The Greek poet Simonides was famous for building memory-places: stories turned into architecture, the original information spaces. Doug Engelbart expanded upon this idea of information-space and brought us the interface: a translator of the zeros and ones of computer language into the words, concepts, images, and associations of human language. Interface maps the virtual cities of the 21st century.
Key concepts and terms that, thanks to the innovation of Doug Englebert, we all (or should all) know:
GUI: graphic user interface.
Bitmapping: Each pixel on the computer screen was assigned to a small chunk of the computers memory. When the pixel is lit up, it is a zero and when it is dark it is a one. Your scanner converts text or images into bits. Bitmapping allowed for a machine to be seen as an environment to explore as opposed to an extension of our body.
Principle of direct manipulation: For the illusion of information space to work, you had to be able to move things around and make things happen. Instead of typing in obscure demands, the user could point to something and expand it, drag it across the screen, drop it somewhere. Though, in reality, the graphic interface added another layer between the user and the information, the information seemed closer than ever.
The mouse: You’ve seen it. You’ve used it. It’s “a users virtual doppelgänger.” It allows us a direct experience with the computer. Without it, using our machines, Johnson suggests, would be more like “watching television, zoning out beneath a steady stream of images that are kept distant from you.” It allowed the user to enter the virtual world and manipulate it. With the mouse, users could project themselves into the virtual world and stumble upon things.
After discussing Englebart, Johnson goes on to talk about metaforms; more specifically he talks about the metacommentaries of 90’s television: Hard Copy, Pop-Up video, Beavis and Butt-head, etc. Why? These metaforms are parasites that attach themselves to the mass media body and provide media about media. It is data making sense of other data because the “datasphere is too wild and overwrought to navigate on its own.” It provides filters, so to speak. “Instead of stories, we have riffs, annotations, asides. We are a nation of commentators…” Given the lack of interactivity of television, however, we are not commentators. We outsource our commentary to Butt-head. Johnson called these metacommentaries ghosts of technologies to come. The information on television is hard wired but on the computer, it’s a different story. There is a blurred line between producer and consumer. The metacommentaries of 90’s television were meant for a digital world.
You may be wondering, “Okayyy, well where exactly do these Firefox add-on’s we were sent links to come in to play in all of this Johnson, Engelbert, metacommentary, interface business?” And to that, I would respond with a quote from Stephen Johnson, “With more access to global networks of information we will require a new visual language.” These tools provide another interface for users to interact with.
Hyperwords makes every single word on every single Web page usefully interactive. To use Hyperwords, select any text on a web page and you are shown a pop-up menu. Then select a command such as movie database, Wikipedia, Google definition, etc. Hyperwords provides shortcuts for is to navigate information on the web.
Ubiquity also provides shortcuts. It is a collection of quick commands that act as mashups of web services. Users can get information and relate it to other web pages. Ubiquity takes a disjointed web and bring everything the user needs to them.
ShiftSpace is an open source layer above any website. It creates a kind of messgae board for users to interact with one another and share information. It intertwines past and future forms with shifts like notes, and highlights. A statement on Shiftspace’s website reads,
While the Internet’s design is widely understood to be open and distributed, control over how users interact online has given us largely centralized and closed systems. The web has followed the physical transformation of the city’s social center from the (public) town square to the (private) mall. ShiftSpace attempts to subvert this trend by providing a new public space on the web.
Many of the interfaces we interact with on the web are quite closed and don’t display much of a public sphere. We see what we’re shown and consume what the authors write, but there is no real forum for discussion aside from websites with comment abilities. Even then, administrators may delete a user’s comment. ShiftSpace allows for a more open, user modified way to interact with web pages. Two of the more interventionist shifts on ShiftSpace are ImageSwap, which allows a user to grab any image on the web and swap it in place of other image, and SourceShift, which allows users to freely edit a page’s HTML code.
Add-on’s like this are greatly changing interfaces and have a lot of social and political significance. The metacommentaries that were before their time found a suitable home where we all have the ability to be commentators, thanks to layers like ShiftSpace. Open discussions and the public square has found a home on the Web.