The Question of Interface
Alexander R. Galloway and Mohammad Salemy
Mohammad Salemy – Your new book, The Interface Effect, is a dense text that, on first read, presents a significant number of original insights, in straightforward language, about the aesthetics of new media as well as the possibilities and limits of interactivity within information technology. On second read, however, a more complicated set of questions arises about these subjects. If it wasn’t for outlining larger propositions, why was it necessary to pack so much into a book? Is this the beginning of a much larger project in which a new set of crucial questions will gradually be answered in subsequent books?
Alexander R. Galloway – On the one hand, this book is the final installment of a series of three texts devoted to the theme “allegories of control.” So it represents the culmination of about ten years’ thinking regarding how aesthetics and politics operate within new media. I’m not sure I’ll be writing more about new media in the immediate future, at least not in this precise way.
But, on the other hand, the book is a bridge to some new work currently under way. And you are correct to note that it does not exactly answer questions so much as gesture toward new areas of inquiry. The ethical is one such area, which I touch on here: Why do I think that the computer is the ethical machine par excellence? The answer has to do with the notion of an ethos or a practical orientation within a world; I see the computer as fundamentally designed to emulate practices, and is thus “ethical” in the strict sense of having an ethos. I’m also relying on a distinction that thinkers such as Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière have made between the ethical and the political. I’ll be pursuing that question more in future projects. A second area is the question of digitality itself. I’m not sure anyone has really posed the question adequately: What is digitality? Yes, we talk about computers. We even talk about binary encoding and symbolic capture, but is the digital something entirely different? That’s the subject of a new book I’m writing on François Laruelle and digitality. As we know, Laruelle’s work deals with the One. My challenge is to take his “one” very literally, as one half of the binary pairing of zero and one. Because he so adamantly refuses such binary distinctions I see Laruelle as an anti-digital thinker, perhaps the most rigorously anti-digital thinker we have.
Salemy – In the introduction to The Interface Effect you propose that interfaces are about the thresholds of interaction that are situated between different realities. You say that you would like with this project not just to define but rather to interpret interfaces. Throughout the book, instead of referring to interfaces as objects, you speak about interface effects and why interfaces function the way they do. Is this insistence on the mediating character of interfaces, instead of their objecthood, an indirect way of acknowledging their highlighted temporal dimension compared to the mere spatiality of non-media objects? Isn’t it that the durational basis of the way interfaces organize human attention allows them to be more than just objects? What I mean by temporality here is not its classic sense in which people like Edmund Husserl, Henri Bergson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, or even Alfred Schutz have spoken about, as an inherently human property, but something along the lines of Gilles Deleuze’s concept of pure perception without the preceptor.1 Don’t the media and art play their mediating role through employing a pure temporality outside of an embodied human consciousness?
Galloway – The late twentieth century is characterized by the paradigm of space, not time, at least in terms of the intellectual. Just think of all the language that was popular in the 1970s and ’80s: the autonomous zones, Michel Foucault’s “heterotopias,” Deleuze’s “lines of flight,” Guy Debord’s “situations” and “psychogeographies,” Henri Lefebvre’s landmark book The Production of Space (1974), and Fredric Jameson defining postmodernism as fundamentally a question of architecture. This is a spatial era. There are those who view the computer in terms of temporality (Mark Hansen, for example), but that’s not at all my interest.2 For me there is convincing evidence—in fact going back to the nineteenth century and even beyond—that computation is ultimately a spatial process. It’s cellular, grid bound, focused into diagrams and structures.
An article I wrote recently on the mathematician Nils Aall Barricelli confirms this spatiality of computation.3 Time is just a variable like any other for the computer. Time is no longer the active, vital infrastructure of the medium like in the way that we say cinema is a “time-based medium.” It’s difficult to say something similar about the computer. If anything, the computer is a space-based medium, which, by the way, is why Deleuze couldn’t imagine anything like digital cinema in his Cinema books, and why we still need a third volume on the “space-image”! Yet I think what you say is also important; that if we follow Deleuze—for example, what Deleuze says about the crystal—then indeed we can start to think about a pure, autonomous temporality outside of human perception. That would indeed be a way to bring time back into the conversation. The crystal is really a kind of vitalism for Deleuze, and the cybernetic, cellular universe re-enchants dead matter with a kind of vivaciousness. To that extent, yes, indeed, it has become “temporal” in the Deleuzian sense.
Salemy – Precisely, I was thinking along the lines of Deleuze’s discussion of the crystal in Cinema 2.4 A temporality that is external but in the same manner as the Bergsonian non-spatialized and inner time of consciousness; more like the phenomenology of the object. I say this because mediation always brings up the discussion of temporality.
Galloway – Yes, but that’s a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, rooted in both phenomenology and cinema. It’s what Friedrich Kittler would call the 1900 media, not the 2000 media.5 We need to make a much harder break with both phenomenology and cinema if we wish to understand the computer. So while I agree that temporality is and will remain a crucial category for analysis, I stand firm on my formula “computer = space,” even if it sounds a bit stubborn or polemical.
Salemy – Your book moves back and forth between ontological discussions of interfaces and computers as both hardware and software. It seems that you are looking at the computer as a set of mediations and therefore itself as a form of interface. For you, the interface does not exclusively reside in the computer but the reverse, meaning computers belong to the ontology of the interface, which is completely understandable. The question is, are there lines that separate interfaces from raw data? Or rather: from the graphical user interface all the way to the binary code, everything can be considered a form of interface since even a computer program is nothing but a mediation between the programmer and the machine.
Galloway – Yes, it’s “interfaces all the way down.” Yet, there is indeed a difference between structured and unstructured data. Unstructured data are data that have no interface; they have no structure. When data gain structure they gain interfaces. And, at that point, the data is called something else—it is called information. The word “information” combines both halves of data: “-form” refers to a relationship (here a relationship of identity as same), while “in-” refers to the entering into existence of said form, the actual givenness of “abstract” form into real concrete formation. The lines that separate them are more or less arbitrary, which is to say they are philosophical. It’s nothing more than the classical distinction made between object and relation (or between body and mind, or what have you). Data is the object and information is the relation. The interface appears when data becomes philosophical. I like what you say: the interface is not in the computer, but the computer belongs to a larger kingdom of the interface.
Salemy – I guess, then, going back to the discussions of the first wave of cybernetics at the Macy conferences when the concept of data, information, and signals were first conceptualized, data can only be pure data before it is separated from its worldly materiality, and the minute data is detached, collected, measured, and recorded in any shape or form, it starts to become information?
Galloway – Yes that’s right. So “data” is in some basic way a fictitious concept. Although, in being fictitious, it also becomes utopian.
Salemy – Can we say one man’s data is the other man’s information and vice versa; that the line shifts with your knowledge of computers?
Galloway – Yes. Although there is a more elemental question: Do we ever see data at all, or is it always already pre-structured in some way? Data may be merely an abstract concept, much like givenness or facticity. But yes, in withdrawing from information, in the Laruellean sense, it might indeed be possible to enter into a universe of immanent data.
Salemy – The loose frame through which you define your concept of interface opens up your project to larger concerns that poke their heads in at crucial points throughout the text. For you, an interface is not just what one encounters on the computer screen, and it can include things like windows, kiosks, doorways, channels, sockets, and holes, as well as paintings, photographs, TV shows, and movies. The last few instances of interface are where the discourse of media studies meet, or rather collide, with that of art. How does it feel to delve, with this latest book, into a territory marked out by art historians, curators, and art critics? Why is it that you can state things as you see them without demonstrating fidelity to any particular school of thought on the subject of visuality?
Galloway – I’m not sure what I despise more, disciplinarity or interdisciplinarity! The former leaves us to languish in a dull repetition of the old ways of thinking, but the latter forces us into a kind of unskilled promiscuity where we stumble around aimlessly in places where we shouldn’t be—which is really nothing more than a new kind of proletarianization of the mind. Nevertheless, I am drawn to art and aesthetics because it opens up a vast number of possibilities. It allows us to talk about form and sensation, relationships and complexity. If anything, there may be a common domain that both media theory and art criticism may claim. We might call it simply aesthetics, or perhaps something like a mode of mediation. All of these things flow together in my mind, and in fact, as you know, it’s impossible to think about metaphysics without conjuring the vocabulary of aesthetics, since from Plato onward the true and the beautiful have been forever intertwined. In other words, aesthetics is always a question of philosophy.
Perhaps this is why I want to expand the conversation in The Interface Effect to include these larger discussions around aesthetics and politics. And it also comes from a certain interest in the “monumentality” of the computer. People assume that these machines, these video games, these websites and viral videos are all a kind of trash culture, a miniature culture for miniature people. But for me there is a monumentality to the computer. It’s not just the novel or the epic poem or the cinema that we need to focus our attention on. The computer also tells us something monumental.
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About the Authors
Alexander R. Galloway is an author and associate professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. He obtained his PhD in Literature from Duke University in 2001. Galloway’s research interests include media theory and contemporary philosophy. He is the author of Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization (MIT Press, 2006), Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (coauthored with Eugene Thacker, University of Minnesota Press, 2007), and The Interface Effect (Polity Books, 2012).
Mohammad Salemy is an independent NYC/Vancouver-based critic and curator from Iran. He co-curated the Faces exhibition at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia. In 2014, he organized the Incredible Machines conference in Vancouver. Salemy holds a master’s degree in Critical and Curatorial Studies from the University of British Columbia and is an Organizer with the New Centre for Research and Practice, where he oversees the Art and Curatorial Program. He is a regular contributor to The Third Rail.