8.20.21 // the interface equation (essay)

It should be a grotesque act to throw things away. Each time we do so, we should come face-to-face with our own ugly consumption, be forced to contend with the destructive reality of our existence. Instead, we are presented with a hole: a hole that quickly, quietly, and sometimes even pleasantly conveys our garbage away. Out of sight, out of mind.

This is the thought that struck me when I stopped in front of this trash can in Portland the other day. For some time now, I'd been wrestling with the concept of interface ethicality, and it was turning out to be infuriatingly evasive -- so situational, abstract and self-contradictory that I had found myself at a sort of dead end. And here was the perfect case study: a common and concrete object with massive, but hidden, ethical implications.

But let me back up.

A little while ago, I finished Tracy Kidder’s 1981 The Soul of a New Machine. The book, a staple in engineering literature, revolves around the creation of the Data General Eclipse microcomputer -- the people, thought processes, and physical circuits that went into it. I was absolutely mesmerized by the complexity of the inner architecture, but at the end, all of it -- hardware, man hours, even ideological input -- was stuffed into the simplicity of a cuboid: an interface that used and referenced, but did not reveal, the computer's inner workings -- its soul.

The postwar computer is an intriguing study on illusion. Because while what I just described may not be particularly shocking -- after all, that's what a computer is: a collection of hardware and software made useable by a box, screen, and set of buttons -- it's also remarkably consistent with the dominant ideology in industrial design at this time. I'm specifically referring to the modernist "Good Design" movement, which, like most Modernist industrial design, emphasized reduction of form. Good Design emerged out of an increasingly consumerist post-World War II America, and therefore implicitly revolved around streamlining and mass-marketability.

It's in this context that we can understand the consumerist connotations of the "skin." The posterchild for this is IBM's 1961 Selectric Typewriter, an overnight hit which famously bridged the gap between keyboard and computer terminal. The Selectric was particularly innovative in that it concealed the complex inner workings of the mechanism in a smooth, sleek "skin," making it user-friendly and aesthetically appealing to a postwar audience. It reflects the broader ethos of Good Design; because of the typewriter's implicit entanglement in commercialist exploits (IBM!) a questionable ideology was built into the very fabric of the machine. And it all seemed to rest in that outer skin, the physical interface that concealed the actual mechanism. You can't disentangle form from function here: IBM was relying on the construction of an illusion to market an otherwise complex system to an ever-growing, ever-hungry middle class market.

There's a tension here, and it revolves around the idea of abstraction. The postwar computer, through its emphasis on a complexity-reducing interface, abstracted the user from the actual machine. I love this passage from "Make Computers Boring":

The computer hardware industry has for decades held to a fairly strong consensus on what counts as “progress”: miniaturization, greater speed, modularization with standardized connections, and the replacement of moving parts with solid-state equipment. All of these factors tend to divorce function from visible form. Older designs naturally lend themselves to didactic demonstrations: a Babbage-type cogwheel engine will whir, clank, and make operations such as the carrying of figures usefully visible; analog computers spin or slosh their way toward answers to problems; early digital machines may have moving storage, or at least a matrix of tubes or signal lamps whose skittering patterns can be explained. Machines of the microcomputer bomb onward, by contrast, hide their frenetic activity deep in the silicon. Outwardly, they just sit there. They are also, quite often, physically unprepossessing, beige or black cuboids whose form gives little clue to their capabilities, use history, or even age. (Sumner 32)

(In all honesty, if there's anything I've learned in my reading on art history, it's to always be wary of cuboids. The fact that nothing exists naturally in cubes should be a red flag, and in design history, cuboids are a distinctly western, material-wasting, and usually pretentiously-created phenomenon.)

What's essential here is the idea that the postwar computer "divorces function from visible form." This is abstraction. Put another way, the postwar computer is wrapped up in issues of semiotics: the actual interface its user interacts with is not the computer system itself, but a metaphor. Semiotics, metaphor, abstraction: this is the new machine.

Interfaces are everywhere

But interfaces aren't limited to computation; in fact, they're universal, implied wherever a system and a user interact. A few days later, skimming through John Harwood's The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design (I was now consumed by the idea of complexity-concealing postwar machines), I came across this definition of interfaces. Harwood appreciates the ubiquity of the interface through a broader ergonomic lens:

Originally coined in the 1880s as a scientific term for the surface along which two adjacent bodies meet, the term “interface” was taken up by the nascent discipline of ergonomics in the late 1940s to describe the site at which the human body interacts with a complex mechanical apparatus. The interface is the crucial but often overlooked element in what ergonomics identifies as the “man-machine system.” It is the hyphen between “man” and “machine” that articulates the system as a whole. Whether it is a screen, a keyboard, a sitting surface, a proscenium, or a curtain wall (and it is often all of these and more), an interface is a complex apparatus that appears as a simple surface.

I found that my familiarity with the implications of interfaces in a digital context enabled me to more critically consider them in a universal one. Once I started thinking of my environment as a collection of interfaces, it became all I saw. Sitting in a coffee shop, I see what are essentially architectural skeletons everywhere I turn my head. I look right past the fabric of my armchair (the fabric being the interface) and instead imagine the springs and frames; the smooth white encasing of the hand-sanitizer station to my left dissolves to reveal the plastic bag of sanitizer and the pumps and nozzles that eject it; the surface I rest my palms on on my computer become not so much a surface as a barrier between myself and the electronic architecture underneath. I think back to the time I helped set up a gallery space, erecting a sleek white curtain to cover the "ugly" wires and lighting fixtures lest visitors see them. In all of these cases, the interface was designed specifically to obscure the unwanted complexity of the systems and processes underneath: like with the computer, to create the illusion of simplicity.

And then, leaving the coffee shop, I come across that trash can.

On any other day, I would have only seen a trash can. But this time, my brain still stuck in interface-x-ray vision, I see something else: an interface designed to conceal the trash disposal process.

The artistic encasing was, in every way, an encasing; as evident from the traces of trash leakage underneath, what was being obscured inside was intentionally obscured. The reality of the trash can -- the smell, the sticky plastic clamshells, and even the ultimate destination of the waste -- wasn't meant to be seen or even thought about by passersby, so, much like those postwar cuboids, it had been abstracted through the simplicity of a friendly box. But what was particularly unnerving to me was the pitch blackness of those small, yet gaping holes — holes that hinted at, but did not reveal, the trash can's inside essence. In fact, I thought, were I an alien, unfamiliar with the cultural practice of throwing my debris into a small dark hole, I wouldn't have even known what this thing was. For the first time, I saw the hole not as a simple receptacle through which to dispose of my trash, but as a metaphor for something much deeper and more problematic.

The demand for reduction

It could be said that the interface is the result of a tension that emerges between the converse natures of humans and systems: the fact that one gravitates towards simplicity, while the other gravitates away from it.

Humans, it seems, are creatures of reduction. Our obsession with reduction is certainly a dominant narrative in modern design: think IKEA furniture, “modern art,” and our affinity for blank white surfaces in interior design. But I'd argue that our gravitation toward reduction runs much deeper than cultural trends; in fact, it seems to be a biological tendency. As Gestalt Psychology suggests, the brain sees the whole of a thing instead of its individual components. In order for our brains to function and make decisions rapidly, we require some degree of minimization and order in our otherwise complex environments.

But systems, on the other hand, are inherently complex. As Cedric VanEenoo writes, “although simplicity as a valuable concept is accepted widely, truly simple systems are relatively rare -- many systems, which perhaps began in a simple way, become ever more complex." Perhaps this, like with humans and reduction, is not a phenomenon specific to technology but is characteristic of processes in general; the universe exists in a state of entropy, constantly falling into disorder and complexifying itself.

Enter the interface: a vehicle for reduction, imposing abstraction to enable usability. VanEenoo writes this about the necessity for reduction in design:

The reduction of… sometimes obstructive complexity is the reason for the use-centered design behind interactive systems… The aim of the designer is to create an interactive system that is so non-complex that it becomes unrecognizable as a system, but instead simply fades into the background while quietly enhancing the abilities of the user to get the best out of it.

By rendering a system increasingly unrecognizable as itself, the interface enables productive interaction. Interfaces aren't necessarily problematic of their own accord; again, they seem to be laws of the human-system universe. But their very nature -- which is to obscure complexity -- does, well, exactly that: it obscures complexity. And this isn't always a good thing.

The Passive User

Abstraction presents a major issue: passivity. I want to return to that quote about the postwar computer. VanEenoo described the contrast between older “spinning and sloshing” machines and newer machines that outwardly “just sit there." While the former implies activity, the latter (the postwar computer) is suggestive of passivity. This passivity, enabled by a robust effort to physically conceal the “frenetic activity,” seems to extend to the user; in interacting with the interface that is the postwar computer, the human is also rendered passive, blind to the machine’s inner processes.

The same goes with all interfaces -- including the trash can. We lose something in the pursuit of simplicity. The box with the hole is, of course, not the trash-disposing apparatus itself. It doesn't take the trash to the dump or even hold it. Instead, in abstracting us from the actual process (and even the actual trash bin) that digests our waste, it makes trash disposal far too easy.

This was getting complicated. The very same thing that made interfaces necessary in some cases made them problematic in others. I wanted to understand this tension. Was there a tipping point -- a specific point at which an interface enters the dark side of abstraction? Where is it? And what is the responsibility of the designer in this insane balancing act?

The equation

It seemed that interface design existed on some kind of push-pull spectrum. I sketched out a spectrum to represent this thinking, starting with the example of the computer:

Without abstraction, we’re completely alienated from the system we’re dealing with. But there is also a point where accessibility tips into blatant exploitation — where, again, we’re completely (but conversely) alienated from the system:

There's a LOT going on in this preliminary sketch, and I ended up more confused than anything else. Though the spectrum did capture the different implications that different computer interfaces had on the user, it seemed to suggest that there existed a happy medium. The notion that, dead-center on the spectrum, there existed an "ideal," optimally abstracted interface was deceptive; such a machine would still have implications for passivity. Even more problematic was the fact that I couldn't identify the "tipping point" I'd imagined -- that illusive and problematic point where accessibility becomes passivity. The issue, I realized, was that it was plotted on a line -- though both accessibility and passivity were represented, it was impossible to determine where, how, and even if one became the other. This had to be a graph.

It was here that I returned to that trash can interface, since it and its many manifestations provide a simple but potent prototype for graphing the ethical effects of the interface. Consider these three trash disposal processes:

A. I personally carry my trash to the dump, which is located directly next to where I live. From my window, I can watch my trash failing to decompose, and I witness the effects of my increasing disposal. There is no interface between me and the actual disposal of trash, so there is no metaphor abstracting me from the process. Abstraction = 0.

B. An open-air trash can with a trash bag insert. As I throw my trash away, I can see and smell the other trash in the bin, though I don't see the process that will dispose of my trash. I am caused minimal discomfort. Let's say Abstraction = 5.

C. A high-rise building trash chute that consists of a small hole in a sleek white wall. In throwing away my waste, I am caused no discomfort; actually, I remain immersed in the pleasing experience of the high-rise. The minute the trash disappears from my hand, it is out of my mind forever. The trash will end up in a trash room, where it will be collected, then carried to a dump that contributes to gross amounts of pollution and environmental racism. However, the interface (the wall with the hole) between me and this process obscures and abstracts this complex and destructive system. Abstraction = 10.

I tried plotting these three scenarios on a graph that analyzes the trash can interface's usability as a function of its abstraction from the actual disposal system. The x-axis is abstraction, the degree of conceptual distance from the disposal process imposed by the trash can interface:

For the y-axis, I'm using "usability" interchangeably with "accessibility" or "productivity," specifically so that I can later expand this to discuss non-trash can interfaces. Going to the dump (A) is less "usable" than throwing it into a slightly overflowing corner trash can (B), which is (only slightly) less "usable" than a high-rise trash chute (C):

This is the resulting graph:

the equation being:

y = L(1-1/ex)

Here's what's important: though abstraction increases significantly from B to C, usability (trash can time-saving and ease of use, for instance) only barely increases. This is a graph of diminishing returns: as we add more abstraction to the interface, we get less corresponding increase in system usability. So at the point where the curve flattens out (denoted by the dotted line) abstraction apparently serves another purpose; adding more does nothing to increase usability.

This is where, in some cases, manipulation comes in. Think of deceptive packaging: for instance, happy cows on a milk carton. Putting happy cows on a milk carton does nothing to increase the convenience of the milk carton, but it nevertheless abstracts the consumer from the reality behind the product -- purposefully so, to lead the consumer away from considering the ethicality of the product. In fact, the consumer is lead to derive a pleasing experience from the process of buying what is, in reality, hormonal secretions.

It seems that the flattened part of the curve is where profit-bent corporations operate. It's indicative of unethicality, ulterior motives, and -- even in the most benign cases -- the fact that something is hidden. It represents the "black box" of machines -- both physical and conceptual ones.

It's here that the user comes back in. This graph is entirely situational; abstraction is not inherently wrong, and an interface that exists on the flattened part of the curve is not necessarily evil. The curve represents only the possibility for unethicality, not the presence of it. What's important is that we're aware of the fact that an interface inherently conceals something, and if this graph shows us anything at all, it's that we need to be critical of the interfaces we're interacting with.

This seems to be the sort of conundrum that yields more questions than answers. The graph may not be so much of a guide as it is a stepping point for approaching design from a new, more conscious place. I'm still struggling to make sense of the designer's responsibility in all this. If a designer's role is to design interfaces, how do they ensure the interfaces they're designing aren't manipulative? Can they? And thinking back to that artified trash can, even more questions come up. I'm forced to question: is it strange to imbue a trash can -- this perhaps necessarily grotesque part of city infrastructure -- with art? What happens to us when we are aesthetically drawn to the process we should be most critical of?

@ chloe montague 2023