Interface and Indetermination

Interface. Or perhaps, as a prompt or proposition, interfaces? Ever since Manovich described (perhaps too quickly) as fundamental the deep difference between database and narrative, the plasticity of the gap between database, content, and interface has found itself married to the immaterial through a moment of slippage. Even if it is not explicitly stated, the disjuncture between database and interface became a lazy intellectual moment where the variable mutability of database and interface (where database in the same indolent sleight of hand becomes commensurate with content), depth and surface, slid into an assumption of impermanence and variability, so that the lack of fixity between the interface as surface and the database as something below became equated to the immaterial. A category error, Bateson might say. Or “what’s wrong with surface?” as Gibson recently wondered.

However, while we can rehabilitate the immateriality of the interface through a variety of material measures and indices — including those provided by usability testing, computer human interaction, and interaction design — there is an alternative epistemology of the interface that I want to explore that concentrates on indeterminacy as an idea and experience. In this conception an interface, Janus like, faces simultaneously toward the database and an interacting audience. This bidirectional glance becomes an epistemological problem as the malleability of what is revealed, and able to be acted upon, and the making of this explicit (enough) is the prospective dispotif of the interface. This dispotif is framed as a technical response to the epistemological problem of indeterminacy. What can be performed? What should be shown? What can be enacted? What affordances are to be realised? Withheld? Concealed? Why? This is the problem of needing to understand what is being viewed, and more importantly being able to enable an instrumental decision about how to act felicitously within any interface.

It is that minor, tripartite series of terms in the last sentence that I want to concentrate on. Understanding — or more particularly noticing as the passage to understanding — deciding, and then acting. These are the terms I intend to expand upon. This sequence of noticing, deciding, and doing, is synonymous with Deleuze’s definition of the perception, affect, and action images within Bergson’s sensory motor schema. For Deleuze, this accounts for cinema as a cognitive perceptual assemblage that operates as an economy of actions in response to situations. In this schema indeterminacy is an inevitable consequence of any perceptual system that introduces an interval, or gap, between noticing and doing (perception and action), and is described by Deleuze as a ‘zone of indetermination’. This provides us, at least speculatively, with a way to think about interfaces as such ‘zones of indetermination’ and also then a site of a shimmering frisson and tension between the immateriality of affect and the materiality of interface.

Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Hampton Press, 2002.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema One: The Movement–Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Gibson, Ross. “Description and Narrative.” presented at the Placing Nonfiction, RMIT University, Melbourne, December 2013.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. The MIT Press, 2002.