archeologists have always had a sort of uneasy alliance. What got written up in the monasteries was what interested the monks; portents and miracles, not the mundane details of plows and mills. Any evidence that’s left will have to be dug out of ground that is not good for preserving things like wood and leather.

    On consideration, it seems very unlikely that human ingenuity disappeared. Ingenuity, for some at least, might be more compelling than sex.

  5. MCS…”What got written up in the monasteries was what interested the monks; portents and miracles, not the mundane details of plows and mills.”

    Not always, though. The abbott of Bonneval described the rebuilding of Clairvaux in the 12th century, without mentioning the church, focusing instead on the abbey’s use of waterpower:

  6. Thanks for the link, I haven’t had to design a water wheel but you never know. Even earlier, Bede chronicled a large variety of things so I was probably a little over generalizing. Some of the scarcity of recorded innovation could be that I didn’t interest modern translators or they didn’t realize what was important or new in that time. So there may be a lot of the written record of technology that is hiding in plain sight.

    Should have made plain that, yes, I agree with most everything in your original post. The digital nature of written language lets it be examined and dissected ad-infinitum without loosing any part of the original, while no two people will come away with the same memory of a video and often disagree sharply.

  7. “I haven’t had to design a water wheel but you never know”

    With a Democratic administration and a ‘Green New Deal’, small waterpower sites would become very valuable…

  8. Water wheel, turbine or whatever, no problem but there’s not a snowballs chance in hell that I’d ever manage the environmental paperwork. It would probably have to be filed on sustainably harvested tree bark.

  9. A good example of the advantage of digital over analog representation is in music. We have only a rough idea of what music before modern notation came together in the late Renaissance. This is especially true for ancient music. Music written since about the 17th century is regularly performed with fair confidence that is close to the original. By 1700, manuscripts are very close to the same as today. Thus we have Bach, Scarlatti, Handel (all born in 1685).

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